Sunday, September 27, 2020

The art of photo-journalism

It is one of the most iconic images of an era that tells the most important part of Botswana’s political history. It is September 30, 1966. With arms jubilantly outstretched, newly inaugurated President Sir Seretse Khama walks through a Gaborone street to the cheers of people celebrating their very first day of independence.

Ideally, there should be more of both quantitative and qualitative political photography in Botswana. But the reality is that newsroom budgets do not allow for such enterprise. You can add to that the size of the national economy.

The size of the newspaper market determines the volume of political coverage, and the allocation of resources reflects that reality.

We cover a few political rallies and that coverage is concentrated in the eastern region. We can’t afford to have photographers trail politicians because that would be costly. When parliament is in session it would be impossible to deploy a photographer there on a daily basis, and that is the reason why we often have to rerun pictures.

Whatever the argument may be, political pictures are communication tools of modern-day political discourse. The political story, and indeed any other story, always needs a thousand more words in the form of a picture. Pictures tell a story and can help readers build a psychological profile of a politician. A picture of a politician shaking hands but not making eye contact with poor voters strips away the veneer of his public persona and reveals an awful lot about his genuineness and attending behaviours as a person.

Political pictures tell a story, to evoke particular emotions and thus affect readers’ perceptions in a particular way. Political photography itself has become a battlefield in which all parties, photographers, editors and politicians, want to control the message.

Politicians have favourite pictures of themselves and the most image-conscious among them insist that only these be used.

Benito Mussolini decreed that he was not to be photographed unless he was digging a trench, repairing a car or engaged in some such stage-managed public relations gimmick. Presidential candidate Barack Obama was not too happy about some of his pictures being published in newspapers.
In the past general election, Booster Galesekegwe did political portraiture for the Botswana Democratic Party and he recalls spending quite a bit of time handling “I-don’t-look-good-in-this-picture” complaints from politician clients. At one level this is understandable because elective politics is basically a beauty pageant enterprise, and how photogenic a politician looks can literally count at the ballot box.

The adverse conditions for political photography notwithstanding, some pictures lend themselves to what is quite good quality.

We have good photographers who will give you a good picture regardless of the setting.
It would be ideal to systematise and professionalise political photography, but once more, resources constraints are the major stumbling block.

Be that as it may, Monirul Bhuiyan a photojournalist with Press Photo, says that there is need to strike a balance in order to ensure that the quality of journalism is not compromised. Having worked in local newsrooms, Bhuiyan understands why a story about a remote area would be illustrated with the picture of the constituency MP rather than relevant photographic substance. One vital aspect to be mindful of, he says, is that photographs are an important record of history and that those charged with such task have only one chance to do so.

However, the archiving of this history does not seem to be systematic. Galesekegwe says that the absence of an image bank in Botswana means that the rest of the nation will probably never get to see his photographs. He adds that it is not uncommon for a client to lose the pictures.

To the extent that a political reporter has to have basic knowledge of politics, Bhuiyan, who studied photojournalism at masters degree level, says that the same should go photographers.
“Taking pictures has become easy because of technological advancements, but there is still need to acquire knowledge and learn photographic ethics. There is a lot to learn about photography. That is why some people study photography up to PhD level,” Bhuiyan says.

Galesekegwe notes that such basic knowledge as knowing the names and faces of politicians is useful in that it helps a photographer conceptualise the sort of shots he wants.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.