Some people used to believe, or still believe, that press photographs are just decoration. The same thing applies to the caricatures and cartoons that often appear in newspapers, with these being seen by some as simply ornamental.
But, of course, this is not the case. Smart and impressive photographs can reach a goal more easily than thousands of words. Behind every powerful press photograph stands a team working together to attract a wider readership and maintain the success of a newspaper. For this reason, photojournalists working for newspapers and news agencies have always been eligible to join press syndicates in Egypt and abroad.
Before photography, newspapers depended on other tools to convey their messages, often complementing news stories with philosophical writings, poetry, and fiction. During the rule of the khedive Ismail in the 19th century in Egypt, journalists came from Syria and Lebanon, among them the Lebanese brothers Beshara Takla and Selim Takla who founded Al-Ahram. Its first issue appeared on 5 August 1876, the same day as the inauguration of the country’s Shura Council, an early parliamentary body.
The rulers of Egypt at the time were aware of the role journalism could play in directing public opinion. Fearing what might be published, they were often in a situation of confrontation with the press. Writing on political issues was banned, and a law was issued preventing MPs from having journalistic careers. To make it easier to refer press editors to the national courts, the law made it a condition that they should all hold Egyptian nationality, since there were also foreign courts in Egypt at the time.
The owners of weekly magazines, most of which were literary and philosophical, were obliged to deal with journalism as a profession and not as a mission. Annoyed at the restrictions imposed on journalism in Egypt, the Lebanese writer Mai Ziadeh wrote an article in one of the English magazines defending press freedom. She then donated what she had been paid, according to the late historian Younan Labib Rizk.
The effects of press photographs have been increasing with time. Now, they are tools that help to convey messages to readers and are an influential means of expression like drawing or poetry. The emergence of digital photography in recent years has led to a fierce competition among media professionals, who are always trying to capture the perfect image at the perfect time for their newspapers. Photographs excel in bringing reality near and making close what is far and remote. The forces in an image, not always easily seen by the naked eye, become clearer over time.
A photograph uses a non-verbal language, one that is transmitted to the mind through the eye. It stresses what happens. Photography is thus one of the journalistic arts, similar to writing news articles or feature stories, and the captions applied to photographs can be important editorial elements. The first press photograph appeared in the American illustrated evening newspaper the Daily Graphic in 1880. A widely-circulated photograph of former US president George W. Bush holding a magazine upside down and reading to a classroom of children in 2002 was one of the funniest.
George W. Bush
A professional photojournalist should observe professional ethics and responsibility. Besides mastering photography, he should be cultured and a sharp critic of the reality around him. He should also be part of that reality and should learn to take photographs at the perfect moment.
History tells us that one of the earliest press photographers who excelled in the profession was the American Mathew B Brady (1822-1896), often called the father of illustrated journalism. Brady was best known for his images of the American Civil War. Photojournalists covering stories in war time should search for ugliness, Brady thought, as war in itself is never desirable. This effort should be doubled when using a war photograph on a magazine cover.
Today, the authenticity of many press images is being questioned. Many press photographs are altered or manipulated using technology such as the computer application Photoshop. As a result, photojournalists today need more than ever to abide by ethics. Photographs of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi being captured and killed by Libyan rebels in 2011 have been widely criticised for crossing ethical limits, for example, and the news agency Reuters refrained from circulating the photographs for ethical reasons.
Some newspapers said there was no need to use such photographs, adding that they should be published only if there was a necessity to do so. Others warned of dealing with such unethical issues, viewing them as having serious repercussions on traditions and morals.
We are now living in an age of news photography, one that acts as a link between the last century’s revolution in the means of transportation and the current revolution in communication through the use of smart phones and digital cameras. This link could soon give rise to new forms of journalism, with the world searching for new tools that could make humanity happier.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly