History on Film?

Let us go on a trip. A hypothetical trip.

Not a trip back to the future, but one that goes forward to the past.

It goes forward because the technology available to capture still images to be used in print by newspapers is available to reporters on a device called an iPhone. I know what you’re saying: “Come on! A phone?” Stay with me here.

Now it goes to the past because this technology has been available since 1940 and all newspaper photojournalists working for papers prior to this time have been sacked, starting with – and this is just a hypothetical example – The Chicago Sun-Times.

So for the last 70 years, all the news, sports, disasters, etc., images we have come to associate with the epic events of our lives have been taken by reporters and not photojournalists.

Sure, in that time there have been some quality photos despite the limitations of focus, exposure, shutter speed, focal length…. And then there have been the missed shots. Remember, you now have an iPhone to capture spot news, wars, the Daytona 500, and everything else.

Here now are the shots nobody saw because they’re crap and didn’t make the early morning edition. They’re displayed beside an example, on the left side, of what they could have been if they had been taken by a professional photographer. (I hope Joseph Pulitzer isn’t turning in his grave.)

1. Eddie Adams wasn’t in Vietnam on February 1, 1968 to capture police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Vietcong prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém in Saigon. He was a successful travel agent who had been to almost all countries in southeast Asia except Vietnam – he knew there was a war on – researching for a travel guidebook he was writing. Who was there? Bryce Dornoffer, a 20-year-old graduate of Conestoga College who didn’t know there was a war on when he signed up for the freelance job and who also forgot to ask about Malaria.


Analysis: Dornoffer was standing a little too far away to get a good photo because, as he was quoted as saying, “Everyone was carrying guns.”

2. On February 23, 1945, Joe Rosenthal was washing his car. His wife was at work and his three kids were at school. He wasn’t on Iwo Jima. Who was there? Barbara Jameson, a seasoned AP reporter embedded with American troops raiding the Japanese-held island during World War Two. Jameson’s writings won her numerous awards and she was awarded a medal for bravery by the President of the United States. But when the flag went up, she was too close and couldn’t zoom out because her iPhone couldn’t zoom out. Oops.


Analysis: Everything was great but she couldn’t fit the rest of the guys or the flag into the shot.

3. Stanley Joseph Forman wasn’t a photographer because he was born in 1945 – five years after “The Great Sun-Times Purge” as it came to be known. His parents moved the family from the Boston area in 1955 to San Diego where he became a heart surgeon. Who was in Boston? John Smitten, a police- and fire-beat reporter. He was at the apartment fire that killed 19-year-old Diana Bryant as she and her two-year-old goddaughter fell from the fire escape but had to leave after snapping a quick shot before the tragic fall to attend a Rotary Club raffle event.


Smitten was also in Boston during a series of protests against court-ordered desegregation busing but missed an excellent chance at a shot of a flag-weilding man attacking another man because the police wouldn’t let him past the barricades. “But I work for the newspaper,” Smitten pleaded with an officer. “Ya, you and everyone else here with an iPhone. Now get behind the tape!” the officer replied.


Analysis: The Rotary Club donates a ton of money and you better get over there for the cheque-passing.

4. Jeff Widener was in Beijing on June 5, 1989, when tanks rolled down Chang’An Avenue following the government crackdown of student protesters in Tiananman Square the evening and day before. But he and his family, on vacation, were in their hotel room miles away afraid to come out due to the violence. Who also was there? Stu Grange, a 30-year veteran reporter, was there on his 6th floor Beijing Hotel balcony watching the events while under threat of gunfire from below. Grange used his iPhone to capture what seems to be a civilian standing in front of a line of tanks, but he couldn’t zoom in because the shot became too pixelated and he couldn’t see the screen because it cracked when he dropped it on the balcony concrete.


Analysis: Nobody saw the image because nobody could tell if it was a civilian in front of the tanks. The Chinese government declared the image doctored by Western media and reported that no-one was hurt that day during ‘training exercises’. Everybody went about their business as usual.

So there you have it. Pulitzer Prize-winning images on the left side; and, on the right, images that didn’t change the way we live, didn’t change public perception of race and inequality, and didn’t change history.

At least the reporters can play Angry Bird while taking photos.


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