When did your interest in photography begin?
Robert Pledge: It came by chance, because my background was totally unrelated to photography. It had to do with anthropology and linguistics and I was also into music but not photography. I had specialized on Africa and African languages, and I got into journalism as an African affairs specialist.
But in early 1970 I had to go to Chad to cover a rebellion against the central government which was happening within the Tibesti mountains area, in the north of the country, and I needed a photographer to get pictures and a film maker to shoot scenes. I chose Gilles Caron as a photographer and Raymond Depardon who was a photographer and a filmmaker. Seeing both of them working is how I firstly became involved in photography and started discovering the world through it.
And very soon I also made contact with other photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, Annie Leibovitz, Li Zhensheng and David Burnett, with whom I founded Contact Press in 1976.
Subsequently, a small group of other photojournalists joined the agency: Lori Grinker, Dilip Mehta, Alon Reininger, Alexandra Avakian, Frank Fournier, Kenneth Jarecke ...
Which is in your viewpoint the reason for the significant drop in iconic pictures currently compared to the halcyon days of photojournalism?
Robert Pledge: Today there´s so much visual competition between television, photography, internet, etc. Maybe there´s less concern with iconic images than there was before.
At present, professional photojournalists do reportages mostly using high-end digital photographic cameras able to both get great quality pictures and often to record Full HD 1080 and even 4K video.There is more interest in longer term documentation rather than in the single images. The fact is that the digital cameras make fairly easier to shoot very much.
Which are the key factors that make up a good picture?
Robert Pledge: Many different things. I mean, the context, the mood people are in, the composition, the light, the content. It´s a combination of factors. It´s always a matter of getting the decisive moment in a way, but it´s not necessarily the decisive moment as people understood it from Cartier-Bresson.
As a matter of fact, the indecisive moment is also a decisive moment, so it´s almost a reverse. Id est, if a picture is good, it was a decisive moment in itself.
Frequently it is said ´A picture is worth a thousand words ´. Yes, maybe a few pictures are worth many words, but a picture is not worth a thousand words. Some of them might be, but most of them are not.
The same happens with the decisive moment concept. One of the things said by Cartier-Bresson was ´ The decisive moment is the instant in which the eye, the brain and the heart are in perfect alignment ´. That´s for him, it worked for him. But for somebody else it doesn´t.
For Robert Frank that´s not when the decisive moment is, so he called his decisive moments the indecisive moments.
Do you think that in near future video recording will be increasingly significant in the scope of photojournalism along with pictures?
Robert Pledge: I think it is already happening. Most photographers working for newspapers today can do video and photography, which might partially explain why there are fewer iconic images, because it is very difficult to concentrate on photography and make video at the same time. That probably accounts for the decrease of iconic pictures in the press.
Today, photographers see their digital images immediately after being taken, and if they are satisfied, go on and shoot something else. Before the digital age, photographers couldn´t check results instantly. They were following and digging into images, so chances were thay they would get something better.
The golden period of photojournalism featured an abundant presence of top-notch picture editors like Simon Guttmann, Roy Stryker, Stefan Lorant, Wilson Hicks, Maria Eisner, John G. Morris, Robert E. Gilka, Jimmy Fox, Horst Faas, Bill Garret, J.Bruce Baumann and others who utterly developed photography potential as a story teller tool, knew perfectly each photographer and his/her ability to specific assignments and insisted that photojournalists learned as much as possible about the subjects before photographing them. Don´t you believe this is an exceedingly significant side and that many more good pictures editors would be needed currently?
Robert Pledge: Of course. It´s the picture editors who make the good pictures. It´s the editing what decides what the good picture is. The picture editors are very often the persons who get through and find the images they consider to be the most relevant, and the ones being chosen are published and become famous pictures. To practical effects, the editor probably accounts for around 50% of the final significance of a photograph, together with the previous work of its creator. Besides, picture editors are also photojournalists.
Bearing in mind the current widespread economical crisis, do you think that the future of photojournalists could greatly be the searching of complementary earnings by themselves through the selling of books featuring their images, the creation of personal sites to foster their work, the development of courses and other activities?
Robert Pledge: Yes, photographers are trying to find other ways to show their images in the form of books, exhibitions, whatever it is available, including multimedia and internet.
Which ones have been in your opinion the main turning points in the History of Photojournalism?
Robert Pledge: The first significant one took place during late twenties and early thirties of XX Century, when technological developments like the improvements in black and white halftone printing techniques, the appearance of small cameras able to shoot handheld with short exposure times, the designing of little and highly luminous lenses, etc, enabled the spreading of great black and white magazines like Life, Picture Post, Regards, Look and many others.
The second one came around 1970 onwards, the time in which I began working in photojournalism, when television became the dominant force and there was a shift in illustrated magazines from black and white to colour through a reduction in printing costs of colour films as well as an increasing easiness to handle them and also as a consequence of the advertising.
This way, colour became predominant., and during seventies and eighties magazines and newspapers had advantage on television in terms of quickness with which they could move and publish, since films could be developed in one hour, and photographies could be edited and be very fast on the printed pages, with top-notch image quality, because the printing technology had evolved very much, reaching a great level, particularly with the best slides like Kodachrome and Ektachrome, while 16 mm film for TV was much longer to develop, more cumbersome to edit and broadcast in addition to needing a team of some persons featuring deep knowledge on lighting, composition, kinds of lenses, etc.
The third turning point was the appearance of the small computers used in photojournalism and the digital world, whose size became smaller and smaller until reaching the concept of laptops. It happened in early nineties and spread massively in a fast pace. This changed everything. From then on, it was apparent that TV was able to move more quickly than print photojournalists and could get the stories out faster.
The fourth turning point was the appearance of professional digital photographic cameras from late nineties featuring better and better image quality and different devices and systems able to send the pictures at full speed through internet, including mobile phones. This has also become a revolution affecting everything.
And of course, September 11, 2001 was another turning point in terms of communication, photojournalism and the fastness with which both still and moving images could be transmitted all over the world. That day we entered into another reality, so both the world and photojournalism were dramatically changed.
Internet has emerged stronger than ever to definitely stay and the photojournalistic context now is very different from the one existing when I founded Contact Press with David Burnett in 1976.
The interest of people for photojournalism is increasingly rising, with massive attendance to photographic exhibitions, presentation of books and acquisition of them. Which is in your standpoint the reason for this growing trend?
Robert Pledge: It´s true. People are more and more interested in photojournalism and also in the subject matter it speaks about. They want to see different works by photographers getting pictures in a number of countries and contexts, both with their images reproduced in books or displayed in worldwide exhibitions. It should also be highlighted the great activity of publishers promoting the photographs and their authors, along with the photography seminars and the portfolios reviews by famous professional photographers as a highly valuable means to help and guide prospective future photojournalists.
China has strongly entered the scope of photojournalism in XXI Century with figures like Wang Lu, Chen Qinggang, Jin Huang and others. Do you think that China will be in a position to become a photojournalist force in future?
Robert Pledge: China has got a great potential in photojournalism and there is currently a wide assortment of photography magazines online and printed alike, with editions featuring hundreds of thousands of numbers and millions of people having a burgeoning penchant for good photography.
And particularly during the last decade there has been a surge in the figures of new independent photojournalists and freelance photographers who are fulfilling a praiseworthy activity.
Photography is becoming a very active part of Chinese life and culture at present, including the creation of galleries all over the country and the organization of significant pictures exhibitions in every important city, above all in Shanghai and Beijing.
Regarding war photography, throughout the last years there have been some really gruesome pictures coming from the recent conflicts. Do you believe there should be any kind of limit or ethical boundaries as to publication?
Robert Pledge: That´s a difficult topic, because the debate in that regard has always existed. For instance, during Second World War, this kind of images were mostly suppressed by the American and European censorship.
These photographs existed but they were not shown. Both the American and Allied Forces agreed not to show these photographs, because of propaganda reasons and the fear that people could be sensitive and affected on watching them. That´s why they didn´t want to show harsh pictures.
Nowadays, to show incredibly gruesome images for the sake of it is very difficult for any publication that is sustained by advertising money. There´s a conflict between advertising and total freedom of expression.
© Interview and Pictures: José Manuel Serrano Esparza