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It's not art, it's truth

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As a journalist, it doesn't matter what you write or how you write it if the guy standing next to you with a camera gets the right picture.

If that photo captures a single fleeting look on a face, a moment in time that encapsulates everything you're trying to convey in words, then you might as well not bother. The most eloquent prose in the world won't tell the story half as well as the image he's just captured. Words don't stick in the mind like an image does.

Think of Hyung Cong Ut's (aka Nick Ut's) picture of nine-year- old Kim Phuc Phan Thi, fleeing naked from a napalm attack near Trang Bang during the Vietnam War. Think of Eddie Adams' picture of the swift and brutal execution of a Viet Cong officer by Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Think of the stark, heartbreaking photo taken by Kevin Carter for Life magazine, showing a starving Ethiopian child being stalked by a vulture.

All convey the reality of what it was like to be in that place, at that time, in an instant.

The pictures in Golden's book, while not all as iconic as these, have the same impact. Dmitiri Baltermants' collection of pictures taken around Kerch in the Crimea, depicting the Russian side of the Second World War and Larry Burrows' photos from the Vietnam War bring the experience of warfare to life with horrific clarity.

Margaret Bourke-White's photo of black residents standing in line for handouts against the backdrop of a poster of a prosperous white family, bearing the legend 'World's Highest Standard of Living: There's No Way Like The American Way' perfectly conveys what life was like for America's poor during the floods in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937. It also eerily presages recent events in New Orleans, showing painfully how little has changed for those on the breadline in the Southern states.

All these images convey the dark side of life, and Golden notes that one criticism of photojournalism is that it tends to focus on the negative.

But he rightly points out that such photographers work in a commercial environment and the demand for such images is high.

'Great photojournalism witnesses the events that we wouldn't necessarily be able to see or be allowed to see, or even want to think about,' he says.

And therein lies both the challenge and the dilemma of photojournalism. The challenge is to get the image and make it compelling. The dilemma is that in doing so, you are celebrating someone else's misery. Many photojournalists have crumbled under such stress, including Kevin Carter, who committed suicide two months after receiving a Pulitzer.

Others have become victims of their own determination to get the perfect shot, including Robert Capa, who died after stepping on a landmine in French Indochina, and Gilles Caron who went missing in an area of Cambodia controlled by the Khmer-Rouge.

Yet there are lighter moments here, too, such as Roger Hutchings' backstage pictures of Milan Fashion Week and Gideon Mendel's pictures of grinning Zambian children chasing after an aid-truck.

On the whole, though, this is a dark, if brilliant tribute to the work of the photojournalist.

Witness has all the elements of the perfect coffee table book: big, bold and picture-led. But this isn't a pretty book, and the photography within it, while hugely impressive, isn't art. It's the truth.

(C) 2005 Birmingham Post. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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