As the year wraps up, it’s time to reflect on 2017. In doing so, it’s hard not to get caught up in the many global struggles we’ve experienced this year. There’s no forgetting the hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, fires, and landslides that have devastated communities. But rather than become mired in a depressive state, those events can be framed as moments of phenomenal human strength and a testament to the love and resiliency we all have the power to harness.
When it comes to exceptional photojournalism, Getty Images leads the pack, and we were lucky enough to have them curate a gallery of images that remind us of humanity’s kindness in the face of disaster. We spoke with Pancho Bernasconi, the VP of News at Getty Images, about the pictures in the collection and their importance. He also gave us some behind the scenes info about the business of taking these images, the danger (both emotional and physical) that photographers face, and what it feel like as an editor to see them come across his desk.
If you’re having a hard time moving past the difficulties we’ve all faced over the past 365 days, these images will help you focus on the good that exists in the world. That’s what we want to carry into next year.
When you’re looking for an image that’s related to these disasters, or tragedies, these moments of strength, what are you looking for in the images?
I think it’s a mix. There is not one thing in particular that I think we look for. You want to get a sense of maybe motion. You want to give a sense of context. You want an image that helps you, as the viewer, have a sense of empathy for what’s going on at that moment with those people.
That’s what great photographers do, and we’re lucky to have so many of them work here at Getty. They help you have a sense of empathy and a sense of understanding and a sense of caring for what’s happening in those moments. that’s what we look for, each one a little bit different.
I noticed that there was a lot of hugging in them. So, I can see the moments of empathy; that makes sense.
It’s funny. As I was looking at these, it’s hard to pick one that’s my favorite, but I think one that I like the best is not a hugging picture. It’s one of Joe Raedle’s from the floods in Houston. Volunteers are helping this older lady who is wading through the water. There’s just something really poignant about that moment. That kind of speaks to me; it’s a very quiet moment, but you know exactly what’s going on.
Photographically, one of the things you look for is a picture that’s got lots of layers. You are able to see the story build in one frame. I think that picture does it really well. You have a sense of caring. There’s a guy on the left hand side who’s got a hold of the woman’s hand, but he’s doing it very gently; he doesn’t have his hand grabbed around her wrist. There’s tenderness and caring in that moment, and I think that something special like that surely sticks out for me.
It definitely tells a story. They all do. You’re talking about how they resonate with you emotionally. When I’m looking at them, it’s just 18 images, and for me, it’s an emotional undertaking. But, you’re looking at hundreds of these things. Is it difficult to be inundated with all of that?
Really super and central question and the answer is “Yeah, absolutely.” We are normal humans that have emotions and are affected by what we see. There are certainly times when it is hard and challenging to look at things, but we’re also professionals in terms of making sure that the photographs are the ones that best tell the story, and they get to our customers quickly. But, again, I’m really happy that you asked that question, because it is something that we are super mindful of. For us, as editors here in the office, but also for our photographers, we’re mindful of having to cover too many of those things in a row. You put yourself out there emotionally. You have to be in the moment to be able to recognize it and photograph it. So, we pay attention and care to photographers and their wellbeing when they are covering those things as well.
I’m glad to know that. It occurred to me so many things have happened recently that you’re having to deal with a new one of these events every week. And, perhaps, photographs are more immediately impactful than writing.
Sometimes. I don’t want to take away from my writing brethren, but I think they impact on different levels. I think there is an immediacy to a photograph, especially one that is very poignant from a scene, that helps set the stage for what words will later say. But, I think photographs have that immediacy and that urgency and that connection that people crave now.
Did you work as a photographer at any point?
Very briefly. When I first started thirty some years ago as an intern on a wire service in Washington, D.C., I was a photographer and I freelanced, but I quickly became an editor and stayed that course through my career. But I think there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t put something on my Instagram account.
Yeah, here in New York, I see pictures all the time. You can’t ever turn that off, right? It’s always there.
That’s awesome. I didn’t even think about that. Yeah, if your job is looking for images, you must see them everywhere.
Yeah, you cannot turn that off. It’s always on.
You talked about making sure your photographers are emotionally supported; are they in physical peril as well?
I think it depends. Photographers are sometimes like firemen; they’re running towards things as opposed to running away from things. I don’t know that they are in peril, but we are very aware of their safety. They are very aware of their safety. We always try to send photographers that have situational awareness, as we call it. They’ve been in things like that before. You know, our staff photographers, like Joe Raedle, or Scott Olson, they’ve been doing this for a long time. They’re seasoned professionals. They’ve been in these situations before. They know what to look for, and they know how to handle themselves. There is no such thing as a 100% guarantee of people’s safety, and we know that very personally from the death of Chris Hondros in 2011 in Libya.
But, yeah, sometimes our photographers are in peril. I think some of the pictures in this slideshow have a sense of that. Hurricanes are really dangerous for people. But, you let that storm pass and you go out and you do your job.
You as a professional work with your editors and the people you know and trust to mitigate those as much as possible. And, we have to trust our photographers to know when to go into situations that are not 100% safe, but are safe enough, because we mitigated risks. And, when they have to not go. And, people take safety classes, hostile environment classes they’re called, to help them learn to look at things and be aware of things going on around them.
That’s really interesting. Getty has these classes?
There are several organizations that put hold classes that you can pay for. There are some classes that are kind of given as fellowships to younger photographers or freelancers. They are called situational awareness or hostile environment classes that help folks deal with all sorts of things. They could be very extreme or in between. Going to a conflict, they used to pretend kidnap you. They also teach you basic kinds of first aid for the battlefield, which is a very good thing. There’s an organization that’s called RISC that was started after Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya, along with Chris Hondros, and it teaches photographers how to apply basic medical attention to battlefield wounds. Basic first aid and a little bit more advanced first aid in situations where you have to apply a tourniquet or do other things.
We have our photographers go through that every few years to get refreshed on it and to know how to do those things. Because, it’s not a skill you just have, you have to be taught, and have to repeat it and learn it.
It’s one of those things that unless you are part of the field, it just wouldn’t have occurred to me, but now that you mention it, seems incredibly important.
It is incredibly important, and it also gives us comfort and safety in terms of knowing that when we have to put people in situations where it’s not 100% safe, that we’ve done what we can to give them the tools to be able to handle situations that could come up.
As a segue to another topic, why is capturing these images important?
It’s important because it’s the way the world looks back at itself. It’s a photographer’s job, mission if you will, to document the world, so it can see itself. If nobody’s there to make these moments, to take these photographs, to record these emotions, these happenings, these moments of human kindness and moments of human charm, we don’t know how to learn some of these things. We don’t know how to react when there’s a hurricane going on, and people are asking for donations; you don’t have a sense of a scale. It’s through photographs. From our photographers and others that the rush to the fray, we understand the sense of the scale of Harvey, or the sense of the scale of the damage in Puerto Rico, or the level of destruction inflicted in places like Mosul.
The value of photographs has never been more important. The value of an image has never been more important and crucial than it is today. It’s through the work of these photographers that’s allowed to happen. The world can have a conversation through a shared sense of an image or a truth, if you will.
These are all spontaneous journalistic moments, which gives them more resonance, obviously, in depicting what’s going on in the world.
It’s a true slice of time. It’s one 1/100th or 1/500th, of a second of a moment that the shutter clicks. But, it is a true moment that is happening. No doubt about it.
These photographs of strength are obviously beautifully composed, is there a specific kind of composition to news photographs? Or, is it sort of universal to the visual medium?
The best of them connect with you, the viewer, the reader. I don’t know that it matters that it’s a news photograph or an amazing photograph of Beyonce just singing her heart out or an amazing photograph from the Olympics of a ski jumper just at that moment when he just takes off on a 90 meter hill or it’s a portrait of a president or a dictator or a child along the border. I think the part that is the same is that you’re able to connect. Whether that’s a still photograph or a piece of art, or whatever the visual medium is, is the ability for it to connect with the user. I think that is the thread through all of it.
Do you recall the moment some of these images came to you?
Absolutely. These photographs come into our picture desks and our editing team sees them first. There are pictures coming in all the time, and our editors are looking through them, having conversations with the photographers, checking the metadata, making sure the captions are okay, making sure the dates are okay, and making sure that the who, what, where, when, and why of journalism is correct in the photographs.
I remember the pictures. I wasn’t in the office for the David Becker photographs from Las Vegas after the shooting. Those are super impactful, and very moving. The photographs from the Houston flooding, we were here for a lot of that. Watching those photographs come in is an anticipatory moment. Your photographer says “I have some photographs, I’m going to start sending them to you,” and you’re watching a pot, wanting it to boil. The photographs come in and you see that moment that gets delivered, and it’s quite a feeling that just doesn’t go away. No matter how hard the moment is, there’s something magical about seeing this split second. Even if it’s a hard scene, there’s something special about seeing that moment stopped.
Is it partially because you know the power it will have on your audience?
I think so. It’s also just because you know you’ve put your best people in a place to do their best work, and when they do that, that’s a really great feeling. Right? We send our best photographers to the stories that matter most. When they send the photographs back and you see what amazing wonderful photograph they’ve composed, that brings you joy and you’re proud. I’m super happy and delighted to be able to send that out to our customers, to see that work be used. But, it’s the photographer’s vision that the world gets to see the next day. That’s a really powerful and big responsibility.
I can see that. And, because the moment is so fleeting, that I suppose it is sort of nerve racking, waiting for the images to come, because there’s no way to replicate that.
That’s right. It happened and then it didn’t, right? You’ve got to capture that moment that otherwise does not exist. It’s there and then it doesn’t ever happen again, right? That’s one of the beautiful, magical, powerful things about photography, it’s that split second.
And then, only through photography, can that moment live on. So, if you miss it, it dies. Well, it lives in the hearts of the people that experienced it.
It does. It absolutely does. There might be other moments, but not that one that you’ve captured. It is unique. It’s a pretty amazing career choice for people. It’s a special talent to be able to see that way.
Absolutely, and on your part, it must be a privilege to know that you are part of this process of taking small moments and delivering them to the entire world.
It is a responsibility and a privilege that I am thankful for every day. To work with the amazing people that I do, it’s the best part of the day. No doubt about it.