The Decisive Moment
issue 185 - July 1988
We assume that what has been photographed must have happened. And usually this is true - very few photos are fakes. But we set aside the fact that many other things happened at the same place, at around the same time, of which no-one chose to take a picture.
Skilful photographers manage to snap up just those moments which represent something of general significance. Not only do they have an eye for composition and sufficient control over the camera to produce a sharp image but they are also sensitive to the potential of events as they unfold around them.
One picture by a leading British photographer, Maggie Murray, is in demand whenever there is an article about tourism in the Third World. It was taken in Kenya at a Masai village which is preserved for tourists to visit by minibus every Thursday afternoon. It costs about $10 to go on the trip, which is organized by a German family, owners of the farm in which the 'village' is situated. Maggie was taking a series of pictures on the different approaches to development in Kenya and Tanzania and took this trip looking for material on tourism.
The picture has been used by the NI to illustrate the dangers of tourism. There could be elements of racism (against the Japanese) in this. And it was used in a similar way in Development Forum, a UN publication. But notice that the caption in African Economic Digest merely indicated the tourist potential of the Japanese market for Kenya.
It was a fleeting moment - as the pairs of pictures before and after indicate. We asked Maggie Murray to print for us the photos immediately before and the critical shot. Seconds before, she herself was photographing the Masai woman. Then she saw the Japanese woman enter the picture and appreciated the potential of the combination - something she had in fact been waiting for. She only captured what she wanted just in time before another tourist wandered into view, making the subsequent exposures almost useless.
The decisive moment actually happened. But so did the instants when the preceding and subsequent exposures were made. Photographers and editors are very selective about what they publish.