Guardian photographer Sean Smith is a reluctant winner of Digital Journalist Of The Year in the British Press Awards. The judges said that his videos and picture slideshows “told more about the Iraq war than any 10,000-word essay”. Smith uses a combination of a digital still camera and digital video to capture stunning imagery of conflict. He hasn’t just been to Iraq, of course, and he aso spends a lot of his time picturing others aspects of life. In that sense he is much more than a conventional ‘war photographer’ in the tradition of say, Don McCullin.
Sean was kind enough to speak at a Polis seminar and he made it clear that he prefered the old days (don’t we all) when film gave photographers an excuse to pause and consider their craft. He stressed how the modern news cycle was cutting down the time that he needed to forge bonds with his subjects.
But his digital work is outstanding partly because it is digital. The photographs are just as compelling as film. He frames people and action with a deceptively open and natural perspective (he says this is partly because he doesn’t change lens all the time). And then when he switches to digital video he uses the camera as an eye rather than as a classical framing device. It is very real.
Digital news photography changes everything and yet it changes nothing. It makes it possible for the citizen photographer to achieve fantastic results in terms of quality. It allows any member of the public to become a news photographer when events unfold in front of their mobile phone cameras. It also allows the professional to send imagery direct from the situation and to easily swap formats. All this is marvellous and hugely to be welcomed. I confess that in the past I often distrusted the way that photographers created a mystique around their craft. But the lesson of Sean Smith’s work is that it pays to invest in experience, creativity and time. In a digital age of ubiquitous imagery, quality is the unique selling point.