John G. Morris: It's Just One World

This Op/Ed essay was written by John G. Morris, formerly of The New York Times and Magnum and now living in Paris, who is the author of Get The Picture: A Personal History Of Photojournalism (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

PARIS, FRANCE - Hurricane Katrina struck the American Gulf Coast just as the 17th annual Visa Pour l’Image, the international photojournalism festival, opened in Perpignan, in southwest France. Katrina’s first photos were promptly screened. Several photographers and one editor, National Geographic’s senior editor David Griffin, abruptly returned to cover it. The three thousand photojournalism professionals gathered here were acutely reminded that nature spares no one. Katrina made Americans realize that we too can use some help. We’re not really so different from the rest of the world.

European journalists, arriving in New Orleans, reported that the scenes reminded them of the Third World – or even Baghdad.

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When the National Press Photographers Association was founded in Atlantic City in 1946, World War II had ended a year earlier. Most of NPPA’s founders were veterans of the war in one way or another. Some were press photographers who had covered it for the picture pool (Acme, AP, INP, and Life). A few had covered it as cameramen for one of the five twice-weekly newsreels. Others had served as photographers in the armed forces.

When the war ended, most of those photographers were happy just to cover their hometowns again. Their publishers were glad to leave picture coverage of the rest of the world to the wire services, which largely relied on foreign affiliates. Life and National Geographic were about the only American publications that consistently sent photographers overseas.

In the 1950s things began to change. Cameras themselves went worldwide, with Cologne’s Photokina awakening the photo industry to its international potential. The Korean War introduced Japanese cameras and lenses. Independent picture agencies sprang up, led byMagnum but soon followed by many others, in Paris, London, Stockholm, Milan. World Press Photo was born, encouraging photographers around the world.

Swiftly, television took over the screen from newsreels. Vietnam brought war directly into the home, but the front was still far away. It took awhile for Americans to question the assumptions on which that war was based, but the result was disillusion.

Television soon proved more economical than print for reaching the mass audience through advertising. One by one the big American weeklies went out of business. But print did not die. Clever publishers discovered they could make money by whetting the taste of special audiences – for sports, for fashion, for celebrity, for finance. Newspapers found that photos could do the same for them. Art directors joined newspapers, and founded the Society for Newspaper Design. Editors discovered that they could win awards by occasionally sending a star photographer abroad. Television anchors parachuted to backdrops faraway – and soon came home.

Routine world news, however, continued to suffer. American networks closed their foreign bureaus. Little attention was paid to the work of the United Nations and its related agencies – state legislatures got more space. America’s price for this inattention is colossal. Polls reveal the abundant ignorance of the American public when it comes to foreign affairs, or even geography. Smugness is rampant in an America that seems incapable of appreciating either the metric system or Charles Darwin.

If it takes catastrophe to bring mankind together, we are now blessed. We’ve certainly had enough of it in the new century. From New York on 9/11 we have traveled to Kabul to Baghdad to Madrid to Fallujah to the shores of the tsunami to the London Underground to Katrina, to name only the big tickets. It is a credit to American photojournalists that we have gone to all of them, attempting to report what really happened. We’re not so good at reporting why it happened.

The record of recent events is unsettling, but hope dies last, as my fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel has said. I still have hope for our country, a country for which I bleed even though I have lived overseas for 22 years. My generation – Tom Brokaw prematurely called it the Greatest Generation – is tired. You younger photojournalists take it from here! Yes, we must overcome!

- John G. Morris 
Paris, September 30, 2005