“I'll beat you to the punch here,” Hal Buell said over the telephone line, our connection between New York City, where Buell is currently based and Albuquerque, where I was, had a touch of static that underscored the classic newsman gravel in Buell's voice. As promised, he got to the punch—“News photography is not an art.” It's not an art, Buell continued, because photojournalism, when done right, has to be underpinned by a different code of ethics, “a journalist is restricted not to telling his or her story, but telling the story.” Buell has spent most of his life culling authentic stories from rolls of film. For 40 years he worked at The Associated Press, 25 of which he headed up the photo department. In that time many iconic photos landed on his desk before entering our collective memory, including, for example, Nick Ut's capture of a girl running from her home near Trang Bang after a South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped napalm on its own troops and civilians in 1972 (sometimes simply called “Napalm Girl”). This is one of a handful of images that have become epochal and enduring—it is also one of the exemplary photos honored with the Pulitizer Prize.
On Thursday, Sept. 27 at 6pm, Buell will share his vast knowledge of photojournalism and its role in shaping our understanding of history—even as it unfolds—in a free talk at the KiMo Theatre (423 Central Ave. NW) called “Shooting the Pulitizer.” The event is sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council and puts Buell in conversation with Tony and Emmy award-winning writer, director and producer Cyma Rubin. Buell is uniquely positioned to explore the stories of Pulitizer-winning photography and the ways in which photojournalism informs our understanding of vital issues both contemporary and from the past. During his tenure at AP, Buell covered stories from more than 35 countries, and under his lead as editor, AP staff was awarded 12 Pulitzers. He is also the author of numerous books, including Moments: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographs and has served on the jury that selects winning photos for the award.
“I think photography can be an art,” Buell said, “but I'm not interested in photography as an art; I just don't care.” What has long-interested Buell, is the story in both its complexity and its authenticity, so much so, that he had it in his mind to become a reporter when he was younger. But, formal coursework in photography and two years as an army photographer set him on a different path. “I was not the kind of writer I had dreamed of becoming, that's the best way to put it,” he explained. “I felt like my inherent talents—as opposed to my learned talents—were for photography and image-making.” In the late '50s and early '60s Buell saw an opportunity to carve out a career in that arena as journalistic photography was becoming increasingly emphasized by publications like Life and newspapers across the globe.
The talents of a good photo editor, Buell described as “more instinctive than planned,” adding, “that might get me in trouble,”—an aside he tagged on to a few of his strong opinions on what he described as the “craft” as opposed to the “art” of news photography. “You can't be educated formally in visual literacy, you have to pick it up as you go along,” he elaborated on the expertise necessary to fill the position. “The proper visual isn't always the best visual—it's the one that tells the story accurately and directly and simply.” That commitment to the story—the story, the accurate one as best as journalism can tell it—is inherent as Buell described his career, and it is an idea he returned to often. “Being an editor,” he summarized, “I felt I could do more for telling stories.”
Telling these stories through imagery is a difficult job requiring both technical ability, artistic insight, effort and serendipity. “Frankly, it is tough,” Buell said. “It's physical. You have to be there at that time to get the picture. Sometimes it's just a fluke, but most of the time it’s not. Most times it is a result of preparation and editing, [and when] some photographer intersects the historic moment and a picture comes about that lasts forever.” But that process is a selective one, where decisions are made on the fly—where to be, what lens to use, scrutinizing the scene before you, and “then you apply the proper technology to capture what's important.”
Buell sees a danger when that selectivity becomes personal selectivity and not professional. He pointed to the rise of citizen photography as tenuous—“there's no ethical control,” he explained. The manipulation of photographs on scales both micro and far-reaching is another issue. He described, for example the way Time magazine tampered with O.J. Simpson's mugshot before running it on the cover in 1994 as an example, “it was said to be racist, and it was definitely terrible and prejudicial.”
The media's—and consumers of the media’s—problems are even more far-reaching than just that, however. Publications are folding or scaling down. While the internet “gobbles up photos at a voracious rate,” as Buell put it, they can't pay professionals reasonably. And “our world that we've built over the last two centuries has been greatly dependent on a free and healthy media.” Increasingly, Buell sees “a growing crisis because it seems to me that the ends of the spectrum are becoming more accessible and common than the middle of the spectrum,” meaning straight, or balanced journalism is rarer. “I think that's really heavy stuff,” he said, “very heavy stuff.”
Buell said that he intends to tell audiences in Albuquerque not just about the nuance of photojournalism, or the beauty that the Pulitizer Prize has honored in the past decades, but the limitations of media, too. In news photography, “it is sometimes hard to grasp the context in which an individual picture appears,” for example. Moreover, Buell emphasized, “that you, the audience, the individuals, bear a responsibility to know who your information providers are. You have to find something balanced and truly informative. If you just listen to and read things that agree with you, you're missing part of the story, part of the context.” As ever, the story in fullness, is at the forefront of Buell's mind.
There are two opportunities to connect with Buell in Albuquerque. In addition to the conversation at the KiMo on Sept. 27, Buell will also deliver a talk at UNM's George Pearl Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 26 from 6:30 to 8pm. Full details on both events can be found on the New Mexico Humanities Council's webpage at nmhum.org.