Freezing life as it is

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Freezing life as it is Pic by Pradeep Dambarage

South African photojournalist Kevin Carter came under heavy criticism for failing to help a starving child while on a trip to Sudan in 1993. He committed suicide three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the picture he took. In a more recent picture that went viral on social media, a videographer filmed while a boy was struggling to get his leg free from a constrictor. The caption called for media ethics.

“Ethics aside, as a photojournalist you cannot become a part of the scene. Your job is to report, not to interfere,” said Associated Press Photojournalist, Eranga Jayawardena. “My part is to report. Having said that you should know where to draw the line. It’s a personal decision. ‘Personally’ I draw the line, so my work would not affect someone’s integrity or life.”

Jayawardena was exposed to photography at a tender age through his father’s work as the CMC’s official photographer for Colombo Mail. At school he became a member at the Photography Club. But his studies and infatuation with cricket distracted him from photography.

“My first assignment was on lottery ticket prices for Nawaliya. I was a schoolboy, just after my O/Ls,” said Jayawardena. “One of the photos ended up in page 1.” Another photograph of Prince Charles speaking to musicians at an Orchestra held at the Bishop’s College Auditorium also wound up on page 1.

He had worked as a photographer for The Island before he started working for AP in 2003. Remembering one of his most challenging assignments, the 2012 London Olympics, at which he was the only Sri Lankan Agency photojournalist, Jayawardena said, “Every athlete is important for his or her home country.”
He recounted another occasion, when Kate Middleton walked into the arena during a hockey game Jayawardena was covering. “I had to get my priorities straight in double-quick time. She’s important on so many levels. Not only is she a member of the Royal Family, she is also a fashion icon. I had to shoot her dress, her shoes, all the while keeping one eye on the game.”

One of his photo features on the 2004 Tsunami appeared in over 100 newspapers.
Jayawardena also has many firsts under his belt, covering the first Maldivian election after it converted from an autocratic to democratic nation, being primary of the lot. “It was a turning point for the Maldives. Personally it was memorable, because as a photographer I got the chance to witness it, even though I was not a part of it.”

“Compared to big names in the field such as Kevin Frayer and David Guttenfelder, I’m just a small nut in a big machine. I was just lucky to witness these rare events.”

Fusing art and news
Jayawardena opined that although news photography is not considered a form of art, if one could incorporate aesthetics into news reporting it would even improve the news value. There’s additional benefit in incorporating these techniques to news photography, said Jayawardena.

“You have to consider what would tempt an AP Editor to pick a photograph from Sri Lanka” said Jayawardena. “It would have to be eye catching. Infusing aesthetic values with news photography is the way to go.”

He explained that he attempts to incorporate the best qualities of art photography, such as special consideration to color, shapes, lines and the moment, into news photography. He explained that it’s a struggle to maintain and balance these various components of photography in the frame while also effectively conveying a message.

“It’s very difficult; art photography can be prearranged, news photography is spur of the moment. I’m a photojournalist; my photography’s not artistic per se. Which is why photography competitions are not exactly my cup of tea.”

Daily life pictures
Apart from sports and politics, in his spare time, Jayawardena engages in what he calls grounded stories, “about what the common Sri Lankan does for a living. I like the opportunity photography affords to dig deep into people’s problems and expose their suffering,” said Jayawardena.
Jayawardena confessed that more than news photography he enjoys ‘daily life pictures’. “Moving and mingling with people, I feel like I’m a part of it all, a part of their Lives.”

When asked whether news photography is not more exciting because of the challenges it entails, Jayawardena admitted that it is indeed challenging, “You have to learn to look out of the box. It’s not merely the president reading the budget you are expected to cover, but anything else that might happen. The high ranking military personnel who are watching, while ministers beat each other up, for example.”

“But when you keep doing news photography for an extended period of time, the excitement wears off.” For Jayawardena focusing on a social issue and digging out the problem, building confidence with the common people, so they would trust you enough to open up to you, is more challenging and exciting.
“It’s only when trust is established you can shoot better pictures,” said Jayawardena.

The Agency
When asked what differences he sees between working in a traditional editorial and a news agency, Jayawardena said, “While working for numerous subscribers we have to come up with the best way of getting our pictures published in their publications. We have to learn to cater to a larger audience. I always try to do justice to Sri Lanka, to portray Sri Lankan life in a fair manner.”

He went on to say that editorials produce specialized photographers for news and features. “In the agencies there are only a few photojournalists, per country and cannot afford specialization.”

High tech
Jayawardena remembered how they used to shoot photography in negative. The old days involved a tedious process where the negatives were scanned with a specialized negative scanner, converted to a digital image onto a computer.

“During cricket match coverage we had to take 10 to 15 pictures, develop and then transmit through a dial-up connection. Now we transmit up to a 100 photos at a time,” said Jayawardena, explaining that speed of information has increased exponentially.

When asked how he coped with the tough agency work, Jayawardena confided that he self taught through studying the work of veterans in the field such as Kevin Frayer, David Guttenfelder and Gemunu Amarasinghe.

“But there is only so much others can teach you. At one point in your career you have to take over the reins. Every day you are on the job, is a learning process.”

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