'I smell dead people. Do you?" The Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont is sitting in a London bar with another "conflict photographer" who admits to the same problem. No matter how many showers they take, no matter how often they wash their clothes, no matter how many miles are put between them and their work in Afghanistan and Iraq, they still smell dead people all around them.
It is almost five years since Dupont told me this story. Five years since I saw him in a rage at the opening night for Reportage, the photojournalism festival held at the Academy Twin Cinema in Sydney. Dupont's photos had been poorly cropped for the big screen. Worse than his anger was the look in his eyes: a bugged wildness reminiscent of James Woods's character in Oliver Stone'sSalvador, or Dennis Hopper's unforgettable scenes in Apocalypse Now, both of which depicted the gonzo "reality" of the war photojournalist as a whistle-stop away from madness.
This seemed not only bad for Dupont, but bad for his work, too. It did not make me want to spend more time with him. Nor did it surprise me to hear of his near-death encounter by suicide bomber in Afghanistan this year, something he coped with by continuing to photograph the event as he walked around bleeding - only mildly wounded but traumatised by the deaths of the 15 others he was travelling with.
Today Stephen Dupont is a different man: no longer interested in "just being an ambulance chaser" - calm, even amused with himself as he completes the finishing touches to his role as guest curator for the 2008 Reportage Festival. "Yeah," he cracks, "that's why I've come back as the curator, because they cropped my f---ing photos."
Dupont is excited because it feels as if "it's the first time the event can truly be called a festival", with seminars and talks, an associated exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography, and the inaugural $10,000 Reportage Nikon Photo Documentary Grant, which will "fund a photographer to research, create and produce a new and compelling social documentary work in Australia".
These come on top of the Cinematic Showcase that screens a cross-section of the world's best photojournalism: in-depth visual essays and storytelling that, for the most part, you will never see in newspapers or magazines - if anywhere. Among the highlights are John Moore's Pakistan On The Brink, a series that depicts what Moore calls "the Talibanisation of Pakistan", including a sequence on the unfolding assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which won him the 2008 Photojournalist of the Year Award from the National Press Photographers Association of the United States; Seamus Murphy's After Kennedy, a lyrical, Kerouac-inspired road trip into contemporary America that Dupont describes as "pictures of feeling rather than pictures of shock"; Stefano De Luigi's Blindness, a stunning reportage on the living conditions of blind people throughout the developing world; and Dean Sewell's Homeless, which goes deep inside the life of a homeless man in Sydney for an entire year.
Founded in 1999 by Dupont and three other photographers, David Dare Parker, Jack Picone and Michael Amedolia, Reportage was little more than a glorified slide night before it graduated to the old Valhalla cinema in Glebe. Jacqui Vicario took over as director of the event, transferring it to the Academy Twin Cinema, negotiating corporate sponsorship and developing it into what will be the bienniel centrepiece for photojournalism as an art-form in the Asia-Pacific region. Though she is critical of "superstar photographers who can forget they're meant to be behind the camera", Vicario admits: "I do sometimes find it more interesting why they did a story, and what they encountered along the way, than even the actual photos themselves."
Dupont is obviously one of those superstars, working on assignment for the likes of The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Stern. His contacts and reputation have undoubtedly enhanced the strength of this year's Reportage as an international event. And he is unapologetically open about the Vietnam-era, combat-photo romanticism that inspired him to pick up a camera: Don McCullin's "dark and brutal photography", as well as the images and autobiographical writings of Tim Page, "a real McCoy from that period", not to mention the basis for Dennis Hopper's character.
Though not a part of this year's Reportage, Page has been involved previously and is repeatedly referred to as "the godfather" of the °SOUTH photo collective that includes Dupont and another Reportage participant, Ben Bohane.There is a hint of moral force, even mystic consequence, accorded to Page's presence, as if the current generation of Australian photojournalists are the inheritors of a deeper historical fate by association. "Almost like a circle has happened," as Dupont puts it.
On the phone from Queensland, Page exudes a mix of dark stoner meanderings and high-impact clarity that does not disappoint. How are online and digital innovations changing things? "It's instant whatever today - but is it gratification or degradation? I don't think we've seen how virtual it can go yet. I don't even know what people dream of these days," he says. "But you can't stop it any more than you can stop an oil company or a B52 bomber," he laughs. "If only 1 per cent of the population sees my photos though, then I've won. It's much less than that, of course, but you've got to give yourself some hope. One frame does get frozen in people's minds. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey."
Reportage has grown at a time when photojournalism is in crisis. The days of the pictorial feature essay and mass-market magazines such as Life (which ceased publication in 1972) are long gone. The golden age of photojournalism from the Spanish Civil War through to Vietnam - when a single image had the power to zero in on the public imagination and "win the war of hearts and minds" (as American government propagandists of the 1960s put it) - also seems to be fading.
Page says: "Reportage is the perfect aquarium for all these desperately swimming fish. We refuse to give up the ghost." But the defiance has a David-and-Goliath ring to it.
The print media is in decline as it copes with online competition, falling sales and ageing readers, surrendering itself to sound-bites and softer news in keeping with lifestyle and marketing concerns to capture a younger audience. News organisations are moving towards having all their photographers shoot on digital video for streaming over the internet. Though the technology of HD digital video cameras is still years behind the quality of stills cameras, it is already possible to take grabs from a video for stills reproduction that adequately serve online and basic newsprint demands.
Online slide shows are celebrity skewed if possible, while "multimedia" is the infotainment buzzword, with photojournalists pressured to mix stills with video and sound (interview fragments, ambient environmental recordings, and voice over, all of which will be used at Reportage).
According to John Moore, "this can sometimes make you feel as if you are competing with yourself. Instead of doing one thing well you end up doing three things in a mediocre way, recording sound while you are seeing great picture opportunities pass you by."
Moore is not opposed to such innovations, and in mini-documentaries such as Frontline Helmand, created in the field "live" with British troops in Afghanistan last year, he demonstrates where this recombination of stills, video and sound can take online news. That said, it is obvious where his heart lies. You do not film video the same way you frame and shoot still images, and most photojournalists still seem to believe in capturing a moment for consideration over and above the multimedia hype.
Against this pressure come interesting statistics that should also qualify the rush to embrace video and multimedia. Santiago Lyon, the director of photography at Associated Press, told a Mediabistro conference this year on the future of photojournalism in the digital world that "something like 70 per cent of people who start a photo gallery will finish it. There's something magnetic about the power of the still image … even in this day of video and 24-hour TV news cycles, something about a still photo allows you to concentrate and absorb it."
As hopes for showcasing photojournalism move online and out of the print arena, much-vaunted multimedia news and documentary websites such as Mediastorm are emerging as beacons. The founder, Brian Storm, calls the blend of stills with recorded sound "captions on steroids", a neat slogan, but the working photojournalist also needs a dose of financial adrenaline to help us see the bigger picture. This crisis in working conditions and exposure has been intensified by the so-called citizen photojournalist, anyone with a mobile phone or digital camera who is on the spot as events are unfolding. Recently this has meant anything from the tsunami in South-East Asia to the London bombings to the leaked snapshots from Abu Ghraib.
News events are increasingly likely to come from amateur sources. This raises the question of reliability: who is supplying these images and how true are they? So far the sheer speed at which events are covered is serving as a security screen, but a fear remains that a big news organisation will be badly burnt, despite talk of software that will detect digital alteration.
It is our visual culture, then, that has become the battleground. What separates the great photojournalist from Joe Blog and the orgy of incidental images we swim in may well be the storytelling impulse itself: the desire to bring a feeling and a meaning to the moment. In this new war to win hearts and minds, Seamus Murphy observes that "how you say something is often as important as what you are saying, especially with images".
He knows all about post-modern debates over aestheticising suffering. "But I don't think it's any less truthful to make something poetic or beautiful. Is it aestheticising suffering, or are you actually giving people more dignity? Hopefully, a beautiful picture will draw you in. Hopefully, it haunts you. And because it haunts you, it doesn't leave you."
*This article was first published under the title 'Frontline shots with true aim' in the Sydney Morning Herald Arts pages on October 8th, 2008