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This chapter is from the book

In the Moment

Not to even think of equating what Dr. Orbinski has endured compared to most photographers in precarious circumstances, but the idea of being in the moment is one that resonates with photographers because it is that state of total concentration in which we do our best work. It's particularly important when you're in highly charged and challenging situations.

In difficult physical or emotional shooting situations, you should maintain a clear sense of purpose. People sometimes ask how it is that I can take pictures in clearly private, personal, often sad and difficult moments, like at a funeral. I am not a voyeur in these situations; I'm there with the permission of the family, organization, or business, and they know why I am there: to take pictures. They know the reasons for the images and where they might be published. They also have agreed to participate and let me into their lives because they sincerely believe, like I do, that pictures can make a difference. Photography can help promote awareness and positive change. Under these conditions it inspires and motivates me to do my best work, and I hope that my good intentions are met with positive action ( 4.9 ).


4.9 There was a moment between me and my subject that translates well to the viewer. Taken with a wide-angle lens in close proximity, there is intimacy and you can feel the tension, with the man on the left adding to the immediacy of the moment. Photographed outside the Sekekete Hotel Bar, Maputsoe, Lesotho.©Steve Simon

As a documentary photographer, to do your best work and to tell the story you can't hold back. It's not a time for timidity. You need to concentrate and make the best image by boldly finding your best shooting position, keeping a low profile, and working quickly and quietly.

Intuition for me is more of a photographic feeling. It guides my camera to the right places, past obstacles, and in new, interesting directions. Aside from letting my intuition guide my compositional dance while shooting, there are a couple of important lessons I've learned when it comes to intuition.

First, it has been my experience that when I have a feeling that I didn't quite "nail it"—if there's any doubt in my mind that I may not have captured the shot I hoped to get—I continue to work harder. Those times when I didn't listen to my inner voice telling me to keep going, I was almost always disappointed with the results.

This lesson harkens back to the film days, when you didn't have instant access to the image you just shot. So you continued to shoot a little more. It's a work ethic that film shooters still abide by. It might be because, when you take a photo with a DSLR, the mirror pops up for an instant so you don't actually see the moment of exposure. If you "saw" it, you didn't quite get it.

Other times I need to keep an open mind about the experience of shooting. There have been times in the field where I've worked hard, shooting and working the scene, with an idea—before even looking at the shots—as to which images would be the ones I would be selecting.

But I have proven myself wrong many times. Because great photographs can be caught—without thinking, in a fraction of a second—I may not even remember taking certain images, yet they become the selections from the take. There's a weird sort of guilt that happens for me when I don't feel I "earned" the photo, because I triggered the camera on impulse or instinct, maybe not even having remembered doing so. Of course this too is part of the photographic process; the degree of difficulty is often irrelevant—it's about what the image communicates.

Lessons Learned: Instinct, Intuition, and Concentration

  • "When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear."
  • —Alfred Eisenstaedt

There is no question in my mind: concentration is a major factor in closing the gap between the photo you hope to get and the one you end up with. It doesn't matter if it's a highly charged episode or a mundane one; when I let my concentration lapse, I'm often disappointed.

This picture (4.10) goes back a long way, but I remember the day very well. It was July 31, 1987. I was a new photographer at The Edmonton Journal, where I had started my photojournalism career a year earlier.


4.10 The Edmonton Tornado, July 31, 1987.©Steve Simon

I was working the afternoon shift and had just finished gassing up my car when reports of funnel cloud sightings came over the newspaper's radio system. A moment later, I looked up and saw those funnel clouds; in fact, they transformed into a tornado seconds after I saw them.

The problem was, from my industrial location in the city's east end, there were a lot of obstructions and I didn't have a clear view. I was nervously excited as I took a quick picture with my Nikon F3 film camera, and stepped on the gas to find a better spot to see the tornado.

There were not a lot of cars on the road at 3 p.m. in this part of town, so I was able to drive fast, one eye on the road, the other on the amazing weather phenomenon in the sky. I drove for what was likely less than a minute to find the open space from which I took this picture.

Though I was young, I had been shooting pictures since I was 11 years old. I knew what to do. The light had dropped remarkably for 3:00 in the afternoon on a midsummer's Edmonton day. I remember the exposure because I had to push the 400 ISO negative film two stops to get a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, wide open at f/2.8 with my 180mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens.

I was watching this massive tornado, which was probably a mile away, move relatively slowly across my field of view. I had time to take a bunch of pictures, as fast as my motor drive would let me. The massive power of this tornado was in stark contrast to where I stood recording it. It was raining lightly and relatively calm.

I changed to my 35mm f/2 lens and took a few wide shots with more of the landscape surrounding it. Because the tornado was moving across my field of view and not toward me, I didn't feel threatened, but when I started to see the debris circling the outer edge of the tornado, my instincts told me it was time to leave. I was probably shooting for about 30 seconds. I jumped in my car and drove away from the tornado, toward the office where the film was processed and the image made the front pages of newspapers all over North America and around the world.

The damage was extensive, and 27 people were killed and hundreds more injured. The tornado was rated at F5 at its peak, with wind speeds above 250 miles per hour. I was very lucky to be able to concentrate and shoot from a position of relative safety. My experience at the time allowed me to keep my mind and camera sharply focused on the tornado, ensuring I would get the shot. Keeping your cool and concentration is essential to doing good work, and it's a skill that will develop over time when you put your mind to it.

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