Calling all the shots: three decades on the frontline of photography

The Observer picture editor reflects on the evolution of photojournalism as he bows out after nearly 30 years

Even though it’s been nearly three decades since I joined the Observer, if I close my eyes I can still see my colleagues from yesteryear …

Jane Bown looking at a contact sheet by the lightbox, using her monocle eyeglass. Motorcycle couriers flirting with picture researchers. Reporters massaging the egos of alpha-male photographers, vying to become the next Don McCullin, the great photojournalist whose career began here. Men in shabby suits from now-defunct picture agencies, cigarette in hand as they hawked photo-essays from battered suitcases. The picture librarian ferrying files of black and white prints to the man who was at the centre of everything, the revered picture editor, Tony McGrath.

That was the picture desk in 1992, the pulse of the Observer. The image printed on my retina, like a photograph captured in the blink of an eye.

A black and white photograph of the Observer newsroom showing Jane Bown looking at a contact sheet with her monocle, with Tony McGrath leaning over a desk in the background
Observer picture editor Tony McGrath over the lightbox, with Jane Bown in the foreground, in about 1992. Photograph: Mike King/The Observer

It was the final throes of old Fleet Street and I loved it from day one. I started as the secretary: I took film to the dark room, transparencies to the scanning room, and stick from the old-school compositors at the stone. I learned from the boss and the photographers and immersed myself in the world of newspaper photography.

Wind on to 18 June 1994. I’m standing staring at a blank computer screen: the whirr, grind and whistle of the dial-up modem seems to signify the start of something. A picture emerges from the gloom like the flare of a lit match waved in the face of a caveman. The line bringing me a picture of Ray Houghton scoring against Italy at the World Cup in the US did not stop in a dingy office block on Farringdon Road: it stretched out into the future, bringing with it mobile phones, digital cameras, the information superhighway, electronic mail and smartphones.

Two months later. I am in charge of an issue for the first time and I’m petrified, weighed down by the responsibility to the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper and to my predecessors. Since the appointment in 1948 of former lion tamer Mechthild Nawiasky as the paper’s first picture editor, only a few have held the post. But the paper hits the newsstands on time: 60 broadsheet pages, a review section and a magazine, yours for 90p.

A montage of two photographs: the first showing Earl Spencer, William, Harry and Charles standing in a row with their heads bowed, with William looking at the camera; the second, a shot of the family from directly overhead walking through Westminster Abbey
The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, as photographed by the Observer’s Andy Hall (left) and his colleague John Reardon (right), situated above Westminster Abbey’s great west door. Composite: Andy Hall and John Reardon/The Observer

By the end of 1995, I am the picture editor. The first year is slow, then 1997 hits. A mission to Mars, Dolly the cloned sheep, Tony Blair’s landslide election victory and, the mother of all Saturday events, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. For that, we had all the angles covered. TV news crews were in the building covering us covering it. Pressure.

Seasoned war photographer John Reardon confessed that taking pictures of the funeral was one of his most nervy assignments – he was terrified of dropping his lens from his eyrie above the great west door of Westminster Abbey on to the nave floor, 40 feet below. In the maelstrom of the afternoon and the flurry of contact sheets, I miss that our photographer Andy Hall has got the shot. Diana’s brother, sons and husband waiting for her coffin outside the Abbey. We use a similar, inferior shot as a poster page one picture. Sorry, Andy.

In the new century the volume of incoming images exploded. Hidden among them were some remarkable moments: the Falling Man on 9/11, Saddam’s statue toppling in Baghdad, President Obama watching the attack on Osama Bin Laden from the White House, the body of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore in Turkey, a sea horse attached to a cotton bud, an exasperated Angela Merkel trying to get some sense out of President Trump in a pastiche of a baroque painting.

A close-up of Amy Winehouse looking over her shoulder at something off camera, her face tinted by coloured stage lights
Amy Winehouse plays her first major hometown headline show at Bush Hall, west London, 3 December 2003. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Many of the most memorable images I’ve seen during my tenure echo classical western religious imagery: the bastardisation of Christ Crucified that is the hooded man at Abu Ghraib, the all too frequent modern-day scenes of the Lamentation, the grief of mothers and daughters deconstructed into pixels that travel beneath the oceans to arrive on my screen.

Over the years, it has become tougher for our photographers. We no longer send them abroad, preferring to use local photographers to tell their own country’s stories. New data protection laws mean street photography is becoming increasingly difficult. Access to politicians and celebrities is tightly controlled. Rolling television news means that often tomorrow’s still images can seem like yesterday’s news.

And then there is the rise of celebrity culture, social media and the selfie. All these elements were encapsulated in the group selfie taken at the 2014 Oscars by the actor Bradley Cooper on the host Ellen DeGeneres’s phone and immediately uploaded to her Twitter account, from where it was retweeted more than 3 million times.

A selfie of about a dozen Hollywood stars crowding in to be included in the shot and smiling, with Bradley Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres closest to the camera
Bradley Cooper’s selfie taken on Ellen DeGeneres’s phone at the Oscars in 2014. Photograph: @TheEllenShow

In Ridley Scott’s dystopian classic Blade Runner, set in 2019, the dying replicant Roy Batty recalls the wonders he has seen: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Great monologue Roy, but you got that wrong. Everything today is seen, shot and uploaded. On a slow day we receive upwards of 35,000 images from professional sources alone.

Many of the photographers I have been lucky to work with have always had the qualities to cut through the visual noise. The bravery of Neil Libbert, enjoying a beer in the French House in Soho when he heard an explosion, to run towards the destruction caused by a nail bomb aimed at the gay community (one of his photographs of the Admiral Duncan atrocity would go on to win a World Press award).

A composite of four photographs: a black and white photo of men standing in the shattered and smoky interior of a pub; a close-up of Roy Keane, holding a raven's skull to his face so that the beak frames his eye; a worker bending over a resident, largely invisible in a winged armchair, with light coming in at the window; a black and white photo Angolan woman chopping up a tree stump, with the axe held high above her head
Clockwise from top left: Neil Libbert’s photo of the aftermath of the attack on the Admiral Duncan pub; Murdo MacLeod’s portrait of Roy Keane; one of Gary Calton’s photos at St Cecilia’s; one of Antonio Olmos’s shots from Angola in 2001. Composite: Various

The ingenuity of Murdo MacLeod’s portrait of footballer Roy Keane holding a raven’s skull that MacLeod had picked up from a beach. John Reardon’s The Chefs’ Last Supper, an exercise in successfully herding cats to produce something extraordinary. The ability to uncover the essence of a person: the prophetic, hunted look in Amy Winehouse’s eyes captured by Karen Robinson.

The steeliness of Michaela Coel revealed by Suki Dhanda before Coel became a household name. Antonio Olmos’s sensitivity documenting the plight of refugees in war-torn Angola in 2001 – and Gary Calton’s compassion for the residents of St Cecilia’s Nursing Home in Scarborough during the coronavirus pandemic.

The chaotic bustle of the picture desk may have long gone – now the picture editor sits alone at a computer – but the quality of the photography I see has never dimmed. It has been a privilege to work for the paper, to bear witness to events and to help bring images to the reader that we will all carry with us. I’ll always be an observer.


Greg Whitmore

The GuardianTramp

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