The photojournalist’s eye is informed by a principle often defined as the decisive moment. Photographer and artist Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term "decisive moment" to describe the convergence of critical visual elements in time and space.
As Bresson suggests:
Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture, is a whole story in itself. But this rarely happens.The elements which, together, can strike sparks out of a subject, are often scattered -- either in terms of time and space -- and bringing them together by force is 'stage management,' and, I feel, cheating.
Bresson leaves us much to reflect on in the above passage. For Bresson, the world was about movement, and the photographer's work is to move with the world. However, Bresson was writing and photographing at a time when the techniques of visual reportage were still young and impressionable.
Today, in a world that seems overburdened with visual cliches and not-so-subtle visual anecdotes, much of the meaning of Bresson's decisive moment in photojournalism seems to have become rarefied and denuded of power.
With our collective appetite for "the moment", many news images seem to reduce events down to the equivalent of sound bites. How is the "decisive moment", as a visual phenomenon able to inform the viewer beyond the deft capture of an essence that is nothing more than a mnemonic device?
According to Wikipedia, "Sound bites are a natural consequence of people placing ever greater emphasis on summarizing ever-increasing amounts of information in their lives."
Unfortunately, many photojournalists develop the decisive moment as a form of visual practice that often becomes formulaic. The decisive moment, in much of photojournalism, appears to be chiefly governed by an individual’s ability to anticipate and react to what is placed before lens.
For this reason, some critics of photojournalism contend that much of the practice is little more than craft, because much of what is recorded is predicated on the capture of a decisive moment – the peak, climatic, and otherwise dramatic composition representative of the event.
As Bresson reminds us:
"Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes the precise and transitory instant... We cannot develop and print a memory."
In some ways what is most striking about the recent criticisms against photojournalism, particularly in tems of the coverage of the wars in the Middle East is that there is a profound lack of understanding of the field's historic development as well as its sociological qualities in the emergence of media consumption.
It would be silly to apologize for what is happening in photojournalism today as a craft or occupational group, but it is important to point out that the fundamental motivations driving visual behavior have not and probably will not change.