Some of the most famous photographs ever taken have been made by photojournalists who were in the right place at the right time. Put another way...many of those photographers were just lucky.
But many of history's most enduring images were also the result of planning. And luck had very little to do with their creation.
Associated Press photographer Nick Ut was in the right place at the right time in 1972 when, while covering refugees fleeing a battle in Viet Nam, he made a photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phúc, also known as the 'Napalm Girl.'
Just how lucky was Ut?
Below is an uncropped version of Ut's famous photo that earned him the Pulitzer Prize.
|Photograph by Nick Ut.|
Click here to enlarge.
Enlarge the image above and look at the man in the helmet on the far right side of the frame. He's a UPI photographer who is re-loading his camera. He's missing the shot.
Today, everyone knows who Nick Ut is. No one remembers the name of the unlucky UPI photographer.
Right place, right time...and a bit of luck.
Nine years earlier in Dallas, two photographers were also in the right place at the right time when nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
As Ruby, gun in hand, lunged towards Oswald in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters, the two photographers pressed the shutters of their cameras.
But one of those photographers - Dallas Morning News photographer Jack Beers - missed making one of the most important photographs of his career by six-tenths of a second.
From the Dallas Morning News:
From the moment he lunged out of the shadows and pulled the trigger on his .38-caliber Colt Cobra, Jack Ruby did more than blast his way into history.
Lee Harvey Oswald, the man suspected of killing President John F. Kennedy two days earlier, suffered a single, fatal shot from Ruby's gun.
But other men standing in the basement of the Dallas police station on Sunday morning, Nov. 24, 1963, saw their own lives change, none more so than a pair of photojournalists who captured the moment in black and white.
For Robert H. "Bob" Jackson, then a 29-year-old photographer for the Dallas Times Herald, taking a picture of Oswald's murder meant winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964.
But for Ira Jefferson "Jack" Beers Jr., who worked for The Dallas Morning News – and who took an almost equally vivid picture – the basement events left an entirely different legacy.
Those who knew him say he never recovered from missing the Pulitzer by six-tenths of a second – the time between his photograph and Mr. Jackson's.
"I know this sounds stupid, but for years, I wouldn't even talk to people about it. It hurt a lot," says Darlene Beers Williams, 50, the second of Mr. Beers' three children, whose father died of a heart attack in 1975. He was 51.
But many times, luck has nothing to do with making a great photograph.
Some great images are the result of meticulous planning.
In April 2000, as the fifth month of the saga of rescued Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez dragged on, AP photographer Alan Diaz was making plans for a day he knew was coming.
Diaz started staking out the Miami home of the boy's relatives a few days after he moved in with them shortly after his rescue in late November 1999. In five months, Diaz had rarely taken a day off.
On April 22, 2000, Diaz was ready... and those months of planning were about to pay off.
He had been waiting for this moment for over 4 months.
Diaz was staked out by the chain link fence that surrounded the Gonzalez house. Hearing a commotion in the back of the house, he vaulted the fence and ran to the front door. Someone let him in and pointed to a back bedroom where Elian was hiding in a closet with one of the fishermen who rescued him. Diaz barged in and waited for the arrival of the INS agents.
As soon as they came in Diaz started shooting with his Nikon D1 and Tamron 28-105mm zoom lens. Diaz managed to get 11 images before the agents left.
|AP Photo by Alan Diaz. |
(Click to enlarge)
Diaz went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his image of a frightened Elian Gonzalez.
But whether it was luck or planning that went into making the photographs described above, the one thing that all of the photographers have in common is that they were seasoned and experienced professionals.
But every now and then an amateur photographer is present when something newsworthy happens. And that's when luck plays a big part in whether or not a great picture is made or it becomes a moment lost to history.
On Jan. 14, 2009, Janis Krums was a passenger on a ferry in the Hudson River in New York when Capt. Sully Sullenberger who was piloting a US Airways jet, made an emergency landing in the water.
In 2014, Krums recalled the day: "I only took one photo before giving my phone to one of the passengers we rescued. When it was returned, the first call came from MSNBC — the image I shared had gone viral. In fact, it crashed TwitPic."
So some might ask, now that everyone has a camera, why do newspapers and TV stations even need to employ professional photographers?
Doesn't the infinite monkey theorem kick in at some point? (The infinite monkey theorem goes like this: "Given enough time, a monkey randomly striking keys on a typewriter will end up banging out a copy of Hamlet.")
But instead of typewriters, we're talking about cameras. And as we've seen, amateurs sometimes get lucky.
In 2012, an enterprising young University of Miami graduate named Reed Nicol sent me an email that took the infinite monkey theorem a step further:
"What if you could turn local smartphone users into instant content contributors for your blog? Well, now you can!
"OneNews, has built a robust, web-based platform that turns everyone with a smartphone into a contributor for [name of web site here]. OneNews allows you to instantly create location or interest-based assignments, asking contributors in the area to submit pictures, video, audio and text in real time. This provides smaller organizations, with limited resources, a powerful mechanism for content collection."
Shortly after receiving his email, I talked with Reed over the phone and I told him not to quit his day job.
Three and a half years later, OneNews appears to have disappeared...along with Reed's dream of turning it into the next big thing.
But OneNews been replaced by Fresco News, an outfit that calls itself "the world's largest network of citizen photojournalists."
(There have always been "citizen photojournalists." Abraham Zapruder was perhaps, this country's most famous "citizen photojournalist." See video at the top of this post.)
But here's an example of the work being produced by Fresco's "citizen photojournalists." Hardly the stuff of history.
Fresco Dispatch is working 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻🎊🎊🎊 pic.twitter.com/RhzdN3SjwP— John H. Meyer (@beastmode) July 25, 2015
Fresco's CEO, John Meyer, insists that his "users" get paid for their work when their content is used.
But with rare exceptions, the days of making big money off a single picture are a thing of the past.
On May 12, 1997, construction engineer Arthur Harvey was working on a Brickell Avenue condo when he made a picture that was published around the world. Harvey always kept his camera within arm's reach, and his quick thinking earned him thousands of dollars that day.
From the June 12, 1997 issue of the Miami Herald:
[Arthur] Harvey is the man who took the photo of the May 12 downtown Miami tornado that appeared on the front page of The Herald as well as Newsweek magazine, Life magazine, USA Today and hundreds of other newspapers across the world.
So far, Harvey has earned nearly $2,000 for being in the right place at the right time. That doesn't include the royalties he is earning from posters and copies of the photo sold by The Herald. He gets $1 for each poster and $5 for each photo sold.
|Tornado in Miami, May 12, 1997.|
Photograph by Arthur Harvey.
But not all so-called citizen photojournalists are interested in getting paid.
One Miami TV executive told me that many times viewers will send pictures and video to his station with little or no expectation of compensation. "We promise to put their name on the screen and that seems to be all the credit they want," he said.
"But if they insist on payment, and it's video we really want, we'll pay for it," the executive told me.
However, one newspaper photo editor told me: "If the picture is worth using, then it's worth paying for."
But in 2015 many young photographers seem to be more interested in seeing their images go viral than in seeing a paycheck.
Last April, 26-year-old Baltimore resident Devin Allen took a photograph during the riots in his city that ended up being used on the cover of TIME magazine.
But Allen wasn't interested in getting paid, telling WBUR,
"A lot of people are saying, ‘why didn’t you put your name on your pictures?’ I didn’t put my name on these pictures because I wanted them to go viral, I wanted everybody to post them, I wanted people to see,” he said.
“If I did it for money, it would be tarnished. I did this from the heart.”
|Photograph by Devin Allen.|
But photographers like Devin Allen are a rarity. Just because someone has a camera doesn't mean they know how to use it. For more proof, just look at your Facebook newsfeed.