Exercise: A decisive moment?


Read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival. Select one of the bodies of work in the article and write a 200-word reflective commentary in your learning log.


Bainbridge’s article accompanies Time & Motion Studies, an exhibition featuring the works of five very different photographers – “each the result of deliberate and sustained observation” (Bainbridge 2011).

In both the subtitle of the exhibition (New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment) and in the article text Bainbridge discusses (one could say dismisses) the notion of ‘the decisive moment’.

Before I do the 200 words on one of the artists in the article, permit me to express my thoughts on ‘the decisive moment’:

Personally I think ‘the decisive moment’ is the most often misunderstood term in photography, whether being praised or debunked.

Whilst associated with Henri Cartier-Bresson, he is never recorded as having used the exact phrase. What he did say that echoes the spirit of the phrase was:

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (Cartier-Bresson 1952)

The word ‘decisive’ is somewhat misleading; in a photojournalistic sense it implies a pinnacle to the unfolding story when in fact Cartier-Bresson’s point was about a moment not decisive to the event itself, but decisive to the forming of a good photograph. It does not need to be dramatic. At its simplest it’s just about finding the right time to press the shutter.

The definite article that begins the phrase is also problematic, implying a singular decisive moment, a fleeting temporal bullseye to hit or miss – but this is rarely the case. Better to talk of multiple potential decisive moments where elements briefly form themselves into a pleasing geometry. In this sense I like the title of this section of the course notes (‘A decisive moment?‘).

Finally it’s worth noting that the very idea of decisive moments, even in the sense described above, may not apply to all types of photography. Its original context was unposed, unpredictable people photography: photojournalism, street photography etc. It’s less applicable to, say, portraiture, landscapes or constructed tableaux.

Having got that off my chest, on to the artist review!

Donald Weber: Interrogations

Whilst aesthetically I was drawn to Manuel Vasquez’s semi-abstract Traces, I chose not to review this as it’s montage-based work and more graphic art than documentary photography.

So I selected the Donald Weber work Interrogations. One might argue that this is the most ‘typical’ documentary project of the five; I found it to be the most visceral and shocking. The images so coldly capture moments of police brutality (or at least its threat) that it’s easy to suspect they’ve been staged; armed with the assurances that they are genuine, captured moments, you feel a real sense of the power imbalance in the scenes.

Interrogations © Donald Weber

What struck me beyond the shock of the content was Weber’s eye for composition. In many of the images the geometry strongly supports the underlying message – in the example above, note the diagonals giving a sense of disorientation, the leaning suspect cowering and pinned to the desk, the disembodied arm coming in a downward diagonal representing the (misused) authority of the police – faceless to signify the systemic nature of the situation. It’s not clear whether Weber recognised this ‘decisive moment’ at the time, or identified it later in the selection process – but what is clear is that this was a photographically decisive moment. So I guess I’m slightly disagreeing with Bainbridge…!


Time & Motion Studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment  http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/hereford_bainbridge.pdf (accessed 03/03/2016)

Manual Vasquez’s Traces http://www.manuelv.net/PROJECTS/TRACES/thumbs (accessed 03/03/2016)

Donald Weber’s Interrogations https://www.lensculture.com/articles/donald-weber-interrogations (accessed 03/03/2016)


3 thoughts on “Exercise: A decisive moment?

  1. Catherine 03 March 2016 / 15:48

    Thanks for the reminder about ‘the decisive moment’.
    I still find it hard to believe that Weber was actually allowed to take that photograph.


    • Rob Townsend 03 March 2016 / 15:52

      And a few more in a similar vein! The fact that he was not only allowed to take them but subsequently published them maybe means that the Ukrainian police see nothing wrong with their conduct… :-/


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