Assignment 3. The Decisive Moment

“The sectors of a city are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable, as is the secrecy of private life in general, regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents …”  (Debord. 1961 : @ 8m 37s)

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Ghazzal (2004) suggests that because any object, moment, event or scene can be the subject of a photograph, that the decisive moment may be thought of as a vehicle for the identification of a unique moment, a moment realised by gesture. “The decisive moment is therefore that infinitely small and unique moment in time which cannot be repeated, and that only the photographic lens can capture”.

But what if the moment was time itself, and the day that the photographs were taken was not an ‘ordinary’ day, but one that was, if not unique, nevertheless a day where the absence of human activity was evident. The aftermath of Christmas, on bank holiday Monday…

A small series of moments which individually may provide little more than the pitiful documents referred to by Debord, but when viewed together might offer something  more substantive.

I visited the Nicholstown area of Southampton, which is well known to me, being an area in which I have worked for over 20 years. It was a conscious decision to choose bank holiday Monday as I was fairly confident that human activity would be at a minimum, and that I would therefore have a very different perspective from the usual hustle and bustle of a multi-cultural inner city area.I  wasn’t disappointed. The streets, devoid of people at 10.51am when I first started to take photographs, remained largely empty throughout the time that I was walking around the area. To this end, I subsequently started to look for juxtapositions which might suggest indicators of small and unique moments in time.

Although taking photographs digitally, I decided that I would allow myself a maximum of 36 shots, to simulate a roll of analogue film. Although not particularly profligate when photographing digitally, I wanted to minimise the opportunity for ‘point, shoot and see if it works later’. I also elected to use a prime lens (Sigma 60mm f/2.8 DN prime lens) with a fixed focal length, with the intention that the images when presented would be un-cropped.

The final selection of photographs were sequenced in the chronological order that they were taken. On this blog post I have presented the images in the form of a slide show in order to highlight the sequence. Each of these images therefore captured a moment that was a stop on the journey. They became moments along the way from which something more substantive might emerge. This process was akin to something which Bauer (2016) referred to, when describing how she approached the decisive moment in her work.

The photographs and my rationale for them ‘fitting’ with the notion of a decisive moment:

  • @ 10.51am. The first photograph of the day, and the start of my walk. Derby Road, ordinarily a bustling street, with a vast number of local shops open, all serving the local community. Not so on this day, and therefore, if not unique, then at least a very unusual occurrence.
  • @ 10.53am. The invisible hand that pegs the washing out on the line. The bin containing household waste. Both impermanences in a street view which might otherwise be considered to be relatively unchanging.
  • @ 11.00am. More bins, as above. However, I was struck by the sign on the phone box, saying ‘heartburn?’, which within the context of the Christmas period, seemed somewhat ironic.
  • @ 11.17am. Solitary man on his way through the underpass. Something of a rare occurrence on the day in question…and with the light behind him, it just seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
  • @ 11.20am. Plastic bag containing a shopping trolley at the side of the phone box. Lighthouse centre fenced off from the public, and inaccessible. Further impermanences in a street view, and the idea of the lighthouse, a beacon of light to guide others, being unavailable suggested another ironic counterpoint.
  • @ 11.49am. Zone Ends. Despite all of the seemingly permanent fixtures of the Zone Ends sign, the brick wall and the fencing at the end of the road, the small, portable road sign on the pavement opposite facing away from the camera, suggests the invisible hand at play
  • @ 11.53am. Shopping trolley against a fence bearing the logo ‘primesight’-anything but!

Contact sheets

Of the photographs that didn’t make the cut, the rationale for most can be ascribed to one of the following:

I felt that landscape orientation offered stronger images, regardless of subject matter, and therefore these were rejected from the point that I reached the decision. This therefore ruled out 3815, 3816, 3824 & 3825.

I did like the portrait (3826 & 3827), but self evidently it didn’t fit the narrative. I was however delighted to meet up with AB, who I knew as a former resident of a supported living scheme in the area that I used to manage, and was keen for me to take his photograph .

To my mind there was very little story in images 3807, 3808, 3811, 3812, 3813, 3814, 3817,3818, 3828 & 3829.

3821 was badly out of focus, whilst 3832 & 3833 were closer crops of the final image chosen.

With hindsight I probably didn’t need to have had the camera set up to take a 2 shot ‘burst’ given the static nature of the photographs.


In any event, as HCB himself suggests in citing from the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz (1717) in the epigraph of his first major book of photographs (Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. 2016), “there is nothing in this world which does not have its decisive moment”. 



Bauer, A (2016) Cited in ‘In Experimental Photography, Is There Ever a Decisive Moment?’ – Aperture Foundation NY. Available at: (Accessed: 3 January 2017).

Debord, G. (1961) Critique de la séparation / critique of separation (1961). Available at:,2205.html?lang=en (Accessed: 3 January 2017).

Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2016) Press Kit for Exhibition “Henri Cartier-Bresson-Images à la sauvette” (2016) Available at: (Accessed: 15 January 2017).

Ghazzal, Z. (2004) Decisive Moments. Available at: (Accessed: 27 December 2016).

What is the ‘Decisive Moment”?

The decisive moment has come to be defined as a black and white image, composed meticulously, framed and shot at the precise moment that all of the elements are perfectly aligned with one another (O’Hagan. 2014). The recognition by the photographer of a certain symmetry of the subject, which informs a narrative; a narrative which requires some work on the part of the viewer to imagine the ‘before and after’. The man leaping over the puddle in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 photograph (below) is forever suspended, and ‘because this picture is not part of a sequence, it is the viewer who must imagine what came immediately before and…what happened next’. (Bull. 2010).

Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. Henri Cartier-Bresson [1932]

Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. Henri Cartier-Bresson [1932]

Time and patience become watchwords, and indeed I recognise this in some of the photographs that I took whilst living and working in Nepal between 2010 and 2012. The image below is ‘typical’ of Nepal: men sitting on the temple steps, talking with each other. I sat for several minutes watching them deep in conversation, sometimes animated, sometimes in silence and thought.

Bhaktapur. John Callaway [2010]

Similarly in the photograph below, the architecture, the clothing and the woman with the broom are somewhat archetypal of Kathmandu. And yet, with both photographs, the story isn’t clear, and hopefully (maybe), invites the viewer to ask what is going on.

Szarkowski (2003) suggests that the decisive moment has been mis-understood and that the thing which happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax, but a visual one. Perhaps there is no (hidden) story behind the three men in conversation, or the woman and the security guard contemplating the pile of rocks. Maybe they just work visually…

Thinking... John Callaway [2010]

Thinking… John Callaway [2010]

As a counterpoint to this, for Ghazzal (2004), the decisive moment may have become something of a cliché, albeit one that has made ‘an unconscious impact on photojournalism to be dismissed too easily’. He observes that many photographers today have to operate in a repetitive and increasingly empty urban environment, where the opportunity for gesture and the ‘small and unique moment in time’ are much diminished.

Worth bearing in mind as I work towards the completion of my own decisive moment for Assignment 3….


Bibliography & References

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Ghazzal, Z. (2004) Decisive Moments. Available at: (Accessed: 27 December 2016).
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his Decisive Moment has passed | Art and design | The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 27 December 2016).
Szarkowski, J. (2003) ‘Introduction to the photographer’s eye’, in Wells, L. (ed.) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 97–103.

Reflections on ‘L’amour de court’

Henri Cartier-Bresson: the name is synonymous with the idea of the ‘decisive moment’ in photography. The point at which all of the elements are perfectly aligned with one another (O’Hagan. 2014). HCB’s 1932 photograph ‘Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint-Lazare’ has long since been emblematic of that idea. In ‘L’amour de court’ (2001), a documentary by Raphaël O’Byrne, HCB talks about how his view of the world underpins his photography, whilst O’Byrne seeks to draw parallels between HCB’s creative processes, and those in other fields of creativity.

Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. Henri Cartier-Bresson [1932]

Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint-Lazare. Henri Cartier-Bresson [1932]

The cornerstone of HCB’s process is the importance of looking, allied to an emphasis on form and geometry (the golden section), and an element of chance. He seems to revel in describing the element of luck involved in taking the above photograph (@ 17m 06s). The implication being that this alone is what counts. ‘When you want it, you won’t get it. Wanting won’t work’ (@ 17m 28s). Perhaps this is humility, perhaps this is disingenuous, or maybe its the sense of humour of a man playing to the camera, but I can’t help but think that it is possible on occasion for the two to operate in tandem, providing that you are willing to wait and be disappointed.

Maybe it is indicative of HCB’s desire to impugn teaching, and to learn by doing, rather than intellectualising the process. Towards the end of the documentary (@ 58m 08s), there is a moment of reflection about the images taken whilst HCB was travelling, which perhaps hints at what he was driving at. “True travelling is not about seeing new things-it is about seeing oneself as temporary against a permanent background, which leads to a deeper vision than leafing through the pages of an art book”. Or as HCB said…“I just lived”. As good a maxim for taking photographs as any… and one that I’ll return to when I’m struggling for inspiration.

Rickshaw, Kathmandu. John Callaway [2011]

Durbar Square, Kathmandu. John Callaway [2011]


Magnum photos photographer portfolio (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 28 December 2016).

O’Byrne, R. (2016) H. Cartier-Bresson: L’amour tout court. Available at: (Accessed: 28 December 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his Decisive Moment has passed | Art and design | The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 27 December 2016).

Assignment 3. The decisive moment- a not so decisive idea…

Get out of your comfort zone, and use colour! One of the challenges issued to me for my next assignment.

I go to a fair number of gigs over the course of a year, and have tried to take photographs which capture something of the performance. I’m just your average punter with a Sigma 60mm f/2.8 DN prime lens which doesn’t look too obtrusive, and I don’t use flash, instead trying to use the stage lighting to best effect. This means that I need to get pretty close to the stage. I tend to convert to black and white, partly because I live in hope of coming close to what I think is the definitive rock image…Pennie Smith’s cover shot for “London Calling”, by the Clash, and partly because in my view, the colours used in stage lighting  tend to detract from the image.

So what I normally end up with is this….

The Damned @ Portsmouth Pyramids, December 1, 2016. (40th Anniversary Tour…and yes I did see them 39 years ago too!)

So, maybe there’s some value in turning the camera on the audience instead? Not sure whether these work , or indeed whether I’m going to pursue this further, but I came up with a few interesting shots, although quite honestly, I was more interested in watching the Damned, and its somewhat difficult to be in the middle of it, and keep any sort of focus…but I did leave everything in colour, and the only editing was to crop to 10×8 dimensions. Probably works as a tiled mosaic, and I’ve got a few more gigs in the pipeline before the next assignment is due, might be onto something… probably just need to go to gigs of bands I don’t like…!