Brief

Create a set of between six and ten finished images on the theme of the decisive moment. You may choose to create imagery that supports the tradition of the ‘decisive moment’, or you may choose to question or invert the concept by presenting a series of ‘indecisive’ moments. Your aim is not to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series, there should be a linking theme, whether it is a location, event or particular period of time.
Include a written introduction to your work of between 500 and 1000 words outlining your initial ideas and subsequent development. You’ll need to contextualise your response with photographers that you’ve looked at, and don’t forget to reference the reading that you’ve done.

Initial thoughts

An ongoing personal discrepancy around the concept “The Decisive Moment” is the English and distorted translation of the original, French title of the famous book (and concept?) of Henri Cartier Bresson: Images a la Sauvette , which is, agreed, hard to translate, but the intention is much more: images taken in a swift, smart, cunning manner. the idiom is suggestive of speed and furtiveness (Hofstadter, 2015). It has nothing to do with a decisive moment but far more with “stolen moments”. The, as ever, unrefined bombastic English-American title, might be proven commercially successful but does not reflect the initial and intentional thoughts of the artist himself about his work.

The Decisive Moment, and this title, which soon became a catchphrase, did much to confuse the American public about Cartier-Bresson’s intentions. It implied that as a photographer he had some preternatural grasp of the unfolding of events, that he was able to discern those objective instants when people’s gestures supposedly betray the moral nature of their actions. The truth was otherwise, for Cartier-Bresson had little feel for storytelling and never excelled at composing photo essays or catching historic moments; in fact, one of his maxims is “The anecdote is the enemy of photography.”(Hofstadter, 2015)

Now the (late) artist is criticised for a “concept” that was not his, to begin with: Decisive Moment. Sure, Cartier-Bresson went along with it and definitely profited from this catchy title, he even extended it sometimes, but basically I am not convinced. Even the quote at the beginning of the book “There is nothing in this world which does not have its decisive moment.” coming from the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz first published in 1717, appears as the epigraph to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s introductory text for his first major book of photographs, Images à la Sauvette, was suggested by his publisher. (Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 2019).

That The Decisive Moment belongs to a different time is immediately apparent from its cover, which is not a photograph but a signature cut-out by Henri Matisse, who offered to design the cover when Cartier-Bresson showed him a dummy copy.(O’Hagan, 2014)

Nevertheless, the Decisive Moment as a concept, style and method perhaps, was(is?) of great importance in the history of photography and, by its direct registration of life itself, on generic history as well, where form, structure and authentic composition mattered.  For this assignment, I had no need to criticise, question or reverse into indecisiveness and work around possible difficulties this might bring. Just follow the brief in its most intended form, not trying to copy or derive but stay authentic to myself.

Research

There is no escape. When the words Decisive Moments are used, it echoes Henri Cartier Bresson. One can imagine, no photographic course can and will avoid this subject, resulting in countless photography students having a (forced) opinion on the matter. The book with the title The Decisive Moment is permanently on our reading table (accompanied by “The Americans” by Robert Frank). Not a day goes by I do not see it, laying there in the corner of my eye, sometimes take a glimpse through the pages and images, especially the first (Europe) part, no specific reason, at least nothing more specific than looking out of the window. The most important paragraph in this book is perhaps:

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.(Henri Cartier-Bresson and Clément Chéroux, 2014)

It relates with another quote by Cartier-Bresson:

For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to give a “meaning” to the world, one has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.(Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 2019b)

Nevertheless, looking at his work, I always have the impression it is more about the “composition” and less about the moment. Why do I always sense it is more about technicalities then emotion, despite the fact that he speaks of intuition quite often. There seems more empathy for the framing then the subjects. Somehow it differs in that area from the work of Robert Frank, e.g. in the Americans (Frank and Kerouac, 2017) also initially published in the 1950s, where people and social situation, life and emotion perhaps, seem to prevail above anything else.

The greatest joy for me is geometry; that means a structure. You can’t go shooting for structure, for shapes, for patterns and all this, but it is a sensuous pleasure, an intellectual pleasure, at the same time to have everything in the right place. It’s a recognition of an order which is in front of you. (Cartier-Bresson, 1971)

During my work on this assignment, I visited the exhibition from Brassaï in the Foam Museum in Amsterdam. (about this visit link here). Paris, night, moments, people. Is it decisive? Is his work as composing correct as the work of Cartier-Bresson and does it matter? Does the work of Brassaï include more human emotion? There seems to be more cohesion in his images for sure. The Paris mood as such, less artistically perhaps and more like an average observer.

What remains is to catch that glimpse of a particular moment, call it decisive, call it on the run or a lá sauvette. That one noticeable and registering worthy, depictable worthy situation. A gaze, a gesture, a movement, a position, an emotion. Record it with a sense and intuition for composition and possibly some context and timing. As Cartier-Bresson describes it perfectly, the camera is like an artists sketch-book, only a photographer does not have to return to his atelier and paint/draw from there on, he is instantly finished with the image he/she wants to depict.

Photography as I conceive it, well, it’s a drawing — immediate sketch done with intuition and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture.(Cartier-Bresson, 1971)

I found the suggested reading/research a bit confusing. The first suggestion is ‘Photography: A Critical Introduction’ by Liz Wells, where a paragraph is mentioned/quoted on page 73, while it is 172 in the book and looking at the specific lines in the original book, Liz Wells ends the paragraph with a reference to the book “The Decisive Moment” by Henri Cartier-Bresson himself. However, the text is not present in that book. To me, a rather sloppy double staged (wrongly referenced) quotation and even worse, out of context.

This is the exact paragraph from Liz Wells: The endeavour to make great statements gave way to the recording of little, dislocated moments with merely insinuated that some greater meaning might be at stake (Cartier-Bresson 1952). In her bibliography in Photography: A Critical Introduction, she refers here to the 1952 version of The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson, however, that does not include these lines/text. However, Cartier-Bresson on the matter: “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 from a subject, are often scattered – either in terms of space or time – and bringing them together by force is “stage management,” and, I feel, contrived.”

Furthermore, the critique by Wells is placed in the chapter on documentary photography and how authenticity is always under threat in this specific genre while indeed, big events can be depicted with suggestive images of lesser importance. However, she continues by agreeing to Allan Sekula: “Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” Cartier-Bresson wrote earlier: “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms.”.

But the context of Sekula’s article seems rather different than expected in Well’s quotation. Sekula put numerous questions, to put it lightly, on the subject: “A political critique of the documentary genre is sorely needed. Socially conscious American artists have much to learn from both the successes and the mistakes, compromises, and collaborations of their Progressive Era and New Deal predecessors. How do we assess the close historical partnership of documentary artists and social democrats? How do we assess the relation between form and politics in the work of a more progressive Worker’s Film and Photo League”.

And indeed, it is increasingly difficult to seperate genres and more important, the intentions or function of a genre. “One significant consequence of this has been a new merging and lack of
definition between photographic genres. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish one kind of photographic practice from another.” (Wells, 2009).

Cartier-Bresson never made a secret about how he crossed the borders of genres like documentary, journalism, street, city, landscape, portrait or simply for his own visual pleasure, without any genre in mind, although he is morally well aware of the authenticity of the structure and composition of an image. The eye is the key factor. The moment a photographer does finds important enough to register should be sufficient. It is the common denominator in all genres, the decision when to register, hence a specific moment never repeats in its identical form. Since Wells refers strongly to Henri Cartier-Bresson when The Decisive Moment comes to play, I do not get it fully clear what Wells tries to point. Cartier-Bresson is very clear about the fact he is more attracted to the structure than the content of a moment. Furthermore, the term Decisive Moment was not his, to begin with, but his publishers. He never restricted himself to a genre but was always searching for “a moment”.

The suggested article (essay/blog?) from Zouhair Ghazzal felt meaningless to me. He “criticises” the lack of meaning (to him) of photographs labelled “decisive” mostly b.t.w. categorised as such by others than the artists themselves. It indicates our ongoing contemporary route to more, more intense, more shout, more extreme. Why is present Bagdad dull now and wasn’t in the 1950s? Is that an excuse to not being able to see moments worth photographing? The article seems polarising between genres and opinions more than on content. I’ve read the specific article several times and I have no idea where it’s going. It seems to me that Ghazzal only wants to see massive moments and is unable to appreciate details and make them meaningful, exactly were Wells started to stumble in my opinion. Whatever the place, it is the craft of a photographer to see and capture those unique and engaging moments, engaging by form, structure, content, colour, importance, emotion, whatever humanity might attract and the artist/photographer finds worth showing, even only to her/himself.

“To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.
To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.”(Henri Cartier-Bresson, 2009)

The suggested review by Colin Pantall on the work “Present” by Paul Graham is more meaningful and constructive than that of Ghazzal. Where Ghazall simply stops (and starts) by saying everything is dull and “too normal” to photograph (the threat to any artist i.m.o.) Pantall describes perfectly that non-specific scenes do attract and can be interesting to observe. If not by its image “hero”; the designated main subject, than by its changing content and sequence of observations and presentations in the theatre called life. But how undecisive one wants to be, at some point the artist needs to make a decision. If it’s not at the moment of taking the picture and releasing the shutter, then certainly during selection and definitely during printing/publishing. Does it matter at what specific moment an artist becomes decisive or should te moment by itself be decisive? Is there something as “most decisive moment” in the process of publishing images (in any form and any audience)? A hierarchy in decisiveness or hierarchy in moments?

One of the more in-depth and practically based descriptions to the concept comes perhaps from Professor of Psychology John Suler in his publication called surprisingly: The Decisive Moment. Het starts with the well-know paragraph of Cartier Bresson from his book The Decisive Moment:

I kept walking the streets, high-strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality, but mainly I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image. Photographing, for me, is instant drawing, and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera. There are those who take photographs arranged beforehand and those who go out to discover the image and seize it. For me the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. (Henri Cartier-Bresson and Clément Chéroux, 2014)

Suler defines the elements of Decisive Moment Photography and the psychotherapeutic function it can have to compare it roughly with psychotherapy to continue with parallels between both. He assumes no decisive moment photograph stand but is the result of something bigger:
The decisive moment photograph does not occur as an isolated shot. There are no photographers, even the great ones, who go out with their cameras, take one spectacular shot, and then return home. The decisive moment emerges in the context of an entire shoot of some kind. Some photography sessions lead to a great decisive moments shot, and some do not. Is there a difference between the two?(Suler, 2019)
One of the most recognisable findings Suler makes is about the “Good Hour”, how lovely positioned next to the photographic well-known Golden Hour and Blue Hour. Suler defines the Good Hour: “There is the feeling that what one is thinking, feeling, and perceiving comes from an unconscious realm where they have already been prepared, formulated, and integrated – a kind of subconscious incubation. It is a reaction to and a synthesis of previous psychotherapeutic work. The Good Hour, in which people feel autonomous and independent in their search for meaning”. It directly associates to Cartier Bresson’s emotions and mindset “walking the streets…”

Some contemporary photographers refer to this perhaps as the “flow” in street photography (Erik Kim, 2011) and is very recognisable. Not said that in photography this period of special emphatic, sharp and sensitive observation-phase lasts exactly one hour, but its definitely limited time and a phase you can put yourself in, before taking series of shots. Convinced Henri Cartier-Bresson made use of this specific and artistically productive mindset when he made his best photographs.

I am also convinced this Good Hour is essential within the concept (genre?) of Decisive Moment Photography. You need to be very perceptive, anticipate intensively, intuition is key. Perhaps that’s why there is such polarised opinion on this genre. It has an entirely different artistic timing and rhythm than any other genre.

Another work makes it perhaps even clearer. Rich Cutler touches almost every aspect of possible definitions of the concept in his essay  “Photography and time: decoding the decisive moment” (Cutler, 2019). Picture-like and event-like align with here-there and now-then. Both need to co-exist or better to oscillate in the image to give it the allure of The Decisive Moment according to Cutler.

Concept and Execution

At this moment in my photographic life, making unstaged images, using the already available light, the available subjects and depict the moments, situations, emotions I find the most inspiring and perhaps most difficult ones to make (not saying its more difficult or easier than any other genre or method). It is intense and takes a massive amount of observation and concentration, combined with a physical presence, absorb the surroundings, anticipate to every slight indication os something special, either waiting patiently for that (decisive?) moment or walking, chasing, hunting the streets (Henri Cartier-Bresson used whatever suited him most). On a good day I can shoot 2-3 hours continuously, after that I’m losing concentration, losing personal focus, can’t see the “moments” and need to recharge with a break.

Again, it is essential to stay close. Convinced you don’t “see” more when you travel to the other side of the world. It might be easier to think things are special enough to photograph there, as inspiration perhaps, but at the end, the local guy from Tokio might think differently and probably sees the exceptional moments in his city much better.

Try to catch moments, no big moments for humanity, but only I decide, so yes, decisive. But I wanted to bring in a mood as well. Composition, expression, gestures in one specific place and area. Connected geographically, emotionally, technically and by its subjects in dusk and dawn. Not a series or combination of so-called “indecisive” moments, but indeed the result of an inner state and perhaps artistic flow. Sense the image, feel the situation, anticipate the moment and possibly the framing and composition — a massive amount of failures; too late, too soon, extremely unsharp, lack of emotion, crappy composition and framing, it is all part of the process and essential. Selection is crucial. Photographing the moments is, how cliche again it might be, largely luck indeed, but you have to be there to get lucky, you have to sense the moment to release the shutter.

In this assignment, I tried to be more patient. Plan the shots more but never over-plan. For some reason, I find the overly planned waiting for a figure to enter a scene for figurative sake, lacking emotion, lacking personality, it almost touches the grey area of staging a scene.  But nevertheless, looking at the by my tutor suggested Nick Turpin, it makes sense not to over-stress myself either and pay slightly more attention to  a composition. Slightly off-topic, I love the way Nick Turpin redefines parts of the genre into Candid Public Photography (Candidpublicphotography.com, 2019), indeed a very welcome addition and great initiative. Overall, however, I find his method a bit too patient. Working a scene is not the same as waiting forever until something happens, whatever what. It decreases your standards of acceptance towards an image and its content. The truth is probably somewhere in the totally uninteresting, dull middle.

Your aim is not to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series, there should be a linking theme, whether it is a location, event or particular period of time.

There is no story, one can only place a question mark. People and their habitat. Old city centre Amsterdam is the theatre. The mood is authentic but calm, not over shouting, not bursting with colour. Isolation with context, close but vague, not sure what to tell, just look and feel. At this point in the assignment, I cannot imagine photography without those dull, cliche, oldfashioned, non-contemporary “decisive moments” where I try to catch structure, emotion and life in detail and translate in something special. It is where photography thrives. Instant registration of a moment in time, indeed a visual, instant-ready, sketchbook. If I had the patience, talent and/or time, I would probably paint or draw, some did, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, I don’t, I can’t, not now, not yet.

Why be embarrassed? We are not what you call “misfit painters.” Photography is a way of expressing ourselves with another tool. That’s all. (Cartier-Bresson, 1971)

 

Selected Images

The nine selected images are all moments as I caught them in the massive chaos of events. Mostly shot in dusk or dawn and if not, under an extremely overcast sky. I kept the dark and low contrast as is, sometimes enhanced it even. These are tiny fragments of life and time. But I observed, registered and selected them on intuition, that makes them personal. It is the eye that makes it unique, no observation is the same, neither is a moment, no observer is the same, neither is a subject.

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Assessment criteria points and my reflection

  • 40% Demonstration of technical and visual skills – Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.
    When working within the concept of the decisive moment, absorption of the environment and anticipating situations (pregnant moments) is essential. In my specific method, my vieuw is more on the subjects than the composition. I find the composition of lesser importance than how the moment engages. I think I can improve there, however, that means probably shoot even a lot more. One of my stronger points is that I see a lot, my weaker point my impatience and my unstructured manners. With modern camera’s (although, older analogue camera’s provided the same, if not better opportunities) there is plenty of room to use the enormous amounts of pixels to frame the image in postproduction or even in-camera (cropping and/or digital zoom, I’m aware some people are strongly against all these modernistic stuff) However, lots of my images I shoot with my Leica 28mm (and even Leica uses what they now call Integrated Digital Zoom on their camera’s). Using this lens makes the proper composition more difficult, especially in this genre, a lot of stuff enters the frame at 28 millimetres. I need to provide better attention to the backgrounds and elements in the frame, too often I’m main-subject focused and forget the composition, worse, I forget everything..
  • 20% Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.
    The selected images form e decent, cohesive set. Time, place, time of day, light and subject-types are related if not identical. Nevertheless, there is sufficient variation. I tried to include non-sharp images more, to enhance the mood, suitable to the genre. Strange I find the vaguest image the strongest.
  • 20% Demonstration of creativity – Imagination, experimentation, invention.
    As following the course brief, no creativity at all. I even tried to follow the “decisive moment” concept as defined by a handful pioneers, decades (almost century) ago as accurate as possible. Go out, into the street, shoot monochrome, see everything, collect the interesting ones and select the engaging ones. But by keeping it close to myself, following my instinct in all stages, it becomes unique, if that is the same as being creative? not sure.
  • 20% Context – Reflection, research, critical thinking.
    Again I find the research very interesting and I spend far more time on that area than needed, but that was my reason for starting this course. Perhaps it’s not needed to be a photographer to study photography? Anyway, definitely pay less attention to the actual shooting than I used to. Sometimes, but that’s a personality issue, I’m over critical. Not only to myself but just as easy to others, even in the reading and research. I tend not to believe anything just because someone writes it down and definitely do not agree on all what’s written either. Within this assignment, perhaps because it’s close to my personal interest, my critical reading and research were more than the previous ones and I was more fanatical on reading the context of isolated statements. I could use slightly more balance towards photography perhaps, time will tell.

 

Bibliography

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