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Alex Majoli points and shoots
Friday, June 3, 2005 | by Eamon Hickey

In 2003, Magnum photographer Alex Majoli shot some big stories for Newsweek magazine.

He spent a month in China shooting documentary images of daily life. He was in Congo for two weeks and Iraq for almost two months. In those two places he was shooting war.

Majoli's images for all three stories drew rave notices, and they earned him some of photojournalism's most prestigious awards in 2004, including the U.S. National Press Photographers Association's Best of Photojournalism Magazine Photographer of the Year Award and the U.S. Overseas Press Club's Feature Photography Award.

It would seem reasonable to guess that all that award-winning work in remote and frequently dangerous places must have been shot with big, fast, bulletproof pro SLR cameras. But in fact, Majoli shot every frame with Olympus C-5050 digital point-and-shoots -- the same camera your snap happy Uncle Maury takes to Disney World.

More recently he's been using the Olympus C-8080, along with his older C-5050 and C-5060 cameras, for many of his assignments, including shooting in Israel for Vanity Fair and the U.S. presidential elections for Newsweek.


(2003) Street kids begging in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)

Majoli acknowledges that most of his photojournalist colleagues think he's crazy, but he's been shooting with digital point-and-shoots for three years, developing techniques to deal with their shortcomings and exploring their unique strengths, which still intrigue him.

"I was interested in finding a camera that gives me some new way to approach the subject," says the 34-year-old Majoli, who was born in Italy and now splits his time between there and New York City. His English is clear and delivered with a distinct Italian accent. "This camera, you can shoot in a different way."

Majoli, who has been a professional photojournalist since 1990, first discovered the new way that digital point-and-shoots make possible when he was working on the book project A Day in the Life of Africa in early 2002. Olympus was one of the sponsors of that particular Day in the Life effort, and the company gave Majoli an E-20 digital SLR and a 4-megapixel C-4040 digital point-and-shoot to use while shooting for the book.

"I found the C-4040 amazing," the photographer says. "So small. And it made a great file. So this was the big thing, the size of the camera and the quality of the file."

But other qualities that differentiate the various point-and-shoot models he's used from their SLR cousins also fit well with his shooting preferences, Majoli says. "The screen that pulls out [and] shooting really silent. Digital cameras are great in the night. Depth of field is fantastic; everything is sharp. This was another thing that was really interesting. It's like on video, everything possible is sharp. It's a new way to see the world."


(April 2003) U.S. troops survey burning oil fields in southwest Iraq. (Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)

The C-4040 was not actually Majoli's first digital camera, and his previous experience had been with a camera more likely to be associated with a professional photojournalist, namely the Canon EOS D30. He used one while covering the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, adopting it because of the need to meet short deadlines.

But it's perhaps easy to understand why Majoli wasn't particularly enamored of that camera when you learn that -- prior to his fateful meeting with the C-4040 -- the photographer shot all of his previous work with Leica rangefinders and the very compact 28mm and 35mm Leica M-system lenses.

On a typical shooting day now, Majoli carries four Olympus point-and-shoots and not a single digital SLR or film rangefinder. In 2003, he began using the C-4040's successors, the 5-megapixel C-5050 and C-5060 cameras, and in the summer of 2004 he added a few of the 8-megapixel C-8080 cameras to his gear bag.

He carries six or seven 512MB Lexar CompactFlash cards but no shooting accessories -- not even an external flash. When he gears up for a long assignment he'll pack a couple of extra cameras -- i.e. six total -- so that he can weather any equipment failures. (Six C-5060 bodies have almost exactly the same weight as two Canon EOS-1D Mark II cameras.)


(April 2003) American soldiers in Iraq wait out a sandstorm. (Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)

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