11 Photographers on Seeking the Unexpected in Their Work

Sabiha Çimen, Susan Meiselas, Alex Webb, and more on how happy accidents and unusual turns led to their most memorable images.

11 Photographers on Seeking the Unexpected in Their Work

Featured – March 22, 2021

The “unexpected moment” is one uniquely suited to photography. The camera has the ability to capture a split second of time, to freeze the frenetic, ever-moving world around us. Since the medium’s earliest days, photographers have embraced this quality, allowing happy accidents and unusual turns to lead to some of history’s most memorable images.

The latest edition of the Magnum Square Print Sale, The Unexpected, brings together over one hundred prints by an international group of photographers celebrating the unpredictability of life.

Through March 28, 2021, collect these signed and estate-stamped, six-by-six-inch, museum-quality images for $100 each. When you purchase through this link, you directly support Aperture’s programming, publishing, and operations. Below are highlights from The Unexpected: The Magnum Square Print Sale.

Jonas Bendiksen, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 2016
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Jonas Bendiksen

“I was in Tokyo working on a chapter of an ongoing project, and had finished photographing for the day. Tokyo is a city packed with light, movement, and intensity, so I still had my camera on me and ready, just in case. I was starving and heading to dinner but had to wait at one of these huge zebra crossings in Shinjuku. They’ve been photographed so many times before, so figuring that to make a picture I would be happy with here would require more time and effort than I had blood sugar for, I wasn’t paying much attention. Then this zebra-dressed woman placed herself right in front of me. Click. Thank you. Sometimes you get more luck than you deserve.”

Sabiha Çimen, Students having fun on an artificial lake on the weekend, Istanbul, Turkey, 2018
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Sabiha Çimen

“The Qur’an school is an ordered, structured, and predictable environment for learning, so during holidays and break times, when these girls are allowed to be led by their own whims, they seek the fresh air of the outdoors without any particular plan or direction. There, they can let the day take them away to other shores, where the wind carries their dreams on unpredictable currents of imagination.”

Ernest Cole, New York City, circa 1971
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Ernest Cole

“One of the strangest phenomena of street photography is when the photographer appears to engage in a form of cultural prophecy. The collision of today with tomorrow requires an uncanny ability to sense the future in the present.

Ernest Cole’s 1971 image of a New York hipster predicts the B-boy stylings of the mid-1980s: the dinky hat, the sportswear, the early version of a stereo beatbox. The unexpected pose of the proto-B-boy seems to leap forward decades to the pages of style magazines like the Face and i-D.

And the new culture is neatly complemented by Cole’s parallel pictures of graffiti adorning the New York streets, years before books began to collate and document that burgeoning art form. How strange it must have been for Ernest Cole to watch the development of hip-hop culture during the 1970s and 1980s—an identity that he had presciently foreseen in the late 1960s.”

Elliott Erwitt, New York City, 1955
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Elliott Erwitt

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see, and everything to do with the way you see them.”

Bruce Gilden, New York City, 1990
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Bruce Gilden

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the expressions on the faces of these two seemingly related women, as the younger one was pushing the other along Madison Avenue in her wheelchair. Whatever the reason, her mouth was wide open. The scene spoke to me about the mother-daughter relationship; I imagined that the daughter had had enough and was perilously pushing the older woman over a cliff.”

Sohrab Hura, Yusuke, Cambodia, 2008
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Sohrab Hura

“I thought I had photographed only the dog and the man, until I processed my negatives.”

Susan Meiselas, ‘Molotov Man,’ Sandinistas at the walls of the Esteli National Guard headquarters, Esteli, Nicaragua, 1979
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Susan Meiselas

“It was on July 17, 1979, the day before Somoza fled Nicaragua, that I photographed Sandinista Pablo ‘Bareta’ Arauz, whose name I didn’t know at that moment. He was throwing a Molotov cocktail at one of the last remaining National Guard garrisons.

Back then I was working with two cameras, one loaded with black-and-white film and the other with color. I missed the shot of Bareta’s decisive gesture in black and white, but captured him in color. The image that became known as the ‘Molotov Man’ was reproduced and painted all over the country, before appearing on matchbooks commemorating the first anniversary of the Sandinista revolution.

Twenty-five years later, Bareta’s likeness was adopted as the ‘official’ symbol of the fight against the Somoza dictatorship. In 2018, the ‘Molotov Man’ was printed on T-shirts worn by university students protesting now against the Sandinista President Daniel Ortega.

An image can have multiple lives, which in this case, neither Pablo nor I could predict or control.”

Inge Morath, Mr. Gross, one of the managers, tried to run a travel service for a while, Chelsea Hotel, 23rd Street, New York City, 1968
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Inge Morath, in Camera Austria, no. 19/20 (1985)

“Photography is a strange phenomenon. In spite of the use of that technical instrument, the camera, no two photographers, even if they were at the same place at the same time, come back with the same pictures.”

Emin Ozmen, People gather in a stadium during a large rally before the independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq, September 2017
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Emin Ozmen

“For a long time, I wanted to keep control over what my future would be made of. This feeling that I had a sense of direction reassured me. However, during my studies and throughout my career as a photographer, I have come to realize that the most important moments in my life, which had a positive impact on my destiny, were the moments I hadn’t anticipated. It’s a feeling certainly shared with many people, quite banal in itself. But I am now aware that I need to leave more room for the unexpected. It is often by chance that the most beautiful things happen: in life and in photography.”

Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Bhayi alembathwa lembathwa ngabalaziyo, 2020
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Lindokuhle Sobekwa

“The series Ezilalini (The Country) grew out of my project I carry Her photo with Me, a handmade photobook about my sister Ziyanda. As I investigated her disappearance, I traced her footprints back to Tsomo, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, which is my ancestral home and where my sister grew up. Unexpectedly, this journey provided the opportunity to reconnect with my family, identity, and culture: engaging parts of myself and my history that I had not considered before, or perhaps had avoided thinking about. Tsomo has a deep meaning to my family, and to me personally, but I feel it is a place I don’t know very well. There is also a feeling of conflict for us there; to this day, my grandmother curses Johannesburg as a place that swallowed her children.

The title of this image is Bhayi alembathwa lembathwa ngabalaziyo, relating to the idea that only the pot knows how hot the fire is.”

Alex Webb, Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, 1993; from the book Violet Isle (2009, with Rebecca Norris Webb)
Courtesy the artist/Magnum Photos

Alex Webb

“I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner.”

The Magnum Square Print Sale, The Unexpected, is available from March 22 to March 28 at 11:59PM PT. Collect signed and estate-stamped, six-by-six-inch, images for $100 each through Aperture’s affiliate link.

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