As a photographer, I have exquisitely bad timing: In nearly 23 years of marriage, my wife points out, I have only taken about 10 pictures of her with her eyes open. Instagram helps make my images look better, but it can’t fix bad timing.
In my job, I get to hang out with some of the best photographers in the world, and over the years, shooters like Yuri Kozyrev and Franco Pagetti have patiently explained to be what makes a good picture — composition, lighting, the whole nine yards. I’ve also looked over the shoulders of TIME’s photo editors, the best in the business, and learned a few things.
But photography is a mystical art, and for all my knowledge, I could never take a great picture.
The image you see here, taken in Cairo last week, is the best picture I have taken. It may be the best picture I will ever take. If you will indulge a little arrogance, it is perfectly composed, perfectly lit, and perfectly captures a moment of high drama.
It was a fluke.
It happened as TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel, photo editor Patrick Witty, Cairo correspondent Ashraf Khalil and I were making our way to Tahrir Square. We’d heard that the protests against President Mohamed Morsi’s recent emergency decree were growing, and there was a sense of something big about to happen. As we turned into one of the entrances to the square, we stopped to watch a street battle between young men (some mere boys) and the Egyptian riot police. This was taking place some 200 yards from us, so we felt relatively safe. I pulled out my iPhone, and started taking some shots.
Suddenly, things changed. The young men turned away from the police and started running up the street, directly toward us. It took me a moment to realize why: the police had started to fire tear-gas canisters into the crowd. Ashraf and I have been gassed enough times over the years to know what to do next: get the heck out of there. Patrick was a few yards away, out of the firing line.
I grabbed Rick and pushed. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the smoke trail of a canister coming in our direction. I told Rick to close his eyes, and kept shoving him through a panicking crowd. There was no strategic thinking going on, we just needed to get out.
We did, but not before we’d taken a blast of the gas in our faces. All things considered, it wasn’t the most noxious gas I’d encountered: Ashraf agreed it was a mild dose. (The really nasty stuff can burn skin.) By the time we got to the square, the effects of the gas were already clearing.
It wasn’t until much later that I looked at the pictures I’d taken, and realized that I had somehow captured the moment the gas canister landed at our feet. I have no recollection of taking that picture, but there it was, perfectly framed and lit. Instagram helped sharpen it up. Rick and Patrick liked it, and the photo editors back in NYC decided to run it in the magazine.
So there it is: the best picture I’ve ever taken, published in TIME Magazine, no less. And it’s a total, utter fluke.
— Bobby Ghosh, Editor-at-Large
(Follow Bobby on Instagram @ghoshworld)