Interview - Eamonn McCabe: Moments in time that make a decade of memorable images

Eamonn McCabe has had a lot of sleepless nights recently.

A few months ago he was putting the finishing touches to Decade, a doorstep of a coffee table book and a photographic archive of the last 10 years.

Stretching over 512 pages and including everything from world-changing events to fashion fads and showbiz stories, it was an epic task and as the publishers Phaidon prepared to push the send button, McCabe knew there would inevitably be some people who are disappointed with the end result.

"You can't hope to produce an absolutely perfect book of this kind," says the former picture editor of The Guardian and fellow of Bradford's National Media Museum. "There'll always be some people who look at it and see one of their favourite images is missing."

McCabe may be being modest because in truth if there was anyone who stood a chance of pulling together the best photographs capturing the defining moments of the Noughties it was him.

During the 1970s and 80s he made his name as a sports photographer and was named photographer of the year on numerous occasions. When he took the desk job at The Guardian in 1988 he didn't stop taking photographs and nine years ago he returned to his freelance roots.

However, Decade was not just his pet project and he insists equal credit must go to the team of historians and researchers who armed him with a detailed timeline of the previous 10 years.

"As the collection came together, there were two things which struck me," he says. "The first was how the world had gone digital and the second was that it had gone colour. I didn't handle one single print throughout the whole process, which would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. Decade is a follow-on really from Century, which was a photographic history of the last 100 years. If you look at those photos 90 per cent are black and white. In this book 90 per cent are colour."

Alongside images by renowned and respected photographers, the book also includes a number from ordinary members of the public who, depending how you look at it, were either in the right or wrong place at the right time. To some, citizen journalism is a dirty word, but McCabe doesn't see it that way. To him it's just another piece in the jigsaw.

"We all have phones and digital cameras and it has had a knock-on effect for news photography," says Eamonn. "In some ways I think photographic quality has gone down, but at the same time I'm always amazed when I see photographs taken at a disaster scene – that there are people caught in the middle of extraordinary circumstances who had the nerve to stop and take a photo when they didn't know whether they would live or die.

"Often those images capture the raw emotion of a particular moment in time. It's less about the composition, it's about being there at the very moment history was made."

Decade is a mix of hard news photography and images which capture the softer side of life, like the Harry Potter phenomenon.

"Our memory is so fleeting," says McCabe. "We are bombarded with so much news that we do tend to forget what happened not just last year, but last month or even last week.

"There is a moral question of going back to disasters like the Haiti earthquake or the Boxing Day tsunami and you do ask yourself whether you are opening up old wounds, but I hope people will look at those images and remember what happened and hopefully how things have improved."

Decade, published by Phaidon priced 24.95 is out now.


Sometimes I do get to places just when God's ready to have somebody click the shutter. – Ansel Adams

A photograph is memory in the raw. – Carrie Latet

The camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth. – Harold Evans

No place is boring, if you've had a good night's sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film. – Robert Adams

When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls. – Ted Grant

I think photography classes should be a requirement in all schools because it makes you see the world rather than just look at it. – Anon

The camera can photograph thought. – Dirk Bogarde.