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© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images
© Remy Cortin
Born in South Africa, Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images, New York. He specialises in documentary work, is known for his alternative approaches and travels an average of 10 months of the year on assignment.
He has won seven World Press Photo awards and was voted International Photographer of the Year 2008 at the Lucie Awards. He’s been honoured by the United Nations for his work on the environment and in the field of HIV. He has also received awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Frontline Club, the Deadline Club, Days Japan, POYi, China International Photo Awards, the Lead Awards, Graphis, American Photography, American Photo and the American Society of Publication Designers.
Brent works on a regular basis for the Global Business Coalition on HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria and has been a long-time photographer for the World Wide Fund for Nature, shooting global campaigns on sustainability. He also works for the Ford Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, the Nike Foundation and the World Economic Forum. His images are regularly featured in National Geographic magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Le Express, Le Monde 2, GQ, Geo and on The Discovery Channel and CNN.
In 2012 Brent won first prizes in both the Nature Stories (for ‘Rhino Wars’) and Contemporary Issues Singles categories of the 55th World Press Photo Contest. So far in 2012 he has also won first place in the Science/Natural History Picture Story category, and received an ‘Award of Excellence’ in the Feature Picture Story – Freelance/Agency category, of the Pictures of the Year International (POYi) contest. He is currently shooting a long-term project on threatened species, amongst other assignments around the world, and will be working in around 20 countries during 2012.
For somebody who didn't pick up a camera until he was 24 years old Brent Stirton has made a massive impact with his photography in the ensuing 14 years. Now at the top of his profession as an award winning photojournalist it was back in 1994 that Brent put down his pen and took up a camera when he swapped print journalism for telling stories through the power of his photographs.
It wasn't any great burning desire that drove Brent Stirton to pick up a camera, more the need to document a story on factional violence in his native South Africa. Having found himself without a photographer to cover his words Brent invested in a secondhand Canon A-1 and managed to take the relevant images. He admits: "I never had any history of photography as an amateur and I regret that I took my first photographs at the age of 24."
The switch from writing to taking pictures wasn't Brent's first career change he had already abandoned an earlier choice. He admits: "I walked away from studying for a career in medicine to be a journalist, and then I walked away from writing to be a photographer. These things came about because I knew I wasn't happy and did something about it. My most successful career decision has been to go with what I felt most strongly. So far, so good..."
Brent studied journalism at Durban Technikon in South Africa and whilst still a student he began writing about the violence in KwaZulu-Natal for The Weekly Mail newspaper. He explains: "I've been a photographer since 1994, since just before the South African elections. I was a writer after giving up medicine taking 10 years to be a surgeon was a daunting proposition and I just didn't love it enough for that."
Brent laughs: "My first camera was the Canon A-1 with the squeaky shutter. I had that for a while with just a 50mm lens and I started taking pictures of what was happening in South Africa, and all of the factional violence. I picked up some gigs from Reuters and from a company called Republican Press, which was the biggest magazine company in South Africa at that time and I went from there."
For the first five years of his new career behind the lens Brent worked mainly in Africa covering the South African situation as well as regional conflicts throughout other parts of the African continent. "Then I started travelling internationally and so far, so fine..." he adds.
Brent's rapidly growing reputation led to him joining Getty in 2003: "It's my fifth year now with Getty and I've been very happy there. They are good folks and to a large extent I get to do what I want. My bookings can take me six months in advance. I'm fairly privileged to be involved and Getty is very supportive."
He adds: "I work for the wire service, purely on assignment so it's not a bad gig. I work primarily for the New York office and most of my stuff is for national geographic, the New York Times magazine and for Newsweek, and I also work for a number of fairly powerful NGO groups and think tanks." Obviously some of Brent's work comes from Getty who will see him as the best photographer for a particular project but he explains: "A vast majority of my assignments come to me via personal reputation, I've been around for a while now."
The reputation that Brent has gained is one for working incredibly quickly and managing to get to the heart of the matter within a matter of days. He reveals: "I'm not really very good at hanging around. The longest I like to take out is around 10 days but nowadays the assignments can be long and complex and are geopolitical issues. For the most part they require proposals and a great deal of thought and research."
After almost a decade and a half as a photojournalist Brent comments: "It's not as spontaneous as it used to be but I'm not interested in covering the immediate, sensationalist elements of a story. I want to know why and what repercussions there might be in the long term for those stories do that and you can influence policy."
Such a need for pre-shoot planning has proven an interesting exercise, particularly when working for National Geographic, as Brent explains: "I am relatively new to National Geographic and the publication has a team of very dedicated and very bright researchers. They are very particular about facts. It's really a case of either you will originate the idea or they will come to you."
Brent's reputation for working at speed is one that National Geographic picked up on. He laughs: "Their first question for me was 'Can you slow down?' Last year I did 27 countries and this year it's about 15, but I like that. I have a certain attention deficit disorder. They wanted to know if I could maybe spend two months on a subject. I don't like to spend more than 10 days on a subject but that's changing now."
Although via his recent success as winner of the Visa d'Or for features at the Visa pour l'Image festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France for his well-known depiction of the plight of mountain gorillas earlier in his career Brent had a reputation for being a 'celebrity baby' photographer, but it's a story with a heart.
Brent reveals: "It took me a while to get over being the baby photographer for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt that was an interesting case of being pigeonholed." In fact the whole idea was one for charity. Brent had received a Global Business Coalition award from Angelina Jolie for his work with HIV/AIDS. He adds: "She knew I wasn't a celebrity photographer so it was a case of 'we're raising money for all these purposes and I believe in you as a person'. I was happy to give my time and we raised about $10 to $12 million on that."
All of the money went to charitable causes after Getty had distributed the pictures through a number of channels. Brent reveals: "When you think about it as a photojournalist in terms of immediate money that kind of cash can give you infrastructure, hospitals etc. It was never supposed to come out that I shot those pictures, but that was a bit of a factor after I was 'outed' as this is a hungry industry and people were trying to get hold of me."
In fact for someone who has the power to take pictures that can earn multi-million dollar sums for charity or get to the heart of war zones around the world Brent Stirton is disarmingly modest and almost shy. He speaks in almost a whisper and admits: "I'm not famous. I'm not one of the master photographers of this time. I'm just 38-years-old and I'm doing stories the way I want to do them. If becoming well known as a result of doing that then that can sometimes be a passport to something else."
So, does he have any heroes? "This is a long list so here are only a few: I loved Avedon for his mastery of the subject and nothing else, Penn for the same thing and for his endurance. James Nachtwey for his obsession, integrity and for the dues that he has paid. Steven Klein for his style and innovation, Alex Majoli for being a genuine individual and always being interesting. Alex Webb for his education in colour and light. Michael Nichols for being a genuine master and pioneer of what he does but still managing to be a great human being," explains Brent.
As for his own photographic philosophy Brent says: "I spend a bit of time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo in fairly esoteric war zones. I feel there is a degree of neglect to some of the issues and they're interesting place to go to. I'm a 'fly on the wall' kind of guy. I would prefer to be under the radar and not be recognised."
In fact being 'under the radar' is sometimes quite necessary. "If I go into somewhere like Zimbabwe it's not good to be known as a journalist. It's best to be a tourist. It's very easy for some warlord to go online and check 'Brent Stirton'. Some of this job involves a certain masquerade but it's important that when you do the work you are behind it."
He adds: "I do see the good in things and I do see what's honourable, so what I'm trying to photograph is what's honourable whether I'm looking at conservation in Congo, at soldiers in the field or multiple victims I'm trying to reveal what it is about those things that we should respect and feel for and care about. That's it and it's not a cliché for me. I'm trying to constantly get beyond the cliché."
After his initial experiences with his trusty Canon A-1 Brent often used Hasselblad medium format cameras, before he made the switch to digital in 2003. He explains: "I joined Getty Images in 2003 just after the invasion of Iraq and had a pair of Canon EOS-1Ds cameras thrust into my hands, I then had a half-hour lecture on the basics, was given a manual and a laptop and then packed off to Baghdad. It was a fast learning curve. Let's just say I was really sceptical at first but I was fortunate enough to start off digital with the first cameras that I really believe exceeded the quality of film, and by film I mean medium format. I saw that very quickly and have never looked back."
He adds: "I am nostalgic for some of the medium format frame formats but these days the quality of digital is close to a three dimensional experience for me. There are so many positives I can't list them all here. The only negative is that work is never done because digital allows you to shoot so much more than film. Most of my jobs involve getting up early, getting in late and then editing and Photoshop for at least three hours a night. That goes on for weeks and has made me less of a social animal. It has however made me a better photographer."
Brent continues: "Canon for me is the Ferrari of cameras. I work my cameras very hard and Canon cameras have never let me down, so I'm very grateful. I am using prime lenses for the first time in my career, the 50mm f/1.2 and the 24mm f/1.4 for the most part. The 50mm is my favourite because it has such a great history in photography and is so challenging to use. It feels like it connects you to a great tradition. I love that I have to be very disciplined and frame well with it. I have to look for complex compositions so that this standard way of viewing is made special."
He adds: "The 50mm is making me a better photographer and I like that. It asks more from me than the wide zooms I usually shoot and I like that it is also the lens we most often use when first starting out. There is an aspect of coming full circle to using this lens as a pro. My editor at National Geographic is Gail Fisher. Gail is someone with a wealth of experience in this game. She recommended the 50mm to me and I am forever grateful. The huge apertures of the top Canon prime lenses also allow me to make images which I have never shot before, I can use foreground subjects and just hint at background which allows me another way of thinking of how to express something."
So, with his growing reputation what sort of photographer does Brent Stirton see himself as? "I'm a generalist. I do a lot of literature work, a lot of covers, I do a lot of portraits and I do a lot of extended essays. Photography is a very elusive game the truth is that a great deal of the assignments that I do I'm trying to address real intangibles such as when it comes to address seriously injured soldiers of diminishing cultures you are pursuing an elusive thing."
He adds: "What you are trying to do is show what these people are about, why the culture is worth preserving, and why this group of animals should be looked after. What I'm interested in is the heart of the matter. What I'm really trying to do is capture something or feel something. I trust in my opinions of what I'm experiencing."
Speaking about 'that gorilla story' Brent reveals: "When it comes to the gorillas the heart of the matter is you have 600 wardens who have to police the worst war zone in the world. They get only $5 a month, so what is it that brings these men together?" He adds: "In the picture that's a 650lb mountain gorilla and there's only 40 silverbacks in the world that's one of them dead. On a certain cognitive level we see things and we know these things are not so far from us. They have a certain dignity. It's an unusual picture, in that it looks like it might have come off a movie set, but I think I did the best job I could in the circumstances."
He adds: "I am an obsessively driven photographer, but I have a tremendous privilege I get paid to do what I love. I get paid to feel. I might get a picture that is the best I could feel for that day but two weeks after that might not be the case. If you can afford it try and do what you love as much as possible. In my current line of work you can be here today, gone tomorrow. I have a few schrapnel wounds but I've never been shot. What happens to me is nothing really you are just a tourist in someone else's tragedy."
So, does Brent think his photography has had an influence on others? "I'd like to think that it was thought provoking, that it went some way to making complex issues clearer in people's minds. Photojournalists are often so consumed by what they are seeing that they forget that for most people what they photograph is a relative unknown. Our job is to illuminate and there is a fine line between indulging yourself with esoteric imagery and communicating a major issue to the masses. I hope that I am treading that line carefully," he explains.
Brent Stirton seems to be treading that line with a degree of aplomb and humility. He's a strange and appealing mixture of a man with huge talent and a huge degree of shyness and humbleness. It's a relief and benefit to many of us that photography found him and that he found photography, so that we can see and learn from the work of a masterful visual storyteller.
What do you think about the Ambassadors Programme?
"I think it is always a good idea for camera and lens manufacturers to liaise with busy photographers using their products. That has to lead to good ideas and understanding on both sides and that advances photography. The thinking is that those photographers can then form a wider liaison to the photo community and help to simultaneously promote and improve a good product. I think this is a very old tradition and it continues to be a good idea. The key issue is that the ambassadors are people who are trusted and respected and seen as independents by the photo community."
Why do you think the Ambassadors Programme is important?
"See my previous answer."
What got you started in photography?
"I was originally a journalist and could not find a photographer to work with. I was covering factional violence in South Africa at the end of 1993 and the people I was working for asked me for pictures. I bought a secondhand Canon A-1 and fortunately for me was in the right place at the right time and was able to make relevant images. Photography was addictive for me very quickly and although I still write on occasion I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon photography in the manner in which I did. That said, I never had any history of photography as an amateur, and I regret that my first photographs I took at the age of 24. There is certain naïve magic to the photographs of young people and I wish that I had been introduced to photography at an earlier age."
What does photography mean to you?
"It is my whole life; it's the reason I get up in the morning and the last thing I am usually thinking of when I go to bed at night. Photography is very genuinely my reason for being and I am very grateful for the obsession it has bred in me. I have had access to so many lives and so many aspects of what it means to be human because of photography. To be a successful photographer is not easy but it is a life of tremendous privilege. I cannot imagine my life without it."
What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?
"I am a generalist, I shoot a little of many things but most of those things are related to conflict or sustainability. What I would hope to be considered as, is a humanist. Someone who tries to see the world with a compassionate eye and bring a degree of education and communication to what he photographs. I don't think it is okay to photograph some of what we photograph without a degree of integrity aimed at a greater good."
What would you advise someone who is just coming into the business?
"Shoot pictures all the time. You should allow yourself to be obsessed with imagery. You will need that level of dedication. Educate yourself as to who has come before and who is current and what has made them great image-makers. Don't ignore what is happening in other areas of photography, which are different to your own area of interest. Above all, do whatever you can to make capital. It doesn't matter what, ideally as long as its legal. This will give you choices and allow you to finance your own vision and imagination."