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Ambassador: Paolo Pellegrin

© Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Biography

Born in Rome, Italy, in 1964 Paolo Pellegrin worked for Agence VU for 10 years before he became a Magnum Photos nominee in 2001 and a full member in 2005. He is a contract photographer for Newsweek magazine. Pellegrin has received many awards for his photography, including eight World Press Photo and numerous Photographer of the Year Awards, a Leica Medal of Excellence, an Olivier Rebbot Award, the Hansel-Meith Preis, and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award.

In 2006 he was assigned the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and in 2000 he received the Hasselblad Foundation Grant for Photography. Back in 1996 he won the Kodak Young Photographer Award - Visa d'Or – at the Visa pour l’Image festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France. He is one of the founding members of the touring exhibition and installation ‘Off Broadway’ along with Thomas Dworzak, Alex Majoli and Ilkka Uimonen. His book - ‘As I was Dying’ - won the Deutsche Fotobuchpreis 2008. He lives in New York and Rome.

Paolo's edition of the annual Magnum Photos' fashion magazine, as Editor-in-Chief, was published in June 2010 with the title 'Storm'. He presented a retrospective of the last 10 years of his work at Visa pour l'Image 2010.

So far in 2012 Paolo has won a World Press Photo Award for his coverage of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and has had his major retrospective 'Dies Irae' ('day of anger' in Latin) shown in Paris. As well as the exhibition 'Dies Irae' has been made into a book, published by Contrasto. He has also worked in the USA on a major project with some of his fellow Magnum Photos photographers.



Interview

Paolo Pellegrin says simply: "I wanted to do something different from the family trade" to explain his decision to turn his back on a potential career as an architect in favour of one behind the lens. Both of Paolo's parents were architects and, for some time, it looked as if he would follow their path and design buildings. However, his choice to eschew the family tradition to enroll in the Instituto Italiano di Fotografia in his home city of Rome was the first step on the photographic ladder of success.

Once the momentous decision had been taken to create images instead of buildings: "I went to school for a couple of years and then I started working in Rome". Paolo assisted in his native land and explains: "From the start my interest was pretty much in reportage and human interest. When I first started I was always experimenting in black and white with a 31/4in Hasselblad and later I discovered 35mm."

He admits: "I experimented and it took years to develop my best style and (visual) language. I have used Leicas mainly for most of my life and my experience with Canon really came much later on - quite recently in fact."

After spending several years building up a portfolio of work which he self-deprecatingly refers to as: "a very unimpressive portfolio", Paolo decided to leave the city of his birth for a new life in Paris. By now it was the early 1990s and Paolo reveals: "By my late 20s I had made some money and I decided to invest in myself. I bought a car and moved to Paris."

In fact he set out for new life in France with a very clear mission - to show his portfolio to as many agencies as possible in the hope that one would spot some potential in him. It didn't take long! "I had a long list of agencies on my list and the first one was VU." And the first one snapped him up.

Paolo recalls: "They must have seen something in me. At that time there were a number of great photographers working there and it became something of a school for me. I was in VU for about 10 years." Whilst at VU he got to work alongside two of his heroes - the photographers Josef Koudelka and Gilles Peress - who remain an inspiration over a decade and a half later.

His love of shooting in black and white for impact gained Paolo recognition when he secured 1st Prize in the Daily Life category at the 1995 World Press Photo awards for images documenting AIDS in Uganda. Since then he has been a habitual traveller of the world documenting conflicts in Darfur, Bosnia, Sudan, and Afghanistan.

He explains: "I started travelling intensely in the late 1990s covering Darfur and those sort of wars - it's when I really started covering wars in places like Kosovo and the like. From there it started and I haven't really stopped."

The accolades began to come in thick and fast with the Kodak Young Photographer Award, Visa d'Or, being bestowed upon Paolo at the Visa pour l'Image festival of photojournalism in 1996 and a further seven World Press Photo awards have been secured since his breakthrough in 1995.

He says quite modestly: "Of course with awards it's always nice to be recognized for what one does just so you have some sort of recognition. In many ways the best ones for me were the Eugene Smith and Robert Capa awards in that they were named after extraordinary photographers - to be associated with people with such a legacy is a great honour."

He adds swiftly: "Obviously I don't take photographs to win awards - the motivations for what I do are elsewhere."

So what does motivate him? "I think there's a sense of wanting to document and create a visual record of our history, or at least parts of it. I'm mainly interested in the social, humanistic side of photography and for me it's also a general approach to life," says Paolo. He adds: "I like to communicate with people and act as a go-between between the people in the pictures and the viewer. The motivation is to connect the three. That's it in very broad lines."

With regards to the main influences on his photography instead of reeling off a list of fellow photojournalists Paolo says: "Yes, of course there were a great number of photographers who influenced me but I would name only two - Gilles Peress and Koudelka - as the most important. My influences are not only in photography but from cinema, literature etc."

He admits: "Photography is this very easy thing about who you are and the medium itself, but the more one reads and cultivates oneself, and thus gets more sophisticated the more one learns." In fact his visual influences also come from Italian neo-realistic cinema, and the work of world famous directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles. "As a movement, as a school the Italian neo-realistic cinema has had the most impact," says Paolo.

Throughout the rest of the 1990s Paolo remained with Agence VU and whilst there he embarked on a long-term project on how Islam affects peoples' lives around the world. Entitled 'Maktub: It is Written', which refers to the influence of the Koran over Muslims around the world, the funding secured by his winning of the 2006 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography has meant that this project is still ongoing.

By 2001 Paolo had spent a decade at Agence VU and reveals: "After 10 years being in VU I thought that I'd completed a cycle and wanted another experience and challenge. I was actually asked by some of the Magnum photographers if I was interested in submitting a portfolio… and I was accepted. I was very glad that I did submit something."

This acceptance was as a Magnum Photos nominee in 2001 and, after fulfilling all of the stages of the notoriously rigorous Magnum selection process Paolo became a full member of the photographic co-operative in 2005. So, did joining Magnum provide a new opportunity?

"In many ways I was already an 'informed' photographer - I was in my mid-30s; I had my connections and I had a Newsweek contract. Magnum amplified something that I had." Whilst not holding Magnum in anything other than the highest regard Paolo explains: "It's probably different for other photographers who are joining at different times in their careers, maybe at a younger age when they need to make more connections."

He proclaims: "It is a wonderful agency and also something of a community of thought. It really is a very special thing. What's interesting is the legacy of the photographers involved and the tradition of the medium that is maintained through Magnum."

Viewing many of Paolo Pellegrin's haunting and compelling black and white images does end to take the viewer back in time almost as if you could be viewing pictures from half a century ago. In fact he admits to something of a Luddite, 'old-fashioned' tendency that meant his transition to digital was only within the past few years.

"It really has been mainly Leica for most of my career." He had a brief dalliance with some Olympus digital cameras a few years ago. Paolo explains: "First of all I resisted digital for a long time, but then I realised it was something that I just had to approach. Working as a journalist and having to provide and transmit images to deadlines made it an obvious choice."

He continues: "I love film but I've also learnt to appreciate the possibilities digital offers. For a working photographer, especially in the fast-paced journalism world, it has become an indispensable tool. And now, with the new technology, the quality is more and more interesting."

Of the origins of his digital experience he reveals: "I experimented with a few different cameras and then I discovered the Canon cameras, and especially the EOS 5D. The 5D is the camera that finally made me realise I could work in the same way as I had done with film - with full frame, pure, prime lenses and the image quality."

He adds: "I haven't used anything else other than the 5D and I practically don't shoot any film anymore. I use what I call the 'pure' lenses - just the Canon prime EF28mm f/1.8 USM, the EF35mm f/1.4L USM, and the EF50mm f/1.2L USM. That's pretty much all I use."

Oddly enough he names his favourite piece of technology as, "the credit card." But adds: "Other than that, in recent years, a whole new generation of devices - including laptops, satellite phones, digital cameras - have all contributed to help a photojournalist."

But what of he had the choice to add a new product to his relatively modest kitbag? Paolo shoots back: "Yes, the one lens that I would like for me is a bright, luminous 28mm - a USM, L-quality sort of a 28mm."

Aside from taking the digital path in recent years what has been Paolo's most successful career decision in photography? He replies: "There have been several turning points in my career but I would say the most important ones are when I decided what to photograph, honestly asking myself what I was interested in and pursuing that."

He adds: "This comes about by recognising your real interests, your journey as an individual and then as a photographer. It comes from following your curiosities and ultimately to discover. You can't really ensure its success, the only thing you can ensure is to follow the oath and persevere."

Paolo's ethos of documenting history and the world around is key to his success and he explains: "I think that is an important function - so we don't forget and can learn. It (photography) is one of the most accessible and universal forms of communication."

However, he admits: "I don't necessarily think that what I do can influence people. My interest or goal is to engage the viewer in a dialogue with the subject, and maybe also to make the viewer ask himself the same questions that I was presented with when I was confronted with the situation."

Like many of his contemporaries who cover conflict from behind a lens one of these situations gave Paolo a brush with death. It happened in July 2006 in Lebanon when he went to help a man who had been hit by a missile when a second missile was fired at the man, leaving Paolo open to shrapnel and a destroyed eardrum but with his life intact. He looked back and the man had disappeared whilst a car had shielded him.

Having carved out an outstanding reputation for himself as a leading documentary photographer, who also has a penchant for shooting documentary fashion, Paolo has also been branching out a bit lately. He recently completed a pre-Olympic Games shoot for the New York Times Magazine photographing nine medal hopefuls using timeless black and white imagery that was hugely evocative of the works of the likes of Leni Riefenstahl. This passion for black and white is clearly still vital to his craft. "I think it works on a more symbolic level than colour and it allows pictures to carry greater meaning," he explains.

But what does he see as the future direction of his career? "Well, I guess much more of the same," he says, ruefully. "With time I'm becoming more and more interested in the forms that this work takes. In the last few years I've published some books so I'd like to focus on more projects in-depth and make books and exhibitions. Maybe there be a little less running around from one project to another and I'll be a little bit more selective in my approach."

His travels around the world documenting conflict and history have put Paolo Pellegrin amongst the very best documentary photographers in the world at this time. But with more publishing projects in the pipeline, and a promise to immerse himself to a greater degree in selected projects, we may yet be waiting to see the very best of the photography of Paolo Pellegrin.

Paolo Pellegrin − shooting from the lip

What do you think about the Ambassadors Programme?

"I love it."

Why do you think the Ambassadors Programme is important?

"I think it is a great opportunity to bring together photographers from different fields who use and rely on the Canon digital systems and represent this new generation."

What got you started in photography?

"I found freedom within the craft to explore my interests and find a form of expression."

What does photography mean to you?

"It has become a tool to address conditions and events that are meaningful to me personally and important for the public to engage with."

What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?

"I would consider myself as a documentary photographer."

What would you advise someone who is just coming into the business?

"It requires lots of hard work, study, and perseverance."


Kitbag

Cameras:
  • 2x EOS 5D Mark II
  • 2x EOS 5D Mark III
  • EOS-1D X
  • PowerShot G1 X
Lenses:
  • EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
  • EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
  • EF28mm f/1.8 USM
  • EF35mm f/1.4L USM
  • EF50mm f/1.2L USM
  • EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
  • EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Accessories:
  • Speedlite 580EX II flashgun
  • Speedlite 600 EX-RT flashgun
  • Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT

Showcase