Since he first picked up a camera in earnest, in 1994, Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton has criss-crossed the globe, building an extraordinary body of work and a reputation as one of the most committed photojournalists in his field. CPN’s Paul Kendall caught up with him during a rare gap in his hectic schedule, to find out what drives him.
“I finished my time in the military in South Africa and that was really transformative, in that I met a lot of black guys. For the first time I really understood what I was looking at with apartheid. My military experience changed that and I decided to be a journalist. In the course of paying for my journalism degree I was writing, and I was in Durban, where at the time there was a lot of factional violence between the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) and the ANC. So I was writing about that and all the photographers were in Johannesburg. They weren’t too keen on coming to see this coastal violence, they had enough on their hands in Johannesburg. So I bought a second hand camera, a Canon AE-1, read the manual and photography took over shortly after that.”
From that chance beginning, Brent’s photographic career expanded quite rapidly. “I was lucky. I started at a time when South Africa was very topical. We got a major influx of media, because Mandela was released, and I had good access in the Natal townships with guys that I knew from the army. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Then we had the Rwandan genocide and then the fall of Mobutu in the DRC. I got some attention because I was shooting things that not a lot of people were photographing, and it became topical.”
On tools of the trade
A Canon shooter throughout his career, Brent claims to be “a total Luddite when it comes to technology”. Yet he isn’t slow to take advantage of what it has to offer. “After the AE-1 I had an F-1N and then came the beginning of autofocus with the first EOS-1 and the first 5D. But I’m essentially a really simple shooter. I shoot with a 35mm and a 28mm lens and that’s basically it, for the most part. But the 85mm is a beautiful lens and the 50mm is amazing and occasionally I’ll need them, as I do a lot of portrait work in the field. So I’d say those four lenses are the ones I must have. I also like to have at least two cameras, always, that gives me some sense of security in case things go wrong. Until recently I liked having medium format digital with me as well, wherever possible, but the 5DS R camera has done away with the need for that. Which is huge for me, in terms of space saving.
So my kit, at the moment, is the two 5DS Rs, which I’m really happy with. I’m sure, now the EOS 5D Mark IV is out, that’ll be a dilemma for me. I love the resolution and the sharpness of the 5DS R, but as things progress, I will have to work with a lot of things where this technology will be useful – geo-tagging, WiFi, all that stuff. These are amazing advances in so many ways. What I can foresee is travelling with one 5DS R and one Mark IV.”
So why has Brent stayed so loyal to Canon? “What I like most about Canon is that I think it’s the best colour fidelity in the 35mm market. I don’t think there’s another camera that has a better true colour. The only camera that has better colour fidelity is a Hasselblad digital, but that’s $35k and I can’t take it to the places where I work. I tried… it was a very expensive mistake. Canon is also tough and has a long battery life, those things are very useful in a limited environment.”
Which brings us to the second thing Brent most appreciates about his Canon gear: its reliability. “A lot of my jobs are in places that are remote, with conditions that are tough on the cameras, so I’m always afraid of having things fail on me. But in my entire career, it’s only happened once…I was caught in a sandstorm that turned into a rainstorm in the Sahara while working with the Tuareg, with no cover whatsoever. The most extreme weather for cameras – a combination of very fine dust and moisture. So I walked through this sandstorm back to the encampment, reading a compass. It was a bit scary, because it was a sand-out, which is like a white-out. If you walk in the wrong direction your guys won’t find you and you won’t find them. So I was frightened and I didn’t protect my camera. It was a 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm on it and it stopped functioning. But I took it to Canon and they serviced it while I waited. They sorted it and gave it back like it was nothing. There have also been a couple of occasions when I’ve been robbed of my gear, and on those occasions Canon always went out of their way to get me replacement cameras asap. Reliable service is important for professional photographers.”
Although Brent had no formal training in photography, he’s learned from the very best. “For most guys of my generation I think it’s James Nachtwey and Sebastião Salgado. As I’ve become more knowledgeable about who was around, there are other people, such as Gilles Peress, but they’d be the first two that would come to mind for most of us. What Salgado and Nachtwey had was elegance of composition combined with genuine compassion and content. They also prioritised human dignity. It’s one thing to photograph suffering; it’s another thing to dignify the subject in your images. That’s what I would hope to look for. Honour the subject… that’s really your job.”
Brent has no issue with the seeming paradox of capturing desperate situations in images that are works of art. “I believe in aesthetics in the photojournalistic realm. The human mind works in a particular way. We respond to certain stimuli. If you arrange those stimuli in such a way that you maintain people’s attention for that much longer, the message is reinforced. Aesthetics are part of that. I would rather shoot a beautiful, enduring picture than a rough, tough photojourno picture. I would rather shoot something that people will linger on, and you need a certain combination of elements for that to occur.”
It’s a combination that Brent feels is particularly important in an internet-centric age. “We live in an attention deficit, stimulation overload world. But so much of that is contradictory to human physiology, we know that human beings can only take in so much information at a time and that they consume it in a particular way. It’s not necessary to overload people and it’s not necessary to try to absorb everything in 15 words. The world’s complex and I think it deserves your full attention. I see my job as a photojournalist to arrest your attention long enough for you to get fully into the story… ideally to read the piece through to the end. I’d like to think that people would rather be smarter than dumber. I’d like to think we aspire to be the best we can be, not some mediocre version of ourselves. Good journalism is a part of that.”
On turning points
The image for which Brent is perhaps best known – the dead gorilla being carried by rangers in Virunga National Park – is one that transformed his approach as well as his career.
“I was simply in the right place at the right time. If I did anything right on that occasion, it was having the foresight to run ahead of this procession of the dead and build something so I could climb up and look down on it. That gave me an unusual perspective. When that picture came out people were outraged. There was an unexpected, unprecedented reaction and those images ended up raising significant funding. The entire structure of Virunga changed after that and remarkable people were placed in charge. That image has been called a crossover picture – it’s an environmental picture but it’s also about conflict. It certainly affected the way I work and the way I think about things. I’ve tried to focus more on the interconnectedness of things ever since.”
A prime example of this change of approach is ‘Ivory Wars’, the latest chapter in Brent’s coverage of poaching in Africa’s nature reserves. A story which was exhibited at this year’s Visa pour l’Image and added to his long list of World Press Photo awards.
“It’s looking at the connection with various terror groups, who use ivory as a means of funding what they do. Groups like the Sudanese Janjaweed, who are responsible for the genocide in Darfur. They came into the north of Cameroon a couple of years ago, with heavy weaponry, and killed 600 elephants. It was two months before anyone even noticed. There are 400,000 elephants left in the world and we’re losing 35,000 of them every year. That’s ten years left of elephants in the wild, and their presence is vital to many ecosystems. When I look at these issues I’m also thinking about the collapse of tourist economies. There’s more than one kind of conflict and more than one kind of terrorism. So I don’t think of these as just conservation stories. We’re not just talking about animals here. This is insecurity and the kind of thing that leads to failed states. If we save these spaces, we may also save those countries.”
This different way of thinking about his work has gone hand-in-glove with a different methodology. “When I started working with National Geographic, the first thing they did was ask if I could slow down, because I was flying about all over the place. It was the equivalent of photographic ADHD. It’s much better now. I’ve found my niche and I think I’m calmer, I know myself better and I have a greater sense of security about my work. I try to do the stories that I really care about. My problem is that I care about all of it and I see the potential in all of it. I just did a story on the cure for blindness, working with incredible doctors and scientists, people who are confronting the fact that 45 million people in the world are blind and 40 million of them don’t need to be. Don’t tell me that’s not important.”
Brent’s pace of work and prolific output are legendary and show no signs of decreasing. “I’m at a point where I’m starting to be useful,” he says. “I don’t have a family, so I think I’m channelling some paternal energy into it. A sense of purpose, which I think most people get from their families, I get that from my work. I’ve had enough concrete results so far to make me think I should keep doing it.”
The nature of the stories that Brent wants to cover also remains consistent. “More than anything it’s the age old good v evil thing. That’s at the heart of a lot of what we do as photojournalists. I like supporting the little guy. I like being able to provide visual ammunition that can raise their game, change the way people look at them, bring in some funding. I can tell people that they exist. The big news stories I get a bit nervous of, because there are a lot of other photographers and I don’t always play so well with others. I think it can get quite mercenary. I prefer working by myself.”
Brent isn’t driven by altruism alone, however. “I’d like to be a better photographer and it’s infinite as to how much you can improve. I’m in a position now where my work does get noticed and that brings further scrutiny. The better you get, the better you need to be. It’s a good pressure but it is pressure. I’m not someone who thinks I’m a hotshot. I’m not interested in being that guy. I come from a culture where you don’t talk much about yourself. It’s frowned upon. I still pinch myself that I am where I am with photography. I keep expecting someone to take it away from me at any moment.”
That seems unlikely to happen any time soon.
Biography: Brent Stirton
© Yiannis Katsaris
Born in South Africa in 1969, Brent considered studying medicine before turning to journalism and then to photojournalism. He specialises in documentary work with environmental, global health or conservation elements, and travels an average of nine months of the year on assignment. He has been published by numerous international titles, although he now works mostly for National Geographic on long-term investigative projects. His many awards include nine World Press Photo awards, ten Pictures of the Year awards and a Peabody Award for his work with Human Rights Watch. He’s also been recognised by the United Nations, for his work on the environment and in the field of HIV/Aids, and named Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year by the UK’s Natural History Museum for three consecutive years.