Brent Stirton: "The better you get, the better you need to be.”
Brent Stirton is renowned as one of the hardest working photojournalists in the business. So it’s little short of miraculous that he’s found time in his hectic globetrotting schedule to stop off at Visa, to accompany his ‘Ivory Wars’ exhibition at the Église des Dominicains.
For Brent, coming to Perpignan is both restorative and inspirational, if a little intimidating. “I’m still a bit shy of all this stuff… it’s quite overwhelming”, he confesses. “You spend all your time in the middle of nowhere and then you come here, where there are literally thousands of people and most of them are alpha personalities. It takes me a while to get used to it.”
It’s a feeling that many photographers who come to Visa would recognise. “Most photojournalists are loners, working in remote places for long periods of time. But you come here and realise that these other guys are just like you. You’ve been working in a vacuum, but then you get that stuff affirmed. And that’s worth something. What Jean-François does is allow us to put down our insecurities and egos for a week, and remember that we’re a community.”
It’s a community in which Brent stands tall, both literally and metaphorically. Yet he carries his undoubted status with great humility and even some reluctance. “I’m in a position now where my work does get noticed and so that brings further scrutiny. It’s a good pressure, but it is pressure. The better you get, the better you need to be.”
Fortunately one of the festival’s many benefits is that it allows him to keep right up-to-date with the tools that help him to do his work. “I like the fact that I get to sit with Canon and see the latest technology. This is a place where you can speak with most of the people you need to speak to. I’m not a technical guy – in fact, I’m a bit scared of it – but having GPS and WiFi on the new EOS 5D Mark IV should be really useful. It’s good just being able to share what’s happening when you’re in the field and ask how you can sort things out… I’m terrified of being on a project and having things fail on me, even though it’s only happened once in all the years.”
Brent’s latest exhibition is the third instalment in his on-going coverage of ivory poaching in Central Africa, a trade which has taken a sinister new turn in recent years, with proceeds being used to fund terrorist groups across the continent. “As a photojournalist, you want to work in an area where you feel useful”, he says, “And I feel useful here. This latest piece is really an attempt to say that if you buy this ivory, this is who you’re supporting. Not only are we losing world heritage, but you’re sponsoring terrorism.”
As well as taking satisfaction in having his own work so beautifully and prominently displayed, Brent also appreciates the opportunity to see what his fellow photographers have been doing. “The show they put on every night is the best show in the world, in terms of displaying photography. I’m lucky enough to work with National Geographic and I can tell you that the shows here are better than the shows they put on the Geographic theatre, which is supposedly the best screen in the world.”
“You get burned out after a while and Visa is revitalising”, he adds. “There’s a higher value system at work here and it’s an enriching experience. We have great fashion photographers, great portraitists and so on, but a lot of the time that doesn’t incorporate a higher value system. They would acknowledge that. This festival drives and reinforces those people who do pursue higher values.” Not least Brent himself.