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Niet beschikbaar in
July 2008

“It took me a while to get over being ‘the baby guy’, now I’m known as ‘the gorilla guy’.” Brent Stirton, senior staff photographer at Getty Images and four times a World Press Photo winner, talks to CPN's Mike Stanton about celebrity portraiture, dancing with his camera – and how he gained access to one of the most remote and volatile regions on earth armed only with an EOS-1Ds Mark III.

No artist likes to be pigeonholed, but 38-year-old Brent Stirton has earned himself a couple of enduring monikers in recent years, the first as the photographer responsible for the $12 million shot of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s baby, Shiloh Nouvel (the proceeds of which went to charity), and the second as the winner of the 2007 World Press Photo contemporary issues first prize singles award for a picture of a dead silverback gorilla being carried by a group of national park rangers in the Congo.

Both shots have earned him fame in different quarters – after the former, requests piled in from other celebrities including Brooke Shields and Christina Aguilera to immortalise their offspring – and the gorilla picture became Getty Images’ most iconic editorial image from 2007.

© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

Rangers in the Virunga National Park in the Congo carry the body of a mountain gorilla shot in the forest.

Now into his fifth year with Getty Images, Brent has excelled in a career that could have evolved quite differently had a photographer been on hand when he needed one 18 years ago. As a journalism student in South Africa, he wrote an essay on factional violence and, in the absence of a photographer willing to accompany him, took the shots himself.

From his first forays into the medium with a Canon A-1, Brent has proved himself a force to be reckoned with (when he started assignments for National Geographic, their first question was, “can you slow down?”) and never likes to take more than 10 days off between jobs.

As a full-time staffer working out of Getty Images’ New York office, Brent mostly works for National Geographic, the New York Times and Newsweek, and is in the enviable position of being able to largely pick and choose his projects. One he is particularly passionate about is his recent visit to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, one of the last places on earth with an ancient culture that is still relatively intact. With a grant from the Discovery Channel and a brief consisting of, “where do you want to go?”, Brent settled on the Omo Valley after being inspired by Don McCullin’s more anthropological take on the area a few years ago

The Omo Valley is a remote and volatile region in Southern Ethiopia, which is close to the borders of Uganda, Sudan and Kenya. The Ethiopian government is damming the Omo River and reducing it to a fifth of its size due to its hydro-electric potential. This has led to extreme competition for land, resulting in conflict within the region and the erosion of traditional life. Brent laments this “tragedy of progress” and fears that their assimilation into a more modern way of life will not be far off.

© Discovery Communications/Brent Stirton, Reportage by Getty Images

There are eight major tribes in the Omo Valley, each with their own distinct language. The smallest tribe consists of just 1,600 people, the largest, 80,000, and internecine fighting is frequent due to their contact with militia groups on the Sudanese border. While the region’s scarce resources have been a source of competition for centuries, the arrival of automatic weapons – and, crucially, ammunition – has seen death tolls rise significantly.

On his travels Brent encountered a fair amount of conflict, including a tribal skirmish over a strip of land that resulted in the death of nine people. “This is a volatile place, and the link between what it is to be masculine and violence is very pervasive,” he says. Although he “didn’t go to shoot conflict”, the journalist in him took over when he came up against the violence, resulting in a couple of shots he describes as “suspenseful”.

The Omo Valley presents a challenge for any traveller, let alone a photographer intent on visiting one of the more inaccessible places in the world. In fact, it is partly because of the logistical problems that we can get a glimpse of an ancient culture that still thrives, although as Brent points out, “the people are discovering money, and are discovering they like it.”

Money talks wherever you go in the world, and the Omo Valley tribal elders were quick to demand a fee for entering their village, as well as paying every subject who was photographed. Brent is phlegmatic about the process, admitting that, “as much as I’m not a fan of that sort of thing, it’s what happens. They’re always going to see you as the white man with means.”

© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

The series of portraits that came out of his 14-day stay were taken as part of a long-term essay; Brent intends to return to the area in two years or so to document how things have changed. The work is striking in its simplicity, with each subject lit and shot in the manner one might expect of a shoot of a film star or actor. “A lot of these people are more interesting to me than celebrities,” says Brent. “Celebrity portraiture is narcissism – it’s self-absorption. But if you shine a light on ethnic people they become something ‘more than’. It’s a way of showing they’re special, they’re unique.”

Having passed his “100 countries mark”, Brent is now eager to focus on projects that have special meaning for him, and doesn’t stake any claims to maintaining journalistic objectivity. “I go in and make an analysis of something and trust my opinions of what I’m experiencing. That creates a subjective dynamic within myself,” he says. “But if I have one good quality I do see what’s honorable in what I’m trying to photograph. It’s not a cliché for me – I’m constantly trying to get behind the cliché.”

With such a varied career, which takes in fashion photography as well as a brief foray into celebrity portraiture, it is hardly surprising that his influences range far and wide: James Nachtwey (“the godfather…and for his ethics and integrity”); fashion photographer Steven Klein (“particularly for his collaborations with Madonna”); Richard Avedon (“for his classical simplicity”) and Eugene Richards (“for ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’”). However, he is careful to point out the importance of staying true to your own identity as a photographer: “As you mature as a photographer you realise you have to go down your own road of pioneering something important even if that’s not on a world level or you’re not recognised for it. Otherwise you’re just trying to emulate everyone else.”

“Single pictures can result in a one dimensional situation – I believe in essays, telling stories.” He admits that the gorilla image has been published so many times it runs the risk of defining his career. “But I’ve shot many more stories since that happened and I will continue to do progressive work,” he says. “It’s not about what other people think, it’s not about the awards you win. It’s about what you personally feel.”

© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

Brent’s transition to using digital happened when he joined Getty Images, just after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he has only ever worked with Canon cameras. “I work my cameras very hard. I work for a long time in very tough conditions and Canon has never let me down, and I’m grateful,” he says. ”It’s a terrible thing to be in a position where you might make a great picture and your gear’s failing.”

Although he tends to work with a maximum of three lights, Brent took four or five with him to Ethiopia (“in case something went wrong”), an EOS-1 Ds Mark III and two EOS-1 Ds Mark II cameras. The former, with its 21-megapixel file, was developed just in time for his visit to the Omo Valley, which was fortunate as “I’m a greedy guy when it comes to pixels.”

“The quality of the camera allows for extraordinary results and adds something to the subject,” he says. “I’m grateful because it makes my work look better. To me the EOS-1Ds Mark III is beyond medium format. I’m new to shooting RAW images, but I’ve recently woken up, and with the EOS-1Ds Mark III I can shoot knowing I can pull back the highlights and the detail later, which changes the way you approach a visual situation and makes you a better photographer. An image, beautiful to the human eye, that has always escaped a camera is now possible with the EOS-1Ds Mark III.”

He adds: “Sometimes if I’m loving what I’m shooting I end up dancing with it – it makes me feel elegant.”

The vast majority of images from the Omo Valley were taken with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (“you can make a living out of that lens”), but he has recently been shooting with an EF50mm f/1.2L USM and an EF24mm f/1.4L USM, which he says are changing his life.

“It’s incredible to have that kind of light latitude,” he says. “What the 50mm and 24mm do is allow you to work with a depth of field where that particular moment is three dimensional – it’s totally a revelation for me. It gives me the shutter speed to not only have that depth of field but I also know I’m not going to have ‘camera blow’ going on. I’m getting the moment and all it’s supposed to be.”

Brent Stirton is already a proven master of capturing moments and the only question remaining is - where will this prolific photographer go next?


Brent Stirton’s equipment:

1x EOS-1Ds Mark III
2x EOS-1Ds Mark II
1x EOS 5D (as back-up)

EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24mm f/1.4L USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM

Canon Media Storage viewer M80
3x Canon Speedlite 580EX II
Canon ST-E2 (remote signal unit)
20x memory cards
3x LaCie hard drives (250GB)
Minolta light meters
Profoto lights
Opal light modifiers
Gitzo tripod
2x reflectors
2x SureFire torches (flashlights)

Other necessities:
Dried fruit
Snake bite kit
Small first aid kit
A big knife
A bodyguard/interpreter

Biografie: Brent Stirton

Brent Stirton

South Africa-born Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images. He specialises in documentary work and travels an average of 10 months of the year on assignment. His awards include five World Press Photo awards, International Photographer of the Year 2008 (Lucie Awards) and he’s been honoured by the United Nations for his work on the environment and in the field of HIV. Brent works on a regular basis for a variety of charities and he has been published regularly in National Geographic Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Le Express, Le Monde 2, GQ, Geo and on The Discovery Channel and CNN. He is currently shooting a long-term project on threatened species, amongst other assignments around the world.