He’s one of the most widely published photojournalists and the overall Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017. Brent Stirton speaks to Keith Wilson about patience, diplomacy and taking a wide‑angle view
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 overall winner, photojournalist and Canon ambassador Brent tells us about patience, diplomacy and a wide-angle view
Brent Stirton is a hard man to track down. For at least nine months of the year, he is away on assignment in some of the world’s most volatile locations, where he documents issues ranging from the illegal wildlife trade to tribal conflicts and human rights abuses.
When we speak, he is on a rare twoweek break a this Californian home after several months away in Mongolia, Somalia and the Peruvian Amazon. Even then, Brent Stir ton doesn’ t get many days of complete rest: my call is one of six he’ s taking this morning. “That’s not unusual,” he says. “When I come back, there are usually a few days of chaos.”
Studying journalism in South Africa, what were your hopes and dreams?
I was in the South African military, and South Africa was going through tremendous turmoil at that time. I went from wanting to become a doctor to wanting to become a journalist, just because I thought there was a great misunderstanding over the role of geopolitics over things like apartheid and the Angolan conflict; and also, our communication with each other within the country was so poor at that time that I didn’t think we understood each other as a nation.
When are you talking about?
This is the 1980s, man. This is 1985, 1986, around that time.
When you went for journalism, did you have photography in mind?
No, not at all. I was doing my course but I was paying for my course at the same time, so I was freelancing for as many [places] as I could – Reuters among others. A lot of the press in South Africa told me: “We like what you’re writing, but we need photographs.”
At the time, I was covering a lot of the factional violence in the country. There was a lot of conflict between the ANC and different so-called liberation groups, some of which were more aligned with the government. Anyway, the bottom line was I couldn’t find a photographer to work with, so I bought a second-hand camera and spent the next year teaching myself how to use it.
What became your first published photo story?
Kangaroo courts in KwaZulu-Natal. Basically, peoples’ courts where people would be judged by the locals and then either killed or released, based on what was happening in the politics at the time. It was published in a few South African magazines at the time; Reuters also carried it as a story.
You live in the US now. Was leaving South Africa a personal or professional decision, or both?
You know, honestly, it’s quite hard to work internationally out of South Africa. The people who have those positions are very protective of them.
Second, there’s certain people you really should be in front of… if you’re going to try to work for National
Geographic, for example, it’s important that you see them on a regular basis. There are just too many other photographers trying to get that work, so you do need to build relationships.
Third, South Africa is… It’s a little bit too close to my heart in the sense that there’s so many things happening in South Africa that are devastating and just plain wrong, things that deserve to be covered well journalistically. If I stayed there, I think I would have been very South African-centric, and I just wanted to have a larger experience. That’s what happens: you’ve got to make a choice, but you don’t get to have both.
You’ve put yourself at the sharp end of documenting social and environmental stories, and have to be discreet. How do you work?
It depends on which aspect of a story I’m working on. I need to do things quickly, so I take a fair amount of lighting with me on a lot of jobs. There’s a lot of lit portraiture, which I like to think I’ve evolved to a point where it contributes to a documentary narrative.
“I try to be as honest as I can be, 99 per cent of the time. One per cent of the time I dress up or I’m in disguise”
I also have plenty of aspects in some of my stories where I just take one small camera. I use a Canon M5 a lot of the time because it just looks like a tourist’s camera, but it gives me a professional file.
For a lot of my work, the photography is the easy part. Finding out what is actually happening and getting to the point where I can take a picture, that’s hard. That requires a great deal of diplomacy and I need to be very patient.
You’re widely travelled – is that why you keep your camera kit to a minimum?
Yes, I tend to just use the Canon EOS 5D Mk IV and the 5DS R, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and EF
35mm f/1.4L II USM; and that is basically it. I shoot 99 per cent of my pictures with those two.
That’s what I notice about your work: it’s very much the wideangle view, even when close up.
I’m trying to veer towards the 35mm stuff more and more. A lot of the scenes we need to shoot something a bit wider, but 28mm to 35mm is where I live.
What are the main reasons for using flash in the field?
The thing is, I get asked to do a story that takes in six to seven countries in the space of five weeks. That’s what the modern reality is for a lot of
National Geographic stories, so you don’t have time to wait around for perfect light.
A lot of the people I photograph are remarkable people, and I want to make celebrities of them, in a sense. I want to photograph them in such a way that is above and beyond just a normal snap, and lighting is one of the ways I can get there quickly.
Who has inspired you?
There’s a lot of talent out there. I think most photojournalists who know what they’re talking about will talk about James Nachtwey. There’s no question of his legacy and his influence.
I think for me Nick Nichols has been very important. Nick opened up a whole new world for me: I came from conventional photojournalism to a much more environmentally crafted way of thinking, and Nick opened that up to me, no question.
I really like the work of Nadav Kander. I like Steven Klein in the fashion world. I think Annie Leibovitz, whether you like her or not, is probably the most important living portraitist, and there’s a great deal to be gained from looking at her work. So, the classics for me really. There’s a reason those people are the clichés – their influence is real and palpable.
A photojournalist I know asked me to put this question to you: “I would like to know how he gets
“These days my rule is to try not to be away for more than six weeks at a time”
away with it. What does he tell people?”
I try to be as honest as I can be, 99 per cent of the time. One per cent of the time I am in disguise or I will dress up as someone who is not a photographer, or make a very clear attempt not to be a journalist, but that’s when I’m dealing with people who are clearly breaking the law. They’re criminals, and you’re not going to be able to photograph them or their activities without… You can’t go in as a journalist.
But 99 per cent of the case I’m just trying to have a discussion where I go, “Look, you have a perspective, you have your own point of view. Let me represent that point of view because I’m not here to take one picture, I’m here to create an essay, something that provokes discussion, so let me represent your point of view.” I believe in that. That’s where we’re supposed to be as journalists as well – an objective profession.
A photographer once told me the hardest part about his job was leaving home, because he might be away for six months. Is that the same for you?
It sucks, man. Listen, that guy had the incredible luxury of six-month assignments; we have the luxury of six-week assignments.
There’s that aspect to it, but when you know you’re going away for six months, bring your wife out. Most of those guys aren’t doing jobs that are so dangerous they can’t bring their family with them at some point, you know? These days my rule is to try not to be away for more than six weeks at a time. Even if I come home for three or four days, I get to see my wife. A lot of us get caught up in this notion that this is a noble profession, and our spouses and our kids should understand that. Well, I have a reality check for those who think like that: it’s bullshit, it’s not real. If they’ve committed to being in your life, you owe them something for that. Set a limit on the time you spend away from your family or your friends, otherwise you’re going to lose them.
Above Lion Guardians Here, two Masai Lion Guardians use telemetry technology to track collared lions in Ambesoli National Park, Kenya.