The Pro In­ter­view

Wildlife Photographer of the Year win­ner 2017 Brent Stir­ton talks pa­tience, diplo­macy and wide-an­gle views

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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, doc­u­ment­ing is­sues rang­ing from the il­le­gal wildlife trade to tribal con­flicts and hu­man rights abuses. When we speak, he is on a rare two-week break at his Cal­i­for­nian home af­ter sev­eral months away in Mon­go­lia, So­ma­lia and the Peru­vian Ama­zon. Even then, Brent Stir­ton doesn’t get many days of com­plete rest: my call is one of six he’s tak­ing this late Au­gust morn­ing. “That’s not un­usual,” he says in his blunt South African ac­cent. “When I come back there’s usu­ally a few days of chaos, yeah.”

But this is a man who is used to be­ing in tense sit­u­a­tions and hold­ing his ground when his pres­ence is not al­ways wel­come, so a few ques­tions are hardly go­ing to faze him… Study­ing jour­nal­ism in South Africa, what was your mo­ti­va­tion and your hopes and am­bi­tions? Well, 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.

What year are you talk­ing about?

This is the ’80s, man. This is 1985, 1986, around that time.

When you even­tu­ally went for jour­nal­ism, did you have pho­tog­ra­phy in mind?

No, no, not at all. Look, 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 left-wing press in South Africa said to 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. I was in the right place at the right time.

What was 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.

Where was that pub­lished?

It was pub­lished in a few South African mag­a­zines at the time and then 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.

Sec­ondly, 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’s just too many other pho­tog­ra­phers try­ing to get that work, so you do need to build re­la­tion­ships.

Thirdly, South Africa is… lis­ten, 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 are so many things hap­pen­ing in South Africa that are dev­as­tat­ing and just plain wrong

I’m in the sec­ond camp, so you know it all goes to­wards a very prac­ti­cal, prob­lem­solv­ing way of think­ing.

Talk­ing of the sec­ond camp, who has in­spired you and who do you con­tinue to look up to?

Well, there’s a lot of tal­ent out there. I think that 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 (in­ter­viewed in is­sue 127) has been very im­por­tant. Nick opened up a whole new world for me be­cause I came from con­ven­tional pho­to­jour­nal­ism to a much more en­vi­ron­men­tally crafted way of think­ing and Nick opened that up to me, no ques­tion. He woke me up to the fact that that was hap­pen­ing. Who else? I re­ally like the work of Na­dav Kan­der,

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’m a big fan of his. 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. I guess there’s a rea­son those peo­ple are the clichés – their in­flu­ence is real and pal­pa­ble.

Do your sub­jects ever feel wary about you with your cam­era?

Yeah, a lot of the time. A lot of the time I’m not wel­come at all, you know. That cer­tainly hap­pens. I mean, all the way from peo­ple look­ing at the me­dia and go­ing, ‘You guys aren’t re­ally ef­fec­tive at all. Why are you here?’, to peo­ple who are di­rectly af­fected by you pho­tograph­ing them be­cause they’re crim­i­nals – so it’s likely they will be ar­rested or the case against them will be re­in­forced.

An­other pho­to­jour­nal­ist I know asked me to put this ques­tion to you: “I would like to know how he gets 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,

Brent uses ‘a fair amount of light­ing’ to con­trib­ute to the doc­u­men­tary nar­ra­tive of his pic­tures, like with these tribal dancers.

Lens Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8l II USM at 17mm Ex­po­sure 1/250 sec, f/4.5, ISO320

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