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