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

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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.

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