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Stuart Franklin: stories rarely happen out of the window

an interview by Enrico Ratto – translation by Elisa Chisana Hoshi

Stuart, you studied geography, art and design. What influence does all this have when photo reporting?

Everything influences my work: the things I have studied formally of course; but much more than that, the experiences of living, of life. I started studying painting and drawing. There you learn to take great care in approaching the work. I studied photography. There you learn the techniques, and understand the history of the medium. I studied geography, which is like an octopus. It reaches its tentacles into everything: the land, the sea, the economy, politics, ethnicity, representation, history. So all of this helps me when I am walking around photographing.

When you took the photo of The Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, did you realize that you had an icon on your film, or did the way that the world looked at that picture surprise you?

At the time I felt too far away – on a hotel balcony. I was reminded at every moment of the powerful images from Prague 1968 (so haunting to see today) by Josef Koudelka. And reminded of the saying by Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough”. So yes I was surprised.

I find that this very image of Tiananmen Square represents one of the rare cases when both the picture and the live TV became icons. What was the strength of that scene?

In a sense, and this viewpoint has been suggested in the book: “No Caption Needed”, the single man defying the State became symbolic both of the protest against corruption and lack of free expression in China, but also, conveniently, the photograph became a symbol, an icon, of a Neoliberal ideal – freedom from the State. By this I mean freedom from society, from communal responsibility and so forth. The thinking around this is very interesting.

One year ago you wrote a critical article about Visa pour l’Image. In Perpignan you got the impression that since the war photo reporter cannot solve the conflicts, he can’t really make the public aware, so for all these years his role was useless. What do you think is the role of the photo reporter?

I did not have the impression that the war photographer is unable to resolve the conflict. In fact I implied the opposite. The panel of photographers felt, strangely for me, that they had achieved nothing because war still continues. I disagreed. War photography has made a huge impact on policy and public awareness. I felt the photographers who spoke at Perpignan did not give any credit to what they or others had achieved. Don McCullin spoke of shame, when it was his photographs from Biafra that inspired Médecins Sans Frontières to start up in 1971. There are no rules about what people who work with cameras should do: it’s their life and time. We hope they will inform us honestly of their experience. That’s all.

It is said that photo reporting is like a one-man-show, since he does everything himself. How important is it, also for a freelancer, to have a solid structure that can give him logistical, commercial and even critical support when working?

I have been lucky throughout my career to enjoy the support and encouragement of friends and colleagues. I think we always need people to bounce ideas, to discuss projects, to look at work. Yes this community of support is very important.

In your opinion, style and approach represent the expertise of a photograph. Why?

Style and approach are two different things. Our approach to a story is normally about who we are as an author, as a person. It’s about how we will engage with the subject. The style of photography we use (eg large format, colour negative etc), that is a choice often concerned with building a narrative that will be coherent. Within documentary it’s a style of visual storytelling that we select.

When you shoot a landscape for your projects of landscape photography, do you have the same approach and style that you adopt for photo journalism?

I have the same approach, because that is who I am – I go gently into the world. The style of working, as I wrote earlier, is quite different.

When you go to a conflict zone, do you plan to follow a story or do you try to cover the news? In your opinion, is it possible for both aims to coexist?

The news is a very multi-faceted thing. It is not necessarily always what is on the TV. A lot of “news” is never reported. Much news is in fact invisible: it was the same in the Great Depression in America in the 30s as in Italy these last years. About unemployment, domestic violence, conflict, things like this. Photojournalists are people who actively hunt for stories, they rarely happen out of the window.