October 25th 2007 by Andrew S Gibson
In June this year I visited the Salinas Grandes on a tour from Salta and I never knew the story behind the people that worked there. I even took a photo of an abandoned motor home near the salt works and never realized that someone was living there. You can read Marcos’ photo story about the Salinas Grandes here.
I was delighted when Marco agreed to be interviewed for the blog as he’s a busy and successful photographer. Thanks for finding the time, Marco.
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look/atmosphere/feel do you try and create in your photos?
The most important thing about photography, and arts in general, is to create a personal and unique style. I think the best way to achieve such a difficult goal is to learn the “rules” and then work hard to break them.
My personal vision certainly revolves around a monochromatic use of colors and a strict geometrical scheme. I often choose monochromatic lights that help to make evocative images and then I work on a single, vibrant element of contrast. A black shadow, a contrasting color or some particular posture of the subject. In other words, I think “black and white” using colors.
When possible, I try not to lead the viewers to obvious conclusions, so that the role of the subjects I photograph and its context can be interpreted. A good caption, which is an essential part of the picture in photojournalism, helps to complete the work.
Another important issue in my photography is not to make the images too explicit. As you can see in some of my latest works, the subjects often appear with just a little light on their faces. I don’t feel the need to “describe” this detail as I think it could be misleading and I see the darkness as an element of mystery which helps the imagination to dig into the picture.
To get the best results in these terms, I still work with transparencies. Digital photography certainly offers many advantages, but to me a high-quality film still makes the difference. It’s like making a fine wine.
When did you start taking photos and why? What made you decide to become a photojournalist?
I actually did not decide to become a photojournalist. I became a photojournalist following my needs, instinct and natural curiosity. I graduated in Fine Arts and Editorial Science, and worked after University as editorial illustrator for two years. But it wasn’t for me. My parents bought me a Nikon F90x after graduating.
When I was 24 I traveled for one month in Nepal with a friend photographer, Martin Bruckmanns, and my new camera. I didn’t know almost anything about photography or photojournalism, but I certainly loved to take pictures. It was a huge discovery for me, and Martin was my first teacher (Thanks!). I was thrilled while shooting, while looking for compelling situations and I loved to blend with other cultures. It was simply natural to me.
After this trip I decided to eco-volunteer for a month in a conservation project, in Swaziland, Africa. I love animals, and it was the best way to travel getting close to a potential magazine story and spend almost nothing. My knowledge of photography was still very limited, I brought with me 25 films and when I got back I contacted a national wildlife magazine, a lesser publication. They bought the story and the article and that became my first work for a magazine.
After this experience, I started to work seriously. My photography’s standards were still quite poor, I had everything to learn, but I was excited. I never took a single hour of photography class, so I really learnt on my skin, in the field, which for me is the best way to learn.
For the first four years I focused on wildlife and conservation issues, but I later moved to anthropology, vanishing cultures and more recently to socio-political issues, with a particular interest on the struggle of those people with no voice in the international media stream.
I’ve just complete a project, in Bolivia, about the making and trading of cocaine, documenting that the image that we have in the Western world about the so called “narcos” is nothing else than the product of some Hollywood movies, influenced by the biggest fake ever built by some governments. But judge yourself, after reading the story (it will be soon published – I cannot tell you more now!!)
Being a photojournalist is for me the only way to interact someway with the world and its reality. I don’t like to sit and watch, I much prefer to discover and to tell… It’s something I cannot renounce, it’s my life.
What are the three most important qualities that a photojournalist needs to succeed?
The world of photography is a terribly hard environment. You are in constant competition with thousands of other photographers, the editorial market and its mechanisms are very slow, and it doesn’t help at all when you have to pay your bills. Unfortunately, working very hard is not the only key to success, if you don’t have something more. It’s a gift I’m talking about.
The first quality you need, is certainly self-criticism: You need to be fair enough with yourself to understand whether you’re really talented or you simply have a “good eye”. This makes the difference between a photographer and someone who can take nice pictures. If you are really sure your photography could mean something to the world , then start to work hard.
Don’t listen to your friends, girlfriend, family or all the agreeing people around you. Forget the sweet commentaries that people make about your work. Most of them are just words! Spend as much time as you can photographing, looking for interesting stories to tell, and always build a strong concept behind your works BEFORE you start shooting. Do not put your pictures on the walls. If you achieve one of your goals don’t spend time to contemplate it, but move forward.
The second quality you need as photojournalist is a deep sense of human relationships. This does not means that you need to be the nicest guy on earth. It simply means that you have to truly FEEL respect, compassion and understanding for the people you are working with. And I’m talking about the real people you deal with, those you will capture in your frames. If you don’t have uncommon “human” skills, better for you to change your job. It’s like being a doctor, in some ways…
The third quality is integrity. Photojournalism is not only about photography, and actually photography should be the tool you decide to use to communicate something bigger. While dealing with news or while covering a story, you will soon feel something inside, called responsibility. Be honest with the story and the information you provide. Remember your goal as photojournalist is not only to sell, but to tell compelling but true stories. Sometimes you’ll find editors who want to manipulate your material, change the facts, or tell “their” truth: refuse this kind of business.
Your work has been published in a lot of magazines, including prestigious glossies. What advice can you give any photographer aspiring to break into these markets? How do you sell your story ideas to the magazines?
Many people think photographers always sell their stories before they shot. It’s not true. To be assigned by a prestigious magazine is something really hard, and you need a curriculum as long as your arm for that. Lesser magazines can’t afford to pay an assignment, nor to buy a story before they see the images. So you have to pack your cameras and take a risk.
Most of the time I write a one page straight-to-the-point proposal before I start to work in the field, and let an editor that I strongly trust review it. On his office door there’s a notice: “Don’t tell me about a story if you don’t have the pictures”. That’s the way almost every magazine works, but exceptions are allowed…
If you aim to publish with big magazines such as National Geographic, Time, GEO, etc., you will need someone to coach you along the way, for years. I’m not talking about just anyone, but about a photo editor with an amazing experience, someone you can trust, someone who have the patience, constancy and time to invest in you with no return for a long time. I’m talking about a mentor. And, believe me, in the magazine world it’s the hardest thing you could aim for.
Some years ago I met my mentor: John Echave, Senior Editor at National Geographic. I sent him several proposals before I shot my stories, I sent him my work (several hundred slides…), and he ALWAYS patiently reviewed everything. He taught me so much during these years and always wrote me letters of commentary on my stories.
The time he dedicated to me was the best help ever to improve my work, my story-telling skills and my visual approach. He really built me, and I will be grateful to him forever. I wish every photographer could find someone like him.
You also sell your work through PhotoShelter. What advice do you have for succeeding in the online Photo Agency markets?
As I said, I do not work digital but I cannot ignore the digital era. Photoshelter is a marvelous platform that every professional photographer needs. So far, I mostly used it as an archive for my pictures and to send images to my clients, who can download high-res images directly on their FTP or their computer. No more travelling slides, CDs or couriers. Everything is running faster and safer.
Using Photoshelter allows the photographer to offer a better service for the clients, and several editors were surprised about the efficiency of the network.
Photoshelter also offers the opportunity to market your images and they have just inaugurated a brand new plan for that. So far, however, I still haven’t organized my archive to sell directly (lack of time!)
What is the most memorable experience you’ve had as a photojournalist?
My last project, in Bolivia, about the social condition of the coca farmers and the cocaine production, was certainly the most interesting and challenging. I cannot talk too much about the details as the story is not published yet, but I can tell that to have access to this underworld is really amazing. To earn the trust of the people involved in the making of cocaine, not only allowed me to produce stunning images, but also gave me the opportunity to understand a reality we don’t know at all in our privileged countries.
As photojournalist I saw a huge opportunity to document what’s behind this drug. People are so desperate that the value of their own life is almost zero. This experience was important to me, and I’m currently working on a book project about this issue.
Why did you decide to move to Buenos Aires? What is it that interests you so much about South America?
I moved to Argentina after completing a story on the Quechua people that live in the Salinas Grandes, a huge salt flat almost on the border with Chile and Bolivia. I decided to specialize in South America, because it’s usually ignored by most of the media and because I think there’s a lot to say about this continent now, especially about the human condition and the new socio-political role of the indigenous people. This is something which is making the difference on the international geopolitical desk. And I want to stay as close as possible, to understand and follow the evolution of this changes.
As for Buenos Aires, I chose this amazing city as it has this perfect equilibrium which combines a certain European style with a Latin soul. There’s nothing else I could ask for. People are warm, there’s a fresh cultural humus, and compared to the place where I used to live, in Italy, it’s almost always sunny!
How do get so closely involved with the communities you photograph? In my experience they can be hostile to strangers with cameras. How do you overcome the initial distrust?
There are several tourists travelling every part of the globe with their cameras, looking for nice souvenir pictures, and many of them are sadly insensitive and disrespectful. Most don’t consider the cultural diversity and simply try to steal some shots. The result is that many people hate photographers. Great images are usually the product of a privileged relation with your subjects.
One of the reasons a high quality coverage often lasts several months, is that you need to establish a comfortable relationship, based on trust and respect. And when cultural differences are in the middle, it may take lots of time.
Try to learn the language spoken by the people you want to work with. If they speak a difficult dialect, try to learn at least some key-words. Don’t worry about feeling ridiculous in your pronunciation, and if they laugh at you use this moment to share some fun. IT HELPS A LOT!
Before using your cameras, spend as much time as needed with the local people. Drink their drinks, eat their food, share a beer, invite them for a meal. Show your interest in their life and listen carefully to their tales (you could have useful surprises!).
Use the local codes to show respect. In our culture we shake hands: other cultures use different gestures. Open your eyes, and learn! Don’t EVER underestimate anyone. The wiser people are often the humble.
Very often they will ask you “how much your cameras cost”. Don’t fool them and answer the truth. If you think they will see you as a rich person and/or source of money, tell them your cameras belong to the company you work for, and they are just borrowed. It’s a “white lie”, I know, but it’s also untrue (usually) that photographers are rich, especially if they are young…
Never forget that being a photographer is mostly about to “take”; so, as you “use” someone else’s stories and faces, it wouldn’t be bad to find a way to help. It doesn’t mean you have to pay money – you actually do not have to – but if you work for long time with the same subjects, ask them if you can help someway. Buy some food for their family or buy their art crafts, or similar.
Name three photographers you like and why.
Marcus Bleasdale. His black and white work on Congo is just amazing. He spent eight years documenting the violence and rape of this Nation, and his book “One hundred Years of Darkness” is a masterpiece of photojournalism.
Paolo Pellegrin. In my opinion, he invented a new concept of contemporary photojournalism, shifting from explicit-documentary to emotional-documentary. I think we all needed such change.
David Alan Harvey. After decades of success, after contributing to high-class photojournalism for more than 40 years, he’s still trying to invent and experimenting a new visual approach.
Where is your photography going? What future photographic project or projects are you excited about?
In terms of style, I’m trying to push as much as I can the photographic matrix I developed in the last 3 years. I prefer to give emotions which make the readers feel the intensity of what they read in the article, rather than repeating in my images the same concepts.
To achieve this goal, I still have to work on my style. This kind of changes are gradual, and another issue is whether the editors are prepared to shift from explicit to more evocative images, or not. When you shot a story for magazines you cannot mark your style too radically, or the risk is that some magazine will cut you out. So it’s a slow process of equilibrium. I’m also working to make the editors understand the reasons of my style and its natural evolution. Working for magazines is different than making books or to exhibit in a gallery.
I’ve been looking for quite a long time for the matrix of my style, now I have to perfect it.
As for the projects, I’m planning to move to Africa for the next story. I have some ideas I’m working on, but still there’s nothing scheduled. If it’s true that I specialize on Latin America, it’s also true that I don’t want to focus only on a single continent. In the meanwhile, I will keep on working on my book project on cocaine. It’s a long term work, and it will require further travels to Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Brazil. So I definitely have material to keep me busy.
Marco Vernaschi – Photojournalist
At Lightstalkers: www.lightstalkers.org/marco_vernaschi
E-mail: info (at) marcovernaschi.com