LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

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Stanley Greene — INsight Conversation

The first INsight conversation of LOOK3 2012, with Stanley Greene, begins in a few minutes.

Stanley Greene has called a camera in the right hands the most powerful weapon ever made. Greene’s hands are definitely the right ones. Over the last two decades, he has brought back haunting images from troubled places like Croatia, Rwanda, and the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. 

19:21

The lights dim and foreboding music from A Space Odyssey rumbles. Two stagehands place an iPhone on a stool, bathed in the spotlight, and position its mic.

Enter Siri, “the new voice of the festival.”

Enter Vince. “Uh Siri, what’s going on.”

Siri, “Look Vince, this shtick is getting old.”

(I won’t tell you exactly how it all goes from there, but you can imagine. Needless to say it’s hilarious.)

 

19:34

Begin, a video of Jean-Francois Leroy, director of Visa pour l’Image, who will be interviewing Stanely tonight. A few choice words…

“People speak about the ‘citizen photojournalists.’ Fuck them. Photojournalism is not a hobby. This is a real job, a serious job.”

“I think that photojournalism is not dying. The press is dying. The press is just interested in celebs. They have no idea of the hierarchy of the news….so, the press is in crisis, and because of this, photojournalism is suffering.”

“I say that more and more people are taking pictures, but you have less and less photographers. You have to have an eye. And their eyes will never be replaced by anything. Eye is not technology. Eye is art. Eye is brain.”

“People are coming to [Visa pour l'Image] from all over the world. I am giving them the best photographers in the world, and they are spending all day in front of their computers looking at Facebook.”

19:47

Vince: “It was nearly 40 years ago that the war photographer Don McCullen asked, is anyone taking notice? …. It’s clear that Stanley Greene is.”

(Enter Stanley in his characteristic outfit: black jeans, black leather jacket, dark glasses, a bandana on his head, rings on every finger.)

Jean-Francois: A few days ago you told me that this exhibition in Charlottesville will be your first personal show in the U.S. I can’t believe it.

Stanley: There are a lot of photographers who haven’t had shows here, or even assignments. I count myself lucky that I went to Paris when I did, when photojournalism was still alive and kicking. I’d like to be able to say that in America, where I was born, I was recognized. But that’s not important. What’s important is that I was able to get the photos out.

A lot of time today, photojournalists are seen as stars. I think we have to get away from that. We have to get back to photographers being the witness. It’s about the photographs.

JFL: I want to start by putting to rest a rumor finally. Were you part of the Black Panthers?

SG: Yes, as a young kid, as a dilettante. Then when I started hanging out with Cleaver’s wife. I was in and out of it.

JFL: So you were a little bit naive.

SG: I was stupid. Growing up in that period, you had your heroes. And sometimes they were misplaced. I think what I was attracted to with the panthers was the berets and leather jackets.

JFL: You started to work with Eugene Smith as an assistant. How was your first meeting?

SG: When I met Eugene I had been with some friends who had smoked cigarettes that were soaked in paregoric acid. When he came through the door, he was dressed all in black and we thought he was god. He stayed with us for three days and when he left he said I should come hang out at his studio. I was dating his assistant at the time, she was my girlfriend. He saw some of my photos she had in her camera and said to her that he thought I could take photos.

So finally one day I went by his loft, and I heard this sound in the walls; I was hearing Thelonious Munk. And I get to the top of the stairs and there’s Gene running around like the madman he was. He said, Thelonious lives next door and I’m taping him. He was bugging Thelonious. So I stayed there and became his assistant and got to listen to all those tapes.

JFL: When did you decide to become a photojournalist?

SG: I was with some friends one night and heard that the Berlin Wall had come down. We hopped in a car and got to Checkpoint Charlie and I said, “Let’s go to East Germany.” We got separated and I started taking photos. These Stasi came out and were waving machine guns at the crowd—all of a sudden I was in the middle of this standoff. And I though, “Well, this is cool.” They finally went back inside, the people started to march, and I realized that moment was part of history now. Fashion photography wasn’t going to cut it after that.

19:51

JFL: The first time we met was when you were doing this color work from Somalia. Then your work from Chechnya was all black and white. Why?

SG: I should say that when I went to photograph the rebels [in Somalia], it was a press conference and I thought, press conference, color. I didn’t realize I’d be inside for days. That was just what I had in my pockets.

When I got to Chechnya in 1994, I was interested in it because it reminded me of what Capa did during the Spanish Civil War. He didn’t shoot color, so I didn’t.

JFL: Why did you get so facinated by Chechnya?

SG: One time while I was photographing in Grozny, I was lying in a ditch with a Chechen and I realized I had solidarity with him, because Yeltsin had tried to kill me too. When you’re in those kinds of situations, you get so caught up in it.

A lot of journalists who covered that war, we romanticized the Chechens. We had this solidarity with them. When you see someone to the left and right of you getting killed, you feel for them. And you have this idea that your photos can stop this killing. You think your pictures will make people get upset like I’m upset. You keep going back, trying to give proof that this thing is happening and trying to get the editors to publish it. But that’s not the case, as we see with Syria.

19:57

JFL: In 1995 you called me and I was expecting you to promote your own work. But you told me I should show Chechnya from all the photographers who were there. That struck me about you. You are so generous.

SG: I believe in the community of photography. I believe in the idea of photography. I believe  we have to give each other a helping hand. I think it’s important to bring up photographers who have fallen through the cracks.

I always think of Emanuel Ortiz, who photographed the Bosnian war with his own money. He did amazing work but he was constantly broke. And yet, the tragedy is, his pictures are great. You say to yourself, why isn’t this guy getting published and grants? It makes no sense to me.

I honestly felt when I came to you with that idea for Chechnya, it was important for people to see all the different photographers, including the Russian photographers. We even found Chechen photographers.

JFL: We had 93 photographers.

SG: It’s important for all of us, when we discover talent, to try and help them. I wish there was more of it. I love my colleagues in the field, like brothers and sisters, but sometimes they get caught up in working. Sometimes there is a young photographer who just needs a helping hand, who just need to be invited into the car. Sure there is a pecking order, but we have to help each other.

[He continued with a story of a young photographer who was kidnapped after an older photographer didn't want to let him come in his car.]

20:07

JFL: You have an ongoing project on e-waste. So 10 months ago it was a project you started to think about. Now you are eating and sleeping and breathing e-waste. You went to Nigeria, India, China. Why did you pick this feature?

SG: I always pick the hard stories. It’s funny, I was sitting here today looking at Camille Seaman’s work with the icebergs. I had an assignment to photograph Greenland a while ago, and I didn’t want to do it. But everyone at NOOR said, you should go. It’s beauty. You’ve done so much war and crisis; it’s having an effect on you. So I went and I was on this glacier and I looked over the edge and I saw this mound of electronic waste. Then I found out that ships would come there and dump it because they didn’t have room for it.

So I became fascinated by what was going on with this. And I have to say, I have  a lot of interns and assistants, and they do a lot of research for me. God bless them. I couldn’t do this alone. For this project they came up with this information. We discovered that Ghana, Nigeria, India, China, and Pakistan were the worst offenders of e-waste dumping. Then we found out that people were getting sick and dying because of the terrible things in this waste.

Then we also discovered child labor, slavery, all sorts of crimes against humanity, all so that we can have our toys. When you see a room as big as this auditorium full of computer boards and this little old lady breaking them up. Then you see her hands are all broken out because of the chemicals….it really had an effect on me.

[A photo of people in pain comes up while Stanley is making a joke.] I really have a problem of putting pictures like this up. I think we really have to give dignity and respect to these people’s lives, sometimes in death. Whenever I exhibit work, I have certain rules, like that you shouldn’t drink during those.

JFL: Do you think because of your images there will be fewer kids working on e-waste?

SG: No. It’s money. There is one town where million is coming in for this stuff. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I have friends with five cell phones. What I am trying to do is slow it down a little bit.

While I was working I met these protesters who said that in one of these factories, you know, they have to assemble 300 phones per hour. Something broke one day and this woman was trying to pull this lever to stop the machine. Her hand got caught, she was pulled into the machine, and then her head was being crushed. The managers came and they decided that, because they would have had to break the machine to get her out, it was too expensive. So they waited until she died and then pulled her body out. That story will be in the text of my book on this. It’s important for people to know about the sacrifices being made so that we can have our toys.

20:13

JFL: And in all this you also covered Katrina, but with no assignment from an American publication?

SG: Katrina was a big story. I’m coming from Europe so I’m seen as an interloper. But I didn’t care. I thought it was an important story, and with a colleague I documented it for five years.

JFL: Can we stop on this picture? I love this story….so this is in Mosul.

SG: Like everyone else, I’m a big fan of Capa and you know the famous quote, which I won’t say, since we all know it. [Ed: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."] But my mom didn’t know the quote. So she went to this camera store and she said, my son is taking dangerous photos with this little camera and he has to get so close.

So my mom convinced me to get a 70-200 and a Canon (I always shot with a Leica). I didn’t know anything about zoom lenses; I like primes. So I went off to Chechnya and I pulled this camera out in front of Christopher Morris and I said, I really don’t know how to use this. And I swung it around and….

JFL: So this was your first picture with a zoom lens.

SG: Yes.

 

20:18

SG: Christian Cajoulle once said to me that he wanted me to be in Agence Vu because he thought I could capture the velvet and beauty of night. And his problem was that once I joined Vu, I ended up doing this more news stuff, less poetic, and he didn’t like that.

JFL: Then you decided to leave and start your own agency, NOOR. Why did you decide to do that?

SG: It started when we were all sitting around a bar complaining about our agencies, as photographers do. Originally it was just going to be a collective and we would stay in our agencies. But whenever you start doing projects with other people, it changes. We originally were going to be “Band Apart,” because we’re always going in as outsiders.

But with an agency, you have to be dictators. Otherwise, unless you all agree, you’re stuck. So I have new opinions about agencies now. NOOR is going to celebrate it’s 5th anniversary in September. It has growing pains like everyone else. It’s tough out there, but we’re going to get through it.

I like the idea of NOOR. It has a foundation in the U.S. and another in Amsterdam. That means we can get money to do projects, then funnel the images through the agencies and then down to the brother and sister agencies.

We really believe in magazines and newspapers. I still believe there is a place for us. I know newspapers are closing and magazines are changing, but I also know there are a lot of magazines we’ve never tapped into. There is nothing finer than holding a magazine or newspaper in your hand. You can take it to the toilet with you.

JFL: You can take your iPad too.

SG: But it gets hot.

20:25

JFL: Why are you still working in film?

SG: I’ll give you one good reason … I can’t remember the photographer’s name, but he was photographing Bill Clinton out saying hi to young girls. He didn’t think anything of it. And then Monica happened and he realized he had this photo [of them together]. He didn’t think it was anything originally. If it had been digital, he would have deleted it.

Then let’s talk about when I went to Katrina with my Leica M8, which takes an SD card, about the size of a postage stamp. There was this amazing photo of George Bush making this retreat in the Gulf, when he saw all these protesters waiting for him. So there was this photo I took of a protester throwing a flag at George Bush. It was perfect. And I said to myself, “yes.” You should never say, “yes,” because god has a way of saying, “no.”

Then later I was standing on this bridge with the slots in it and the card came up full, so I pulled it out, and it was rainy and windy, and that SD card fell out of my hand and right through those holes and into the river below. I didn’t use digital for a year after that. I even took a roll of film out of my pocket when that happened and I dropped it on the grate to make sure it wouldn’t fall through the cracks.

But film is hard. Customs and control, they see film and they think you’re a drug dealer. And then putting it through the x-ray machines clouds it. But—there was this photo in my upcoming show, of a man in an e-waste dump, praying, and in the background there is this effect where the people look like ghosts. That’s because of what happened when it went through all the x-rays. So sometimes accidents create really interesting things with film.

JFL: There is an image in your show here that is a triple exposure. Was it on purpose?

SG: No. The problem is, I put it in the wrong pocket and then took it out and loaded it again. But it works.

20:36

JFL: So when will be your first story with an iPhone?

SG: Never. Hm, I’m going to get in trouble. The man who invented the cell phone, he said recently he couldn’t believe what has happened to his invention. His intention was to help us communicate and now it’s so far beyond that. Wim Wenders says that it’s gotten to the point that, when he takes photos, he has to turn off his phone, because the fact that it’s also a camera kind of makes him nervous.

Now you have these apps that do all these effects. I don’t think that’s photography. I think photography is looking.

To be taking a photograph like this picture [of a Chechen woman who was killed], I would feel kind of shitty using a phone for this and then trying to play artist after the fact.

I’ve also discovered that when you’re photographing someone, you don’t take your eye off of them to go chimp the pictures. That’s respect for your subject. When you’re really focused on them, they can feel it and they are willing to give something to you.

JFL: Karim Ben-Khelifa used his iPhone in Syria because it was too dangerous.

SG: Ok, and I should say that Tim Hetherington, who I have to say is one of the huge guys, he went off to Libya and he couldn’t get an assignment. He was fascinated with the clothing of the rebels. So he shot it with an iPhone and sent the images to Jamie Welford, and just after Jamie got them, Tim was killed. I guess I can’t fault him in that instant, for wanting the magazine to see what he meant. I know that for what he did, the pictures were straight, no manipulation. I think there can be a balance. I’m trying to be less rigid.

You can’t do this alone. You need lots of people around you. Your fixers and drivers and girlfriends and wives. And sometimes you have to admit that you’re wrong. That’s maturity.

JFL: It’s interesting you are talking about all those people. And at the same time you are talking about this book [Open Wound] you are about to finish that is so personal. It is your diary. And you are telling us everything about you. Your life, your beliefs.

SG: Yeah, the designer got me on a good day. When he started to do the interviews, I had no idea it was going to take that form. He also sort of bugged my phone. I didn’t know he was recorded everything. He got it all.

The funny thing is, I won’t go into it, because it’s not important except to me anymore…there there was a time when I wasn’t in great shape. So he said, if you’re going to do this, you have to be honest. And I sort of resisted. But everything in there is the truth. We got to that point where, I guess they say, the truth will set you free. And I guess I dealt with some demons. And demons as a photographer.

JFL: Will it be reprinted?

SG: Well I got sued by the parents of one of the girls in a photo. But yeah, we’re trying to get it reprinted. I like Open Wound. And I’d like to get it in more languages. Nan Goldin told me, when you do a book, it no longer belongs to you. You put it out there to the world, and you just have to walk away from it. Then she also said when she sees her book in a store, she wants to rip the pages out.

But for this book, it’s who I am. And hopefully, after I’m gone, it will answer some questions I can’t anymore.

20:39

[Audience questions]

Q: I was curious why you don’t rewind the film all the way into the canister [when the triple-exposure happened].

SG: Well, ok. On the x-pan, when it makes that whir noise, it doesn’t go all the way in. You’re supposed to take it out and finish rewinding it. And when you’re loading really fast, I would forget to wind it all the way in.

I honestly believe that photography is 75% chance and 25% skill. Like Man Ray’s rayograms, which happened because Lee Miller opened the door while he was developing. That’s one of the problems I have with digital. There’s nothing finer than putting a piece of paper in chemical and seeing an image come up. That’s magic. They used to burn people at the stake for that.

20:45

[Image of man burned in front of a crowd]

Q. Can you tell us about this image?

SG: I was in Fallujah and I wanted to cover the insurgents, or POIs as people call them, pissed off Iraqis, and it turned out that my driver was an insurgent. He said, you know during the day I protect you and keep you safe; at night I go off and plan to kill Americans. And that sent a chill through me.

Then one day he said, would you like to meet some insurgents? And I said, NO. He said, no no, we’ll just show you the guns. So I said, ok. We were driving on our way to photograph some insurgents and this incident had just happened. Al Queda had fired RPGs at Blackwater contractors, and they weren’t dead, so they poured gasoline on them and hung them from a bridge.

What really got me was that, I didn’t know this at the time, they cut them down so that I could photograph them. To photograph people like me, Americans, on the ground like that, that starts to question your whole moral code, everything. You are taking this picture and these people are laughing like they are at a barbecue. That’s a chilling experience. To be quite honest, it’s never really gone away. It stays with me on many levels.

The super tragedy of this photo, I’ll add, is that after I took it, I thought it was important that people saw it. We got it to Newsweek, they were ready to publish it, and in the 12th hour they decided not to publish it—not because of the content, but because it was going to be sitting right next to an ad for an SUV. And then Picture of the Year, in Time magazine, they published it as an award-winning photo.

20:47

Q. When you invest yourself so deeply in the work you’re doing, how do you cleanse your spirit? How do you recover and go on?

SG: Actually, I learned it from Gene Smith. I listen to music. I listen to rock ‘n’ roll. I’m into Black Mountain, Black Keys. I’m also addicted to TV series and mysteries. And also just trying to be normal and put some of it behind you. And trying to grow up…not be the kid running around and being crazy.

20:50

Q. You talked about the use of the phone as a camera, and I have one of those. But does it really matter what tool you’re using in the end?

SG: No, the problem I have is, especially doing this e-waste thing, we have so many of them. I was in China, I saw this young, hip Chinese girl, in a village where they’re super poor and collecting e-waste, but some of them have gotten very rich and have all the newest things. She was sitting there with this incredible iPhone, and she said it was the 5 [which hasn't officially been released yet]. And I’d spent the day photographing the 4 getting crushed.

20:52

Q. Is there a photo that you’ve taken and shared that you wish you could take back?

SG: It’s fortuitous you mention that. There is a picture of a woman, she’s lying on the floor dead, and I was shooting downward and at the time I thought it was important. But at the time of the edit, maybe I have to be more conscious. I’m surrounded by people who point this stuff out to me.

I’m trying to be a better person. I’m trying to be more conscious of where and how I point my camera. There are some pictures I think I might not take now. I’m trying to bring more humanity to being a photographer. I’m 63 and I think I’m going to keep taking pictures, so I think it’s my responsibility to set a good example.

20:55

Q. As a young photographer, I wanted to ask about fixers and how you find them.

SG: A lot of research. And calling up colleagues and friends and saying I know this person, they might be able to help you. Sometimes just walking up to a taxi kiosk and he becomes your driver. Going to universities and find a young person who wants to make some money. People will write to me and ask to be assistants. It’s like that. I’m wide open to somebody, if they want to work with me….but I’m in a real strange period because I’m starting to question things more. We’re all taking on assistants and take them along with us but we aren’t paying them. So I’m trying to find other ways to give back.

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  • Darren

    Awesome documentation of an awesome talk at the Paramount!