Once photography gets a grip, you’re captive’: Don McCullin and Giles Duley in conversation

When the photographer Giles Duley was 18 years old, he was given two presents by his godfather: a camera and a copy of Unreasonable Behaviour, Don McCullin’s autobiography about his life as a photojournalist in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Biafra, Lebanon and London’s East End. The book was illustrated with McCullin’s acclaimed black-and-white photographs, images of war and human suffering that helped define the conflicts they described. It was a book that bowled Duley over. Today, the two men sit opposite each other in McCullin’s quiet cottage on the Somerset levels – as far removed from the horrors of war as can be imagined. The excuse for their meeting and for our conversation is a major retrospective of McCullin’s work at Tate Britain, opening next week. Not that any excuse is required because, as they reveal, they are friends already.

On 7 February, 2011, while involved in a photographic project studying the impact of war on soldiers in Afghanistan, Duley was “embedded” with the 1st Squadron of the 75th Cavalry Regiment of the US army and blown up by a landmine. He became a triple amputee. Most soldiers with similar injuries do not survive. But one of the many astonishing things about Duley (who is at pains to point out that his subject is not war itself but its aftermath) was that his first thought when he realised he had retained his right arm was: “I can still work as a photographer.”

US marines, the Citadel, Hue, Vietnam, 1968.
US marines, the Citadel, Hue, Vietnam, 1968. Photograph: Don McCullin/Courtesy of the Tate

Our focus today is on the Tate’s McCullin retrospective, which begins in 1959 with The Guv’nors, the first McCullin photograph published in the Observer – of a north London gang (McCullin was born in rough Finsbury Park) theatrically posed, looking out from the timbers of a burned-out building, each occupying his own space, as if about to burst into song. It was the Observer that gave McCullin his start, though it was the Sunday Times that made his name. The show includes his most famous pictures – such as the albino boy in Biafra, clutching the corner of a corned beef tin. But it features less familiar photos too. In a BBC4 documentary to be aired on 4 February, Looking for England, McCullin says that whenever he is away, the longing for home exerts the strongest hold. His pictures of the Somerset levels are seen through a glass darkly: pewter, silver and black – anything but bucolic, potential battlefields. In McCullin’s work, darkness is always visible.

Listening to the two men talk, affinities and differences emerge. Both have courage, empathetic vision and resist being described as heroic. But while Duley stays positive, McCullin, who once described war as “madness… insanity… schizophrenia”, is restlessly self-questioning – and although he is a gent with a wicked sense of humour, he can tilt into gloom, not about to let himself off any moral hook. Their conversation veers from growing up (both were dyslexic children) to dilemmas about what it means to photograph suffering, and each has a stab at addressing the toughest question of all: what can a photograph change? KK

Kate Kellaway: My first question, in the spirit of setting off, is what do you both take when you go into the field? What are the practical things that you need?
Don McCullin The right attitude really. You have to know why you’re going; are you committed to taking the risk? Particularly when one had a family, children, as I did. And then a lot of premeditation: “Will I be able to do this? Will I be able to do that?”

Giles Duley I always take Tabasco with me, because of the amount of terrible food I’ve had. And I always have a doorstop. In a lot of the places I work now, kidnapping’s become a big thing. So I always shove that in the door, then at least if somebody tries to kick it in, there’s a wedge on it. It’s funny how you have these little things from habit.

DMcC I used to take a crepe bandage in case I busted an ankle or something. And Ready Brek because I was always afraid of winding up with nothing to eat in the morning. There are all those niggling things.

Approaching evening, looking from Don McCullin’s house during winter 1991.
Approaching evening, looking from Don McCullin’s house during winter 1991. Photograph: Don McCullin

Giles, you have spoken before about how reading Don’s memoir Unreasonable Behaviour as an 18 year old inspired you. Why was that?
GD It’s interesting, because there was adventure and excitement, but what stayed with me were the photographs. There’s an image of a child soldier pointing a gun at other child soldiers [in Congo, 1964]. They are about 12 years old, fully kitted up with M16s and helmets. Growing up, I had actually wanted to be in the army, thinking it was glamorous, thinking war was exciting. And seeing images like that brought home what war was: an ugly, brutal thing. Every photograph I’d ever seen of war before that was about chaos, was about tanks, was about planes, explosions, people firing guns. But what stuck with me in Don’s pictures was the contact with people’s eyes. I think a lot of war photography, whether it’s accidental or deliberate, does glamorise war, but Don’s never has.

DMcC When you experience a calamitous day and see bullets flying over and shells coming and you survive that day, there’s no doubt, the adrenaline’s at full blast. But then this goes on for war after war until you come to the conclusion that you’ve been kidding yourself, thinking that war is exciting, and you forget that people are suffering and dying around you.

GD It’s interesting, hearing you say that. Obviously I was inspired by you when I was young, but I think what I do now, almost [follows on from] what you learned, what you hated about war. I set out not to document the war element but the consequences of war and what happens to civilians. So maybe I start from the point of understanding that you had reached. I learned from that and carried on. In my work, it’s always about that connection with the person’s eyes, or somebody holding hands, those little moments of intimacy, little gestures. That’s my continuation of Don’s work.

Don McCullin photographed by Giles Duley.
Don McCullin photographed for the Observer by Giles Duley, assisted by Alexander Brattell, at McCullin’s home in Somerset, January 2019.

DMcC A photograph should shout at you and tell you something’s wrong, that you’re not living in the right kind of world, something that words can’t explain to you. When I walked into a schoolhouse in 1969 in Biafra and saw 600 dying children, some of them collapsing and dying in front of me, I just cannot tell you what it was like, knowing I had my own children living in Hampstead at the time. When a picture like that is so bad, it’s easy to press the button, but it’s not easy to live with it. Morally, I’ve always had a terribly uncomfortable conscience about it. Trying to justify my work, in any statement, in any form or shape, is most difficult for me.

GD For me – and I’m sure it’s the same for Don – when you actually take a photograph, it’s not just etched on the camera, it’s etched in your mind. I can remember every photograph I’ve taken. And actually the photographs that really haunt me are the ones that nobody sees, the ones that for whatever reason don’t make the edit, don’t get published. Then you feel like you’ve let those people down, because they’ve entrusted you to take their photograph and it ends up in a folder somewhere.

But I think what I’m getting at here is are good photos found? Or made? Does the eye find the image?
DMcC It’s about the emotional – we’re not just photographers, we gather emotionally. A camera doesn’t mean a toss to me. I just put it in front of me and transfer the image through that piece of glass and that film. But I’m using my emotion more than I’m using that piece of equipment. And at the same time there’s a thousand thoughts going through my brain saying: “Is it right do this?” I’ve seen men executed and I haven’t photographed it and I thought my God, if my editor knew that I hadn’t pressed this button he’d give me the boot. But it’s my moral duty not to take that picture because the man who’s about to be killed hasn’t given me his permission.

GD Unlike Don, I’ve always been on the edge of conflict, [concerned with] the consequences of it. But definitely, there are times when you choose not to take a photograph. There’s always a moment when you connect with somebody’s eye or something happens and when somebody doesn’t want you to, it’s quite clear.

Local Boys in Bradford, 1972.
Local Boys in Bradford, 1972. Photograph: Don McCullin

DMcC When a man is standing in front of you about to die, you can’t help him. He’s crying and he’s looking at you. He’s looking up to where he thinks God is and he’s scrambling around like mad to this last chance to keep alive and you’re standing there, you can’t help him. You are ashamed of humanity.

So has doing the work changed your view of humanity over time?
DMcC Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s why I live here. There’s hardly anyone around here. I don’t have to communicate with people. I need to get away. I need to hide. I need a sanctuary, and this [his home in Somerset] is it.

You have said, Don, that you feel in some way that you’ve failed to do what you would like to have done through photography, but you can’t surely have thought that photography would put an end to war or human misery?
DMcC A lot of people wouldn’t understand what one means by “fail”. All I’m saying is that when one war’s cleared up, the next war is waiting in the wings and they seem to have got worse over the years. When I first started, there weren’t crazed 14-year-old boys in west Africa with machetes, lopping off the arms of people and babies and children. You thought it couldn’t get any worse than that and then along came Isis, setting fire to that Jordanian pilot in that cage. And if you think about the two most important pictures that came out of Vietnam, one was the girl running down the road, which was taken by Nick Ut (although everyone thinks I took that picture… I don’t know why) in 1972. The other picture was Eddie Adams’s 1968 picture of the police chief shooting the man in the head. It took several years after them for the war to end. So that’s what I’m getting at. Do we change anything? The pictures didn’t stop the war, did they?

GD People ask: can you change the world with your photograph and I would say, no, but maybe we can inspire the people who do. A couple of years ago, I got a letter from a man in Australia who had just got into medical school. He really struggled growing up, at home and at school, but he had a picture of mine on his wall, one I took in Afghanistan. “That’s what made me want to be a doctor,” he said. Every day, he would look at that photograph to remind himself. Honestly for me, if that’s the only impact my work’s had then it’s great. And Don says his work hasn’t changed anything, well it changed my life. It made me do what I do.

On the pier at Eastbourne in the 1970s.
On the pier at Eastbourne in the 1970s. Photograph: Don McCullin

DMcC If I can just go back to Giles: if I had suffered what Giles has been through, I wouldn’t feel the way I do. He is justified in pressing that button more than me because he’s actually paid this appalling price. He knows the price of pain. If I’d been through what he’s been through then I wouldn’t have this guilt about pressing the button [while knowing] I can walk away, get on an aeroplane and go back to safety.

GD I always have that trump card! I was walking around Mosul in a hospital a couple of years ago and people had lost their legs. I was joking: “Well it’s only one leg, what are you fussing about?” I’m one of the few people who get away with that. But I remember before I got injured, photographing a boy in South Sudan who’d been shot in the stomach and kidneys and I was just alone in a little mud hut with him, because the doctors had left. I pointed my camera and took a photograph and almost vomited afterwards because I felt so sick at what I’d just done. You think you’re there for the right reasons because it’s important that the story is told. But pointing a camera at a dying person, if you did that in London in the street, people would think you’re the most vile person in the world. So why is OK to do it because we’re abroad? It’s not a human thing to do.

DMcC I think really where we pay the price, or me personally, is at night time. When I go to bed, if I allow the trigger to switch on, it all relives itself with such clarity. A lot of people say: “Oh, the picture you did of the albino boy starving” [must have been the worst moment], but it wasn’t the worst experience I ever had. I never even took a picture of the worst experience I had. I found a man once in Salvador, when the rebels had captured this small town, who’d lost the whole of the lower part of his face from his nostrils, all the jaw had gone, the whole lot. He’d been hit in the face with a couple of bullets and ripped all the rest of his face.

Early shift, West Hartlepool steelworks, County Durham, 1963.
Early shift, West Hartlepool steelworks, County Durham, 1963. Photograph: Don McCullin

Giles, can I ask you an amazingly dangerous question? Well, it’s more personal than dangerous. But I can’t understand to this day why you got injured when you were in the hands of the American army – what do they call it? Embedded?
GD Yes, embedded [attached to a military unit involved in armed conflict]. It’s interesting. You’re under fire and you have to go where you’re told. In South Sudan, and Congo, I was used to always being on my own. When you’re with a group of soldiers like that you actually lose some of your gut instincts and the way you normally work. I certainly wouldn’t blame them, but it’s interesting that the time I got injured was when I was not fully in control of what I was doing.

DMcC They were responsible for [your] injuries, in my opinion, not you.

GD But then in a lot of places that you have been, say, Vietnam, you might have been with American troops but you wouldn’t hold them responsible for your safety?

DMcC No. But in those days, you weren’t embedded. You got the rank of major, jumped on a helicopter and went where you wanted. They didn’t care if you got killed. I have to say, my son was in Afghanistan with the Marines, only for six months, but all the time he was there I was thinking of you and I thought, it’s such a selfish thing for me to say, I didn’t want him to come back horrendously injured the way you did. He came back and, he was fine, he’s happy. I was making out it didn’t worry me, but I was worried to death.

You were thinking like a father. Giles has paid a huge price, but also, you have to reflect on the part that luck plays…
GD Well of course. I see myself as the luckiest man in the world. Only 20 people in this country have even survived being blown up and losing three limbs. Eighteen months later I was back in Afghanistan working. I’ve travelled to 14 countries in the last year on my own. I have everything I ever wanted in my life, plus a lot more experience, a lot more understanding of life and death, my empathy, my connection with people.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1970.
Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1970. Photograph: Don McCullin

It’s clear from your autobiography, Don, that war photography is not a great career choice in terms of your private life?
DMcC It can ruin you. That is what happened with my first marriage, although my children have come back to me in a very generous way and forgiven me. We’re a very close family but photography – it’s not all good.

GD No. And even if you are forgetting the dangers, it is just the amount you’re away. Something else might be planned and then you just go off… It is selfish. I mean there is no way around that.

DMcC It is a dangerous mistress, and it’s one of those love affairs that never ends, you know. It just never ends. You’re totally captive to photography once it gets a grip of you.

GD I don’t know if I’ve ever told you the story of when I flew back to Birmingham from Afghanistan, three days after I was injured. They wheeled me off the plane doped up on morphine and my sister said: “He’s trying to say something.” They took the oxygen mask off and she thought these were going to be my last words (they had said I wouldn’t make it through the night). My poor sister bent over and was expecting me to say” “I love you” or” “I’m sorry.” I whispered to her: “I’m still a photographer.”

You both do wonderful work in black and white – it’s almost a hallmark for you, Don. What does black and white have that colour lacks?
DMcC I’ve done a few colour pictures, but I think in a way it starts kind of glamming it up a bit. You see colour, you think of Hollywood. But black and white is not truthful, is it? I mean, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. We use black and white as a weapon because it will shout and scream at you. You won’t miss the black and white, but you could walk past a colour picture.

GD For me, there is no truth in photography. It’s all our interpretation. If you stick me in a room and I look in one direction and take a picture, it’s different from what’s behind me. So in a way, black and white is saying it’s not true. It’s saying, this is an artistic statement of it. When I see a lot of colour photographs of conflicts…

DMcC … especially on digital…

GD Yes. It’s saying: “This is exactly the reality.” But it’s not. A photograph is still a fake thing. It’s one second I’ve taken out of the whole day; my version of reality. Black and white for me is honest, it’s saying, this is obviously not reality.

A Turk sprints from the exposed doorway of an old cinema in Limassol, Cyprus, 1964. It was McCullin’s first foreign assignment for the Observer.
A Turk sprints from the exposed doorway of an old cinema in Limassol, Cyprus, 1964. It was McCullin’s first foreign assignment for the Observer. Photograph: Don McCullin/Observer

The pictures I find most powerful are a bit like hauntings. They hang around.
DMcC They should. That’s what we try to bring. If I can haunt people with my pictures I have done my job.

Both of you had dyslexia as boys and I wonder whether your brilliance at photography was a way of finding a different, powerful way of communicating?
DMcC I suffered for being dyslexic. The schoolmasters used to knock seven bells out of me because they thought I was skiving. I took some terrible hidings from sadistic, Victorian schoolmasters who were the last of that legacy.

GD When I was 13, I was held back a year at school. When you’re that age, to be told you’re stupid and have everyone make fun of you leaves a huge imprint. So when at 18 I discovered photography, found all these photographers’ work, it was like discovering poetry or literature.

DMcC That’s what makes us so different, Giles. You had this amazing kickstart into culture. At the age of 15, I was working on a steam train going up to the north of England, washing up in the dining car. I was living out a raw life. I was watching nude shows! I used to sleep in the sheds in the railway sidings outside of Liverpool – Edge Hill – and I met this boy there who took me to this shabby old theatre in Liverpool. The women were naked – only from the waist up in those days – and they were not allowed to move. It was all done in a tasteful tableau.

Looking to the future of photography now, we are a culture saturated in images: are mobile phones and Instagram a menace?
DMcC Not a menace at all. Take the white helmets who risked their lives in Syria: phones were the only means of us getting information out. Photojournalism has had its day, though. When did you last see a really serious great set of pictures? Newspapers, even great newspapers, they’re almost running tabloid-type material of film stars and footballers and crap like that.

Page 11 of the Observer from 15 February 1959, featuring Don McCullin’s first published photographs.
Page 11 of the Observer from 15 February 1959, featuring Don McCullin’s first published photographs, of gang members in Finsbury Park, London, including (main image) ‘The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits’. Photograph: Don McCullin/Observer

GD Photojournalism has died because the outlets are just not there, but photography has evolved into something else. Citizen journalism is great. It’s great that anyone can take a picture. “Image fatigue” is a phrase that gets used a lot, but I don’t think it’s true that people cannot still feel the impact of an image. You put me into a school, which I love, and I show one photograph and tell the story and you’ll see these 15-year-old kids in tears. It’s not that people have lost the ability to take imagery in, it’s that they see so much and out of context. But if you [look at] it in the right space, let people have that time, then a black-and-white photograph, with those eyes, somebody looking at you, it has the same impact it has always had.

What about the work you do when you’re not photographing terrible things abroad? I’m thinking of your cooking Instagram pictures, Giles, and your pictures of the Somerset fields around here, Don.
GD I actually reached a point with the documentary, humanitarian work, I ended up photographing everything I hated in life. It sounds silly, but going back and starting to do some portraits again, I started enjoying photography in a different way.

DMcC I get a lot of letters – and you must get the same – saying: “I want to be a war photographer”. I say to people that’s fine, but there are just as many wars going on in our cities. If you want to be a war photographer, go out and help yourself. My best story wasn’t in a foreign war; my best story was the homeless story I did in the 1970s, in Aldgate, on the periphery of the great moneymaking part of this country, the City.

And that’s going to be in the Tate exhibition, isn’t it?
DMcC Yes. I’m more proud of those pictures and I’m more proud of the social pictures I did of poverty in the north of England than I am any of my war pictures. I’m not proud of my war pictures at all.

How do you feel about the Tate show?
DMcC It’s uncomfortable. We have to be careful what we do because if we do it too well we’re turning our work into icons. The word “art” – I absolutely hate it being associated with photography. Most American photographers now want to be called artists. I could come under a lot of fire for [being in Tate Britain] really, but I’m in an art gallery because I’m not in a newspaper. I have 60,000 negatives in this house and I have a really good collection of about 400 pictures I’m really proud of.

GD Yes, what’s the point in taking a photograph if nobody sees it? You have to find it, whether it be in a gallery, whether it be in a newspaper.

An image from Giles Duley’s book I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See: Photographs from the Refugee Crisis.
An image from Giles Duley’s book I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See: Photographs from the Refugee Crisis. Photograph: Giles Duley

I can’t resist asking you, Don, about how the Observer became the paper to commission you?
DMcC Yes, I started my career with the Observer, although the word “career” disturbs me, it’s a vocation. The paper published some pictures [of Finsbury Park gang the Guv’nors] that I sent on spec and then later the picture editor, Bryn Campbell, said: “Would you consider going to the civil war in Cyprus?” I [felt like] I was actually able to levitate; I thought I was really lifting off! I went with the Observer’s ecclesiastic correspondent, who was later killed in Swiss Cottage on a rainy night on his Vespa, to the city of Limassol. And that’s where I had my baptism of fire – I was in the Turkish quarter and there were all these bullets. I was just running around like a mad hare, I didn’t know what I was doing; I wasn’t focusing. And then I calmed down. That was my first time in war.

Finally, I wonder what it would actually mean for you both, to give up photography?
DMcC It will be the day I die. That’s when photography will be stolen away from me. I don’t intend to die yet, by the way. My most exciting time in my life is coming up on Monday at my exhibition. I don’t know why, I’ve had lots of exhibitions and all of a sudden I can’t sleep at night thinking about this one.

GD I made that comment about the words I said when I was taken into hospital. If I hadn’t been able to take a photograph again then I would rather have died in Afghanistan. Photography, it’s me. It’s my voice. Simple as that.



Luigi Ghirri a Parigi

La mappa del territorio delle emozioni e della fotografia di Luigi Ghirri, illumina Arte Fiera 2019, la Parigi di sempre e il paesaggio contemporaneo con nuovi incanti

Luigi Ghirri, L'Île-Rousse, specchio, riflesso donna


Certi spazi è tutta una questione di come li abiti. Qui o nell’incantevole L’Île-Rousse francese, basta il riflesso di un frammento di realtà, ad accendere la memoria, la fantasia, il desiderio del paesaggio umano, da scoprire con altri occhi e la complicità della luce (e parecchia emozione). In questo caso, anche grazie alla fotografia di Luigi Ghirri che mappa il territorio delle emozioni, dalla sua Modena in minigonna e l’Italia rivoluzionata dagli anni Settanta, al paesaggio del mondo a perdita d’occhio che continuerà a cambiare, restando profondamente uguale a se stesso, a noi (al contemporaneo). Grazie al cartografo di un territorio sovversivo, quanto la sublime relazione che intrattiene tra quello che è interno ed esterno, come la luce che regala nuovo incanto alla Parigi di sempre (ma attraversata con i tacchi alti). La Ville Lumière innamorata della luce, pronta a lasciarsi rileggerere dalla sua geografia della visione e del paesaggio contemporaneo con The Map and the Territory. Una retrospettiva illuminante e itinerante, esposta al Museum Folkwang di Essen e al Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia di Madrid, prima di arrivare in mostra alla Galleria nazionale del Jeu de Paume di Parigi (12 febbraio – 2 giugno 2019). Questo fine settimana anche ad Arte Fiera 2019con il suo interno italiano.

« Più che scattare fotografie, il mio intento era creare carte e mappe che fossero allo stesso tempo fotografie » – Luigi Ghirri

Da qui parte un nuovo viaggio, perché questa retrospettiva curata da James Lingwood, è la prima a lasciare l’Italia per concentrarsi su un decennio di profondo cambiamento per il mondo e la mappa del paesaggio della visione di Ghirri. Già profondamente consapevole di paesaggi di cartoneche hanno smarrito il confine con la finzione della pubblicità, o degli accessi di realtà di un paese dei balocchi, destinato a intraprendere un viaggio in Italiasenza precedenti.

« Cerco un punto di vista sul mondo esterno e una visione su un mondo più nascosto, interiore, di attenzione, di memorie spesso trascurate » – Luigi Ghirri

Negli anni Settanta la visione del paesaggio ghirriano inizia a stravolgere i luoghi comuni e gli stereotipi da cartolina, indugiando sul fascino delle piccole cose del quotidiano e gli orizzonti evanescenti del familiare. Quella dimensione poetica che abita le immagini, capace di spingersi oltre l’arcobaleno su una stradina di Alessandria, o i giochi in riva al mare di Rimini.

Luigi Ghirri, paesaggio, spiaggia di rimini
Luigi Ghirri, Lido di spina, 1974

© Eredi Luigi Ghirri
Luigi Ghirri, viaggi
Luigi Ghirri, Salzburg, 1977

Collection privée, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery © Eredi Luigi Ghirri
Luigi Ghirri, Modena, cartellone pubblicitario, coppia
Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1971

Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery © Eredi Luigi Ghirri


Questa grande retrospettiva riprende la cartografia della sua mostra Vera Fotografia, presentata nel 1979 al centro espositivo dell’Università di Parma, con un labirinto d’illusioni, e specchi che mostrano la verità. L’unica possibile per la fotografia. Quella di ogni sguardo.

Ogni frammento d’immagine continua il viaggio, partito con l’esplorazione dei codici della nostra rappresentazione della realtà, messi a fuoco tra le pagine di un Atlante (1972) geografico. Tra le pareti di casa e le pieghe dell’immaginario di un geometra dal temperamento visionario. Scomparso troppo presto (a quarantanove anni), mentre la sua geografia della visione e della fotografia, continua a illuminarci, senza risparmiare nuovi incanti al paesaggio contemporaneo.

« credo di aver appreso dall’arte concettuale la possibilità di partire dalle cose più semplici, dall’ovvio, per rivederle sotto un’altra luce » – Luigi Ghirri

Luigi Ghirri, Modena, minigonna
Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1972

CSAC, Università di Parma © Eredi Luigi Ghirri
Luigi Ghirri
Luigi Ghirri, Brest, 1972

CSAC, Università di Parma © Eredi Luigi Ghirri
Luigi Ghirri, vestito donna
Luigi Ghirri, Carpi, 1973

CSAC, Università di Parma © Eredi Luigi Ghirri

Il paesaggio interiore aspetta solo di essere esplorato, sentito, ma chi questo weekend passa per la 43esima edizione della Fiera internazionale d’arte contemporanea di Bologna, più approfittare dell’emozione dei luoghi che lascia emergere l’identità e il senso all’abitare, in mostra con Luigi Ghirri. Interno italiano. Per l’occasione, sabato 2 febbraio, un percorso guidato dalla curatrice Elena Re, apre all’arte anche il nuovo ufficio di Jacobacci & Partners.

Luigi Ghirri, Modena, ogghi, sguardo
Luigi Ghirri, Modena, 1973
source: Marie Claire

Photographing the Fake Holy Men of Varanasi, India

“Where should we go?” Melissa, my girlfriend, was trying to narrow down what seemed like a mountain of possibilities-places that were worthy of exploration. After a month of repeating that same question a million times, we finally settled on India.

Why? Throughout my 8-year career, I have seen such an overwhelming amount of photography. I have studied the greats in both photojournalism and commercial portraiture. Out of the millions of photographs, many of the ones I remember most vividly were from India. Every time I listened to top photographers speak, it seems like they all mentioned the same thing: how incredible and unexplainably magical India is.

Eventually, it was these comments and the related work that I love so much, that drove me to insist we go there.

Our goal was to stay in as few places as possible and go deep, instead of trying to see everything. We wanted to find a story, but didn’t want to go there with expectations and decided to figure out what that story would be once we arrived.

India is a massive place, and picking just a few locations was difficult, but one we settled on was Varanasi because of the many incredible portraits and accompanying stories about Sadhus: religious people who renounce worldly possessions and embark on a spiritual journey with the goal of reaching ‘moksha’, or spiritual liberation.

We booked our flights and accommodations and prepared for our trip.

I had always been excited to see the Ganges, or ‘Mother Ganga’ as it’s affectionately called by many followers of the Hindu religion. You see, the Ganges River is not just seen as a river, but as a holy and sacred entity. From where it rises in the Western Himalayas to its end-1,600 miles away at the Bay of Bengal-it is worshipped. Despite this, the river is highly polluted and the level of fecal coliform (E. Coli from human waste) is over 100 times the official government limit around Varanasi. Imagine my surprise when we arrived in the middle of the night and peered out our bedside window at a man bathing in it. As we realized the next day, this is extremely common.

The streets of Varanasi were packed with both animals and humans. What smelled like a mix of diarrhea and bleach permeated the air as heavily as the ashes of the dead. Varanasi, formerly Benares, is over 4,000 years old, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Much like the Ganges that it sits upon, it is sacred. The most sacred city in Hinduism and Jainism, in fact.

Hindus believe that to die there is to break the cycle of life and death, or to reach ‘Moksha’.

As a result, Hindus will travel from around the world to Varanasi as they (or their loved ones) age or fall ill. When the person dies, a family member will purchase wood that is placed along the Rivers edge. The body is placed on top of this wood pile and burned in the open. This is happening 24/7, 365. To walk along these ghats is to accept the ashes of the dead falling upon you.

Some things are harder to get used to than others.

From a visual perspective, the city was incredible. People toiling and working and laughing and smiling and swimming. It was all so striking. The character in people’s countenance was apparent everywhere we went.

Throughout my 8 years as a photographer, I’ve photographed a variety of content. As I matured in my work, I focused my efforts on environmental portraiture and knew I wanted to reflect the strength of my skill in this area within my portfolio. After seeing so many great photos of Sadhus taken by artists that I respect, I wanted to create some strong photos of these holy men. This was a large motivation for going to India.

I began wandering the ghats. There were many Sadhus.

After an hour or so of scouting, I approached a Sadhu who I thought had a particularly strong look. I sat down and had a good conversation with the man. Eventually, I asked if he would allow me to photograph him.

“500 rupees!” he demanded.

I was a bit shocked. As I mentioned at the start of this blog post, Sadhus relinquish all worldly possessions-including and especially money- in pursuit of spiritual liberation.

I explained to the man that I was there as a photojournalist and that to pay anyone or accept payment for a photo would compromise the integrity of my work and would, therefore, be unethical. I simply wanted to honor and document his culture. He made a motion with his hand, shooing me away. I happily obliged as an austere Sadhu would have never asked for money.

No problem. There were many more Sadhus in the area.

I approached one, then another, and another. They all demanded payment to take a photo of them. I can understand some Sadhus-like in any religion-not being as devout as others, however, I would not expect every Sadhu I approached to disregard one of the core tenants of their faith.

That night, we went back to our hotel confused and frustrated. I asked the gentleman at the front desk whom I had befriended over the previous days, “What am I missing?”

“Those are fake Sadhus. They are not real. They dress in a Sadhu’s clothing and grow dreaded hair in an attempt to fool foreigners into giving them money for photos. All of the real Sadhus are up in the mountains, and tend to avoid people.”

Suddenly it was starting to make a bit more sense.

There are many great photographs of Sadhus that have been taken over the years. I pulled out my phone and showed my new friend a few photos of these Sadhus. I asked if he knew where I could find REAL Sadhus like the ones I was showing him.

“Most of the men in these photos are not Sadhus. These are the same homeless men dressing up and fooling tourists that you saw today. I can take you and show you tomorrow.”

“Wait, so you’re saying many of these Sadhus aren’t legitimate?”


Oh. No big deal. Didn’t travel from the opposite side of the planet to find real Sadhus or anything…

…I couldn’t believe it.

I can see how what happened to me might have also happened to other photographers.

You think you are coming for one thing and discover it’s not what you thought. You realize you came around the world, spent your time, money and resources only to realize you are looking for a ghost. So you just take what you have, photograph the “fake” Sadhus and Aghori and continue to perpetuate the false narrative so that you can still come out with a ‘win’ and appear more legitimate. More ‘Nat Geo’ if you will. I just can’t do that.

The next morning, Melissa and I went out for some breakfast. On our way there, we were passing the ghats where they burn the bodies. A man stopped us and asked us to wait out of respect for a ceremony that was taking place. Despite being frustrated from the night before, we waited. and waited. and waited. While doing so, the man started to discuss the ceremony and tell us everything we already knew about what was going on. Eventually, my hunger got the best of me and I told him that we were just going to go up and around the entire ghat in order to not disturb anyone.

“1000 rupees!” he demanded. He actually expected us to pay him because he spoke to us for 10 minutes.

Unbelievable. Even the funerals weren’t off limits. At that moment, I felt like Varanasi was like a Disney theme park-all the characters dressed up imitating something it once was — a well-oiled machine, with its only legitimate truth being to extract money and scam people. Had he no shame? What kind of person is willing to stand on the backs of dead bodies in order to try to guilt and obligate someone into paying them money?

“Not happening.”

After eating our usual crepe filled with Nutella, we discussed our next move. It was then that we realized that we hadn’t lost our story, but gained one. We decided to spend the rest of the trip photographing these “fake” Sadhus to show just how legitimate they can appear. Knowing we wanted to write this story, we needed to show you examples of the Sadhus standing along the River asking for money in exchange for posing for a photo. Their attire and appearance is representative of how they looked when we found them:

Finally, it was time for us to journey back to Brooklyn. The gentlemen we made friends with at the hotel insisted on carrying our luggage a quarter mile back to our taxi. I admired their hospitality and hard-working attitude. This seemed to be a theme across all of the hotel workers and restauranteurs in India. I was happy to end our trip with this sentiment in mind.

45 hours after our plane took off from Varanasi, after many delays, a Kuwait police officer being more blatantly sexist than I’d ever seen in my life, and awesome airport lounges (thanks Chase Sapphire Reserve), we were back in Brooklyn. The whole flight back, thoughts kept racing through my head;

What does it mean to be a “real” anything?

How can we know ones true beliefs? Often, we struggle with answering this question for ourselves.

How closely do we need to follow our faith to be considered legitimate?

How much responsibility do we have as photographers, journalists, and travelers?

Does the tourist or naive photographer and the ‘fake” Sadhu deserve one another? Are they both not giving the same level of effort and depth towards their journey and commitments?

We want to go learn and empathize with another culture. We want to tell their story, and give a voice and platform to people who might not already have one. But we also want to be recognized and appreciated for providing that insight, doing something many aren’t willing to do. To find the truth. To find something real. Maybe that’s truly what we’re searching for. Something 100% authentic and pure. Maybe that’s the most important question of all;

How far do we have to go to find something real?

How much do our own expectations play into our idea of what that is?

If finally confronted with it, could we accept the truth even if it didn’t fit into our expectations?

This blur between legitimacy isn’t only present in India. There are monks in a Buddhist temple that are constantly over-charging for entry. Tribes in Ethiopia that set up near major roads and dress in more dramatic make-up than is typical of their village located a few miles away-all to gain more money from tourists. Young members of the Jewish faith going to Israel for ‘Birthright’, a program created to deepen their understanding of Jewish heritage, only to party in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Sexual abuse being perpetrated by Catholic priests.

There are a lot of important stories that need to be told, but this line of thought drives deep into human nature and truth itself. Something more timeless that goes beyond what we want to be and asks who we actually are. A string that I feel is worth tugging on, despite the wormhole that might ensue. So with that, I’m beginning a new series that will be titled, “Only God Knows.”

Now that I’ve had a couple months to reflect on our trip to India, I realize how much I’ve grown from it. It was so dirty, yet beautiful. Everything seemed fake but was so real. Humbling and rewarding.

There were many parts of the trip that I didn’t enjoy, but in a way, it was everything I wanted it to be.

You can’t really define India or put it in a box, and trying to understand why I want to go back again is enough to drive me crazy…

But hey, I guess I’m just drawn to the irony in India.


source:  PetaPixel

I Want Your Love

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Nel 2018 è uscito I want your love, il nuovo libro autobiografico del fotografo statunitense Richard Renaldi (1968). Attraverso un archivio di foto scattate per più di vent’anni, in questo volume Renaldi si chiede cosa significhi essere alla continua ricerca di se stessi e degli altri; s’interroga sul difficile rapporto con i genitori, e racconta gli eventi che hanno segnato di più il suo percorso personale, dalle proteste per i diritti civili della comunità lgbt alla scoperta di essere sieropositivo.

Fino al 15 marzo 2019 questo lavoro è al centro della mostra On love and other matters alla galleria Spazio Labò di Bologna. La mostra ospita anche delle serie inedite di Renaldi, tra cui Pier 45 e Hotel room portraits.

Pier 45 è un’indagine che Renaldi ha condotto dal 1993 al 2010 sul molo di New York che dagli anni settanta alla fine degli anni ottanta è stato un punto di riferimento per la comunità lgbt della città.

Hotel room portraits invece è una serie cominciata nel 1999 e ancora in corso, che Renaldi realizza con il suo compagno, il fotografo Seth Boyd. Ambientata in quattro continenti, consiste in una serie di ritratti scattati all’interno delle camere di albergo dove la coppia ha soggiornato, per riflettere sul tempo e sulla durata di una relazione.

Uno scatto che ha cambiato la storia

© Elliott Erwitt
© Elliott Erwitt

“White” e “coloured”, bianchi e neri, due aggettivi apparentemente innocui ma che hanno il potere di rievocare con prepotenza la segregazione razziale che dilaniò gli Stati Uniti negli anni Cinquanta e Sessanta. Tanti gli episodi che hanno segnato quel periodo storico. Uno, nella sua cruda ed efficace semplicità, è stato immortalato nella fotografia scattata nel 1950 nella Carolina del Nord da Elliott Erwitt. Nello scatto due lavandini, uno destinato ai “bianchi”, l’altro alle persone “di colore”, assurgono a simbolo di una umanità che, ancora oggi, fatica a superare le divisioni.

Street Photographer Hunts Down Life’s Uncanny Coincidences

Jonathan Higbee - Street Photography

All street photographers are hunters in one way or another, seeking out the perfect moments in life to frame an exceptional image. Jonathan Higbee takes this to another level through his work, which is based on observational skills so sharp they expertly pull out the instances in which people and objects align perfectly. The results are photographs that reveal the subtle coincidences that occur in daily life, ones that often go unnoticed unless captured in a still frame.

Higbee uses items in the urban environment—advertisements, architecture, graffiti—and seeks out moments where human interaction intersects to create a new narrative. Higbee, who was a finalist in the 2018 Hasselblad Masters Awards, first came upon the “coincidence” project by chance. After a day out shooting in Manhattan, he was back at home photo editing when he came upon something he hadn’t realized when photographing a glass-covered subway entrance.

Jonathan Higbee - Street Photography

“I came to this photograph and noticed something I had missed while making it—or at least wasn’t consciously aware of while shooting—a man reaching out to pull back a friend as the two seemingly teetered on the edge of the towering skyscrapers,” Higbee tells My Modern Met. “The unbelievable coincidence infused the image with an interesting, riveting narrative that elevated the work substantially. I was instantly hooked. I’ve been intentionally hunting the city for uncanny coincidences ever since.”

Higbee typically shoots daily, taking along a small camera that allows him to capture any moment he sees, even when out with friends or running errands. His technique differs from many street photographers, who roam the streets and shoot along the way. Higbee quickly realized that in order to find the coincidences he was after, he’d need to try another method. This led him to scout a location and sit in wait—often returning over the course of several weeks—until the coincidence reveals itself.

It’s a technique he first tested in 2015, and one of his favorite images is a testament to its success. In fact, he considers it the photograph that jumpstarted his career and allowed him to understand how he could unfold the work into a larger project. The image shows a man taking a photo with his camera, which aligns perfectly with a mural that engulfs what appears to be an unsuspecting model. Achieving it was a hard-fought victory.

Jonathan Higbee Contemporary Street Photography

“When I first found this location (a city block-sized Google Play ad in Times Square), I loved the graphic, minimal and clean background, so I decided to hang out for a half hour or so and see what unfolded. An hour went by and I still had nothing I was proud of on my SD card. But I could sense the potential for something great here, so I pledged to return as many times as necessary for that potential to be realized. I returned every afternoon for weeks on end!

“After almost a month of devoting my shooting to this spot, I was going to call it a lost cause and move on to another scene. Then this decisive moment materialized before my lens! So now, when I stumble upon a location that sends a tingle down my spine, I’ll return to it for as many days as possible until I either get the shot or the billboard/street art/etc. has been taken down. This photograph is the one that jumpstarted my career while at the same time changing my approach to, and philosophy on, shooting the streets.”

Jonathan Higbee Contemporary Street Photographer

Higbee’s work shows dedication, a quick wit, and even quicker trigger finger, as spying these moments and catching them before they pass by is a skill honed from years of careful practice. It’s work that encourages viewers to open their eyes to new perspectives, and delight in the small details of life.

Street photographer Jonathan Higbee specializes in capturing clever coincidences that occur when humans and objects in the urban environment intersect.

Jonathan Higbee - Street PhotographyJonathan Higbee Contemporary Street Photographer

Jonathan Higbee Contemporary Street PhotographyJonathan Higbee Contemporary Street Photographer

“If my work makes even one person pause and smile, maybe even laugh, then I’ve done my job.”

Jonathan Higbee Contemporary Street PhotographerJonathan Higbee Street PhotographerJonathan Higbee Contemporary Street PhotographyJonathan Higbee - Street Photographer

“I hope my work gives viewers a passion for modern street photography, which has evolved in exciting, conceptual ways that I’m so proud of.”

Jonathan Higbee Contemporary Street PhotographerJonathan Higbee Street PhotographerJonathan Higbee Contemporary Street Photography

“For those who are already fans of the street genre, I want my work to break boundaries and question preconceived dogmas.”

Jonathan Higbee Contemporary Street PhotographerJonathan Higbee Contemporary Street Photographer


source: My Modern Met