One of the most iconic photographers over the last fifty years must be Steve McCurry. He was one of the first photographers to come to my attention in my formative years (along with other luminaries such as McCullin and Salgado). What I immediately enjoyed about his photography was his use of colour. Later in life I realised that it was his use of light to form that colour that caught my eye. Latterly and after buying his book ‘Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs‘ (Phaidon, 2013) I realise that it is his whole approach to photography that I enjoy, from the world famous ‘Afghan Girl‘ (1984) to his work in Kuwait in 1991 and beyond. The two years mentioned were very much during impressionable years for me. In 1982 I was ten years old and had just sat, riveted, through the Falklands conflict under the impression I was seeing unabridged access to the war. It was only later I discovered that the media coverage was very much censored both by the government in Whitehall and at source by the commanders of the convoy. Brian Hanrahan’s classic quote ‘I counted them all out and I counted them all back again‘ came about because he wasn’t allowed to give the numbers of aircraft that had set out on the mission. So by the age of ten I was becoming inducted in to the media coverage of war zones (the cold war was also still raging at this point). So at the point where Steve McCurry’s photographs started to come to my attention I was already using a 35mm Praktica MTL5 (the name sticks, I have had many cameras since, but this was my first). Of course I couldn’t work out at that point what I liked about his photos, much less disseminate them. But they were there, in the back of my consciousness.
Fast forward to Desert Storm in 1990-91 and I was at college studying, amongst other things, photography and media in general. All of a sudden these amazing images started coming through of the infamous burning of the oil fields in Kuwait as Saddam Hussein retreated from Kuwait. What struck me in these photos was that, although McCurry was still using the trademark colours, his photography had taken on a very dark intonation. Many of his photographs, although taken with colour film were almost monotone or duotone, the amber burning oil fields lighting up the oil darkened sky. His use of light was incredible, shooting at very slow speeds just to get an exposure such was the darkness he found there (both physically and metaphorically). The mix of pitch black oil and flaming reds are fundamental to the series. In fact these colours are practically all that appear; the red of the flames, eyes of a bird, blood on a body, Red Adair’s fireman’s uniforms, all juxtaposed against the hideous oil blackened landscape. This slide show with commentary from McCurry gives a good overview of the kind of images I am trying to describe here. It’s a great example of the consistency needed to produce an outstanding narrative and McCurry is king of this art.
The other thing that started coming to my attention was that, as fantastic as these photographs were, there was something else. This person was actually there, in the thick of it. And here I think is the crux of what makes a great documentary photographer and something that is generally overlooked when the viewer sees the images in front of them. The ability to make these photographs is not just a technical one, it is a mental one. The drive that these various Nat Geo, Magnum and many other agency photographers have is to tell that story. Many photographers have lost their lives doing so (Tim Hetherington springs to mind). Some photographers have realised in time that they are treading a fine line and have got out in time (Don McCullin comes to mind here). But in all cases these renowned and also relatively unknown photographers are driven, occasionally to their own destruction, by the unsurmountable intent to get that story and show the outside world the truth. The single most outstanding quality that these photographers have is tenacity. Like a dog with a bone they cannot and will not stop until they have told the story or, in some cases, have quite literally died trying.
Salgado’s latest monumental exhibition and subsequent book, Genesis (2013), took him eight years to photograph and compile. His resolve was to find the still pristine parts of the planet and photograph them by any means at his disposal. Salgado says that he ‘followed a romantic dream‘ making it sound like it was something easily achieved. I would suspect on the contrary. The exhibition when I saw it in both London and Singapore was immense, almost too big to comprehend (maybe that was the idea). So large that, by the end of it, I was actually photo fatigued. As always with Salgado the technique was flawless and the images both mentally and physically awe-inspiring but, perhaps more notable than this, was the tireless pursuit of the ever disappearing natural world and it’s photographic treasures. This was not by any means his first foray in to long term projects, others include Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000). These, among his other works, show the massive commitment that he makes to his photography and more than that, to his core beliefs and ethics. While Salgado may be one amongst few who take their photography to these sort of lengths, most documentary photographers give up huge lumps of time to achieve their ultimate goal of starting and finishing a story.