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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Les Stone: How A Photojournalist Used To Work

Untitled (Liberia, Boy with Guns), 2004

This photo from Iraq won second place in 1991 World Press Awards.

I've known Les Stone for years, and hired him several times, including when I was the Director of Photography at Brill's Content and I sent him to cover both the Democratic and Republican Conventions of 2000, only to see the editor decide to use 2 photos of what was supposed to have been a multi-image photo essay.
I wanted Les to talk about his past and the way photojournalism used to be. Those days are basically gone, and it's a crime that so many talented people can't find work anymore and stories aren't being told. Les has won several Picture of the Year and World Press awards among others. He has some fascinating stories to tell, so here goes.

How did you become a photographer?
By chance really, I met another student at Hampshire College on my first day--Doug Dubois, also a great photographer—and asked him what he was going to do at college. He said that he was his school's yearbook photographer, and it seemed like a good thing to do. Well, after previous years of college and screwing around--I was 20 by this time--a giant bulb lit up over my head and I thought wow, that was a great idea. I thought how easy would this be and get me through college without too much work. How wrong I was, I had a lot of catching up to do. I had never taken a picture in my life and it was extremely hard, those days to shoot film, develop and spend all night in the dark room.

The interesting thing is that my father always had cameras with him, mostly I remember the Polaroids, as he was obsessed with the Polaroid. He took thousands and thousands of photographs, which really annoyed the hell out of me when I was a kid, so this was a radical idea, but also a natural fit when I had my light bulb epiphany.

How did you choose photojournalism?

I had always looked at magazines and wondered what it was like to travel, and I looked at the picture stories and was jealous of the people who's lives were not passing them by. They were participating in history and life as it happened. Photography turned out to be many things at once for me as I soon discovered. I was an angry teenager, so photography was catharsis, therapy, and a way of expressing myself without having to resort to violence. It was my way of relating to the world around me. I soon found out I was attracted to violence and adrenaline. While other students were feeling their way through fashion, fine art and experimenting, I was out shooting anti-nuke demonstrations. Getting tear-gassed, maced, and hit with police batons was unbelievably exciting. That's what I became after all the struggle, what I like to think of as a photojournalist.

After school I came to NYC, completely unprepared for work as a photojournalist, never worked for a paper or any publication. I had no idea how to do anything--it was a rude surprise. So I went to work for a series of fashion and corporate photographers, hating every moment of it while learning a lot about the business. Three years later I had the opportunity to find a job through the New York Times of all places for a position as an assistant to the MTA photographer on Madison Ave. He gave me that opportunity and six months later he left me with his job. I was unprepared but grateful, and so for almost 4 years I worked at the MTA photographing the transit system citywide and doing handshakes and learning the corporate role, all the time dreaming of traveling to shoot news stories. In 1987 I saw a blurb in a paper about the upcoming election in Haiti. After three decades the Haitian people had thrown out the Duvalier family and now they had their chance at free and fair election. It was said that it might be very violent. This seemed like my opportunity, as Haiti was close to the U.S. and I was dying to get out of what I was doing.

I landed in Port-au-Prince the night before the election and by 6pm the next day I had seen about 50 men, women and children murdered, had my car almost shot out from under me and been scared out of my wits. This was my trial by fire and introduction to photojournalism in all its morbid glory. I was hooked. Foolishly heading toward the gunfire, I was completely enraptured. I was interviewed by a NYT reporter when I returned from a scene of a massacre, my car all shot up, and was in print the next day-- everyone read it and I felt like a star. Even though embarrassingly, after risking my life and seeing all the horror of killing, I had no pictures in my camera because of a malfunction. Devastating.

This 1989 Panama election photo won a POY Award

Two years later I went to Panama for the election of Manuel Noriega. I was still at the MTA, so I was using my vacation time. Lucky for me I met some wonderful and experienced photographers when I got there--Christopher Morris, Wesley Bocxe, PF Bentley, and others who had been covering Latin America for years. I got Reuters to agree to at least look at my film when I brought it in, figuring that if they used anything I could at least offset some of my expenses. I got lucky and photographed the presidential and vice-presidential candidates being assaulted by Noriega's paramilitaries on the streets of Panama City. Ron Haviv and I were the only ones to get this scene along with a French TV cameraman. Since the US had great interest in Panama and its election, these pictures went all over the world. They were very alarming photographs, and George HW Bush held up my photographs on the cover of the Washington Post at the next day’s press conference for everyone to see--to show why Noriega had to be stopped. Ron Haviv had the same sort of coverage in all the major magazines. We always thought that because of our photographs we were responsible for the invasion of Panama six months later--the power of photography.

Fast forward, I get a call from JP Pappas at Sygma in NYC, (a famous French agency) asking for me to ship all of my pictures from Panama to him. They sell them all over the world and I make lots of money. In the end I end up working with Sygma for the next 11 years until Corbis buys them.
When with Sygma I covered everything from US stories to the red carpet, to wars in such places as Kurdistan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. I did everything with Sygma and I'm grateful, winning about a half dozen POY and World Press Awards.

What was your scariest assignment?

The scariest assignment I ever had was in Ethiopia, when I got chased down by about a dozen fleeing soldiers from Mengistu's palace guard who jumped off a tank and opened fire on me. I lost (slipped and dropped) all my cameras and barely escaped with my life, turning my head around at one point while running to see the lead soldier slow down, stop, bend down, pick up my cameras, fall on his knee, aim his AK-74 at me, and fire a burst, hitting the wall over my head directly in front of me. If not for dropping my cameras he would have killed me. The next day one of those cameras, with the film still in it, was returned to me from that same blown up tank found by Mohammed Amin, the famous BBC cameraman now dead.

But I have to say, for sustained fear over a long period of time, Somalia was without doubt the worst scariest place on earth, with no break ever from feeling like somebody was going to kill you.

What was the best assignment you ever had?
It's hard to say what the best assignments were, they are all different and incredible in their own ways, even just meeting people and hanging out with them. They were all incredible and I learned from all of them.

What have you done recently?
I had a grant from to photograph health care issues in Appalachia, primarily in West Virginia. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, black lung disease, etc., are some of the worst health care issues in Appalachia. Some areas of Appalachia are the poorest in the United States, akin to the Third World, with no health insurance and terrible diets and disease.

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
The best advice anybody ever gave me was never to go out in combat with a crazy photographer who had that thousand-yard stare, they would take too many chances and get you killed. And also, never go out with a greenhorn, because you could get killed looking after them.

What's your favorite country?

I like Vietnam as a country to travel around, love the food and the people.

Where is photojournalism going?

Photojournalism, the way it used to be accomplished is dead, I see it as a losing battle now. For so many different reasons that we all know. Some people have hope in new mediums, I don't. If you NEED to make a living as a photographer, then you’re sunk for the most part. The future of photojournalism is free--look around you. It’s false wishful thinking that it will come around again. Sorry but that's my opinion. I say good luck to all the young idealists.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Fabulous interview, and so discouraging. What's happening to photographers is like what happened to designers and typesetters when programs like PageMaker came along. Now everyone can do it, and most people don't know enough to be able to tell who does it well and who does it badly.


July 31, 2009  
Anonymous Mark said...

Media the way we knew it is dead but images from visual interpreters will never be dead... or free.

The idea of free simply isn't sustainable because people have an intrinsic aversion to something they can get for free. Simply put; something you don't pay for isn't worth anything... People will start to be more discriminating visual consumers. They'll learn to recognize the difference between a PageMaker layout by the guy next door and one by a full-time pro just as they'll learn the difference between an image from citizen journalism and a photo by Suau or Haviv or ...

And soon media companies are going to start realizing that cheap content makes a cheap publication. Then, slowly, they'll have to start buying quality work again.

The market has certainly changed and we're in the midst of something extraordinary -- but once the dust settles the continuing glut of free (and thus necessarily lower-quality) images will ultimately be what will make high quality work valuable again. We won't get hired for knowing the tools or difficult processes -- we'll get hired for our knowledge of our medium and ability to communicate within that medium with directness and strength. The tools (PageMaker and digital cameras and the like) that we thought were our killers will turn out to be exactly what they are -- just tools.

To all the other idealists I say work hard and hone your skill because this upheaval will ultimately present opportunities never imagined by those who came before us...

August 01, 2009  
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