On the southern wall of photographer Brent Stirton’s downtown office hangs a map of the world. Perhaps this diagram of interconnecting, multicolored shapes is a much more realistic representation of Stirton’s office than a 10 x 10-foot room located among a sea of cubicles at Getty Images’s New York headquarters.
20 years ago, Stirton pursued a career in journalism only to discover that he couldn’t find a photographer willing to accompany him as writer to to the conflict zones that he was covering. Unfazed at just 22 years of age, he purchased a secondhand camera, read the manual, and started shooting his own images. Then came the South African elections in 1993, followed by Rwanda, the fall of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the famine in Somalia—all observed through the lens of Brent Stirton’s camera. A World Press Award came at the age of 27, awards and accolades kept coming, and Stirton kept shooting.
Today, the 42-year-old South African photographer travels to approximately 50 countries per year, investigating issues that affect the globe for partners such as National Geographic, Time Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times, WWF, The Ford, and the Rockefeller and Clinton Foundations. One of Stirton’s best-known images to date was published in Newsweek in 2007: a 600-pound male gorilla, one of six gorillas that had been murdered in a horrific massacre in Africa’s first National Park, Virunga. In the photograph, more than a dozen men respectfully and somberly carry the slayed animal out of the park. The images shocked the world, provoking international outrage. A subsequent investigation revealed connections with an illegal charcoal production industry operating inside the park and suggested that the killings were a statement of power intended to intimidate the Virunga park rangers working to protect their wildlife. It is these complex, interconnected issues that lie at the heart of Stirton’s work and to which he has devoted his life to investigating, documenting and unravelling. I recently caught up with the journalist this past September before he headed out the door for his next National Geographic assignment.
GEORGE MISCAMBLE: What have you recently been working on?
BRENT STIRTON: I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, looking at Virunga National Park. Virunga is Africa’s first national park and the second national park to be established in the wold. It’s of the most unique biospheres on the planet, and it’s also the home of the mountain gorilla. What’s been happening there is there has been an oil company called SOCO Oil, which is a British oil company with a majority of Norwegian shareholders. 10 months ago, the Congolese government said no to any kind of oil exploration in Virunga National Park. And then three months ago, SOCO Oil had managed to align themselves with enough people and the government overturned their decision. So basically what I have been looking at is how a government has about turned on a massive issue, and is now ready to take on an oil company that has connections to militia groups that have committed massive human rights crimes. They are also prepared to allow oil exploration in Lake Edwards, which is a source of the Nile and affects a whole system of waterways across multiple countries. So I’ve been looking at that.
MISCAMBLE: Sounds like you are dealing with some pretty big players at Virunga.
STIRTON: In a lot of post conflict countries, the first people to get there are the oil and mining companies and they are powerful. I see our job as to go, “Hold on a minute,” and just try and remember that all these efforts affect people.
MISCAMBLE: You have been working in Virunga for several years now, right?
STIRTON: Yeah, I think the people there understand me. I was there a few years ago. Some mountain gorillas were killed, and I made what turned out to be effective pictures of that. It changed my whole photography direction.
MISCAMBLE: And you’ve continued to go back.
STIRTON: Yes. I just left the Congo three months ago, and a week later the N22 rebels appeared on the team and killed a few rangers, there was a major ambush. And I wasn’t there for that. And I can’t be. That’s the difficult aspect of becoming successful in this business, is that you get booked up for a long time, and most of the time it’s also work that I feel for, and that I think is valuable. If you’re too busy, you can’t do everything you want to do or feel for, so you better make a really good job of what you have to do.
MISCAMBLE: I read that this year 34 journalists have already been killed while reporting around the world. How do you deal with that inherent danger in your profession?
STIRTON: You try to be smart about it. I don’t want to overdramatize that because I’m in at least two, maybe three conflict zones per year. I’m not a frontline journalist anymore. Maybe in the environmental section yes, but I’m not in Syria right now. Five years ago, yes, I would be, but that’s changed. And you know what’s really interesting about that is how much of it is your ego.
MISCAMBLE: Was the ego involved in that kind of work something you realized with age and experience?
STIRTON: The proving grounds that you have when you are younger change when you acquire some character as a journalist. You realize, “All right, I’d like to be in Syria making heroic images,” but you look at how many people die from natural causes every year, and then you work out how many die from disease, if you just look at something like malaria, there are five million kids, just kids, dying every year. In conflict zones, those numbers are far smaller. So when you really look at what the issues truly are in the world, you have to be careful not to run towards sensation. And I would never want to detract from the courage of the journalists covering classic conflict, but there are many conflicts in the world, and many of them are completely undercovered. I feel like we should pay more attention to this stuff. The proving grounds for journalists are quite traditional, and we need to move past that, because there is so much stuff that maybe is really more important and it’s just not spoken about. The causes and effects of conflicts are often completely unexamined. And more and more, in a world of diminishing resources, where you will be competitive over water, oil, sustainable land, the ability to grow food, all the classics are going to get tighter and tighter and tighter.
MISCAMBLE: I guess the Arab Spring really encouraged a whole new generation of photojournalists.
STIRTON: Yeah, one of the reasons being because of the accessibility of the conflict. You’ve got loads of young kids rushing out the door, rushing off to Syria, rushing off to Libya. But it raises other issues. One, what are the responsibilities of editors, as people employing, as people producing this material? Secondly, are you really experienced enough to be commenting on this conflict as it unfolds? Thirdly, what do you know about protecting yourself? I was a medic in the South African army for a number of years, so I have some experience of doing this stuff, and then I’ve had a fair amount of experience since Bosnia. There is no grant or well-financed institute that talks about that value of free-flow information. I’d like a fund to be established, and as a result you can access medical training, you can access the ability to maybe get grants. Think about this, Warren Buffett gave the Gates Foundation $40 billion a couple of years ago. Which is quite incredible, when you really think about it. However, a lot of decision-making that went into the making of that donation came from good journalism.
MISCAMBLE: You are dealing with big epic themes that affect the entire globe. Issues such as water, HIV/AIDS, diminishing natural resources. But within all these issues are sub-dramas, be it geopolitical, tribal, environmental, gender, commerce.
STIRTON: You’re right. People say, you’re animal guy or you’re a wildlife guy. I’m not, I’m work in the area of sustainability and diminishing resources and I increasingly see a connection between all of these in terms of conflict, human drama, and migration. It’s all interconnected.
MISCAMBLE: Have you always been aware of the interconnection between these conflicts?
STIRTON: It was a matter of discovering it 10 years ago, and now I can’t help but see it. It’s kind of like watching a movie and breaking down how the cinematographer worked. You are no longer capable of taking something at face value. Everything has its connection, and those things are increasingly apparent. For example, if you look at something like water and you look at something like oil, you look at sustainable land use, you look at food security, those are global themes that I see coming up time and time again and the ingredients that make up those things are common factors in every place and in every one of us. So I’m just trying to paint this bigger picture.
MISCAMBLE: In terms of painting that picture there is a real level of technical and aesthetic sophistication to your images that one doesn’t immediately associate with out on the field of photojournalism.
STIRTON: The thing is that we are in a real crisis-of-objectivity period, and it’s because of the rise of citizen journalism. And then because budgets have tightened so much in this recession period, it’s hard to make sufficient time to do a really well rounded photographic essay. For me, looking at technique is a way of getting on top of all of that. If you don’t have time to wait for a perfect moment, maybe you can make a perfect documented portrait that has a lot of evidence to it. Human drama is cyclical. You get used to seeing certain things, and if you don’t find a new way to talk about it, then frankly at some point you need to get out of the way.
MISCAMBLE: How do you going about photographing someone who doesn’t want to be photographed? For example, your portfolio on the ivory trade—you are meeting and photographing individuals complicit in a illegal operation that spans the globe.
STIRTON: For the most part, with extreme honesty. There are certainly times, in Zimbabwe for example, or in Burma, where I cannot be Brent Stirton the journalist. I can’t do that, or I will get killed. It’s not a place where there is any forum for journalists whatsoever. But for the most part, I just really try to get inside the head of the people that I am speaking to. For example, I’m dealing with hunting, all right? We are no longer in a position whereby we can have an emotional response to this. It’s a luxury phenomenon. So what I am going to go and do is find out as much as I can about hunting as possible. So for example, in Southern Africa, more than 700,000 square kilometers is devoted to hunting concessions. And what that means is that no agricultural development can come there. No road can come there. No people can invade those areas and every animal, flora, fauna in that region is relatively safe. Okay? Then if you take away hunting, all of the area becomes vulnerable again. So that’s just one argument you can have. The whole thing for me is to take that argument, pursue some further arguments and then look at the counterarguments, and have a really frank conversation. That’s the great thing about this job. The access that you get into people’s lives. You have to embrace that and in order to embrace that you need to know those people before you go and see them.
MISCAMBLE: You are involved with a lot of NGOs and foundations, such as WWF, ICOC, The Gates Foundation and The Clinton Foundation. Do you feel this just comes hand-in-hand with your job as a photojournalist?
STIRTON: I mean, some of these NGOs are full of incredibly dedicated human beings, they are really remarkable people. And they are there to help you if embrace things correctly. So that’s why I will have these relationships. A lot of NGOs have woken up to the power of photography. They are much more aware of it. There are lot of journalists who, 10, 15 years ago, said a journalist working with NGO was not objective. And that’s bullshit. There’s nothing to stop you challenging the NGO. It’s just part of an ongoing learning process for both of you. And I think a lot about these NGOs. For example, you go spend some time in South Sudan, be in the desert for a year, and see how that messes with your head. I respect these guys. These people move me every time. For example, the guys in Virunga. They are protecting our world heritage, it’s not just that one country.
MISCAMBLE: With everything that you’ve seen, I imagine the world must feel either very big or very small to you.
STIRTON: What’s really amazing is just how much we all have in common. Yes, there are many different manifestations of that, but we are all commonly human. The same variables apply no matter who you are, what you look like, what your gender is or what your race is. And that always amazes me. How we are all lacking compassion when actually we are so similar. So I guess my job is to continue to comment on that. See if I can get that right. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
MISCAMBLE: What’s not publishable?
STIRTON: Everything is context, isn’t it? So much of it is context. There has been some war photography where the context has been totally pornographic, but how do you define that? I think the gratuitous exploitation of people without any declaration of intent is wrong. That’s why I think you need to come in and talk to people and make very sure they understand why you are trying to take a picture. But it’s all open to interpretation. For example after my first essay on HIV in the Ukraine, I got death threats.
STIRTON: Yeah, because I defamed the country. Meanwhile I’m just trying to point out that there is a huge problem and the government is not doing anything about it. So as a journalist, I think you are going to have to understand that you are going to open yourself up to it. But then it becomes a test of character. And that test of character is neverending. It just continues. And at a certain point it will either weigh you down or you will emerge as a particular person.
MISCAMBLE: Is that your objective? To emerge as that particular person?
STIRTON: My objective is to make it deeper every time. To really make images that move people. I would like to move you. And not just to move you emotionally. I want to move your thinking. That’s a necessary life isn’t it? I don’t have kids. I’m not married or anything like that. I guess I’m channeling what would have been a lot of paternal energy into trying to be necessary.