His searing images of civilian populations torn by wars and disasters capture the unbearable truths we must face
Bruno Stevens did not set out to become a photojournalist much less one who literally risks his life to capture images that reveal the truth of the human condition in the throes of extreme stress and strife. Before becoming a passionate photographer on a mission he was a music engineer. Since becoming a photojournalist in 1998 he has worked in Mexico, Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Uganda, Pakistan, Somalia and dozens of other hot spots around the globe to document civilian populations in the agonies of bitter conflict, political chaos, and outright war. His work regularly appears in such leading publications as Stern, The Sunday Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, and Paris-Match. Why does he do it? He offers a quote from Henry James to point us in the right direction: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task—the rest is madness.” To get a clearer view of Stevens’ life and mission we recently had the pleasure of interviewing him. Here is a transcription of his insightful commentary.
Q: Your Haiti pictures shot shortly after the great earthquake and then several weeks later are emotionally compelling to say the least. How did you get involved in what can only be described as classic photojournalism?
A: I’ve been shooting professionally for only 12 years—I began when I was 39 and I’m now 51. I took pictures before that of course. But to draw an analogy, just because you write a postcard to your mother doesn’t make you a writer. Initially I was more of a traveler, but I’ve always been fascinated with history. My decision to become a photojournalist actually coincided with my 40th year pre- midlife crisis. I wanted to be useful to the world and there was really no other choice for me. They say that charity begins at home, and I was trying to improve the value of my own life in my own eyes. Doing something for myself and for the world were intimately connected, and when you start around age 40 you know what you’re doing. At that point I had been traveling and taking pictures for over 25 years—I was already a citizen of the world.
Q: What exactly are you trying to achieve in your work? How do you define your genre, and what distinguishes your approach from that of other reportage photographers?
A: I define myself specifically as a photojournalist rather than a photographer in the generic sense of the word. I always try to tell a story, and most of my individual photographs are stories in and of themselves. I believe in telling stories and in telling the truth as its presents itself rather than molding reality by what magazines want to publish and people want to see. For example, in Haiti I didn’t follow the pack and show a preponderance of looting pictures. The ones I did shoot were all taken within 10 blocks of the city center—and it wasn’t even real looting—it was more about trying to survive. Many journalists shoot pictures for themselves or their editors instead of capturing the real story. I shot two hours of so-called looting pictures and spent days and weeks concentrating on the rest of the story. You have to show more than 10 blocks of a sprawling city like Port-Au-Prince.
Q: Your images right after the Haiti earthquake are different from the ones in April. What were you trying to communicate and what can you say about your shooting concepts other than the fact that you were shooting with a Leica M9?
A: When I was shooting the pictures immediately after the earthquake in Haiti I was simply trying to show what was happening, to move away from ‘effects’ or creating ‘gorgeous’ images. These images are straight-on frontal views that show the actual situation in the streets. I knew I was witnessing a catastrophic event. Such pictures have to be transparent. However, this does not mean I was detached. As a photographer I strive to bring my own experience to every picture I shoot —the more extreme the experience, the more I have to bring myself to the image. It’s a balance between objectivity and subjectivity, but both these element must be present. The Haiti pictures I shot in April after the disaster emergency phase was over are more esthetic, but the images I shot right after the earthquake are utterly straightforward. They shouldn’t be ‘photographer’s photos’ and they aren’t.
Q: All your pictures of Haiti, especially those shot right after the quake, are brutally compelling. What were some of the physical and emotional stresses you had to endure personally in order to create these images?
A: Some of these pictures may be brutal and hard to look at, but I never try to show shocking pictures just to shock people—I simply presented what was happening. It’s very simple—I know exactly what I have to do if I’m in a very hard situation. On the first part of my Haiti assignment I had to get up at 6AM and work until 1AM or 2AM at night to select and Photoshop my images. I worked like that—20 hours a day—for 3 weeks in a row. I was sleeping outside on the ground, and really working my ass off. As I edit my images I remember each one and I know that I have been honest to what was in front of my Leica. The only moment I feel bad about the situation is if I’m a little tired and don’t work hard enough, like working 15 hours a day instead of 20. Then it becomes a problem internally. But if as a photographer I’ve given it everything I’ve got, then I know that I’m doing the thing I was meant to do—helping, helping to communicate the general knowledge of the situation to the world at large.
In part 2 Bruno Stevens, passionate photojournalist, details his special connection with the Leica M9, M8, and Leica lenses, and how these essential tools help him in executing his life’s work to the highest standards. To see more photos by Bruno Stevens visit his website http://bruno.photoshelter.com/gallery-list.