Interview by Susann Tischendorf
John Stanmeyer is an award winning photojournalist, Emmy nominated filmmaker and field recordist dedicated to social and political issues that define our times.
Over the last decade, John has worked nearly exclusively with National Geographic magazine, producing over 15 stories for the magazine resulting in 10 covers. Between 1998 and 2008, John was a contract photographer for Time magazine, during which time he photographed hundreds of stories for the magazine including the war in Afghanistan, the fight for independence in East Timor, the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, and other significant world news events. His years with Time resulted in 18 covers of the magazine.
In 2001, Stanmeyer cofound with six of the world’s leading photojournalists the VII Photo agency. By 2005 VII was listed in third position in American Photo’s “100 Most Important People in Photography.” Stanmeyer is an Emeritus member with his historic archive of war and social commentary at VII.
He is the recipient of numerous honors, including the prestigious Robert Capa award (Overseas Press Club), POYi Magazine Photographer of the Year, and numerous World Press Photo, Picture of the Year and NPPA awards. In 2008, his National Geographic cover story on global malaria received the National Magazine Award. In 2012 he was nominated for an Emmy with the documentary film series, Starved for Attention, and in 2014 was the recipient of the World Press Photo award for his photograph from Djibouti titled Signal.
John has published a number of books including Island of the Spirits, a journalistic/anthropologic look at Balinese culture documented during the five years he lived on the island.
What inspired you to become a documentary photographer?
This is a pretty simple answer: seeing and feeling, luckily at a young enough age, although not very young – in my mid-twenties. Back then, I went from being a fashion photographer to – well I guess – a humanist photographer. And it was life and things that occurred in this life that brought me here.
Was there a particular purpose you felt you wanted to fulfill early on in your career?
There has always been a purpose. I think it was, again, a sort of awakening that I had between the age of 19 and 24, when I was in Europe. I was in Italy and in a very different part of my life, the fashion art space. And I was just too blind to see reality. I was only seeing what was in my head and what I could create. It was wonderful, beautiful and limitless, but it started to feel narcissistic and too simple.
So I left Italy, moved to Spain, going within myself. It was there that I met two women who were in the Peace Corps. They radiated light, with purpose. At that moment I knew I wanted to join the Peace Corps, to totally get out of photography. I did not realize that I could maybe be a documentary photographer. I never really thought about it. I got rejected from the Peace Corps and was devastated - they wanted engineers and teachers, not someone with an art degree. Then I realized that I could maybe use, as a tool, the thing that I already have: the camera. So that sort of became the purpose really. It was using my camera that I found life brought me here for something more than just what was about me.
I really do believe we can change the world but we can only do it one person at a time. Mother Theresa did not end poverty and Mahatma Gandhi did not end issues in India and beyond. The Dalai Lama has not brought peace and Martin Luther King did not end racism in the USA. We make strides, movements. And so I certainly and unconditionally believe in the power of storytelling. I think we need to drop parameters, like documentary photographer, reportage photographer, etc. Such titles are too self-important. We are just human and we use this means to communicate, to play a small roll through the act we call photography - visually communicating and storytelling.
How has your long career as a documentary photographer impacted your view of the world?
It has been a painful understanding of the world and all of the pain that it goes through. But I have tremendous hope. I am not so devastated that I cannot move forward but I am very burdened by it and I do question if I am doing enough or if I could do more. I am never going to leave being a photographer – documentary photographer, art photographer, whatever you want to call it - but I am doing more projects that have a direct impact on people.
The Bridging Stories work that Anush Babajanyan and I have been doing in Armenia is an example. We are continuing with part II of Bridging Stories again between Armenia and Turkey. We received another grant, and expanding beyond the Caucasus. We also just submitted another grant proposal to do Bridging Stories in Central Asia. We always work with young photographers so they can tell their own story. I believe that change has to come from within, not from us as foreigners that have the ability to come in and just easily lead. It has to nurture and grow from a fire, a beautiful fire, from within. Both within these lines we call borders, and without us.
These are the things that impacted my view of the world. Being a photographer, I am wondering if I’ve done enough because I’ve seen the pain, the madness and more, always continuing. And it made me think what more can I do to engage people within the community. I have told stories and I will continue to tell stories but who better to tell their story then they themselves? And to empower those people and teach them so that for eight months these photographers work to tell their own stories right where they live. And that is what really impacted me most: that I need to do more and that it’s not about me as the storyteller but about engaging others as well.
What role do documentary photographers play in creating more just societies?
This connects back to the question on how it has impacted my view of the world: I am just a human being and I hope to play a role in this dialogue of fostering all societies in the ability to move forward and to grow, to overcome inequities, and be a catalyst for change within their own societies. None of us truly know if we are doing enough as just documentary photographers. We play a role and it is important to be there and it does have an absolute impact but I am photographing the same madness 20 plus years later and I am a pained by it. So, again, it connects back to the previous question about change coming from within societies, without us on the outside.
What do you do when you are faced with injustice during your work, when you might not be able to build bridges?
I have seen too much, have tried to intervene before. Usually it was in a big crowd when it was chaos. In such seas of chaos, many are hurt or injured or killed. Other times, it happens so quickly that I don't know how to actually intervene. If it's a war, there isn't much I can do. I have taken shelter with other people. I have helped other people to get into shelter. The injustice you speak of is the injustice we as humans inflict upon ourselves; our human weakness.
The bigger injustice is the injustice of poverty and lack of access to healthcare. There is the well-known incident of Kevin Carter photographing the starving child and the vulture waiting for him to die. Personally, I haven't come upon that type of situation. I have witnessed much starvation, but at a feeding centre or a family just arriving at a feeding centre after a natural disaster or during a war. I have not been in the situation of being in the middle of nowhere and having to question, “What are we going to do?” I believe this is more a question we have to ask ourselves. It is related not solely to us as photographers. It’s a core meditation for each of us as humans.
Documentary photographers are often on the sidelines of conflicts. How do you continue having an open heart when a lot of the realities you have been confronted with seem devastating at first glance?
The heart is too open, I think, that's the problem. This is not only a question of photography though. It is about who I am as a person, who we all are. And as a person you try to be as humble and as kind as possible, becoming devastated, at times angry, when witnessing madness. It's horrific. You feel helpless. It goes back to the previous questions: we need to be there to be a witness of the breakdown of humanity but how do we instigate change?
Photographing the same things over and over is not necessarily creating change. Therefore, my movement, over the last few years, has been to ask: How do we inspire the next generation of people who are going to mold our society? So they can have a better understanding of their societies, for our global society. The aim is to really help them become active by using photography – no matter if they will become working photographers or not. A lot of the participants in the Bridging Stories project are not working photographers. They're interested in telling stories.
In the end, it's all about telling your own story in connection to raising awareness for a community, So you can activate your neighbors in understanding what's happening around them. Rather than relying on some person from outside, who doesn't necessarily deal in the weight or difficulties of the local culture. We, as photographers who only enter than exit, will never know what it is like to be homeless, without food, displaced and broken at a feeding center or what is within when crushed in hopelessness by a government or from another’s oppression. We can and do play a roll, as conduits of an issue. But we only touch the surface. Often we place our visual and personal ideology into our visual storytelling. This is fine, but do we really know the deepest root of understanding there?
Again, I'm going to default back to the answer to the second question. I don't care about myself as a documentary photographer. It's sort of like I am a carpenter and I'm making a chair. I care about it being a comfortable chair. And maybe it isn’t, and that’s ok too. If there is anything related to us, it's the way we make this chair and about what can be done while on the chair, and dancing around it. This more interests me. The photograph itself isn't about me. The images belong to those in the moment, not us. The photograph plays the conduit of evoking emotions, actions, from all of us. So I'm just a carpenter.
In a recent article, Josef Koudelka stated that, “To be a great photographer, you need to be a nomad.” Do you agree with him? What is your recipe for being a great photographer?
I think to be a human being you have to be humble and have empathy. When I think of a nomad – and here you are talking to somebody who has children, so how can I truly be a nomad? – in many ways we are all nomads. When I think of nomads, I think of one having no one home or no one set place where they exist, and that is nicely romantic. The world is a beautiful, fascinating, painful place that we call our home. I would say: Sure, yes. Be a Nomad! If that’s what you want to have as a moniker in understanding ones purpose.
The foundation to your question should first begin from being just who we are; A human being, from there we can connect to being a photographer, or a seamstress, or a pastry chef, or a ballet dancer. The reality is that we are all nomadic and we can be great in what we do through the simple act of empathy, kindness, and humility, wrapped in curiosity. I mean look, there are great bankers out there, who do fantastic work for the poor. They are great bankers because they have these traits in empathy, not because they have a degree from a famous university. It’s about giving opportunities and even a banker can be nomadic, too.
I understand clearly Josef’s statement and respect it. I also find it too simple.
Nowadays, technology and social media have completely changed the way we approach and understand images. How do you think the role of photography has developed over the past few decades?
I think we are in the most incredible, beautiful, empowering, fascinating period of time in communication in our collective existence. This realm of photography has changed in the past few decades, absolutely! But it always changed. Every decade see change. Of course, the change that has taken place in the last 15 years has been huge, wonderfully rapid. What has changed in the last few years is the possibilities of empowerment. It has profoundly allowed me to expand the meaning and purpose of what I do, of what we all can do. Trying to build bridges to be more concrete.
In the workshops I do with Building Bridges or with VII, my photo agency, I always ask people, “How do you feel?” and “How do you see?” I tell participants, “Do not try not to think of these changes or adaptations from the pragmatism of photography. Think of how you can give to and use these opportunities to express yourself in any means possible, especially in your own voice, in your own way of making the chair because you are a carpenter as well.”
Photography is really about building something and the internet has allowed us to take what we build and communicate and reach others in such a profound way that I think we are living and going to continue living in some of the staggering, magical, and empowering moments of our humanity. And this is similar for any art, purpose, and anybody else. It is limitless. You can do it for incredible beauty and incredible evil. We see that in politics and in all sorts of things. But imagine using it for the ability to raise consciousness and reach people in a way that we have never been able to reach them, for all sorts of projects, on topics that can make change for the better. Many are doing so. Now I think of future projects like Bridging Stories for peace or water insecurity. Bridging Stories is really powerful stuff. And it's going to take place on social media. Imagine that!
Earlier this year, I met you at the Rencontres de La Photographie in Arles, a photo festival that also focuses on book publishing. You have published the book Island of the Spirits, a journalistic and anthropological look at Balinese culture. With the rise of online media, what role do you think books will play in the future of photography?
I know there will always be books and of course what FotoEvidence does is important. I do realize there will always be interest and need in the tangible, especially as we continue to lose the availability of things, because we're consuming it on this incredibly powerful tool, the one we’re recording with now, the smart phone. I think books will always have a role. They just always, always will!
Maybe I am playing an Armageddon card here, but what will happen when complete global anarchy occurs? It happens in parts of the world today. It could happen in Germany, could happen and definitely can happen in the United States. Say we can’t use electricity, for whatever reason, for a period of time or forever. How are you going see or have access to all we are creating today? The only items that may last will be the tangible. So, there's huge value in books and there always will be. It's just maybe not as much as it used to be but that doesn't mean that it's not going to be there. I think their role is always going to be predominant, especially when it comes to what FotoEvidence is doing with small edition, documentary books like the ones we saw in Arles.
You are dedicated to teaching photography and in this spirituality plays a role. Why is it so important for you to share your knowledge of both photography and the way you see the world and, by doing so, possibly impacting younger photographers?
Like many of us, I enjoy teaching. I have been very fortunate and thankful in my career but I can't say I know everything. I don't even know if I know anything! I'm still learning but if I inspire others to tell their stories, and can help to empower them, and to maybe share some nuggets of what I can give, that fulfills me. I feel more like a conductor in a symphony then a teacher. I can speak but, actually, I only know myself better through doing. So, you have to answer this question. You have to exist in a way that is you. I really think that if people have an interest in photography or storytelling, I feel I may have some of the ability to be a giver, a therapist, a conductor, maybe a bit of a shaman, to pull from them the ability to take themselves deeper Into seeing and into the weight of being. If we call that teaching, that’s great.
Look at Olivia, the young photographer who came to Indonesia. She was only 15 years old and look at the story she created. Yes, I played conductor, therapist, and I also became her friend. I treated her as an equal. And I guess that puts me under the wider umbrella of that of the teacher. I can't do it all the time. I wouldn't want to be a full-time teacher. I'm a photographer.
I often get asked: ‘Can I do this with you? Can I carry your bag and come along?’ I can’t take you on an assignments with me as much as I’d love to, but I can block off time. The acts of giving are these moments we call workshops. We try to make them affordable and it's not about solely making an income. It's about going and doing the things I love to do. And, then again, this is really what Bridging Stories is dealing with. It's impacting young people. These grants are for teaching and workshops. I hope one day we can do workshops that are completly support through grants, accessible to everyone. This is why, during every workshop I host, one or more spaces are given gratis to local photographers - as we did in Yogyakarta and last November in Istanbul teaching another workshop. Three photographers were sponsored, two through the VII Foundation and one directly by us.
For Bridging Stories, when I'm working with these young people, it’s based on grant funding and I don't really earn anything. But the impact there – coming back to your question of possibly impacting photographers – is huge because they are young ambassadors for change. They are 18 to 22 years old and, just in the first group, one photographer from Armenia got a grant and scholarship to go to the University of Michigan. He's there now and it's all because of Bridging Stories. Another photographer from Turkey, her career is expanding. Two photographers teaching now in the Istanbul workshop are from the Bridging Stories family, expanding even further their careers. And these photographers are still supporting Bridging Stories. I just saw a photographer publishing a picture today still giving credit to Bridging Stories. I think this is an incredible impact.
It's all about outcomes and connecting the family. It's really a family because we support each other and maybe that's why you and others have participated and been with me so kindly three, four or five times. Because it's not just the workshop. It really isn't a workshop. It's about giving, being a therapist, a kind hand, so that others can actually go and create something. Something that you can probably do on your own but you might not have the fire to do it or you drag it out longer. As humans we tend to come up with excuses not to do things. When you are in this family setting, it's not competitive. There is nurturing that comes in these things we do. Maybe that's why people come back and that's where we impact the lives of others, especially like Bridging Stories’ impact on young photographers. So, I enjoy teaching photography. Dedication would sound as if I work at a university, which I have little interest in. But I have a deep love and I love to give and teaching is a way of doing just that.
You have already created an incredibly rich and inspiring body of work. What project moved you most and is there a topic you feel you have not covered yet but greatly would like to?
This question is too much about self-importance. I don't know which project moved me most. All of them have meaning. All have moved me in a way and, I hope, for others, when they see and feel the stories. So, there is not one. Every piece has its purpose. If you saw a meaning in the story then I did my job. You can maybe say the Out of Eden Walk has been quite one such meaning. But it's so big, so vast and you saw how I was trying to present it in Indonesia. It's so wide and deep, long and at times, complicated and painful. Every body of work has such purpose.
The work I have done on health issues are meaningful and I definitely have deep empathy that affects many people, especially those in the majority of the world where people don't have access to proper healthcare. I am still very engaged in health issues and gender issues. I would say that I haven't done enough, always so much more to do.
I did a story years ago for National Geographic on gender in Brazil: Gender inequality and the empowerment of people who happen to be women. I don’t look at gender differences - my mother was an icon, a force of power and being. She could and did anything, presenting to me this essence of no difference. This doesn’t mean I do not know or accept the weakness of men trying to control others, limiting others, who happen to be women. It is an equal purpose of my work, in search of strong people in societies and cultures who are women. I see them as my mother: An immovable force that has more power than any living being.
Much more work needs to be done. Many of us are doing this on empowerment issues.
Empowerment and the voice and equality of women needs to expand, because this lack of women in power expands upon conflict and war. I never met a mother that wanted their son or daughter to go to war. Nearly all wars and conflicts connect to this domination of male thinking and male approaches in the world. We are so in need of gentleness and kindness. We need an enlightened one. Who better than somebody who happens to be a woman instead of some Caucasian white guy?
You have that in Germany. I think it's important. Here in the US, we just haven't had a female president…yet. So, coming back to your question of stories that I would like to do and haven't done yet. I would like to do more work on gender, on our commonality, again trying to lead away from conflict. Affirming our oneness, what binds us, not divides us, may, dare we hope, lead toward the betterment of all.