A conversation with John Stanmayer
John Stanmeyer (VII, National Geographic) is winner of Best Picture category at this year World Press Photo Award. The by now World famous image depicts African migrants hold up phones to try to get a faint signal in Djibouti. The images ignited a pretty interesting debate as it marks a visual discontinuity in the tradition of WPP.
Here’s a short conversation with Antonio Amendola.
John, first of all, congratulations for this great achievement. I think the power of this image is its iconic depth and its scope. It does not only tell a story of immigrants, refugees, it speaks about anybody away from home that wants to reconnect . A very interesting (and beautiful, needless to say) image whose empathy might tell something about its author…
I’m on the road 100-150, some years touching 200 days. Yes, I do see myself in that image as I too have numerous times been wanting to reconnect home.
It seems to me that this photograph marks a discontinuity in the visual storytelling, finally being able to raise awareness on social issues without indulging in the aesthetic of drama. You triggered what it will surely be a hot debate. Do you think this could be an important example for modern photographers?
Honestly, I’m not one to be concerned nor interested in what may or may not be hot topic to debate. These debates take place in what I call the cave of our profession. Outside the cave such topic of discussion isn’t all that relevant, and it’s there — outside the cave — where I prefer to focus my attention on.
All I’m interested in is communication, in this case, communication via photography. I’m moved by many types of images and every image selected in this years WPP is deeply weighted and powerful. I feel the essence from each photograph, often in tears.
Whether my photograph elicits intense and meaningful discussions based upon an image of a more quieter yet wide tome, then i’m pleased it was felt That was the intent. Yet that does not diminish nor negate any aspect of photography/photojournalism which speaks of reality and importance.
Consider photography as music; there are moments in a symphony or any arrangement where the rhythm and musical lyric of a composition has elements of intensity, shifting over to extremely sublet yet equally felt measures barely perceptible yet can be felt in great complexity or weight. There is need and purpose for all forms of communication. I’m not beholden to any form of expression or aesthetics.
I think I know already your answer, but this is one of those unavoidable questions. Is winning the World Press a goal or just an acknowledgment of a serious and committed efforts in visual storytelling?
It is not the intent to win contests nor a goal. It is the intent to communicate.
How and when did you You and Documentary Photography cross paths?
It happened in life.
Do you think professional documentary photography is being influenced by new ways of content consumption on social media? I see you are pretty active on Instagram, too. Is it an added language in your vocabulary or is it just a powerful tool of promotion?
Both in regards to the your latter part of this question, though I’m more interested in communication.
The future of communication is indeed connected to what we presently call social media. Whether that terminology sticks or it evolves into what i feel will simply be known as publishing or a broader term within self publishing and/or collaborative publishing. And yes, I see it more as an added language to our visual vocabulary yet indeed a sense of building the brand of one self. Not as in selfish, rather the brand of the individual voice of the photographer, writer, musician, painter, banker, carpenter or vegetable vendor.
None are greater than another. All can be an art and are a meaningful purpose. What matters is that it’s done with passion and balance.
At Shoot4Change we use to claim “Shoot local, change global”, aiming to raise awareness on social issues by seeking and telling those small local stories that are often understimated, ignored or forgotten by mainstream media. Many young wanna be photographers ask how to travel to conflict scenarios to tell important stories. How important is to focus on local and domestic stories?
While i agree with your S4C approach, we live in a global village. Whether one photographs in their backyard or cross a mountain range or across a vast sea, what matters is that we are passionate about what we’re seeing, feeling, doing.
And yes, working locally is a perfect place to start. A year or two ago we did a group project at VII called Mile or Kilometer Square, where some of us worked on a year long project documenting a topic, story or idea that existed within only a mile or kilometer radius of our homes. It was fascinating.
I plan to work more on such projects.
There is no right nor wrong way of looking or approaching visual narrative storytelling/ what matters is that you’re engaged and enthralled by the potential of the world around us.
Entering or diving into a story could be easy (to a certain extent). Getting out of it it’s a tough job. How is it for you? What is the limit? How much a photographer can absorb of strong stories?
I find it both difficult not only to delve in (with meaning), also to delve out. Both can be complex. Either way, it’s all about meandering, getting lost, serendipity and hope that the narrative over time connects into meaningful storytelling, sharing insight into a topic, issue or event that helps illuminate and educate.
This I find to be the tasks and it isn’t any easier in the beginning nor at the end. in fact there often feels to be no end given the depth and breath of the world around us.
At times it can be overwhelming.
What do you think it means today being a “concerned photographer”?
I’m more interested in a concerned human being.
Shoot4Change started as a blog and now has volunteer photographers (both pros and amateurs alike) Worldwide. People who are committed to share part of their time to work collectively to tell stories and raise awareness on social issues with all means. What message would you send to our volunteers?
Keep the passion and purpose flowing.
At VII we have a mentor program. I’m presently working with an amazing photographer from bangladesh for nearly two years. It’s all about giving back, helping inspire and guide talent.
Well done S4C in what you’re doing.
John Stanmeyer, born in Illinois, is a founding member of the VII photo agency. Living in the Far East for over twelve years, Stanmeyer has witnessed throughout that time nearly every major historical event in Asia, photographing the rapid changes taking place throughout the entire region.
Working globally, he has focused on the plight of refugees from the Ugandan civil war, spent months chronicling the effects of the 2004 Tsunami and documented the mental healthcare crises in Asia. Prior to moving to Hong Kong in 1996, Stanmeyer covered the conflict in South Sudan, Eastern European social change after the fall of Communism, as well as numerous visits to Haiti to record the endless social tragedies plaguing the island nation. For over eight years he has documented the spread of HIV/AIDS through every country in Asia.
Stanmeyer focus is on social injustices, eradication of global poverty, human rights and raising awareness for the sustaining vanishing cultures. Working regularly for National Geographic Magazine, was on contract with Time Magazine for over 10 years and photographing for numerous other global publications, Stanmeyer has been the recipient of numerous honors including the prestigious Robert Capa award, named Magazine Photographer of the Year, awarded numerous World Press, Picture of the Year and NPPA awards and in 2008 received the National Magazine Award for this in-depth essay on the global Malaria epidemic. John’s latest book, Island of the Spirits, an journalist/anthropologic look at Balinese culture documented over the five years he lived on the island, was published in November 2010 (http://www.islandofthespirits.com)
In 2013, John opened The Stanmeyer Gallery & Shaker Dam Coffeehouse as a showcase for his work and his passion for spectacularly brilliant coffee, wrapping both entities around social change. He has recently moved back to the United States and lives with this wife, Anastasia, and their three children on a farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.