Stanley Greene, photographer
In 2012, more than ever, you’re going to see a lot of our friends showing off proudly their new business cards stating « photographer ». You know, that friend who photographed an old empty chair in sepia, the one who has a Flickr account, or that one that told you you NEED a Tumblr account, etc… Indeed, the man we met for this interview also has “photographer” written on his business card. Yet, Stanley Greene’s work and career brought him to some of the most dangerous places in the world – as in fashion studios. Whenever he had to portray a model or a dead body, he did it with his own vision.
Schilt Publishing recently had the brilliant idea to summaraise Greene’s long career with a very impressive trailer. More powerful than any introduction about Stanley Greene; we would like to steal two minutes of your life , so you can hear the man speak for himself. So turn the volume up and take it straight to your face !
We had the pleasure to meet him in Paris last September, to talk about love, life, his job and the ongoing fight between digital photography and film. Click below to read the complete interview.
Simple as he is intimidating, these are the two first adjectives that come to my mind when I have to describe my meeting with Stanley Greene. Simple because he is definitely a friendly person, after all – he accepted to meet us without question, and without any pressure or actual proof that we are a serious team (we are, right ?). But also intimidating, probably because I just finished his amazing book “Black Passport” before the meeting and because he took one of the most sad and disturbing pictures I’ve ever seen (see below). He is also very serious in his speech and knows exactly what he is saying, no hesitations and with an honesty about himself that we’d like to hear more often. Slowly, through the exchange of easy questions and answers – it’s a complicated, passionate and aware man that appears.
You prefer the term “crisis photographer” over “war photographer”, can you explain why ?
I think it’s more “à propos” because actually, a lot of us, we do earthquakes, floods, famines, crisis… It’s not really war. “War photographer” is when you’re actually shooting war. And truthfully, I haven’t shot a war in a while. Not to say I wouldn’t mind – because when you’re photographing a war, you’re kind of your own boss. You really don’t have to depend on too much : it’s just about doing the job and staying alive.
How do you explain that you’re still doing that after so many years?
Lucky (smile). I mean photography is 75% luck and 25% skills. You need the two.
How are you supposed to live a normal life after what you have seen and lived ?
The problem I have now, is that people have this misconception from “Black Passport“. They see the person in the book and they expect “Ok, that’s who he is”. It’s just one aspect of who I am. If I was to be that person, 24/7, I’d be dead. Because you can’t maintain that kind of lifestyle, you just can’t. You know – the drugs, the sex, alcohol… There’s nothing in that book that is not true; but you have to accept that it’s just one part of his life. Maybe he didn’t give you all of it. There is a time when he is in reflection, there is a time when he literally shuts off the computer and the phone, there is a time when he can’t really talk to anyone. But then, there is the time when he is in the field with some strangers and he’s telling his life story to them because it’s a translator, a driver… and he trusts that person more than anyone because they’re sharing this life/death situation. And then there are people so close to him that they’re part of his skin but he can’t even have a conversation with them. I think it’s a very complicated thing when you try to look at what’s going on inside a person, because it’s never simple. We wear many masks.
I always wonder how it feels when you come back, for example, to Paris after a report on countries in crisis. I once met a war photographer who said that, in the end, everybody has his own level of issues. Some will worry about finding a partner while other just worry about having a roof…
Everybody’s level is different. On one level there are people in Africa chasing ants to find food, and yet you just go up this street (this interview took place in Paris, near République) you have people selling anything they have just to be able to buy a metro card. You have people walking through the metro who have just a little bit of money, but need more money. It’s all degrees. Everybody has their different level of what they think is rich and poor. For me I’ve been lucky in that regard because I’ve always been broke. For me finding money, it all goes back into work . I’ve never been in a position where I could go out and buy that beautiful… Jaguar. I can go and press my nose on the window of that shop and say “what a beautiful car” while looking at it. I can go to a friend’s apartment and say “this is a gorgeous apartment” and they tell me “Oh I own it, but I got it from my parents”. I don’t own any apartment. I don’t own anything except my cameras and my rings… and my cowboy boots.
Any subject that changed you more than others ? Maybe Chechnya ?
For sure Chechnya got under my skin – but so did Rwanda, Irak as well, Katrina in another way. Being surrounded by dead bodies… whether they’ve been killed by mother nature or by the evil of men… Death is death, it’s the degree of suffering.
You recently said that you plan to go back to Syria… (this interview was carried out last September)
It’s got under my skin. I’m lucky, I’ve only got a handful of stories that touch me. And now for some strange reason I’m very curious about Syria. Recently I met one of my employers in the street and she was just asking me what I wanted to do. When I said I’d like to go to Syria, she said “It’s easy, you just have to get a visa”. Well no, it’s not.
You can’t photograph from a safe place, you have to literally be in front of whatever you’re shooting. A writer can stand back and write, analyse and try to understand. A photographer is the documenter, and has to document it in such a way that people are looking at it so they can understand as well. There is this new style of photographing where people are standing at a very, very, far distance and subjects look like stick figures. But that’s not true. As Capa said “if you don’t see the white of the eyes you’re not close enough”. But then again there is the question of how close you wanna get. So it’s all relative.
I’d like you to tell us more about this picture. I still remember the day I saw it for the first time, I felt so sad and uncomfortable. How did you manage to take such a portrait ?
It was in Chechnya, she was a little girl who lost her legs because of a rocket. Her mother threw herself across the body, the only thing that was not covered were the legs. The mother was killed.
I was in the village photographing and I met her. I was with Heidi Bradner who has almost the same picture. Each one had a different interpretation and I think hers is better.
Let’s talk about love now, because it’s also a big part of “Black Passport“… and of your life in general.
I’m really bad in love, people will tell you. My major problem is that I’m an illusion. In the beginning I look all good, nice and easy. It looks like all the things are going to work, but in reality I’m not; because I’m constantly inside my own head. It’s very difficult to communicate with somebody if you’re not in the room with somebody. I’m in the room physically, but my mind is somewhere else. Sometimes people feel that and it’s really hard for them to feel that part of your life. You tend to push people away, not purposely, it’s just the nature of the beast. Somebody once said to me, somebody that was getting old : “you have to find somebody that you can sit with and watch life”. My comment was “well, then maybe I should get a dog”. But then again with a dog, you can’t take care of it either.
So when you’re with the person, you have to be attentive. I try to be as much as I can. I actually work a lot on it. It appears to me that when I’m in front of you I try to be as totally focused as I can, but there are some many things always pulling me out and it’s really tough to stay that focused. I apologize.
I always feel absent. You come back and you see that many things have changed. People had their life. Even with my printer sometimes we need to spend a day just to catch up. I can also feel that with my friends and my agency. It’s like “Oh well, you’re back”.
Before we finish, THE question : digital or film ?
My argument about digital is very simple : there is no way you’re gonna turn back that clock! But I still think that you have to accept the fact that there are some photographers, many by the way, who want to continue to shoot film. All I want is the idea that it’s possible to do it. If you have an assignment, that is 2 or 3 weeks , you can do it !
It’s not like we’re going to say “ok, spit on digital” but we want the magazine, when it’s possible, to be able to make pictures printed on paper, not be forced to scan a black and white negative.
Can you tell us more about your gear ?
I’ve got it all figured it out. I’m shooting Leica for black and white, Nikon D3s for big jobs where you pull out the camera to say “I am the photographer”. I’m shooting the Leica M-9 when it’s a digital work with an artistic flavor and I can match it up. I’m using the Olympus EP3 to do daily life, it is my diary.