Image above: Franco Pagetti by Andrea Blanch
Andrea Blanch: Do you think of your work as art or as photojournalism?
Franco Pagetti: I still think as a photojournalist, more than as an artist. Looking at the pictures, I realized that the way I’m shooting and the story I want to tell is moving away from photojournalism. My change started in 2009, when I met a good friend of mine, Tim Hetherington. He was not just a photographer; he was an intellectual. We were talking about photography, and he told me, “Franco, you take a great pictures, but you have to develop your language.” It was like someone gave me a key to open another window. From that point, I started to change.
When I was doing this work, I was a different person than I am now sitting with you, because it was very intense. You have to think about your life, you have to think about the lives of people helping you, and you have to think about how to take a good picture. Looking at some of the pictures I took in Iraq, I think, “I was really crossing the line.” I’m completely against people who don’t consider the risk when they go to shoot.
© Franco Pagetti, A U.S. artillery unit from the Alpha Company fire towards the outskirts of Sadr City to prevent mortar attacks on forward operating base, FOB, Loyalty in the al Doura neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq on Feb 3, 2007. Courtesy of VII Photo, New York.
AB: Do you know James Nachtwey?
FP: I met Jim when I went to Iraq in 2003. At a certain point, Jim and I were going out to shoot together. It was a good lesson. It was like a two month workshop. I watched Jim work, and would try to understand how Jim was thinking before working. Jim is a very intellectually elegant person. He always considers the risk.
AB: Why did you decide to go from fashion to photojournalism?
FP: That transition happened in ‘93. I was in India and I wanted to take a picture of the people living in the desert, who were nomads. We were driving around and I asked to have a piece of fabric to set up a studio in the desert. I asked people if I could take pictures of them. I started to think, “Fashion is fine, but I want to do something else.” I realized that to go from where I was in fashion to the next step, wasn’t about the quality of the job but the quality of public relations, and public relations is not for me. In ‘97, I had a contract with Whirlpool, the washing machine company. One day, I called them up and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not doing the job. I’m leaving for Afghanistan.” I went to Afghanistan for three months, and I did a story about women inside their homes without a burka. I was caught by the Taliban. They put me in jail for three days, and then they kicked me out.
AB: How have all those experiences changed you?
FP: I realized that I wanted to do something more emotional, in general terms, not just to certain people. It was a good privilege to be in a place where people cannot go, to watch what is going on with my eyes, and to live a piece of history. I started in Afghanistan, taking pictures of women. Then I went to South Sudan, taking pictures of the immigration of people. Then I followed the war in Israel.
© Franco Pagetti, (left) Friday March 15 2002. A Sadu, Hindu Holy Man, Looking the police's check post in the town of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesch India, in is back the Ram Jacwamabhoomi (birthpalce) were the WHP supposed to start to build the new temple of Lord Ram in the site of Arazed mosque. The access to this area is not allowed after the supreme court decision to ban any ceremony; (right) Holy city of Vindravan, India. When they lose their husbands, the women of the lowest castes in Indian society have practically no other choice than to go to Vindravan, a small holly city in the north of the country, where they will live off charity for the rest of their lives.. Courtesy of VII Photo, New York.
AB: In the beginning, you worked independently, and then you worked with VII. Can you describe the difference?
FP: If you are independent, you have to do everything by yourself. You have to do the work, and then you have to send out the work to magazines. Now, it’s so easy. You go back home, get on the computer, and it goes everywhere. I send the pictures to the agency and they send the pictures to Time. They do the estimates and take care of the bureaucracy. 90% of photographers are terrible businessmen. The agency is like a mama taking care of you. A magazine calls them and say,s “We need a story about children.” They put a story together about children. It's like having a babysitter.
AB: There were problems there for a while.
FP: The problem with VII is the same problem they have at all the big agencies. You have to keep the quality super high. When the internet came in, they were using less pictures because the budget was reduced. The problem with VII is a problem of organizing the work, because the work is different. You are not just working with magazines. You have to work with websites, with exhibitions, with corporations, with foundations, and find the money to make a book.
AB: What is the criteria to get into VII?
FP: You have to submit your portfolio. We ask for no more than 50 pictures. All of the members look at the portfolio, and we discuss. For the final ten, we really spend time looking at the pictures. You should be someone who brings good pictures to the agency, and comes up with good ideas, with energy, and with a good spirit. I’ve been with VII for eight years, and I still read books and try to find ideas for a story.
AB: What is the difference in photojournalism now from when you started?
FP: When I did the exhibition in Paris about the Afghanistan landscape, they asked me to do an exhibition, but they asked me not to talk. I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You are too involved with the picture. There is a difference between a picture in a newspaper and the picture on the wall of a gallery. The collectors look at the picture, they want to see the composition, the light. It’s changed because the audience is different, and the way people are approaching a picture in an art gallery is different than people approaching a picture in a newspaper. If you do an edit for an art gallery, you have to look more at the aesthetic. The pictures should talk another language than the language of a magazine. The picture you would like to use for a gallery should be something that could say something any day. The pictures about the curtains in Aleppo are pictures that can talk about what’s happening in Aleppo in ten or 20 years.
AB: Can you talk more about how the Aleppo series came about?
FP: I was reading a story written by a Palestinian architect who described how globalization is coming to the Middle East. Before, according to the tradition and the culture of the Arabs, the houses were big compounds with a few families in it. The living room brought the whole family together, 40 or 50 people.That changed because people would study architecture in the United States or Europe. Now, they live in a building like this. The privacy of women is the most important thing for them. So, they don’t have glass on the windows, but they protect the privacy of the family with curtains like they say they protect the privacy of the women. This was my point of view. In the center of my image, I was putting this life that was changing and in movement.
AB: Your series of double exposure photographs captured the sectarian differences in Syria by creating portraits of people and their identification cards. Can you speak about the process of meeting locals and photographing them for that series?
FP: Bobby Ghosh, who became the editor of Time International, said he wanted to do a piece about why the Sunni and Shia hate each other. I was talking to my photo-editor at Time and she said, “Good luck. That’s a story you can’t photograph.” Because the difference between Sunni and Shia doesn’t exist visually. The difference is just the name. If you are a Shia and are walking where there is a Sunni checkpoint and they check your ID card, boom. The name makes a difference. My idea was to go inside the house and take photographs of people with their ID. Because I had good relations with the American army, I went with them. I went to this unit and I asked them to bring me along to the neighborhood. I asked them to let me go in the house without them. At first, they said no, but finally they said, "OK, we'll give you 30 minutes. If at the 31st minute you are not out, we destroy everything." The most difficult thing was to explain to these normal people that I wanted to photograph them.\
© Franco Pagetti, Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 12 Infantry Regiment fire a 155 gun on suspected Taliban positions, at Camp Blessing in Kunar province, Afghanistan on Dec. 19, 2009. Its unyielding terrain and border with the semi-autonomous Pakistani North-West Frontier Province provides significant advantages for unconventional warfare and militant groups. The province is informally known as "Enemy Central" by American and Western armed forces serving in Afghanistan. In 2009, approximately 60 percent of all insurgent incidents in the country occurred in the province of Kunar. Courtesy of VII Photo, New York.
AB- A few of the photos that caught my eye had a fashion sensibility to it.
FP- This is why I don’t regret fashion. I learned how to square. I learn how to frame the picture before shooting. I am against cropping. I think if you do photojournalism you cannot do that.
AB- People find their professions because it fits who they are. What kind of a character do you think a person needs to be a conflict photographer?
FP- You have to be an animal. You should change in each situation you are in. But the soldiers take care of you, especially if they realize if you are crazy. In Fallujah, I took photos from the front of the line. They told me to get out of the way. I said, "But I need to see your face." You must be part of the gang. They don't shower, you don't shower. They eat with hands, you eat with hands.
I remember one journalist who complained a lot: "Franco, it's so hot here. There's no shower." The soldiers asked me why I brought him here. We went on patrol one day and I was looking around and I asked where is he? They laughed. They had left him in the street and he started panicking. They went back and asked him, "Do you want a shower?" They told me not to bring someone like him again.
AB- Have your views or appreciation of women changed?
FP- My way of shooting women comes from fashion. Even if they are wearing a dirty burqa, I catch the breeze coming in or wait for a nice moment. It goes back to the dignity of being a woman. They are everything. They work, collect water, cook, take care of kids and at the end of the day when the man is coming back she has to be the lover. She represents the range of life. Women in Afghanistan are stronger than men. I was really respectful of them. If there will be a change in this world it will be by women. The men hunt, play sports, and talk. But who is really building society? It is no man.
© Franco Pagetti, U.S. soldiers from the 1st Platoon, Company B, 2nd Battle Command Team, 325th Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division from Combat Outpost Callahan arrest a group of suspected Mahdi Army members, during a raid in the Shia neighborhood of Sha'ab near Sadr City, in Baghdad, Iraq on May 28, 2007. Members of the group were suspected of kidnapping and killing Sunnis and also comprised of a sniper, who shot 3 U.S. soldiers from Combat Outpost Callahan. Courtesy of VII Photo, New York.
AB- What is your advice for aspiring photojournalists?
FP- Learn history and, more than anything, read books. From just one phrase you can develop a story. And, of course, you have to be prepared to emotionally and physically suffer for your work. You will not make a lot of money. You will feel tired and dirty but you will be satisfied. Be honest about your work.
AB- When I saw the documentary on James Natchwey, they said that crisis photographers get addicted to adrenaline, and most of them who continue get shot or killed. How do you feel about that?
FP- I was so lucky that for many years I could come back home. I remember one day before leaving for Iraq I said, "What am I doing?" I looked around my house. I thought maybe I will not come back. Of course I did not say this to my wife.
AB- What are you working on now?
FP- I’m trying to collect a project about Italy. It will be about the 17th century when Italy and South France were known as the Grand Tour. The best painters would come for the light, landscape, style of life, and the beauty of the country. I want to do a story to remake this Grand Tour and, with the information from the books, document the human life. I want to make my own Grand Tour. The landscape is also different. The people are connected to the land. I want to capture that.
AB- Where do you live?
FP- Milan. I’m from a village 30 miles south of there. I am a redneck and I would love to move back to the countryside. I love grass and ground.
AB: How many women are in Vll now?
FP: Right now, we have Jessica Dimmock, Sim Chi Yin, Poulomi Basu, and Maika Elan. Not much.
AB: That’s terrible. Don’t you think?
FP: Yeah. They don’t apply.
AB: They don’t?
FP: Not many women apply for VII. But I know the reason: VII, for several years –and this is the mistake of it–has been considered a war conflict photography agency. So women, they didn’t apply.
AB: You have to change your image.
FP: Yes, well, this is part of the job we have to do now. We have to, in a way, rebrand ourselves and rebrand VII.