With equal measures of grace, humor, wisdom, and humility, photojournalist Stanley Greene regaled a packed house with tales from his storied career at the LOOK3 festival in Charlottesville last night.
Greene sat on stage at Charlottesville’s Paramount theater for a one-on-one interview with Jean-François Leroy, founder of the Visa pour L’Image photo festival in Perpignan, France. During the discussion, he talked about the trajectory of his career, his most recent project on the global impact of electronic waste, the moral imperative of supporting younger photographers, his objections to digital photography, and his new-found appreciation for the challenges of picture agencies, now that he’s the co-owner of one.
A central theme of many of Greene’s stories was the recurring role that chance has played throughout his career, in large and small ways.
“I honestly believe photography is 75 percent chance, and 25 percent skill,” he said in response to a question from an audience member toward the end of the talk. “In accidents, we really discover the magic of photography.” (He had been asked how he manages not to rewind exposed film rolls completely, which resulted in some serendipitous images on a roll he accidentally exposed three times.)
As Greene described it, much of his career has been a string of dumb luck stories from the start, when he became an assistant to the late, great W. Eugene Smith. Greene met Smith through his girlfriend, who happened to be one of Smith’s asistants. Greene recounted how he was sitting around with his friends one day, smoking cigarettes soaked in a hallucinogen. “We were out of it. He [Eugene Smith] came through the door dressed in black, and we thought he was God,” Greene said, eliciting a laugh from the audience.
One day Smith happened to develop a roll of film from his assistant’s camera. It was a roll that Greene had shot. Smith noticed it, and told his assistant, “That guy you introduced me to–I think he could take pictures.”
Greene ended up moving to France to pursue fashion photography. “That was an accident,” Greene said. When Leroy mentioned Greene’s switch to photojournalism in the late 80s, Greene quipped, “Also an accident.” As he explained, he happened to be in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. Caught in a tense situation between a crowd of people and some East German border guards with machine guns, Greene said, “That adrenaline got into me! I realized it was part of history.”
Raising the topic of Greene’s work in Chechnya, LeRoy complimented Greene’s generosity toward his fellow photographers. LeRoy explained that when he had offered to show Greene’s Chechnya work at Visa pour L’Image in the mid 90s, Greene insisted the show include work of other photographers covering Russia’s brutal invasion of Chechnya.
Greene said, “I believe in the community of photography. I believe we have to give each other a helping hand.”
That belief arises from Greene’s frustration that many photographers don’t get the recognition they deserve. He mentioned Emmanuel Ortiz, who photographed the Bosnian war on his own dime, using cameras that were taped together. “He was constantly broke,” Greene said. “But if you look at his pictures, they’re just great. Why isn’t he getting published? It makes no sense to me.”
Greene pushed photographers in the audience to help younger photographers. While acknowledging that veteran photographers have work to do and there is a pecking order in photojournalism, he said, “Sometimes young photographers just need to be invited in.”
He underscored the point with a tragic story of one young photographer trying to cut his teeth in a conflict zone. He needed a ride, but according to Greene, a veteran photographer in a position to help was just annoyed, and said under his breath, “I just wish this person would go away.”
“He couldn’t take the time to help this photographer who needed help,” Greene said. The younger photographer ended up being kidnapped, and several months after he was released, he committed suicide. Greene emphasized that the veteran photographer wasn’t responsible for the death. “But he was responsible for not letting him in the car and the consequences were dire.”
In discussing his current project about electronic waste, Greene grew impassioned about what he’s seen and learned while photographing people and places in countries where the developed world dumps its outdated electronic devices.
“People [in those countries] are getting sick and dying, but I also discovered child labor, slavery, all sorts of crimes against humanity so we could have our toys,” Greene said. “It is my obsession.”
Asked whether he thought his work would change anything, Greene said no. There’s too much profit for those taking in the waste to process and recycle it, and too much of a worldwide addiction to electronic devices. ‘You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Greene said. “What I’m trying to do is maybe slow it down a little bit. Maybe we don’t all need to have the latest iPhone.”
The topic of the power of photojournalism to affect change also came up in the discussion about Chechnya. Greene acknowledged that he got caught up in the Chechen war, and practically consumed by it. “We [photographers] really romanticized the Chechen people. We felt this kind of solidarity. When you watch someone to your left and right get killed, you become angry, and you have this naive idea that pictures are going to stop it…that they will make people upset, and stop the killing. You go back more and more to show proof [of the atrocity], and you hope pictures that get published will make people stop it. But it’s not the case.”
Another question Leroy raised is why Greene continues to shoot film rather than digital images.
“I can tell you a bunch of stories,” Greene said to begin an impassioned case for film. He first recounted photographer Dirck Halstead’s story about digging a picture out of his archive of Monica Lewinsky greeting Bill Clinton after the Lewinsky scandal broke. “It was a nothing picture” when Halstead shot it, Greene said. “If it [had been] digital, he would have deleted it, and Bill [Clinton] would have skated.” (Halstead’s account of he story is here.)
Then Greene recounted how he was on assignment in New Orleans photographing a story on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He was using a Leica M8, which is digital. “I got a great shot of some people throwing a flag at George Bush’s car” as the then-President’s motorcade was trying to avoid a street demonstration, Greene said. A few minutes later, when his smart card filled up and he was swapping it out of the camera, it slipped from his fingers, through the steel grate of a bridge he was standing on, and into the Mississippi River. “I was really upset,” Greene says, and then to the amusement of the audience he added: “I took out a roll of film and dropped it and it didn’t go through the [grate]. So there you go.”
But Greene’s preference for film is also philosophical. When LeRoy asked him when he would shoot his first story with an iPhone, Greene said, “Never.” Of all the filter apps now used with iPhones, Greene went on to explain, “I don’t think that’s photography.” He then pointed to a photograph he made of a woman who had died a violent death. “I would feel pretty shitty sitting there with an iPhone, trying to take this kind of picture, then trying to play artist after the fact” with filter apps, he said.
He went on to take photographers to task for chimping. “You don’t take your eye off [your subject,]” he said, “You have eye contact, and that’s respect. When you start to chimp, you’re not thing about them anymore. When you’re focused on them, they can feel it, and they’re willing to give themselves up to you. I’ve seen people using iPhones, and the subjects are wondering, ‘Are you really interested? Do you really care?'”
But Greene acknowledge he can’t shun digital photography completely, or forever. Film and paper are getting scarce. And digital photography has its place, he said a bit grudgingly, recounting how Tim Hetherington used an iPhone to take preliminary pictures for a project he pitched to Newsweek right before he died. “He wanted to make a magazine understand what he wanted to do” with a 6×7 camera, Greene says. “So there can be a balance. I’m trying to be less rigid.”
Finally, Greene’s newfound appreciation for photo agents came up when he talked about Noor Images, the cooperative agency he started with several other photographers. “Kadir [van Lohuizen] and I came up with the idea of Noor in a bar in New Orleans. We were bitching about our agencies in a bar in New Orleans, like [photographers] do,” Greene said. “We had this idea we would be photographers without borders. I go into things with a naive idea of community and communism, but I think with an agency, you have to be dictator. When everything has to be decided unanimously, nothing gets decided. I have new opinions about agencies.”
Greene also hinted that Noor is struggling as it approaches its fifth anniversary in September. The agency “has growing pains like everything else in the world,” Greene said. “We’re going to get through it.”
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