The candid conversation between Christopher Morris and MaryAnne Golon at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Viriginia, highlighted the varied paths Morris’s career has taken, from documenting conflict and politics to shooting fashion, and the struggles photographers face in a changing industry. Morris, a founding member of the VII photo agency and contract photographer for TIME Magazine since 1990, and Golon, a former photo editor at TIME and now the Assistant Managing Editor and Director of Photography at the Washington Post, “grew up together in the industry,” she said.
Mesmerized as a boy by photographs of soldiers and death emerging from the Vietnam War, Morris was first taught to use a camera by his stepmother. While visiting his father, who was based in the Philippines as a contractor, Morris witnessed the press photographing the POWs who had been held in North Vietnam returning to Clark Air Base. The seed of his desire to become a photojournalist was firmly planted.
“I was always in pursuit of the ultimate conflict photography, basically pursuing the man with the gun,” said Morris of the years he spent covering conflict. “Eventually I started to realize I was pursuing a bunch of idiots with a gun.”
In 2000, on his sixth trip covering the conflict in Chechnya, Morris was nearly killed. In that moment, he told the audience, he realized that he hadn’t taken any pictures of his two-year-old daughter. “It became crystal clear to me that I didn’t want to do [conflict photography] anymore, that it was a very selfish profession, a profession that was driven by my own internal desires of wanting to experience man at his worst,” said Morris.
Having covered scenes of violence in Croatia, Bosnia and Chechnya, he said, “I basically started to hate mankind.”
He showed photos of a man cut to shreds in his vegetable garden by a piece of metal falling from the sky, and 4-year-old boy with his throat slit open by shrapnel. Morris said, “These kind of pictures were more to shock my editors…it’s the stuff they won’t publish.”
Morris and Golon noted that magazines have to appeal to advertisers, “And they would never stand for some of these images to be published in the same place” as their ads, Golon noted. Covering conflict “became my job, a way of paying my mortgage,” Morris said, “The pictures didn’t really change anything…In this country we sanitize war, we sanitize the true brutality of it.”
Morris told TIME he couldn’t cover war anymore. From 2000 to 2009, he was assigned to the White House. With editors from TIME in the room, he admitted that while on assignment he shoots 70 percent of his photos for himself and 30 percent for the client. “The problem with publications and media is that there is a certain product that they want and it does not usually fit what you want to carry on for your legacy,” Morris said. His solution? Once he felt he had want TIME needed, he made images for himself.
Morris said that the job as White House correspondent “terrified me because it was going to be photographing a man in a suit for the rest of my career.” He explained, “In conflict, we had such freedom, you go where you want, you wake up when you want, there’s no writer, there’s no editor, there’s no fixer. At the White House you’re told where to sit, where to stand, when to eat, when to go home, when to be there.”
An Italian fashion magazine contacted him around 2009 to shoot a story on retail store mannequins. “I thought well, I could photograph Republicans, so that’s how I got this.” He continued shooting fashion assignments for magazines and clothing companies for the next five years. Morris said, “the problem with this type of photography is that it goes against everything I had done in my career for 20 years. Everything is staged, everything is manipulated, everything is created, it’s the complete opposite of photojournalism, but I found it challenging and it was photography so I thought I would try it out.”
Today, Morris is primarily shooting celebrities: actresses Laetitia Casta and Selma Hayek, and the Princess of Monaco and her young family. Referring to the royal family, Morris said, “They brought me there to do their Christmas card, so now I’ve gone from war to being a baby photographer.”
“Are you always looking for a new way to see?” Golon asked near the end of the conversation. Morris said, “It’s like there are different ladders in life, if one isn’t working then I get on another.”
Of the work that first made his name and reputation, Morris said, “I still miss it. I still miss conflict photography.”
Speaking before an audience of photographers, Morris said, “I’m like everyone in this room trying to survive.” He said, “It’s an industry of constantly clinging on with your fingernails, finding jobs, having to wait 90 to 120 days to get people to pay, but I wouldn’t change it for anything because you’re not locked in an office. You see the world. You can hang with homeless people, you can hang with refugees, you can hang with presidents, you can hang with celebrities. There’s no other profession in the world that gives you that kind of life.”
What’s next for Morris? Golon asked. Without hesitation, he answered, “That’s a fantasy question, but I’d like to make a movie, a full documentary.”
—by Sarah Stacke
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