There's More to Stuart Franklin Than the Most Famous Photo of the 20th Century
Jun 13 2013
NORTHERN IRELAND. Belfast. Riots. 1985.
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
One-time Magnum president Stuart Franklin is probably best known for his photo of an average looking man with some shopping defying a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Yet, as I discovered when I spoke to him, that photo was not the instant sensation people might expect it to be. He talked me through art school's effect on his work, the difference between approach and style, what "news photography" really means, and getting caught up in the Heysel Stadium disaster.
VICE: Unlike some of the people we have spoken to in this series, you were classically trained in the arts.
Stuart Franklin: I studied drawing, painting, and photography on a degree course at what used to be called the West Surrey College of Art and Design.
Do you think that influenced the way you work?
In terms of photography, it gave me a better sense of lighting and urged me to not be afraid of anything—formats or technical hurdles. On the postproduction side, I was able to go straight into setting up my own darkroom in London, processing my films and functioning as an editorial photographer, which was quite useful.
Manchester, England. Moss Side Estate. 1986.
I feel that maybe your styles and subjects have been more varied compared to those of most other photographers. Do you attribute that at all to your lack of concern about formats and techniques?
I believe there are two things to consider: one is style and the other is approach. I think the approach I take to photography is quite consistent across the board. It’s a considered, gentle approach that I have to working in almost any context. The tools that I pack in my bag to take on different assignments or projects vary enormously. They become a localized and temporary style, but I think that underneath everything there is the thumping bassline of the work, which is about my approach attempting to be quite graceful, to be quiet. The tools are whatever I pick up on the day—it could be a pencil, it could be a camera.
You became well-known after covering the famine in the Sahel in the mid-1980s, directly after you studied art. How did you transition into photojournalism?
In the beginning of the 1980s, I did a lot of work in Mexico City, supported by the Telegraph Magazine. I also did lots of work in the north of England looking at the decline of the manufacturing industry, as well as similar stuff in France, the Pas-de-Calais and areas around Metz. Those were my early bits of work. I joined Sigma in 1980, and over a period of five years they mainly sent me to cover breaking news. The first major story I covered was the 1983 bombing of the US barracks in Beirut, where I think 285 US soldiers were killed. [It was 241; a further 58 French servicemen were killed in a separate blast nearby two minutes later. Six civilians and the two bombers also lost their lives.] I covered the civil war in Lebanon in a wider context, too—those things all happened before I went to Sahel to cover the famine.
Beirut, Lebanon. 1983. American soldiers sift through rubble in the aftermath of a devastating truck bomb in Beirut.
How did those early assignments compare to the expectations you had? Was photography as a job something of a shock?
I remember one of the first assignments I had with Sigma was the IRA bombings in Hyde and Regent's Parks in 1982, down near Horse Guards. Sigma rang from Paris and asked me to go and cover it. I got there to see police tape, miles from what had happened. I couldn't really see anything, so I went back home. They rang me later furiously asking what I had got. I told them that it didn't look very interesting. I learned then that, in a news situation, anything visual is valuable—even if it's only a photo of the police tape with something blurry in the background a mile away.
The materiality of any war or news story overrode the aesthetic potential for a while, and that was quite a shock to me. I was expecting to make powerful, striking photographs and often I was actually just expected to photograph anything I could.
On the subject of striking photos, I was wondering about your photo of the man in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. First off, do you ever feel that one image overshadowed the rest of the work you did during the student protests there?
Well, it didn't actually happen that way. When I got back from China, I went into Michael Rand's office at the Sunday Times Magazine. He was laying out one of my photos on the cover of the magazine, but it was another of the photos from my trip —a topless guy with his arms raised. That became equally well known for a while. The "Tank Man" picture grew in importance over time, but it didn't actually stand out far from the body of work immediately after the event.
But yes, in more recent years people talk about that photo a lot. Does it annoy me? Well, you can't really be annoyed about it. I am just glad I was there. All I know is that I did my job and I think I did it well.
Beijing, China. Tiananmen Square. 1989.
What happened immediately after that moment, to you and the protesters? I can't imagine it was easy getting these photos out of the country.
It was all very uncertain. The police and security people were going from room to room in my hotel, searching for journalists and confiscating films. That atmosphere was very worrying. I remember packing my film into a box of tea that was supplied in the hotel room and asking someone who was going back to Paris to take it for me. I was left in China without my film. I wasn't worried about it once the film was out, and I didn't mind if I lost a couple of cameras. It wasn't easy—we were shot at, at times—but I was lucky.
Brussels, Belgium. Heysel Stadium disaster. Liverpool fans en route to the stadium. May 29, 1985.
I guess the way photos are used in news has changed since then. What other stories in that era were important for you?
The Heysel Stadium disaster was, at the time, a huge story. It was bigger news in Europe than Tiananmen Square was. Paris Match dedicated 22 pages to it. In the age of photojournalism, before TV or the internet took it elsewhere, photography was responsible for in-depth coverage of the world around us. Now, if you look at all the papers, they more or less tell the same stories and use the same pictures. That wasn't the case in the 1980s. Every magazine you picked up had a different story.
At the time, I was covering football hooliganism, which was a growing story in the UK. We weren't really sure how to cover it so we thought we'd travel down to Brussels with the Liverpool fans, and it happened to be the European Cup Final. We weren't expecting anything to happen, it was just a way of getting into the life of football fans, seeing how they related to each other and the world around them. It was meant to be a quiet story. I went into the stand with them and of course it turned into something different. What that exemplifies is a form of in-depth photo-reporting that is very rare to see these days. That was the norm back then.
Brussels, Belgium. European Cup Final. Heysel Stadium disaster. May 29, 1985.
Moving onto your more recent work, how do you feel about cities? We spoke to Jonas Bendiksen recently, and he has a very definite view. He thinks slums have to be seen as functioning and important parts of our cities, not black spots to be glossed over. Do you have an overpowering feeling about the state of our cities?
Well, on the subject of slums, as I said at the beginning, my first photographic engagement with cities was working in some of the poorer parts of Manchester, the Moss Side estates, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and then Mexico City. I think when I got to Mexico City and saw the slums, or barrios, of that city, I thought of American anthropological theorists like Oscar Lewis who had said that the poor are in the slums because they deserve to be there and that nothing will ever change. Of course that was complete rubbish. Anybody who moves anywhere, whether to a mansion or a cardboard box, is aspirational.
I have returned year on year to one particular barrio in Mexico City. Over time, window boxes appeared, gardens were created, roads were better maintained. I think slums are often the beginning of a move from urban wasteland to normal and regulated parts of a city. It’s like an informal economy; people start selling in instant markets and over time those people own shops and start paying taxes.
A bit of a jump here, but how did Narcissus fit in with your previous work? It’s remarkably removed from a lot of your other work.
I suppose there were several things that influenced Narcissus. I had become frustrated by the notion of "global photography," the idea of a meta project, of showing the "greatest places on Earth," or the "worst hellholes on Earth"—this global stuff. It’s all quite grand. And I have done so much of that stuff already: Dynamic Cities was shot, I think, in 40 cities around the world. I thought that I was perhaps missing something. For me, Narcissus was a bit like going back to playing scales if you were a musician. Just trying to sharpen one's vision and address one's focus.
I had started to reflect on the notion of landscape photography, the nature of photography in general. And actually, landscape is like anything, what was drawing me to it was abstraction, cutting something out of the cloth of what's in front of you. I wondered, if there were no expectations placed upon me—as there are, of course, when you shoot landscapes for National Geographic, for example—then what would actually draw me? It turned out that what drew me to landscapes were things that were resonant of memories I had, the very human social life I had led. The forms I recognized in the landscape were human forms, shapes that were semi-human or zoomorphic. I think Freud, when talking about photography, connected it far more to the function of memory than of vision. It was completely different, yes, and I won’t be doing it again, but I learned a lot from it. I learned to work in a small place and limit my needs. It was Spartan in itself and very coherent.
Click through to see more photography by Stuart Franklin.
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