Client: Getty Images/Edelman PR
Getty CEO Jonathan Klein interviews award-winning photographer Spencer Platt as part of this ADDY Award-winning photographer interview video series produced by GoodSide Studio.
Aidan: Hi, my name is Aidan (SP) Sullivan. I am vice president of photo assignment for Getty Images. Thank you for joining us today.
The visual image in all forms has never been so important or relevant in our society and culture, arguably replacing the written word as the primary vehicle of communication. Behind every photograph there is a story. Whether these stories are told by one of our photographers, film-makers or editors, one constant remains, the passion that all of us at Getty Images share, the imagery of all types. Today we are going to give you a glimpse of what goes into the making of an award-winning iconic image. In this, our first podcast, our chief executive and co-founder of Getty Images talks with Spencer Platt, one of our intrepid news photographers, who has just won the coveted World Press Photo Picture of the Year Award.
Jonathan: You’ve just won the most coveted award in photography. Do your awards matter?
Spencer: It’s a trick question. You can’t shoot for awards. You can’t work towards awards. That can’t be what drives you. It’s almost a danger because the attraction of an award is so great, so fundamental. It can do wonders for your career. It can propel you from here to there. It can give you the opportunity to cover stories that you never would have gotten the opportunity before, but I don’t think that can be the driving motivation. What drives me is the commitment to be involved in the story, to be engaged in the story. I think at the end of the day, it is imperative for someone to tell the story in corners and parts of the world where most people don’t want to go.
Jonathan: You wouldn’t say that there’s some adrenaline that goes with it?
Spencer: Certainly there’s adrenaline. I’d be lying, and I think anyone who is in my business would be lying, to an extent, if he said it has nothing to do with adrenaline. A lot of us who are photographers who cover conflicts in these situations are the certain types of people who, 200 years ago, would be sailing on ships. I think underlying it is a real love of humanity, of people from a mix, a myriad of cultures, societies. If you have any malice or disdain or hatred, racism, it’s going to come out in your photos.
Jonathan: You talk about a love of humanity, yet you are somebody who has seen humanity at its worst.
Spencer: Yeah, sure. But I’ve also seen humanity at its best.
Jonathan: You need to see both.
Spencer: You need to see both. Sometimes that’s where you see humanity at its best, when you go into a war zone. You see people doing courageous acts to save someone’s life, someone they don’t even know, or someone taking an incredibly brave act to make a stand, and that’s what fuels you.
Jonathan: Have there been times where you felt, “This is not the time to compose a picture or press shot, I need to do something else”.
Spencer: There are those times. I think when those times do happen, you do have to sit and question. People, they need food, water, and medical assistance. I show up. All I have is a camera. They look at you, and they assume that you are a doctor, that you’re from an aid organization, that you’re going to give them some money, some food. You can’t. All you can say is, “I just have this camera, and I’m going to tell your story.” You ask yourself, “Is this going to somehow mitigate their situation?” On the flip side of that, recently when I was in Lebanon, there were no ambulances there, no emergency services. There were just photojournalists, I don’t know, about a dozen photojournalist, and some of them were the most well-
known photojournalists in the world. We realized that there were still numerous people in these buildings who were trapped, mostly elderly people. I saw my friends put down their cameras, make these makeshift gurneys out of ladders, carry these people out, and it was incredible. It was time to destroy what was off, put your cameras away, and we’ve got to get these people out, because no one else is here to do it. And these people are my colleagues, and I have to say, I have never been so proud of being a photojournalist.
Jonathan: I know that for you, 9/11 was something of a defining moment for you personally. You took one of the defining images of 9/11.
Spencer: Yeah, everything changed, no doubt, for journalism, for New York, for Americans that day. It will never be the same. It was an age of, it was so much innocence lost.
Jonathan: You know, having shot in the Middle East a lot, that you are somewhat manipulated by both sides to show things the way they would prefer it. I guess it is interesting to me how you keep your guard up against that.
Spencer: It’s impossible.
Spencer: The Middle East, it’s the most political media savvy in the world. These people have grown up in a very intimate environment with media. They know what we do, they know how we work, and they know how to use images. When you are covering these situations, whether it be a funeral or a bomb blast somewhere, you always have to really be aware of when the situation is being done for you, when it turns into, somehow, propaganda, and when it is real news.
Jonathan: There were 78 thousand or so images submitted for World Press, give or take, and this was chosen as the winning image. The image has a tremendous amount of complexity. Were you taken by surprise by some of the controversy around it?
Spencer: To me, controversy is good. I would not want to take an image where people just accept and move on. This image, people stop, people debate, people argue, they love it, they hate it. Few people feel indifferent about it. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it. In the media, if you pick up any newspaper any day or a magazine, you’re used to seeing people from the Middle East that are not empowered. And these people have power. These are beautiful, sexy-looking people. They look like they have some spending power. These people represent a dynamic and very important part of the new Middle East. I think it’s a refreshing view. It’s also, in war, there is often beauty. War isn’t just catastrophe, it just isn’t ugliness. People get married, put on beautiful clothes, people go out in a car, a Mini-Cooper. That’s part of war. I think the juxtaposition there with the rubble and this youth that stands against death is intriguing.
Jonathan: One of the reasons that was so shocking, is that we never get that view of the Middle East. People who know the Middle East very well say that that scene which you shot is not that uncommon. You caught it beautifully, and one of the things we haven’t talked about is the technical skill which comes into what you do. Is that second nature, now, to compose the shot?
Spencer: It’s certainly second nature. That, I don’t even remember composing. I think you know that. I like to say there’s a huge element of luck that goes into it, but I think, for me, it’s also just patience, really having patience. A story like that, it’s moving so quickly, it was a big day. I knew it would be the dominant headlines of tomorrow’s news, and I just had a feeling that I didn’t have the picture yet. I had a couple of colleagues with me earlier in the day, and they had decided to go back to the hotel to file, and I just said I have to stay a little while and it happened. You’re in these war zones, you’re in this place, you’re tired, you’re fatigued by the sun, you’re hungry, whatever, you want to just get back to your hotel and get the story out, have lunch, whatever, and be done. But you always have to remind yourself to go a little deeper, to go a little harder, to push.
Jonathan: If you weren’t a photographer or a professional cyclist, what would you do?
Spencer: That would be it, nothing, I don’t know. I would have to be involved in the news business somehow. From a young age I knew, I didn’t know it was photojournalism, per se, but I knew I was attracted to telling a story. I told a lot of fibs as a young kid. I knew I had to be involved in stories, and travel, and seeing other cultures. Also, being a part of history, witnessing history. I want to look back and just be able to say that I was there.
Jonathan: I’m going to lighten up and say thanks a lot. For me, I say this a thousand times a year, and I seldom get to say it on camera. To work for the same company as literary heroes like you is very humbling and I’m really not fit to carry your camera bag, but thanks for spending the time talking to us today.
Spencer: Thank you, Tom, but this would never be possible without you and everything Getty has done.
Jonathan: You are very welcome. It was great. Thanks.