In conversation with Dario Mitidieri

As part of the run up to our Urban Photo Festival Masterclass we sat down with World Press Photographer Dario Mitidieri to discuss his most recent work Lost Family Portraits. Dario also describes what it was like being a young photographer during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, why his most iconic work on the children of Bombay is still relevant today and what has most surprised him over his career.

It’s not everyday you get to sit down with someone who has documented the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, Aryton Senna’s last race, and the uncovering of mass graves in Iraq to name just a few. In the course of our interview Dario gives off an air of percipience and is articulate in his responses, with over 30 years of experience as a reportage photographer it’s understandable why his disposition is so grounded. This is a man who respects the social power of his work.

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How did you get into photography?
It has always been my passion since I was a child. By coincidence 30 years ago I became a student again when I was 25 when the first course of photojournalism was launched at the London College of Printing [now London College of Communication.] As soon as I finished the course I started to work as a freelance photographer for The Independent and Sunday Telegraph around 1986. 

Your most recent work, Lost Family Portraits, is a symbolic series on the refugee crisis. How did that idea come into conception?
Over the past 10-15 years I have also collaborated with many advertising agencies in London and abroad. One of the agencies I’ve worked for in the past, M&C Saatchi, saw my portfolio and contacted me about doing something on the refugee crisis. I was in touch with one of the creative directors at the agency and we came up with different ideas. After many this one came about and I immediately knew that it had great potential. I thought it was a fantastic way to do something about the refugee crisis in an emotive way with a creative input. They asked me, ‘Dario, how do you think we should do this?’ We got into the logistics of the idea. Rather than taking the family to a studio I thought it would be great to take the studio to them in the refugee camps. I thought that would have much more impact. We had a little production team in Beirut and we brought in our light and studio backdrop etc. and then we went to the refugee camps to set up this studio in the middle it. The idea was to see the back of the backdrop, so you have the context which I thought was very important. The main idea behind this was creating an empty space or an empty chair(s) symbolising the family member(s) who had died or disappeared as a result of the war. The idea was to illustrate in an effective and creative way the sense of loss and the destructive impact wars have on families. 

LOST FAMILY PORTRAITS

AMMOUNA’S FAMILY – Bakaa Valley, Labanon

Let’s go right back to when you were documenting the student’s demonstration in Tiananmen Square. What was different about documentary photography back then?
To be honest there was a different buzz and a different way of working. There were not as many photographers as today. We were covering this major event — maybe 50 photographers bumping into each other all the time. We were shooting everything on film of course. You would take a photograph and you would instinctively know you had a good photo. Of course, you would never be 100 per cent sure until you came back home and developed the film and looked at the contact sheet. There was a different buzz as opposed to shooting now where you immediately look at the back of your screen to see what you’ve done. It’s much more diluted nowadays. 

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Don McCullin once said how digital images can’t be trusted however people generally want to see images immediately. Do you think that takes away from the organic nature of a photo because so many photographers get caught up with ‘polishing’ an image?
I totally agree with that. I think in the old days you were shooting in film, especially in black and white. You were developing and processing your film and doing your prints. Of course, you would darken the sky a little bit and darken the corners a little bit to make the image a bit more moody or increase the contrast a little bit. But, that was it. If there was a little spot on the print as a result of some dust on the negative you would clean it up. The problem I’m having, even on a photojournalistic level, is the big debate about what is fair manipulation and what is not it terms of reportage and photojournalistic integrity. Even within those parameters I feel quite uncomfortable most of the time, because you can see the way some images have been treated differently by other photographers. The way images are treated you get a different feel from the photograph. You can definitely add more contrast and drama to the images in Photoshop, but in my opinion it’s gone too far. Even within the parameters of what is reportage and photojournalistic integrity. I saw the current World Press Photo for example, some of the winning black and white images in particular look almost fake. For me black and white photographs, for example Don McCullin’s work, carries a much bigger weight because you know it’s not been altered in any way except some very basic adjustments. There is an organic element with film because you have to go through a chemical process. There is a nostalgic idea of your photograph appearing when you’re developing — it’s priceless. After 15 years of shooting digitally I’m still trying to adjust to the digital process. 

Concerning black and white and colour photography. What influences whether you choose one over the other?
When I was shooting on film I had a clear distinction about what I wanted to do. For example, my most well known work of children in Bombay. If I had considered shooting in colour it wouldn’t have the same power or impact. Equally even in the past there were some stories where I started to shoot in colour and I thought they would work better in colour. When I was doing a photojournalistic story like Bombay it was very much dealing with the moments and human emotion. I generally thought black and white was a much more powerful way of shooting. All the colours would have been very distracting, especially in a hot country like India where after eight o’clock in the morning you want to shoot in colour it’s impossible. Whereas in black and white you can forget all that and focus on the subject. These days everything has changed. Even if you want to shoot in black and white you’re always shooting in colour anyway because if you want to change it to black and white you can do that in Photoshop. 

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Is documentary photography about maintaining a balance between being intrusive and being a spectator?
I think that being a documentary photographer is about both. I think you can say that you’re both. It depends on the situation and the photographer. It’s really up to you how intrusive you want to be or how objective you want to be. There’s always this argument about whether you are really objective when you shoot as a photojournalist. Of course it’s yes and no. You try to remain impartial and you try to document what you see. Equally, it is very subjective. The moment you change the lens on your camera — you go wide angle etc — you change the composition of that photograph. You can change everything. Ultimately, I think it’s a balance between the photographer’s integrity and sensitivity and to make that particular image more or less real. To be honest when I shoot things I never really think about things like this. The process is very instinctive. It happens. I do know when I become intrusive. I do know when I’m just about to step the line. To be honest there are only very few occasions when I’ve done that. I always try to be respectful of the people I photograph. Ultimately, if people don’t want to be photographed I have no interest of photographing them. 

This leads quite nicely onto the next question. Do you ever experience ethical conflicts when you’re out in the field, for example in the Children of Bombay?
The ethical conflict I had in India wasn’t mine. It was mostly of the adults surrounding the children. I felt like I had an obligation towards the children. It was one of the situations where these were the kids who were at the bottom of the social ladder and at the bottom of the caste system. Kids who really had no voice. They were slapped by adults only because they were speaking to me and only because I was taking their photograph. Of course, I felt if I wasn’t there to tell their story how were people going to relate to these children. They’re not criminals. There’s all this taboo and stigma they are facing. Of course, the reality is totally different — they’re just kids coming from incredibly difficult backgrounds and abusive families who had the guts and courage to run away from home and find a better life in Bombay. They were trying to grow up in the most extreme adversities and really growing up and becoming adults much faster than they should in that environment. I had the opportunity to witness these changes and I felt an obligation to tell their stories and get the story right. I had endless arguments with the socialites in Bombay when I tried to open their eyes. 

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For you personally what was the most affecting project or documentary of your career so far?
Children of Bombay. Also Tiananmen Square for different reasons — it was my first really big story. I got catapulted into it. It was the beginning of my career and I’d only been photographing for a couple of years. I was working for a newspaper and was all of a sudden catapulted into this world of international photojournalism. I became British Press Photographer of the Year — on a personal level that was a big thing for me. Also, the satisfaction I got from shooting those pictures, because I felt like that was the true purpose of trying to be a photojournalist. One of those rare moments where if we photojournalists and photographers were not there documenting the massacre in Tiananmen Square China would have swept everything under the carpet — they were denying people had been killed. It is vital as a photographer to do that kind of stuff. It was one of those rare moments where you felt, ‘you know what this is really important what I’ve just done.’ It goes well beyond photography. We’ve been documenting history. We got the record straight. That’s one big story that has great significance.

Bombay, again for personal reasons it was the best year I had in many years both on a personal level and professional level. For me it was like being a child again. Spending a year there was exhilarating most of the time — it was a really funny thing to do and again on a personal level I got catapulted into the world of international photojournalism. It won many awards. It is the work today that is still recognised among all the other things I’ve done. Even today I’ve got people contacting me and people writing to me about buying prints. People doing dissertations and studying my work. After all these years it’s incredible. It’s really satisfying to be able to work like that. 

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Is photography an art form for you or is it a social commentary?
Well, I think it’s both. You try to tell a story, but you try to tell a story in a creative way. Sometimes I think very carefully about what my composition might be, for example the portraits of the Syrian families. Most the time my composition comes very intuitively. It’s something you have or you don’t. That’s the thing that distinguishes photographers. There is an artistic angle to all of that. You can have two or three people photographing exactly the same thing and one photo will stand out more than the other one, because the composition is better and the light is better. Everybody can photograph in documentary style, but to make the photograph stand out from the crowd you have to photograph in a way which also has an artistic value. 

In relation to the mass graves in Iraq – these are really cathartic images. Where does the power of an image lie? Does it have to shock for people to act on it?
In that particular instance the images are not shocking. They’re not shocking at all. If at all the images are quite considerate. They were positive images within the tragic events in which they were taken. I only literally photographed what was there. If you out a blindfold around somebody’s face and then you shoot him and bury him in a mass grave and later uncover him. That’s what you’re going to get. The tragic thing is not me taking the photograph. The tragic thing is about Saddam Hussein killing 300,000 people. The families of those people were very cooperative and they wanted me to be there. They wanted me to show the world what Saddam Hussein had done. They were going through a healing process. To be able to document something, which was historical — something that cannot be denied anymore — it was important for me on a professional and personal level. It was again one of those moments where you say, ‘this is what I’m meant to do as a photojournalist.’ What I do can be a very powerful thing. Also, it can be meaningful for the people I’m photographing. 

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Is your work influenced by any other photographers?
My true inspiration has always been Henri Cartier Bresson. There are a lot of photographers out there that I love, but to me he has always been the true inspiration. Just when you think you know all his work then another book comes out of some other obscure photograph he’s done. It’s just incredible. I can’t think of a bad photograph that he’s ever taken. The amount of work he’s done and the quality is simply astonishing. To be honest, I also find inspiration from these young emerging photographers who risk their lives to do stories for peanuts. Some of their work is very strong and it’s the stuff that you don’t see in magazines and newspapers, but if you go to the World Press Photo in Amsterdam and you’ve got all these photographers showing their projects that never gets published you get a sense of the amount of work that has been done. If you visit Visa Pour L’image — the festival of photojournalism, which happens every year you get to understand how much incredible work is out there. 

Over the years what has surprised you the most about the work you do as a photographer?
To be honest, it’s been the incredible positiveness I received on several occasions, which has made me feel very humble. Moments I thought I would never experience in my life, where people came to me literally in tears  complimenting my work and expressing themselves and saying how important and relevant and powerful the work has been. Those kinds of compliments are vital. The level of affection has been quite surprising. 

I guess you’ve already answered this then, what’s the most gratifying part of the job?
The most gratifying part of the job is just to reiterate this idea that you as a photojournalist really do have a purpose. That’s really the most rewarding thing I have felt. Equally the travelling — I love getting out there and meeting people and throwing myself into things. It’s a real privilege to be able to experience that as photojournalist. I do much less now, I’ve got four children. It’s not as easy anymore, but when I do have the opportunity I regain that kind of energy and passion, which will never go away. Thank God. I hope! (laughs) 

To book the November 5+6 photography weekend Masterclass with Dario Mitidieri or for more information on UrbanPhotoFest click here.