Interviews

Magnum photographers discuss their Conditions of the Heart

Prized Possession (#2). Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa. 2008 © Jim Goldberg / Magnum Photos

Some of the most iconic Magnum Photographers, dating from the early years of the photo agency right up to the present day, share their most empathetic image, inspired by the work of David ‘Chim’ Seymour.

The connection between photographer and subject is a vital element in the power of an individual photograph. In turn, the image has the power to inspire, inform and communicate human engagement.

In 1948, David ‘Chim’ Seymour would come to pioneer this visual form of emotional empathy through his work with UNICEF – following the children orphaned and scarred by the consequences of the Second World War.

Working for six months on a dramatically reduced fee, Chim painstakingly travelled across Europe shooting 257 rolls of film, going beyond mere illustration of UNICEF’s work, the assignment became a labour of love, revealing his unique capacity to awaken the public’s conscience to war’s most vulnerable victims.

His unapologetically compassionate approach reflected both his deep seated humanism and unique ability to treat those he photographed with equanimity, reverence and respect, developing a genuine human connection that would become emblematic of the engagement at the heart of documentary photography today.

Chim’s photographs remain an indispensible part of history, creating a style of photography which has not only shaped the ethos of Magnum Photos and it’s photographers, but forged a legacy that will continue to influence generations of photographers to come.

ABBAS

Homage to Chim (David Seymour) “I do not believe in empathy in photography, unapologetic or otherwise. I believe in sharp observation, always, and in confrontation with my subjects, sometimes. Although I never felt close to the work of Chim, nonetheless I admired his engagement and appreciated the empathy with which he photographed his subjects. There is more than empathy between this beggar in Rishikesh, India and the calf he is cradling like his own baby. There is love and compassion. The beggar, paralyzed in both legs, spends half of the alms he receives to feed the calf whom he has raised since it was born. The calf is growing up and will soon be a cow, no doubt a sacred one, like the tree behind them.” — Abbas

Homage to Chim (David Seymour) © Abbas / Magnum Photos

The Iranian photographer says of the image: “I do not believe in empathy in photography, unapologetic or otherwise. I believe in sharp observation, always, and in confrontation with my subjects, sometimes. Although I never felt close to the work of Chim, nonetheless I admired his engagement and appreciated the empathy with which he photographed his subjects. There is more than empathy between this beggar in Rishikesh, India and the calf he is cradling like his own baby. There is love and compassion. The beggar, paralyzed in both legs, spends half of the alms he receives to feed the calf whom he has raised since it was born. The calf is growing up and will soon be a cow, no doubt a sacred one, like the tree behind them.”

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WERNER BISCHOF

PERU. May 1954. On the road to Cuzco, near Pisac, in the Valle Sagrado of the Urubamba river.

A flute player on the road to Cuzco, near Písac, in the The Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, Peru. May, 1954 © Werner Bischof / Magnum Photos

Marco Bischof, Director of the Werner Bischof Estate, says: “In May 1954, the photographer Eugene V. Harris met Werner Bischof in Machu Picchu. He wrote of this time:

‘On the last night of my brief friendship with Werner we sat before a fireplace, high in the Andes mountains of Peru, talking photography most of the night. I shall always remember his advice to me: “to take pictures with your heart.” His deep compassion for the humble people of the world, as revealed in his photos, will leave its permanent imprint on the work of other photographers.’

This was the last picture taken before Bischof’s tragic death in the Peruvian Andes.”

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STUART FRANKLIN

RUSSIA. Kola Penninsula. Polluted landscape affected by nickel smelter. 2006.

RUSSIA. Kola Penninsula. Polluted landscape affected by nickel smelter. 2006 © Stuart Franklin / Magnum Photos

The British photographer says: “This photograph was taken in the Kola Peninsula in Russia, where the landscape has been tainted by nickel smelter. For me, landscape photography is like poetry; just as great poets of nature muse on trees in their writing, nature photographers dwell and reflect on their relationship with nature. I’m interested in the nature-society phenomenon, the way in which we anthropomorphize aspects of the landscape and see ourselves reflected in it or as shadows across it.”

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NIKOS ECONOMOPOULOS

TURKEY. Kars village. Nomads. 1990.

Nomads. Village in Kars, Turkey, 1990 © Nikos Economopoulos / Magnum Photos

The Greek photographer says: “In Turkey, I was going to places not so much in order to discover, but mostly to recall. Gestures, human emotions, or an overall feeling that was somehow imprinted in me would occasionally be awakened. Perhaps I was seeking to enliven shreds of childhood memories, or an innocence lost. Photography was the means and the excuse. On that day in Kars it was everything together, all piled up, one on top of the other: the child’s gaze, the companionship, the endless journey into the big, vast world.”

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ALESSANDRA SANGUINETTI

ARGENTINA. Buenos Aires. 2005. Flores Amarillas.

Yuyitos (Flowers) Buenos Aires. 2005 © Alessandra Sanguinetti / Magnum Photos

The American photographer says: “The first photographs I took were of fields, animals and my older sisters in 25 de Mayo costumes. I was a kid then, but I’m still making those same pictures. They are in different shapes and more elaborate narratives, but I am still attached to the same concerns and to a general sense of melancholy. My favorite thing to do then (and now) was to lie in the fields belly up and wait for horses and cows to come sniff me while I held my camera under their noses. Years later, in those same fields, now with Belinda and Guille, we played out scenarios, little dramas, sketches, still-lives, dances, songs and all kinds of general silliness, so that the fields became a grand, expansive stage.

In this image the girls are at their peak of adolescence. Many changes were brewing as they lay in wait.”

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HERBERT LIST

ITALY. Bomarzo. Park of the Palazzo Orsini. 1952. A-IT-BOM-001

Park of the Palazzo Orsini. Bomarzo, Italy. 1952 © Herbert List / Magnum Pohots

Peer-Olaf Richter of Herbert List Estate, says: “It is speculative for anyone but the ones involved to talk about empathy or emotional connection in a photograph. Once an artist is dead we rely on stories that surround certain images. In some rare occasions we hear from the person in the picture, who might tell us how the picture came about. This image of a shepherd in Bomarzo is such an example. After the book Italy was published with this image on the cover, we found out that the 12-year-old in the image was an orphan boy from Southern Italy. By then he had lived in Germany for the past 40 years and remembered Herbert List very well. He said List had been the first adult to listen to the sad and adventurous stories of his childhood life. The day after this image was taken, List brought him his first bag of candies.”

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JONAS BENDIKSEN

CANADA. Nunavut. Qikiqtarjuaq. 2004. A family walking with their baby stroller on the ice of the Qikiqtarjuaq bay. Qikiqtarjuaq, like many Inuit villages, was a result of forced settlement of nomadic communities. Many of their problems are born from the very difficult transition from nomadism to a permanent, as found 'in the south'.

Qikiqtarjuaq, Canada. 2004 © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

The Norwegian photographer says: “I took this picture in Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, a small village in Northern Canada. At the time, in 2004, I was on a photography assignment for a German magazine. While the location itself was magnificent, a surreal piece of urbanity dropped into vast white wilderness, the story the magazine was running was quite dark. Along with a journalist, I had been sent to try to understand the community’s many social issues. Different generations were struggling to understand one another, as the emergence of the Internet, TV, substance abuse and general feelings of isolation challenged traditional practices such as hunting and fishing. During the two weeks I was there, I struggled with my role as a complete outsider, as I had been sent to observe what felt like very private matters. At the same time, I was enamored as I watched the rituals of daily life unfold amidst all the stark and awesome beauty around us.”

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JIM GOLDBERG

Prized Possession (#2). Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa. 2008 © Jim Goldberg / Magnum Photos

The American photographer says: “This image was taken at the Mugunga refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time of my visit, in 2008, Mugunga had an estimated 90,000 inhabitants. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was in the beginning stages of moving the entire population two kilometers away from the fast approaching rebel forces.

I climbed a hill on the north side of the camp to get a view of the thousands of makeshift shelters. Sitting alone at the top was Wembe, listening to his radio. Wembe had had this radio ever since escaping a rebel attack in his village, one year before. It was the only possession he was able to keep. Wembe told me that he climbed the hill every day to listen for good news.”

Each of Goldberg’s prints will be individually hand finished by the photographer himself with a gold pen.

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MOISES SAMAN

IRAQ. Sinjar Mountains. 2014. Injured survivors of an Iraqi Air Force helicopter crash in Mount Sinjar lie onboard a rescue helicopter on its way to Iraqi Kurdistan. The survivors included Yazidi civilians, Kurdish and Iraqi Army personnel, and journalists. The Yazidis were fleeing persecution at the hands of Islamist extremists who had recently taken over their hometowns in Iraq's Ninevah province. In the high grounds of Mount Sinjar, thousands of Yazidis found safety from ISIS, but also the risk of dying from hunger and thirst. The first rescue helicopter had been sent to save the besieged civilians from that dismal fate, but it crashed into the side of the mountain shortly after takeoff.

Iraq, Sinjar Mountains, 2014 © Moises Saman / Magnum Photos

The Spanish and American photographer says: “The drama inside the helicopter unfolded in front of my eyes, silently and in slow motion. The last thing on my mind was to photograph it.

About two hours before taking this photograph, an eternity in my mind, we had survived a helicopter crash in Mount Sinjar that had killed four passengers, including one of the two pilots. We were now aboard a second helicopter, an even older-looking replica of the one that had just gone down, being flown across ISIS territory to the safety of Kurdistan.

In the past, especially when working in areas of conflict, I had adhered to a false sense of distance from my subject, one that allowed for the pursuit of a sort of superficial creativity over genuine empathy. I was simply trying too hard.

I don’t particularly remember the moment when I took this photograph, I suppose it happened almost unconsciously. We, the survivors inside that helicopter, all shared the same experience, an almost inexplicable feeling of being alive.”

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BRUCE DAVIDSON

USA. New York City. 1962. Coney Island. 4th of July fireworks.

Coney Island July Fourth Fireworks. New York City, U.S.A. 1962 © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

The American photographer says: “Sometimes they don’t tell stories, they simply speak as images. They express feeling, increase knowledge. Photographs can draw passion, beauty and understanding. And then there is love.”

Magnum’s ‘Conditions of the Heart: on empathy and connection in photography’ Square Print Sale runs 31st October 2016 at 8am (EST) until Friday, 4th November 2016 at 6pm (EST). Each print is signed and estate stamped to museum quality. A 6×6” prints costs $100.

See here for details and how to buy prints. Sale ends November 4th, 6pm (EST).

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