ARTICLE

Always seek stories: Magnum's Jérôme Sessini on finding your photographic voice

A man who lost his leg during a bombing in Idlib sits in a makeshift tent in Lebanon, West Bekaa. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III on 20 October 2013. © Jérôme Sessini / Magnum Photos

Jérôme Sessini has little time for convention. The Canon Ambassador's documentary work has taken him to Iraq, Mexico, Ukraine, Haiti and Lebanon, covering major conflicts, but he eschews the label of ‘war photographer’. “I prefer to define myself as a storyteller,” says the Magnum photographer.

Jérôme’s two series of photographs taken in Ukraine won him first and second prize in the Spot News Stories category of the 2015 World Press Photo Contest. His winning series, Crime Without Punishment, examined the devastating wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The scenes were a test of emotional fortitude in even the most seasoned journalists.

His second prize-winning series, Final Fight for Maidan, documented the violent clashes between Ukrainian police and pro-European, anti-government protesters in February 2014. The protesters built barricades and occupied Kiev’s central Maidan square with ongoing violent clashes peaking on 18 February 2014, when 70 people from both sides were killed.

The French photographer has previously talked to us about the emotional toll of working in war zones, and about the future of photojournalism. But in this interview, he takes a step back to explain how he broke into the industry, why he values long-term projects, and what it takes to make it as a photojournalist in an eroding editorial market.

A protester’s feet are seen standing on a metal wall in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
On 7 February 2011, thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leave the government. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. © Jérôme Sessini / Magnum Photos

What first attracted you to photography?

“When I was around 23 (in the early 1990s), I bought my first camera. I was fascinated by images in general – paintings, photography – and also by history. When I saw books by Mark Cohen, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, I understood that photography was a language of the soul. I started to take pictures around my hometown in Les Vosges; landscapes and portraits of ordinary people.”

Then in 1998, you moved to Paris to pursue a career as a photographer and started working with Gamma photo agency. How did that break come about?

Christian Ziegler’s

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“At that time I had no clue about the photography industry; I was a total amateur. Slowly, I started to learn how to sell my work and to sell myself, which is the difficult part. I started by taking news pictures of protests in Paris, for example, and sent them to Gamma. After a year, Gamma sent me to Albania, where there was a conflict going on [the Kosovo war]. The editor told me, ‘OK, you want to be a photographer? This is your chance.’ The agency gave me 25 rolls of film and $1,000. I met a journalist in Albania who was working for a French newspaper and I got my first assignment.”
An old car drives along the seafront strip called The Malecon in Havana, Cuba, in the rain.
The Malecon in Havana, Cuba, pictured shortly after Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel, who had led Cuba for almost 50 years. "The entire Cuban population was in expectation," says photographer Jérôme Sessini. Taken on 17 June 2008 on a Canon EOS 5D. © Jérôme Sessini / Magnum Photos

How did Albania compare to your expectations? How prepared were you?


“I was totally unprepared. I arrived at night in the port of Durrës and I didn't know what to do or where to go. I was following a group of people who were going to fight with the Kosovo Liberation Army, but once we arrived in Albania, they left me alone with my camera. I met this journalist there who told me, ‘I'm going to help you.’ I was very lucky. At that time, Albania was tough and dangerous.”

Since then, you've done many short-term assignments, as well as in-depth personal series such as your four-year project in Mexico. How do the two approaches relate?

“Mexico was the first project that I wanted to follow for years [rather than for a shorter period]. I speak Spanish and have a lot of contacts in the country. I really wanted to understand what was happening there; to see changes month by month and year by year. It’s difficult to continue a project for many years, but short assignments are difficult too, because you have to react quickly. Sometimes a news story can become a long-term project. I’ve been working in Ukraine for three years now and that began as a news story. It’s hard to explain how I know when it's a major story to follow in-depth. You get a kind of feeling of attraction for the people. It's not something rational.”

An Orthodox priest holds up a wooden crucifix in front of a wall of sand bags. A man wearing protective clothing and a helmet with a face guard holds a makeshift metal riot-style body shield in one hand, next to him.
An Orthodox priest blesses protesters on a barricade in Kiev, Ukraine, on 20 February 2014. From Jérôme's series, Final Fight for Maidan, which documented the culmination of the November 2013 to February 2014 occupation by anti-government protesters of Kiev's main square. Ongoing violence between protesters and police led to 70 people being killed. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. © Jérôme Sessini / Magnum Photos

Do you identify with the struggles of the people you photograph? In the barricades in Ukraine, for example, is it hard not to get swept up in what’s happening?

“I can make friends and I have my own political opinions. But I try to keep this away from photography. I don't try to give explanations with my work because photography cannot tell everything. It can show, it can translate emotions. I prefer pictures that provoke questions [to those that offer opinions]. I want people to form their ideas themselves.”

Today, the single image seems to be losing its dominance. Do you feel that narrative is more important than having a single powerful shot?

“Definitely. I totally believe in sequences in stories. It's a bit like music: when you compose music, you have some slow moments, then moments of tension – and I try to do the same with my photo series. I always think in terms of series. I'm always looking for a story, not one single picture.”

A Roma woman sits in front of a corrugated iron wall.
A woman attends Sunday Mass at a Roma camp in La Courneuve, Paris, on 4 May 2013. While on assignment in France for Médecins du Monde, Jérôme returned several times on his own initiative to La Courneuve. This is the oldest Roma slum in France, made up of a church, three streets and 80 households. In 2015, French police dismantled the camp and evicted around 300 Roma residents. While shooting this series, Romas in France, Jérôme was moved by the fervour of Roma during Sunday Masses. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Jérôme Sessini / Magnum Photos

Do you think there are any new ethical dilemmas facing photographers working today?

“Yes, there are some things that we need to talk about in the industry. I hate post-production work that’s done to make a bad picture look nice. Any post-production editing I do is about making my pictures look more neutral and closer to reality, because a digital shot is sometimes too sharp and too artificial-looking.

“Some people who consider themselves purists say pictures must be uncropped and not staged. That doesn’t matter for me. What matters to me is the honesty of the photographer – if you stage your photography then OK, but you have to tell people. If you stage photography and make people believe it’s real, then that’s a problem. But fiction in photography can be a very powerful way to tell stories."

Children stand next to a huge window, with one boy reaching up to touch the glass, overlooking the skyline of downtown Caracas.
Children play inside the unfinished abandoned skyscraper Centro Financiero Confinanzas, also known as the Tower of David, in downtown Caracas, Venezuela. Taken on 1 June 2013, shortly after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's death, for Jérôme's series Caracas post Chávez. Hundreds of families squatted in the building for eight years after it became abandoned, before being evicted gradually between 2014 and 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. © Jérôme Sessini / Magnum Photos

How has your storytelling changed? You've been working more with moving images...

“I’m not a filmmaker, but I use video in certain situations. In Kiev’s Maidan square, I was in a barricade with some protestors when snipers started to shoot at them. I was stuck for two or three hours, and the pictures began to look very repetitive. So I decided to switch to video, and the action was stronger than it would have been with a still image. But I'm first of all a photographer, not a video maker.”

What advice do you have for photographers who are just starting out?

“Find yourself and then try to remain yourself. That's very difficult – it's easy to get lost with photography. When you start to become a photographer, you don't know which direction you want to go in, so you try many things and it's hard to find your way.”

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton


Jérôme Sessini’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Jérôme Sessini’s kitbag

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160).

Lens

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

Lens

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