An interview with World Press Photo winning photographer Lorenzo Tugnoli.
edited by Maria Teresa De Palma
Lorenzo Tugnoli, born in Lugo and for years based in Lebanon, is an Italian photographer and winner of the World Press Photo 2021, with a report on the explosion in the port of Beirut last August. We interviewed him about his experience as a photojournalist and the relationship he has with the Middle East and Central Asia, his preferred places for practising his creative and documentary work.
This year again you were among the finalists of the World Press Photo, winning first prize in the ‘Spot News’ section. In 2019, with your work on Yemen, you received the Pulitzer Prize for the ‘Best Feature Photography’ category. What does it mean for a photojournalist to obtain such international recognition? What has been the impact of such recognition on your work – intended in the broadest sense, as a professional activity and way of life in general?
These awards are, of course, important occasions. In 2019, when I received the Pulitzer and the first World Press, was a pivotal year in this regard. In particular, my relationship with the Washington Post, the newspaper I collaborate with, evolved after I was awarded the Pulitzer. At the moment, I work permanently with them, for a certain number of days a year, which also affects my freedom to choose the issues I work on. In general, the awards have a fairly direct impact, especially at the beginning, and these are important moments not just for me, but also for the agencies, such as Contrasto, and the newspapers I work for: recognition of everyone’s work, such as in the case of the work on Beirut. This is certainly an element of value: but it is equally important to remain focused on the fact that we take photographs not to receive awards, but to tell stories, to develop a vision. In 2018, I had not yet won any awards, but my life as a photographer was not that different from today: my photographic research, the way I work day by day to try to improve my photography, remain unchanged. The activity as photographer must not change.
You followed the events of last August in Beirut, the explosion of the port, something that the writer Dominique Eddé described as a ‘collective heart attack’ and which seems to somehow epitomize the difficult situation that the whole of Lebanon is experiencing today. Can you tell us about your experience of these places, the work you have done to document the event?
The work in Beirut is very close to my heart: I live in Lebanon, I have been here for some time, I have ties here. What happened on that fateful day, 4 August, was this: I was at home and I heard the explosion, the building swayed and you could see the smoke from the window, a huge mushroom. I immediately went to the port and somehow managed to get in, without being stopped – the port is in general a military zone, not an easy place to take pictures. I stayed there for quite a while before going to look at the city. The part destroyed was the part opposite the port, but from the port, from that perspective, however, the extent of the damage wasn’t clear. That is something I saw later, the geography of the places was not clear to me initially: the port is very large, and it was not easy, nor immediate, to understand what was the centre of the explosion. Once I finished taking pictures in the port, I went to this area in East Beirut, famous for its clubs, its bars, its restaurants: once I go there, it looked like Aleppo, after six months of siege. I stayed there for a while to take pictures. At that point it was quite dark, I had to send the photographs to the newspaper, and that is what I did, and what I continued to do for the next two weeks. Because then, obviously, the coverage of the event goes on, and the work you do on the photographs develops over time. The photo that was nominated for Photo of the Year, showing this wounded man in the port – called Elie Saib – is a photo that I actually went back to later on. And it was an image that I didn’t send for publication that day, the day of the explosion: for weeks, indeed for months, I didn’t have time to go back to look more carefully and calmly at the photos taken on the first day. I only did so when I was working with Giulia Tornari, editor of the Contrasto agency, on the selection for the World Press Photo.
What other lines of research are you developing in Lebanon, considering that the country is experiencing a period of great unrest – albeit not always positive?
In Lebanon, I have taken a lot of pictures of the protests, which I followed before and after the explosion. But at the moment, I’m focusing on Afghanistan. And this for a variety of reasons: Afghanistan is experiencing a very important moment in its history, of transition and change, given the imminent withdrawal of US troops. It is a country that I have been visiting for ten years, an important place, and a very significant part of my work that I would like to try to conclude in some way. I will definitely go back soon, hopefully before the end of April.
It is interesting the difference between your chosen activities as photographer and the situations in which you find yourself working. On the one hand, working as you did in Beirut, following a sudden event, ‘spot news’. And on the other hand, instead, work on longer-term projects: you are now thinking about your next trip to Afghanistan and I imagine that the two weeks prior to departure are in any case fundamental in terms of preparation. Can you tell us about time, this factor of your work that is so variable?
It really depends on the type of work you are doing. When you work for a newspaper, times are usually very tight, and this is no small problem, because it often means you don’t have the chance to go deeper, to develop the full potential of a project. In any case, as far as I’m concerned, I manage to work with the newspaper without suffering any major limitations. Instead, if we’re focusing on daily work: once again, it depends on the type of project you are following. Take, for example, the last work I did in Afghanistan, published a few weeks ago in the Washington Post: the work tells the story of the architecture of the city of Kabul, the way in which security has radically changed its face, and which centres around what is known as the Green Zone, in an attempt to illustrate the intersection between this zone – where the Embassies are concentrated – and the area where people normally live. It’s a job that has taken a long time, especially due to the question of permits. And then you have to understand exactly what you want from a work of this type: in this case, the point was to represent places. What I did, then, was to try to understand which were the interesting places, how they could be photographed, what were the times of the day when it would be best to photograph them. Square by square, street by street, I began to map where the sun was and at what time; what was the place I wanted to photograph, what was the best time of the day to capture it. For a variety of reasons mainly related to security checks and policies, it was generally not possible to photograph those places continuously. So, what we did was to map all the points I wanted to photograph, identifying the specific time of day that was suitable for the shot. Generally, of course, I had to go back to the same place several times. But this is something that is also useful to understand where the project is going, what you want and what you are looking for.
Speaking of Afghanistan, a project of yours a few years ago, ‘The Little Book of Kabul’, offered a different photographic perspective, gathering images from the art scene of the Afghan capital. Can you tell us about this editorial project? Was it for you a way of doing away with the usual photographic discourses, the language that usually overlaps with a subject such as a territory at war?
The photographs in ‘The Little Book of Kabul’ were taken between 2012 and 2013; the book was published in 2014. It was a time when the American forces, NATO in general, still had a very strong ground presence, and most of the photographers who came to Afghanistan focused on this element: the images that came out of Afghanistan were for projects that followed American troops very closely. My impression was that there was a lack of portrayal of the other face of the country. This issue exists, of course: my relationship with the cliché of war photography in Afghanistan; what it has been and what it continues to be. Afghanistan is a country that has been widely portrayed, even before I was born. There is always this relationship, and the awareness of being photographers, of working in Afghanistan, perhaps for major American newspapers. It is therefore obvious that we are dealing with a specific visual language, which is the language of photojournalism. So you have to think about your position in relation to this type of language, which is what I grew up with, looking at the photographs of the war in Yugoslavia, or the works of Paolo Pellegrin: a visual vocabulary that became my reference. But of course, when you arrive in a place like Afghanistan, you have to ask yourself how much you are part of this vocabulary, and how much and whether it is right to reiterate it. The book was a sort of reflection on this: we wanted to try not to do what all the other journalists were doing. The book is about the Kabul art scene at a precise historical moment, but the way we wanted to structure the book was the result of a specific position. In other words, we decided not to talk about the art scene as such, but to talk about certain people, their experience. And this served our desire always to keep humanity and reality close to our images. To get away from the depersonalization that journalism can sometimes entail.
When you talked about the visual imagery you relate to, you anticipated one of the questions we wanted to ask you about your education on how you look at things. Speaking of Lebanon, for example, in terms of scholars of Italian photography, Gabriele Basilico immediately comes to mind; his work on Beirut at the end of the civil war. His way of seeing things was certainly very different from yours; in his case, he sought to narrate the dramas of history through the emptiness of architecture. In any case, going back to talking about places and the activity of photography, and the work for which you won the World Press Photo 2021: what is your relationship with the editor, and how much is this figure involved in the construction of a photo story?
It always depends on the person you work with. I work mainly with two people: Olivier Laurent, editor of the Washington Post, and Giulia Tornari, at the Contrasto agency, who, for example, played a fundamental role in the work on Kabul I mentioned earlier. The relationship I have with Olivier, on the other hand, has evolved greatly over the years: I have been working with him for some time, and I consider myself very fortunate, because Olivier’s visual sensitivity is very similar to mine. And when I speak of visual sensitivity, I mean not only a taste for vision, but also a specific ethical sense. One example I can give in this regard is the work I did in Yemen, for which I later won the Pulitzer and World Press awards. It was an unusual project, because it revolved around this incredible famine that still exists in the country. Therefore, what had to be visualized was also malnutrition: I often found myself taking photographs in hospitals, where there were children in situations of serious suffering. We then had to establish a discourse, reflect on the way of looking at these things, a way that was still morally right towards these people, these children. Totally excluding them from the portrayal would have been difficult, and that’s something I thus had to deal with. In any case, the editors have never given me specific directives or placed severe restrictions on my work. But there are important moments with them, of dialogue and discussion, in which we choose or reflect on what is appropriate to show from the point of view of journalism ethics.
This work, precisely, ‘regarding the pain of others’, the great question already posed by Susan Sontag, on the moral and political value of photography, and on the difficulties that arise from working in situations of war or violence. What is your point of view on the matter?
It is something very important, to talk about and to reflect on not only from an ethical point of view, but also partly from a philosophical point of view: what is the role of photography in general, what kind of photography we want to do and how we portray our subjects. Because, of course, we also find ourselves constructing imaginations, iconographies: the way we photograph Afghans, for example, builds a specific image of what Afghans are like, the way in which they are perceived. Award-winning photographers, and whose work is published in newspapers, also bear responsibility for how these countries are then represented and are therefore seen, perceived. Representation is a very important act because in reality it corresponds to the very creation of a place: the place does not exist if we do not show it, if we do not talk about it. It is a responsibility that, I believe, not all my colleagues think enough about. Moreover, it is not just a matter of personal sensitivity: in a profession like ours, we are subjected to various kinds of pressures: there are the pressures of the press, pressures of awards, the pressure that comes from the idea of having to create an increasingly hard-hitting work. Maintaining a balance, always having in mind the real purpose of what you are doing, is therefore essential.
We close with a matter of curiosity: compared to great programmatic commitment abroad, you have very rarely focused your lens on Italy. Do you have any more personal work concerning scenarios closer to home? We have seen your participation in the ‘Closed Museums’ project, with the photographs taken in Fusignano: an opportunity you took to illustrate – among other things – the difficulties that all cultural professionals are experiencing at the moment.
No, actually, I don’t have any projects that I follow professionally in Italy. The museum project was more of a friendly collaboration. What I follow in Italy is the exhibitions, the communication aspect of my work: a big and necessary commitment, but which I experience a bit as time taken from actual production. I consider myself a young photographer, in the sense that I feel the need to spend time in the field, taking pictures, improving myself. The awards – to go back to the starting point – have given me the opportunity to work on the things that interest me: and now is the time to do it for real.
This interview was possible thanks to the Contrasto agency.