There’s More to Stuart Franklin Than the Most Famous Photo of the 20th Century
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
One-time Magnum president Stuart Franklin is probably best known for his photo of an average-looking man with some groceries defying a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Yet, as I discovered when I spoke with Stuart, that photo was not the instant sensation people might expect it to be. He talked me through art school’s effect on his work, the difference between approach and style, what “news photography” really means, and getting caught up in the Heysel Stadium disaster.
VICE: Unlike some of the people we have spoken to in this series, you were classically trained in the arts.
Stuart Franklin: I studied drawing, painting, and photography on a degree course at what used to be called the West Surrey College of Art and Design.
Do you think that influenced the way you work?
In terms of photography, it gave me a better sense of lighting and urged me to not be afraid of anything—formats or technical hurdles. On the postproduction side, I was able to go straight into setting up my own darkroom in London, processing my films and functioning as an editorial photographer, which was quite useful.
Manchester, England. Moss Side Estate. 1986.
I feel that maybe your styles and subjects have been more varied compared to those of most other photographers. Do you attribute that at all to your lack of concern about formats and techniques?
I believe there are two things to consider: one is style and the other is approach. I think the approach I take to photography is quite consistent across the board. It’s a considered, gentle approach that I have to working in almost any context. The tools that I pack in my bag to take on different assignments or projects vary enormously. They become a localized and temporary style, but I think that underneath everything there is the thumping bassline of the work, which is about my approach attempting to be quite graceful, to be quiet. The tools are whatever I pick up on the day—it could be a pencil, it could be a camera.
You became well-known after covering the famine in the Sahel in the mid-1980s, directly after you studied art. How did you transition into photojournalism?
In the beginning of the 1980s, I did a lot of work in Mexico City, supported by the Telegraph Magazine. I also did lots of work in the north of England looking at the decline of the manufacturing industry, as well as similar stuff in France, the Pas-de-Calais and areas around Metz. Those were my early bits of work. I joined Sigma in 1980, and over a period of five years they mainly sent me to cover breaking news. The first major story I covered was the 1983 bombing of the US barracks in Beirut, where I think 285 US soldiers were killed. [It was 241; a further 58 French servicemen were killed in a separate blast nearby two minutes later. Six civilians and the two bombers also lost their lives.] I covered the civil war in Lebanon in a wider context, too—those things all happened before I went to Sahel to cover the famine.
Beirut, Lebanon. 1983. American soldiers sift through rubble in the aftermath of a devastating truck bomb in Beirut.
How did those early assignments compare to the expectations you had? Was photography as a job something of a shock?
I remember one of the first assignments I had with Sigma was the IRA bombings in Hyde and Regent’s Parks in 1982, down near Horse Guards. Sigma rang from Paris and asked me to go and cover it. I got there to see police tape, miles from what had happened. I couldn’t really see anything, so I went back home. They rang me later furiously asking what I had got. I told them that it didn’t look very interesting. I learned then that, in a news situation, anything visual is valuable—even if it’s only a photo of the police tape with something blurry in the background a mile away.
The materiality of any war or news story overrode the aesthetic potential for a while, and that was quite a shock to me. I was expecting to make powerful, striking photographs and often I was actually just expected to photograph anything I could.
On the subject of striking photos, I was wondering about your photo of the man in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. First off, do you ever feel that one image overshadowed the rest of the work you did during the student protests there?
Well, it didn’t actually happen that way. When I got back from China, I went into Michael Rand’s office at theSunday Times Magazine. He was laying out one of my photos on the cover of the magazine, but it was another of the photos from my trip —a topless guy with his arms raised. That became equally well known for a while. The “Tank Man” picture grew in importance over time, but it didn’t actually stand out far from the body of work immediately after the event.
But yes, in more recent years people talk about that photo a lot. Does it annoy me? Well, you can’t really be annoyed about it. I am just glad I was there. All I know is that I did my job and I think I did it well.
TIM DOG UPDATE: Did the Rapper Fake His Own Death to Escape the Failed Pyramid Scheme He Started in the Dominican Republic?
If you’re unfamiliar with the increasingly odd tale of Tim Dog, let’s all get caught up to speed. On Valentine’s Day of this year, Tim Dog—the rapper whose song “Fuck Compton” provided the spark that lit the fire of the East Coast/West Coast rap feud and had remained a connoisseur’s choice for years—died. Except, maybe he didn’t. A Mississippi woman by the name of Esther Pilgrim alleged that Tim Dog, otherwise known as Timothy Blair, was faking his death in part to get out of paying her a $19,000 debt he incurred as part of his parole on a grand larceny conviction for swindling Pilgrim and many other women out of their savings. His scamming was outlined in detail in an NBC Dateline special which you can find on YouTube here. A court had ordered him to pay her back at a rate of at least $100 per month over a span of five years. If Tim Dog is indeed found to be alive, he’ll be arrested for violating the terms of his probation.
But that won’t necessarily happen, because there’s still a pretty good chance that Tim Dog is deceased. For one, faking one’s death is an intensely fantastical act, and plain common sense suggests if it seems like Tim Dog died, that’s probably what happened. He could have died out of his home state of Georgia or even out of the country, which would make producing a death certificate significantly more difficult. However, I spoke with Tim Blair’s father over the phone, and he said—with justifiable ire that a member of the press was contacting him—that his son died of a stroke, and that there’s a death certificate on file in the State of Georgia.
I placed calls to the Fulton County coroner’s office as well as the Fulton County Office of the Medical Examiner asking if their records showed that a Timothy Blair had passed through their offices. They did not. Esther Pilgrim and I have been in close contact, and she gave me Tim Blair’s Social Security Number, which I verified through the Lexis Nexis database, then ran through their database of death records. I found nothing.
The Department of Justice Secretly Spied on the Associated Press
In what is being called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into a news organization, the Department of Justice has admitted that it seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press. The president of the AP has now sent a letter protesting the unjustifiable violation, which follows the DoJ’s admission of the probe last Friday.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” AP President Gary Pruitt said.
According to the AP’s own reporting, the records included incoming and outgoing calls, and call durations, for AP office phones, the phone for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press pool, and, perhaps most distressingly, the work and private numbers of individual reporters.
VICE Podcast 004: Have We Won in Afghanistan?
The VICE Podcast is a weekly unedited discussion that delves inside the minds of some of the most interesting, creative, and bizarre people in the VICE universe. This week we spoke with author and filmmaker Ben Anderson, who has just returned from Helmand, the most violent province in Afghanistan. With US forces withdrawing, most of the country is now controlled by the Afghan government and its security forces. This, it was officially claimed, is victory. Ben’s disturbing new documentary, This Is What Winning Looks Like (premiering Monday on VICE.com), would suggest otherwise.
You can also watch the discussion on video here.
Chatting About Game of Thrones with Syria’s Most Feared Islamic Militants
“Ameriki?” the jihadi asked, pointing at me with a bemused look on his face. I’d just approached him at a house that serves as the local base for Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the most feared Islamic militant group operating in Syria. A month ago, his colleagues took over a street right next to my fixer’s house, blocking it off and hoisting up the black flag that serves as their symbol. They spend their time milling about outside, sometimes riding off in pickup trucks, the beds overflowing with black-clad young men holding RPGs and AK-47s.
Accompanied by a few Free Syrian Army rebels, I was still quite apprehensive about approaching al-Nusra. More experienced journalists had warned me to be wary of them, and the Obama administration had recentlydesignated them as a terrorist group. While the al Qaeda link hadn’t yet been made official, it wasconfirmed a couple of days later. Additionally, I had awoken that morning to the news that the FBI had justarrested Eric Harroun, an American who allegedly fought with al-Nusra in Syria.
Al-Nusra and other Islamic groups showed up in the Syrian border town of Ras Al Ayn in November, and—along with the Free Syrian Army—forced out the remnants of the Assad regime in fierce, block-to-block fighting. Afterward, this coalition fought against Syria’s most powerful Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). The fighting lasted months before a ceasefire was arranged, and the city was essentially divided in two, with the YPG operating on one side and the FSA and al-Nusra on the other. More recently, al-Nusra had even clashed with an FSA brigade in the nearby town of Tal Abyad, but peace was restored shortly after.
At the al-Nusra base in Ras Al Ayn, the jihadi who had asked me if I was American pulled back his fist in an exaggerated motion, then play-acted punching me when I confirmed my citizenship. The man—a cross-eyed Egyptian who I would later learn served as the group’s public-relations officer and preacher, of sorts—laughed heartily.
“Watch out, we’re terrorists!” his colleague, a lanky Emirati with facial hair reminiscent of Orlando Bloom chimed in, before he started laughing, too. The Emirati then excitedly asked me what part of New York City I was from. “Oh, Brooklyn? Yeah, I know it. I went to school in Seattle for a year,” he said.
This Is What Winning Looks Like: Ben Anderson’s Afghanistan War Diary
above: US Specialist Christopher Saenz looks out over the landscape during a patrol outside the village of Musa Qala, Helmand province. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Ididn’t plan on spending six years covering the war in Afghanistan. I went there in 2007 to make a film about the vicious fighting between undermanned, underequipped British forces and the Taliban in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province. But I became obsessed with what I witnessed there—how different it was from the conflict’s portrayal in the media and in official government statements.
All I had to do was trek out to one of the many tiny, isolated patrol bases that dot the barren, sunbaked landscape and hang out with British infantry troops to see the chaotic reality of the war firsthand: firefights that lasted entire days, suicide bombers who leaped onto unarmored jeeps from behind market stalls, IEDs buried everywhere, and bombs dropped onto Afghans’ homes, sometimes with whole families of innocent civilians inside.
In 2006, when troops were sent into Helmand, British command didn’t think there’d be much fighting at all. The mission was simple: “Facilitate reconstruction and development.” The UK Defense Secretary John Reid even said he hoped the army could complete their mission “without a single shot being fired.”
But with each year that followed, casualties and deaths rose as steadily as the local opium crop. Thousands more British troops were deployed, then tens of thousands of US soldiers, at the request of General Stanley McChrystal, following a six-month review of the war after President Obama took office. Still, the carnage and confusion continued unabated. Suicide bombings increased sevenfold. Every step you took might reveal yet another IED.
In February 2013, on his last day at the helm of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen described what he thought the war’s legacy will be: ‘‘Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory, this is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.’’
The US and British forces are preparing to leave Afghanistan for good (officially, by the end of 2014), and my time in the country over the last six years has convinced me that our legacy will be the exact opposite of what Allen posits—not a stable Afghanistan, but one at war with itself yet again. Here are a few encapsulated snapshots of what I’ve seen and what we’re leaving behind.
I Stayed Up All Night Watching the Boston Bomber Manhunt
I changed the channel during 9/11.
Now, in my defense, I was 14. Also, the moment I switched channels, bleached out tit parade Jillian Barberie and the rest of her gang of early-morning yell-boxes on FOX 11’s Good Day LA had assumed that it was just some prop plane that had accidentally crashed into one of the towers. Tony Hawk was on ESPN2, and that was the type of rad shit 260-pound pubescent me was dying to relate to cool people about. My cereal had barely gotten soggy by the time I flipped back to see that a second plane had already hit, and practically every channel had switched over to live coverage of the attacks. I headed to school, unsure exactly of what the hell was happening on the other side of the country. I think I was still too young to comprehend it, but I remember laying on our football field with some friends, looking up at the planeless, cloudless sky in awe. Since that day, no matter how many times I saw the footage of the planes, no matter how loudly the logical side of my brain screamed, It doesn’t matter. Stop being so self-centered, I’ve always felt like I missed out on something, like I did something wrong. I changed the channel during 9/11.
I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
At 10 PM, I was filming an incredibly silly comedy sketch in Silver Lake, LA, with a few friends. During a break from the dumbness, I checked my Twitter feed to see preliminary reports of more explosions in Boston. I have a soft spot in my heart for that city even though I’ve never set foot in it—despite living in LA my whole life, I have more friends from Boston than I do from my hometown. Part of that is because of the transient nature of LA, but a lot of that is because of the TV production/comedy factory that is Emerson College. My high school ex lives somewhere in Boston too, I think. I don’t remember if she lives in Worcester or Watertown or where either of those cities are or if they’re even cities or just neighborhoods of Boston.
As soon as I got home, I opened a bottle of wine and Twitter. I did not turn on my TV. If we take the senseless loss of human life out of the equation, the biggest loser in this whole catastrophe is cable news, who got nearly every fact about the bombing and the suspects wrong at one time or another. There is, of course, an argument that the New York Post is the most gaping asshole of all the media outlets, but there’s always an argument for that.
The Fugitive Reporter Exposing Mexico’s Drug Cartels
These are the opening paragraphs of Dying for the Truth, a book written about the infamous Blog del Narco, which fills Mexicans in on the (often bloody) activities of the murderous local drug cartels, where the nation’s mainstream media has failed:
Shortly before we completed this book, two people—a young man and woman who worked with us—were disembowelled and hung off a bridge in Tamaulipas, a state in the north of Mexico. Large handwritten signs, known as narcobanners, next to their bodies mentioned our blog, and stated that this was what happened to internet snitches. The message concluded with a warning that we were next.
A few days later, they executed another journalist in Tamaulipas who regularly sent us information. The assassins left keyboards, a mouse, and other computer parts strewn across her body, as well as a sign that mentioned our blog again.
However, we refuse to be intimidated.
As you can see, the people who keep the blog running risk their lives to do so. The book, which will be published in both English and Spanish by Feral House, will include a selection of the most relevant posts and pictures published between March 2, 2010, when the blog first started, and February 2011. Choosing to remain anonymous for safety reasons, the blog’s editor finally agreed to talk about her work, and the threats and trials she and the site’s programmer have faced in order to keep this project alive for so long.
According to the book, in 2012, their website—whose aim is to collect uncensored articles and images about the Mexican cartel’s extreme violence, their activities, and the government’s fight against them—registered an average of 25 million visits a month. According to Alexa, it is one of the most visited sites in Mexico. Although criticized by some media outlets for publishing gory images and information that’s given to them by cartels (such as executions and video messages aimed at rival organizations), the blog has become an essential source of news for journalists, citizens, and visitors.
VICE had the opportunity to speak with Lucy (a pseudonym she has chosen to protect her identity) about her blog, her new book, and what’s next for Blog del Narco.
VICE: Let’s start from the beginning. How did Blog del Narco come about?
Lucy: It was a way to show we were angry with the authorities and the media who had forgotten their number one responsibility, which is to keep the public informed. I’m a journalist, and my partner does both social networks and programming—so the idea was born, and on March 2, 2010, we went live with the blog.
Was there anything in particular that made you act?
Stories from people like, “I went on vacation to Tamaulipas and they were saying absolutely nothing on the news. I walked into the lion’s den and the gangs stole my vehicle, they locked me up for two days”—that kind of situation. People who had nothing to do with this, but ended up being affected due to a lack of information.
Why weren’t the media reporting what was going on?
They had been gagged in two ways: the federal government had told them, “You won’t say anything, there’s nothing going on here,” and on the other hand, there was the pressure from the criminal organizations.