Ian Berry Takes Jaw-Dropping Photos of Massacres and Floods
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.
In 1962, Ian Berry was invited to join Magnum by Henri Cartier-Bresson—which, in photographic terms, is about as close to canonization as you can get. His invitation followed his work in South Africa, where he was the only photographer to witness the massacre at Sharpeville, one of the more brutal events in late-apartheid history. His photos were retrospectively used in court to prove that the protest had been peaceful. He has covered conflict in Czechoslovakia, Israel, Ireland, and Vietnam.
VICE: I understand you’ve been with Magnum for longer than 50 years now. Is that correct?
Ian Berry: Yes. I’m horrified to admit it, but yes. That says something about my inability to let go, I think. I think of quitting every year and never get around to doing it.
You got your start in South Africa. How did you end up there?
Well, as a young Brit, I wanted to travel. And in those days you could get assisted passages to what was formerly, and in those times still, the Commonwealth. So, you could go to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. South Africa sounded the most exciting. You know, I thought I’d be seeing lions on the streets of Johannesburg and so on.
As it happened, my family knew a photographer there who had just come back from the States assistingAnsel Adams. And he was prepared to stand as a guarantor for me for a year. I didn’t actually need a visa but you had to have someone guarantee you. So I legged it out to South Africa, and that was it really. No regrets, either—it was a very exciting time to be there.
You had no real formal training in photography beyond that, did you?
College for photography really didn’t exist at that time. The best thing you could do was become somebody’s apprentice, and that’s what I did. I mean, he was shooting on a four by five, and everything was lit, and so on. So it was great training, even though I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
Tossing Melons in Tajikistan
Back in 2011, documentary travel photographer Celia Topping passed by Tajikistan on her way to Afghanistan. We don’t know if it was some magic melon juice she imbibed or what, but she came back raving about the place:
Fancy a watermelon? Visit Dushanbe’s market in Tajikistan in late July, and you won’t be able to move for melons. Melons, melons, melons: as far as the eye can see. The Tajiks don’t seem to mind though, they relish tossing melons from truck to pile, pile to stall, then stall to truck in a never-ending cycle of melon lobbing.
Melons are not the only commodity in Tajikistan. Since the end of the brutal civil war less than 20 years ago, this former Soviet state has finally begun to enjoy a moderate revival, with cotton and aluminum being key exports. Oh, and if you drive along the Pamir Highway, you get to experience what must be one of the greatest road trips in Asia, in absolute safety. Have fun!
Steve McCurry Photographs the Human Condition
Above: Ahmadi Oil Fields, Kuwait, 1991
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 gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Steve McCurry’s photo of Sharbat Gula, titled Afghan Girl, appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It quickly became one of the most famous photos in the world. McCurry’s work covering the mujahideen’s long fight against the Soviet war machine in the mid-to-late 80s further cemented his position as a hugely influential photojournalist. Since then, he has documented the human impact of wars across the world and collected numerous awards for his photos. I gave him a call to find out about nearly getting killed on the job, and the effect of seeing so much horror over so many years.
Mujahideen fighters, Afghanistan
VICE: Hi, Steve. Afghan Girl is probably one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Is it ever annoying that, from all of your work, one image is seen as so representative of your career?
Steve McCurry: Not at all. In fact, the contrary. I don’t think that has ever occurred to me.
You worked in Afghanistan for a long time. How do you feel the situation in the country has changed since the Soviet war?
It’s always a dangerous place, and there has always been ongoing fighting. Any time you’re in a combat situation, it is dangerous. I think in the beginning there was a lot of goodwill toward foreigners, or to pretty much anybody who was willing to support or help the people there, which included the West, and, effectively, pretty much anyone aside from the Soviet Union. India, Europe, China, and the US were all welcomed. Now there is obviously opposition in Afghanistan—the Taliban see the West and NATO as the enemy, so by virtue of my birth, they now see me as the enemy. Before they were taking hostages and asking for ransom, now they just kill you for political reasons.
Does Afghanistan feel more dangerous than other places you’ve worked?
All these places, war zones, present different problems. Afghanistan, Iraq during the Gulf War, places like Beirut or Cambodia. But yes, perhaps Afghanistan was the most dangerous. When I was there back in 1979–80 with mujahideen fighters, I was often days from help, out on location, perhaps two days from the nearest road, often with men who were not well trained and with whom you had a lot of communication problems and language barriers. You were being bombed with mortars and artillery and aircraft, and you’re with a bunch of ragtag fighters, who were certainly brave, but maybe short on training.
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Inside the Abandoned Radioactive Towns of Japan
You might remember that way back in March 2011, a major tsunami struck the northeast shores of Japan, devastating the country and causing the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling systems to break down, which resulted in the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. Even if you don’t recall that disaster, photographer Toshiya Watanabe does. His family home, Namie, where his mother and cousins still lived, was directly in the path of both the rising waters and the waves of radiation that came after. Nowadays, the town and all the others like it in the disaster zone sit abandoned, unchanged in the past two years, like a ghost town where the ghosts are nuclear-charged stray dogs and cattle. Toshiya has traveled back to his hometown many times, documenting the changes he saw, or lack thereof. We chatted with him about visiting the “no-go zone” that is now his hometown.
VICE: Hey, Toshiya. I know you weren’t there, but what did your family tell you about what the day of the tsunami was like?
Toshiya Watanabe: After the earthquake and the tsunami that followed, my family, together with other people in town, spent the night at the local gym. The trouble hadn’t started at the nuclear power plant then, so at dawn, everyone started helping those whose houses had been hit by the tsunami. Although the damages from the tsunami were great, no one could imagine the worst that was still to come. On March 12, the day after the tsunami hit, the government announced that residents within six and a half miles of the nuclear power plant needed to evacuate immediately. There was no time to pick up their belongings; people just left in cars and buses. The first explosion at the plant happened at three in the afternoon that day.
What motivated you to go back and photograph your hometown? Were you allowed to be there?
Two months after the meltdown at the nuclear power plant, no one could go within 12 miles of the power plant without permission. When I first got permission to go back on June 12, I thought it could be the last time I’d ever visit there, so I thought I had to record as much as I could of my hometown. Since then, I was given permission to go back in November 2011, as well as April, June, and September of 2012. I went back with my mother to get things she needed, and while tidying up, I made more pictures. I just wanted to document how my hometown was changing, or not changing, nothing more.
What was it like to see the place where you used to live completely empty of humans? It looks like something out of a zombie movie.
When I first went there, time had stopped and everything was just the way it was when the tsunami hit. A town I was so familiar with felt like a science-fiction movie set all of a sudden. I remember feeling dizzy a few times.There were no people there, only the sound of the wind and birds, and when I closed my eyes, it felt like I was standing in the middle of a forest.
Tascosa Feed Yard, Bushland, Texas—There were about 31 million beef cows in the US as of 2011, and 27 million feeder calves on their way to becoming meat. The country exported 2.78 billion pounds of beef that year, worth a total of $5.04 billion.
Beef and Oil - A Bird’s-Eye View of Two of Modern Life’s Most Precious Commodities
Above: Kern River Oil Field, Bakersfield, California—In 2011, the US consumed nearly 19 million barrels of oil per day, which accounted for about 22 percent of the world’s petroleum consumption.