Street scene of Beijing, 1965 © Marc Riboud and Magnum Photos
By Ayesugul Sert, excerpt from Venice Magazine, April 2006
You strongly believe that photography must not try to be persuasive. If not to persuade, what is its role?
I have learned a lot about life through photography. The world we inhabit is worth knowing; it is worth exploring. I’ve been throughout the globe, and I’ve realized that the more you travel, the more cultures and countries you get exposed to, the more you see that people are alike. We are all the same. You know what else I’ve learned? The poorest are always the nicest and the most willing to share and help. No matter what your ethnicity or skin color, jealousy, revenge, humiliation, desire for money and power are everywhere. I’ve always been drawn by the Orient and the Middle East. And I’ll tell you that these regions have changed enormously in the past fifteen years. The Orient has become a Westernized version of the Orient. Culture and family values don’t exist anymore. They are losing their traditions and belief systems, and all that for the sake of becoming more modern! How unfortunate!
Would it be fair to say that photography is here to chronicle the world as it unfolds, with its conflicts, and beauty?
A photographer should not make the mistake that he or she will change the world. No image can achieve that. The photographer ought not to believe that he has a message to convey. If the photographer assigns himself such a responsibility, he will lose his freedom, and the moment you lose that, you lose everything. We take good pictures, we become good photographers by living life, by talking to people, avoiding preconceived ideas, and being open. That’s how we get to take pictures that matter.
Darjeeling, India @ Marc Riboud and Magnum Photos
‘Camel Market’, Nagaur, Rajasthan @ Marc Riboud and Magnum Photos
Looking and seeing… Is there any difference?
People talk for hours at panels and dinner parties about the difference between the two. I don’t see any. For me it is the same thing. In the world of photography, we have our own language. To say that a fellow is good, we say he has got the eye.
You’ve witnessed the world change: WWII, Cold War, the emergence of African independence, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rise of globalization. Any particular event or time frame that has touched you?
Not really. I would like to say this: I wish France had brought its wealth and knowledge to Africa instead of its colonizer mindset. If only it had spread the good! Also, we have been disillusioned by Communism. We were all disappointed by it. Communism seemed to be a hope for a world that would be just. You don’t seem to agree…
Well, somewhat, yes, you are right. But I am also extremely disappointed by Capitalism…
Good point. Which brings us to the conclusion that anything that is extremely pure brings fanaticism. The only thing that can make the world a better place is culture. Money, ambition, jealousy, those will take us nowhere. In the contemporary world everything is defined by money. Where are our values? Culture—arts, writing, photography—that’s what can make this world better and brighter.
“A good photograph is a surprise; my camera has to be ready to catch it,” you once said. Is that how you would describe this art form?
Photography is not about photographing a subject. I learned that through . It is the composition that makes this medium interesting. When for example I walk in a crowd, I don’t look for a face, I look for an image. Do you see the difference? When I look through my lens, I see a rectangle, and through that I see lines and harmonies. The key of the photograph is in geometry. I never believed in the word “talent.” I don’t believe in being talented. Talent doesn’t exist. Work, hard work, is everything. I disagree. I view the true artist as the one who has the gift. Hard work is important but not enough. Hard work can never equal talent. I believe that we are born predisposed to certain things. For me, it was the eye. I had a good eye. But in the end, it is hard work that counts. A pianist who doesn’t practice ten hours a day will never become a great pianist, I guarantee you. A painter who doesn’t spend twelve hours by his canvas will never be a good painter. Photography is the same. The more we practice, the more we use our eye, the more we look, the better we will become, and the better we will see. I think that you can become visual, you can become a good photographer with practice. You don’t have to be born with it. Learning how to see is like learning how to read music notes. In photography, there are certain rules about composition that one has to learn and work on. You can go and buy the most expensive and high-tech camera you want and read the manual and know how to use the gadget. But that doesn’t mean you are a photographer. What takes time is becoming the eye. And that’s what is fascinating about this art form.
Excerpt from Venice Magazine, April 2006 – HERE
(All rights reserved. Text @ Ayesugul Sert. Images @ Magnum Photos.)