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Interview with the 2018 Travel Photographer of the Year: Stefano Pensotti

Marianne Stenger
4th June 2019

Stefano Pensotti is a professional photographer from Italy. His selection of eight photographs took the top prize in the 2018 Travel Photographer of Year awards, out of the more than 20,000 images that were submitted by photographers from all around the world.

Although his photographs were taken in different countries across three continents, each one depicts ordinary people going about their everyday routines.

From his striking photograph of a child posing playfully in the colourful streets of Harar in Ethiopia to the curious image of elderly bathers enjoying a game of chess in Budapest’s Széchenyi Baths, his photographs are intimate and provide a glimpse into ways of life that are different yet similar to our own.

We spoke to him about his love for photography, the story behind his powerful photographs, and the joys as well as challenges involved in photographing strangers in unfamiliar countries.

Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in travel photography?

I started taking photos as a child, when I would steal my older brother’s camera. At the age of 14, I began to learn darkroom techniques and started exploring the process of developing photos and printing in black and white.

The rich cultural environment of Milan with its stories, authors and galleries deeply marked my photography, and soon photography became my reason for travelling. In 1989 I was invited to the International Biennial of Photography in Turin. It was here that I was contacted by magazines and photo editors who offered me my first paid assignments.

Around the same time, I completed a Masters in Business Training, which brought me together with a corporate training company. My involvement with this company gave me the tools to understand different cultures and people, which are essential skills for reportage photography.

It also made it possible to invest time and money in photography and travel. But, after seeing my first works published, I knew that travel photography was what I wanted to do.

Can you tell us a bit about your winning photographs?  

I chose to present images of ordinary moments in people’s lives, because these days there are few “new” places to discover or unknown ethnic groups.

The assignment was to show your way of understanding travel photography, and I wanted to stay away from the clichés of amateur photographers, travel magazines, and tour operators. They often depict an unreal world that no longer exists; places that are mythologized and populated by savage people living outside time without contact with the contemporary.

I chose to present images from seven different countries to give an idea of my work, while also illustrating ‘normal’ moments of life. It was as if I wanted to say “On a random day somewhere in the world, here’s what happens.”

In my choice of nations, I also wanted to show European countries that are not thought of as exotic. I wanted to show that everywhere in the world, there is a story to tell and it can still be surprising, like that of retired people in Hungary who go to the Spa to play chess in the pool.

So I sacrificed other images from countries in Asia and Africa to get a precise mix of nations.

Some of the photos are the result of long project. For instance, the photograph of camels in Danakil desert comes from an assignment that lasted years and images from it were published in magazines and a book. One thing all the photos have in common is that they were taken in countries I visited several times and know quite well.

What do you love about working as a travel photographer?

I have the opportunity to see the world from a privileged position and this is already a blessing. Travel photography also gave me a chance to discover my limits and learn how to overcome my fears and shyness.

I also learned that the history of man is repeated here and elsewhere with great similarities. When I first started, I would look for differences to photograph, such as tattoos, piercings, and clothing. But I have since realised that the most important story I can tell is the story of the things that unite us, such as our emotions, dreams, passions and desires.

What are some of the more challenging aspects of your work?

I like to travel alone for my photographic projects, but at times I also accompany groups of photographers who want to learn about geographical reportage. When I’m with a group of photographers for a workshop, I take very few photos myself.

When I travel alone I follow the lines of my projects, for which I spend many days gathering and verifying information and photographic possibilities. Only once everything has been verified will I begin shooting.

Normally, I have a list of situations and places I want to shoot, but not all of them are possible. I usually spend a lot of time applying for permits and verifications, or even just finding the right light.

But sometimes the “wow” image comes to you suddenly and unexpectedly. Like my photo from Senegal “A Baye Fall in the Touba Mosque.” I could not enter the mosque myself as I am not a Muslim, so I was sitting on the ground at the entrance of the mosque.

It’s impossible to predict these moments, but the camera must be ready to shoot in a matter of seconds when such a scene presents itself.

The photo taken in the salt pans of Lake Asale in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia shows the salt caravans walking on Danakil Plain. The salt deposits were created when water from the Red Sea flooded the area and then evaporated. The most recent flood was roughly 30,000 years ago.

It’s an incredible and fascinating desert, and I was there for the first time in 2006. There were no tourists and it was like a dream. I came back to Danakil three times and made a book about it, but it took many years to capture this special photo. In my mind I had imagined the scene so many times, and finally it was perfect on my fourth trip.

The photo I took in the Timbuktu Region in Mali is also very special to me. Timbuktu is special place for voyagers. I was there five times, and I took the photo on my last visit.

The Kabara channel is outside the city, and I wanted to see it as well as Gaddafi's villa. At sunset I found myself enjoying the peace of the place and at the end I joked at bit with the women who were washing their clothes. I photographed the girl in the foreground because photographing women directly was not seen as respectful.

Then in 2010, Islamic fundamentalists arrived in northern Mali and Timbuktu. After Gaddafi was killed in the Libya war, armed conflicts started in January 2012 between the northern and southern parts of Mali.

Everything changed once death and destruction arrived in Timbuktu, and that calm peace I captured in the photo is over. It’s impossible to travel there now, and I often wonder what happened to that child. Did she become a woman?

A lot of your images show people going about their daily routines. How do you approach people and help them feel comfortable with having you take their photograph?

I started working with photographic agencies and magazines in the mid 90s when the world was very different. You could travel without the threat of terrorism and tell the stories of ethnic minorities. Travel photography was the search of things unknown to most people, and adventure in places rarely visited by western people. September 11 and cultural globalization changed many things.

I continue to travel in Europe, Africa and Asia as much as possible, and I photograph the contemporary. But it is scarcely requested by agencies and magazines. Everyone wants to read about the last cannibal and the unexplored lands, even if these places do not exist anymore.

I usually work on projects over a long period of time, as it’s not possible to tell stories that have not been understood. It takes a long time to get to know the reality you are photographing, and just as much time to trust the people you meet.

I normally work with a fixer who helps me communicate with people. But the important thing, even if you don't have the possibility to speak to people, is to wait and not photograph immediately. Wait for people to trust and accept you.

Digital has given new vigour to the photographic movement and now we all take pictures with our smartphones, although for different reasons.

For example, there’s been a great increase in landscape photography, but it’s a new kind of landscape photography. Ansel Adam’s landscape images were a celebration of natural beauty.

Now people make landscape images not to celebrate nature, but to create something better than nature. They want unreal photos with more colours, and they invent what is not there. This is not photography, this is graphics, and I don’t like this.

For me, photography is about telling a story about the history of people, whether it’s a single person, a group, or a nation. Places don’t mean as much without people, and for this reason we spend more time getting to know people and places than we do actually taking photos.

In my case, I feel some language is obligatory to get to know people, so for this reason, I always work with a local fixer who knows the place and the culture and who can be an intermediary. Very often we return to the same place over and over again.

For example, at the end of December I will return to Ethiopia. It will be perhaps my 20th journey there and I will meet old friends who will help me. In Ethiopia I work with a friend I met 20 years ago when he was just a boy carrying my camera bag. Now he is a friend, my fixer, and the person I trust.  

Do you have any piece of advice for aspiring travel photographers based on your own experiences in the industry?

The number of photographs taken every day is impressive. Around 90 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every day. But in this sea of images there are very few true photographs.

I think it's hard to be original and not repeat clichés, but in an image there is always the point of view of history and the point of view of the author, and I believe this mix is unrepeatable.

So you must study. If you want to work as a travel photographer you have to study as you would with any other profession. You must study the great authors of photography, and if you want to do reportage photography, you need to understand the countries you visit.

Many young people today believe that the goal is to have followers and likes on social media.

But social media is not the reality. If you want to work in photography you have to win over the photo editors, photo curators and photo galleries. Not just online followers.

Do you want to see more of Stefano’s photographs or contact him? You can visit his website Stefano Pensotti or connect with him on Facebook and Instagram.