Interview with Brent Stirton

In 2007 Brent Stirton's heartwrenching photos of executed mountain gorillas captured the attention of the world. Find out how he evokes change through powerful images.


I telephonically caught up with Brent Stirton in New York just in time before his departure to Mali. He has already travelled to 130 countries thus far and spends an average of 10 months a year on assignment in foreign countries.

In this interview Stirton reveals his passion for his work and his goal of changing the world one photograph at a time. He also speaks about Angelina Jolie's humanitarian work and why Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour are considered extraordinary journalists.




Becoming a Photojournalist



Stirton started his career as a journalist in his native, South Africa and has been working for Getty Images, which is the largest photographic agency in the world, for the past six years. His area of expertise involves documentary work although his humanitarian work is also highly acclaimed. His images have won numerous illustrious awards including the Visa d’Or, World Press Photo and the Overseas Press Club. He was also named as one of the ten heroes of photojournalism in 2007 by American Photo magazine.

Stirton also took the world's best-selling photos – the much-anticipated arrival of baby Shiloh Jolie Pitt. The sought-after photos raised millions of dollars for charity and as a result changed many lives for the better. Although he was not credited, it is believed that Stirton also took the first photos of the Brangelina twins, however he declined to comment on the matter.

He says that he never expected that his work would become this celebrated. "I still have to pinch myself sometimes." He ads that his proudest career moment thus far was when National Geographic approached him to work for them.


Working as a Photojournalist


According to Stirton, photojournalists need a lot of energy, some degree of business sense as well as a great sense of curiosity. "It is not important whether you have a degree or not but about how interested and dedicated you are towards the issues that you are working on," he comments.

Stirton admits that he has seen some appalling things in the line of duty such as mass killings in Iraq and human trafficking where children were involved. He advises that one should not become a photojournalist if one is unable to handle such experiences. "You just have to pull yourself together. When your motivation is pure, your sense of responsibility towards the cause overwhelms the personal impact on your life," he eloquently states.

He also beliefs that a photojournalist should help their subjects whenever they can. "I do not want to cover conflict all the time, there are other things such as climate change, major diseases and other issues that also need attention."


Staying Calm in the Face of Conflict


Stirton has been on many dangerous assignments but says that he has never "freaked out" even when people around him were being killed. He says that he remains calm because he is focussed on taking pictures and thus channels his energy in a productive manner.

With regards to photographing the heart-wrenching images of the executed mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park in the DRC in 2007, Stirton says that it is mystifying to think that the death of animals matters more that the death of humans.

He explains that some people were upset when he focussed on the mountain gorillas while so many humans were losing their lives in an ongoing war. However, Stirton has already taken photos of the killings before the gorilla assignment and no one seemed to have noticed. The gorilla photos had a major global impact and has been the biggest selling feature of all times. "I have learnt that you can use one issue to talk about another – since 1996, 5.6 million people have died in the DRC."


The Best and Worst Part of Being a Photojournalist


"The best part of being a photojournalist is seeing the world. It is a privilege to be paid to travel and to immerse oneself in different cultures," he says.

He ads that being a photojournalist is a great way to earn a living as one is getting paid to think, "which is very gratifying." On the other hand, Stirton admits that photojournalism can be frustrating at times as it is an esoteric phenomenon which does not always translate well for everyone.

His work has allowed him to meet Angelina Jolie in Sierra Leone where she was busy with humanitarian work. "Angelina Jolie is unswervingly committed to the causes that she's involved in which is remarkable for someone that young."

Stirton has also worked with CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper and CNN's Chief International Correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, When asked what made them extraordinary journalists, Stirton responded that they were both smart people and very confident in their own presence. He ads that they also have incredible research teams which supports them immensely.

A picture may be worth a thousand words but when it comes to Brent Stirton's images, a picture may be worth a thousand feelings. His work unveils the soul-truth of his subject matter which in turn moves the souls of those viewing them and consequently inspires much-needed change. Stirton's goal for the future is to affect policy by changing perception and to become even better at what he already does so well.