DOCUMENTARY

Struggle and simplicity:
Paolo Pellegrin on finding the essence of a photograph

"I think of photography as a little bit like a beautiful single gesture of a Japanese calligrapher. One brushstroke that contains everything." Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin speaks candidly about his distinguished career and how the Canon EOS R System helps him stay true to his art.
The Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland erupting with lava flowing out of it and smoke filling the sky. This image was captured by Paolo Pellegrin on a Canon EOS R5.

From war zones to natural disasters, Paolo Pellegrin has found himself in many extreme environments over the course of his distinguished career, in the process putting his camera equipment to the ultimate test. The renowned Italian photojournalist took this image of the erupting Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland in June 2021. It continued to emit lava for a further three months. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 40mm, 1/1000 sec, f/14 and ISO640. © Paolo Pellegrin

Italian photojournalist, Magnum Photos member and Canon Ambassador Paolo Pellegrin has spent decades covering conflicts and crises across the world, from Uganda and Bosnia to the Gaza Strip, Cambodia, Haiti and more. He's won worldwide admiration, including 10 World Press Photo Awards, but the photographic process is still a struggle, he reveals – with reality, the story, the subject, the context, and with himself.

In 2018, he was shooting on the streets of Tokyo and in the lesser-known Noto Peninsula with the then-new Canon EOS R System, following one of the guiding principles of street photography: "embracing whatever one encounters". Paolo spent 14-hour days prowling the streets in sweltering heat and shooting anything that caught his eye: people, reflections, layers.

"Street photography is the battleground for every photographer," he explains. "It's where you start making sense of the relationship between yourself, the world and the camera; and how to use this instrument to capture fragments of the real. I think if you're a good street photographer, you're a good photographer."

Observation in kinetic surroundings, speed, and technical accuracy are skills that have served Paolo well while covering the conflicts where he's created some of his most poignant images. But he has not always applied the same mindset to his work. "I spent many years – I would say about 20 good years of my life as a photographer – trying to do an additive type of photography," he says. This involved attempting to give depth to each frame by creating very articulate compositions where multiple things were happening in a single frame. It's a familiar marker of many notable street photographers, not least the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson. Paolo subscribed to the Bressonian idea "that an image must be 'solved' in-camera when shooting".

"I was trying to create the conditions for myself, and for the viewer, to travel inside a single picture," says Paolo.

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Now, he takes a different approach: one of subtraction. "There are many different things that you're grappling with," Paolo elaborates. In short, he removes the superfluous until he reaches "the essence" of the picture. "I think of photography as a little bit like a beautiful single gesture of a Japanese calligrapher. One brushstroke that contains everything." A luminous molten crevasse erupting from the dark volcanic landscape (see above), for example, or an otherwise imposing iceberg whose extremities appear to dissolve into the grey skies surrounding it (see third image).

An ostrich at Etosha National Park in Namibia stands alone, surrounded by springboks and zebras. This image was captured by Paolo Pellegrin on a Canon EOS R5.

"When the photograph speaks on multiple levels but evokes something about a condition – of being a wild animal – then it speaks quite deeply," says Paolo, who took this image of an inquisitive ostrich at Etosha National Park in Namibia. The park is home to lions, elephants, leopards, zebras, springboks and many more species. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens at 238mm, 1/1250 sec, f/16 and ISO800. © Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo's way of working – and seeing

In a profile in The New Yorker, writer Ben Taub observes Paolo as mottled light falls across the Namib desert in Southern Africa. "He went silent and lifted his camera, as expected, but in moments of intense concentration he looks like a different person. His eyes are still, his lips a little pursed. He moves deliberately, silently, his head scanning the scene – not smoothly but in sharp turns, like a raptor," Ben writes.

The elegant simplicity of the resulting image belies this process. "At times you become really possessed by that experience – hence, the physical transformation," says Paolo. "It's as if all your senses become heightened and aware, you continue shooting, and moving. You're trying to make sense of it."

For Paolo, photography is in the mind. "That's where I put all my main effort," he says. "I'm very interested in photographs which address something specific but also evoke something larger, universal or metaphoric." Paolo notes that a photograph achieves success only when it speaks on multiple levels, and "when it evokes the condition of being a refugee, the condition of being a wild animal".

In terms of technique and composition, Paolo tries to resolve what's in front of him in the simplest of ways. "There's a whole palette or gamut of options that photography offers which can help us to convey meaning, but I also feel that at times you run the risk of applying a formula to something," he says. "I'm quite sensitive to that idea, of not wanting to do that."

When natural light has been permissibly absent, he has worked with flashlights. "It works, but to use the analogy of sculpting, I'm at a stage where I just want to take away as much as I can to reach the core, the essence," he says. "Simplicity is really the ultimate goal, removing the superfluous." It's ultimately why he prefers the cloak of darkness.

An iceberg on a misty day in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, Greenland, captured by Paolo Pellegrin on a Canon EOS R5.

Simplistic and serene, this image of a large iceberg in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, Greenland is a far cry from the layered, action-filled images of Paolo's early career. Look closely, and the iceberg almost appears to fade within the frame – perhaps a metaphor for our planet today. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 182mm, 1/1250 sec, f/14 and ISO320. © Paolo Pellegrin

The border between what's seen and unseen

Many of Paolo's images seem to rise out of the shadows. The border between the seen and unseen holds a particular fascination for him. Digital workflows and technologies offer something "quite extraordinary" – the possibility for exploring low light, or a near absence of light. "I have this idea that things are veiled, and you take them out of the darkness," he explains. "Whenever there is darkness, my photography is heightened."

Paolo suggests that perhaps his low-light aesthetic is a result of being dragged around churches as a boy with his architect father. On these visits, he learnt to appreciate the pared-down look of one, sometimes two sources of light, such as a backlight or a sidelight, creating shapes and forms.

Born in Rome in 1964, Paolo planned to become an architect but, in his third year of university, life took a different turn. "One day I had an epiphany and realised it wasn't what I wanted to do," he says. He quit his studies and his "life changed overnight" and he embraced it.

"The analogy I always made and still make was that of a foreign language: photography being this other language that you have to learn," he recalls. "You have to learn the grammar, the syntax, the words, and put them together. I really studied the vocabulary of photography through books and then going out, and shooting, and developing at night, and experimenting. It took at least a good eight to 10 years for me to feel that I had become proficient in this language."

But the process did not stop there, as it never truly ends, explains Paolo. "That's the beauty of photography. Our photographic vision will continue to change with our experiences, over time."

A small herd of elephants at Etosha National Park in Namibia stand together, with one elephant's ears visible in the background, in this image taken by Paolo Pellegrin on a Canon EOS R5.

This small herd of elephants, which Paolo photographed at Etosha National Park in Namibia in early 2022, are an example of his ability to simplify a scene. He says that he moves around "as a process of thought" to put the subjects in an organised form. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens at 500mm, 1/800 sec, f/22 and ISO800. © Paolo Pellegrin

Technological shifts

During his time in the industry, Paolo has seen photography undergo huge shifts with the advent of digital technology. "In the past, you had to have technical notions of how to expose film, or how to develop a negative, or how to print," he says. "Those were things you had to learn and master."

Today, by contrast, the photographic process is more accessible, but, according to Paolo, the mechanics haven't changed. "It's about an engagement, it's about time, it's about empathy," he says. "There's chemistry, personality, culture and everything somehow mysteriously distilled into photography, and into storytelling. The complexity of that process hasn't really changed."

Unlike other disciplines, photography progresses with modernisation, and the advance of digital technology – including Canon's award-winning EOS R System – has allowed contemporaries to explore a world that their photographic forefathers could not.

"It allows us to explore what was largely off limits, which is the darkness," says Paolo. "So you can choose ISO12,500, ISO24,000 or ISO56,000 and really unveil a world which before we could not enter."

An iceberg in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, Greenland breaks into many pieces, showcasing the impact of mankind on the environment. This photograph was taken by Paolo Pellegrin on a Canon EOS R5.

For years, Paolo has been documenting mankind's impact on the planet. In 2021, he travelled to Disko Bay, Ilulissat, Greenland, where he captured the fractured beauty of our environmental impact. "How man is shaping the environment is a huge order of magnitude," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 81mm, 1/1600 sec, f/20 and ISO640. © Paolo Pellegrin

A change of heart

Paolo's search for simplicity applies to his kit choices too. For many years, he chose prime lenses. "It was this idea of the pure lenses, and to use the Chilean-French avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's words, 'the dance of reality,' where you have to move and interact with the space and the subject," he says. "Moving is a process of thought, and for many years I was very into that. I have to say that the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM, though, is so extraordinary and so beautiful that it became my main lens."

Paolo's enthusiasm does not end with this particular zoom lens. In fact, he is an advocate of the EOS R System range in its entirety. "I'm a really big fan of the EOS R5 camera. It's just so right for me," he remarks. "It's the first time in a long time that I find files that really satisfy me. I really care about this tool more than other cameras in many, many years: the whole thing – the files, the ergonomics, the lenses."

There is an attribute beyond its spec sheet that he is keen for us to note. "Reliability is a virtue of its own. The fact that you have a tool that you can count on, always – that's a big deal," he says.

"Sometimes there are things, objects, a car, whatever, that you really feel corresponds to you, to your vision. I found it with this camera," he says.

Returning to conflict zones

In 2018, Paolo was the subject of an extensive retrospective in his hometown of Rome. Titled Un'Antologia, it brought together more than 150 photographs and previously unseen works reflecting the multifaceted themes that run through his work: encompassing stories from the evolving Antarctic landscape to conflict zones.

Paolo reflected, at the time, that his conflict years may be over. "I never want to talk so much about the personal risk," he says. "It's my responsibility and my decision, but it is a reality that wars are dangerous places. If you do it a certain number of times, for a certain number of years, [you have to start considering] the odds."

Not long after this, the world changed and for the first time in his career, Paolo steered clear of the front line, choosing to stay with his family during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the outbreak of war in Ukraine drew him back. It felt too relevant, too important.

A black and white image of multiple families inside a large tent, with children eating and clothes hanging from lines.

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Paolo was last in a conflict zone in 2018 with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV as his faithful companion. In Ukraine, it was the ability to shoot silently with the Canon EOS R5 that came into its own. "We always strive for invisibility, to be less present, to interfere less and less in a situation," he says. "Silent mode, I think in many circumstances, is really another game changer."

Finite time and focus

Whether it's accepting the challenge of celebrity portraits for The New York Times, F1 commissions or National Geographic expeditions, Paolo continues to push himself and his craft. The common thread through an eclectic portfolio is the shadow and texture that The New York Times Magazine director of photography, Kathy Ryan, describes as akin to "charcoal sketches".

Paolo's vision isn't what it once was. In his early thirties, he was diagnosed with glaucoma, a degenerative eye condition, which now encroaches on his peripheral vision. It's under control with treatment, but psychologically, its impact has been evident. "I don't have the best eyesight unfortunately, and autofocus, especially in low light, is very important for me," he reveals. "Even in the [shots] where it doesn't seem so... in these reflections, and these very soft moments, you still want to have that sharpness. There's the softness of the backlight, or the reflection, but also with the sharp focus behind it – the two need to coexist.

"I pushed myself pretty hard on my own, but it possibly pushed me even further. Less so now, maybe, but at the back of my mind there's this idea of finite time. I don't know until when I'll be able to photograph."

Fellow Magnum photographer Gilles Peress once told him that photographic vision was more than the result of intellect, "but also the organ – of 'how' you see". Paolo relates to this. He has a focus, intellectually and physiologically. Excluding the peripheral 'noise' in a composition, he highlights the necessary: what matters. Everything extraneous falls into the shadows.

Skrivet av Emma-Lily Pendleton


Paolo Pellegrin's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Paolo Pellegrin's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.

Camera

Canon EOS R5

A lightweight, compact and ergonomic camera – whatever you shoot, however you shoot it, the EOS R5 will let you be creative in ways you simply couldn't before. "I'm a really big fan of this camera. I find with the EOS R5, it's just so right for me, from how I hold it to the quality of the file. It's the first time in a long time that I find files that really satisfy me," says Paolo.

Lenses

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

A super-fast and bright lens that gives stunning results even in low light. "For many years I stayed away from zoom lenses. But this lens is so extraordinary and so beautiful that it became my main lens," says Paolo, who shoots two-thirds of his work with the RF 28-70mm.

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

An essential lens in the professional trio of zooms, the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM is the perfect companion for news, sport and travel. "The new class of lenses are fast and of exceptional quality when fully open," says Paolo.

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