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Interview with Alberto Pizzoli

Alberto Pizzoli’s images are a record of the most important international news stories of the past 30 years. A constant yet discreet presence that has provided the leading news agencies with historic images. It was he who captured the Haven exploding in the Gulf of Genoa, the clashes at the G8 summit of 2001, the Mafia massacres of Falcone and Borsellino. Three reigning Popes, numerous war zones, photo shoots with Lady Diana, first prize in the POY 2013 for ‘Olympics Action’ and many moments of personal satisfaction, such as the blow-up pictures of Nicole Kidman which have decorated the streets of Cannes during the recent Film Festival. Then came the crowning achievement of his career: being offered the challenging role of staff photographer for one of the ‘big four’, AFP, Agence France-Presse, in their Rome office.

When did you first start?

When I was 21, as a freelancer; I’ve never done anything else. I started out with local news stories in Bologna. It was a real learning experience; I covered everything from road accidents to sports events. I also pursued personal projects, trying to sell my work through an agent; so I spent a year in Latin America, which is where international media interest and the main news stories were focused. I worked with Sygma, which doesn’t exist anymore, the same as the other leading agencies Gamma, Sipa, Black Star. Back then, AFP, AP and Reuters worked at a totally different pace; for a big story, they would send a maximum of 3 to 4 B/W photos, which required 7 minutes each. Colour photos took three times as long. The developing, printing and captions altogether took more than an hour. There were only ever a few photos in circulation and every one was worth a great deal. Today, circulation numbers are so huge that the value of a single image has dropped massively. At a Premier League football match, there are, on average, 40 photographers, all wired up for broadcasting. Any newspaper has available thousands of photos of the same event and it sets the price; competition is enormous. We used to take negatives, or slides, and send in the film roll. The newspapers waited; there was no internet or online newsroom, no mobile phones. It was all on paper and the time-scale was very different.

Did you send the material directly from where you were?

Always, using the most bizarre methods. From Europe, the easiest way was to use the trains and planes that were going to Paris. There was no security; nowadays, no one would even carry a packet of sweets for you. We used to go with our packages of rolls of film and ask the departing passengers to take them to Paris, where there was a motorbike courier who picked up the parcels. Or we would use the train couchette attendants, to whom we would hand over the film rolls and part-payment; they got the rest on arrival at destination. They were happy, it was good money.
Then there was Concorde; the film rolls were put on board in Paris and flew off to New York. The speed of travel and difference in time zone gained you one day; I’m talking about exposed film. There, they were developed in the various agencies’ offices, and the best ones were chosen and copies were printed to be distributed around America and Europe, always returning by Concorde. Once they got back to Paris, they were handed over to the big European news producers and, in just 24 hours, they would be processed and redistributed. Behind every single photo there were dozens of people, each one with his cut; you can imagine how many of them are no longer needed.

uventus' French midfielder Paul Pogba controls a ball during the Italian Serie A football match between Juventus and Bologna on October 31, 2012.
uventus’ French midfielder Paul Pogba controls a ball during the Italian Serie A football match between Juventus and Bologna on October 31, 2012.

What happened to unused material?

The proper waste material was thrown away, anything of sufficient quality was archived for future use. The archive is important even today, especially for freelancers. It has to produce easily traceable single photos or photo services very quickly, be on line, and be accessible to anyone and at any time. The more computerised it is, the better; the client who is looking for a photo needs to have the advantage of being able to find one in very little time.

Is it important to be technologically savvy?

In sports and nature photography, the technical and technological side is fundamental. Many amazing photos that we see these days have been taken using automated, remote cameras. They produce unique and very striking images from critical angles, such as from the bottom of a swimming pool or the roof of a building, taken at times and from positions impossible to the photographer in person. We’re starting to see the use of drones, too.

What do you think of the tendency to use post production in photojournalism?

At AFP, a retouched photo is the equivalent of news manipulation. Only cropping and minor levelling are allowed; our credibility is at stake. Of course, good post production enhances an image and makes it different, but, unlike for some, for us it is simply not allowed.

What is your advice to someone who wants to be a photographer for an agency like AFP?

We don’t just do big news stories; above all, we do the little, everyday things. You’re not always on the front page, you also work on minor stories and sometimes you don’t like the work you’ve been assigned. You have to be able to produce work of a consistently high quality, very quickly and in any conditions. We are not specialists; you have to be very good at everything.

Haven ship disaster in Genoa, Italy.
Haven ship disaster in Genoa, Italy.

If you had stayed freelance, which area would you have worked in?

I love all sports and, more generally, the features that provide me with the widest scope in interpretation. Fundamentally, we are journalists, and we must give people something to read. Photography is an instrument; it must contain elements of the story it has to tell. I’ve noticed that portraits work well at the moment, it’s what I notice the most in Italian newspapers. I would focus on the corporate world, alongside large-scale, personal projects . As a freelancer, I’d keep well away from current events, where there’s no longer any room to move; times have changed. These days, the distance between the moment in which something happens and the moment in which the images are available to the public is only a question of the technical time it takes to upload them. Newspapers haven’t any money and they (wrongly) illustrate their news with the cheapest material immediately available, often obtained from smartphone users.

One of your latest photo services was done on a warship. How did you do it? 


I was invited by the US Navy to go aboard the American aircraft carrier, Nimitz, for two days, the cornerstone of an armed deployment surrounding Syria. It is an incredible, lethal weapon; technologically amazing, but still a weapon. I went on board several aircraft carriers. You land on the deck whilst the ship is moving, hooking up with a cable. Six thousand people work to make sure the 60 or so planes are able to take off in any weather conditions, 24 hours a day, anywhere in the world. On the flight deck, it’s impossible to communicate vocally, and it’s considered one of the most dangerous places to work in the world. You communicate using codes, colours and signals. You have to be experienced in order to take photos on this type of ship; you’ve got a helmet and goggles on, your vision is blurred by smoke, you have to move in synch with the others, you mustn’t drop anything because it could be sucked into an engine and cause massive damage, and if you get caught in a jet blast as it passes close by, it will throw you dozens of metres backwards. If you’re lucky.

F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to take-off from the US navy’s supercarrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in the Mediterranean Sea on October 24, 2013. The US aircraft carrier is on standby in case of a flare up in Syria and left the Red Sea for a brief stint in the Mediterranean Sea
F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to take-off from the US navy’s supercarrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in the Mediterranean Sea on October 24, 2013. The US aircraft carrier is on standby in case of a flare up in Syria and left the Red Sea for a brief stint in the Mediterranean Sea

The original interview was in Italian and has been translated for the purpose of the MSoX website.

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