James Hill has been one of the world’s leading photojournalists for the past three decades. His images have been published by all the major international media and awarded with the most significant international prizes, World Press Photo and the Pulitzer Prize among them. His name is well-known not only for his striking images of militarised conflicts in different countries, but also for brilliantly documenting events and capturing faces of modern Russia, where he has been living and working for more than 20 years now. We’re very honoured that James found the time to tell us stories of his spectacular life in photography and share the philosophy of his artistic approach to photojournalism.
How did you become a photographer?
I became a photographer mostly by accident. After university I was going to work in finance in London. But I had an enormous hunger to see the world, so I traveled for a year in Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia. With me I had a very simple Pentax camera with two lenses. I really enjoyed looking at the world through it. I got excited about photography, so when I got back to England I started looking for some studies. A friend of mine found a course in photojournalism at London College of Printing (London Institute now). After we completed it, we spent a year working there, doing both writing and photography.
It was June 1991 when I decided to go to Russia. Every decision we take has its conscious and unconscious reasons. I blame the enormous amount of Russian literature that I read in school. I was fascinated with Russia. This was the time when Soviet Union was still in existence. I didn’t have a single friend there, and I liked that idea. I tried to visit Soviet Russia, but didn’t manage to get a visa. With the help of a friend I got a visa to Ukraine. In October 1991 I got on a plane with two bags and a camera, some lenses and 30 rolls of film given to me by London Times. I spent four years working as a freelance from Kiev. During that time I traveled in Ukraine, Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia. It was easy and cheap, I didn’t have much money but it wasn’t a problem. Finally, in 1995 I got a contract with New York Times and went to work to Moscow.
What was your first impression of Moscow?
I’d been to Moscow before. Comparing with Kiev it was like coming from a provincial town to a capital. Despite the common ground, they’re very different cities. When I came to Russia, it was (and still is) a different experience. You have the feeling of vastsness of this country. Working here gives you a perception of something endless: wherever you go, however many places you visit – you still haven’t seen everything. This is the mental idea of Russia: it’s so enormous that you always feel you never really captured it. That’s what has kept me here for 20 years.
Do you think you experienced dramatic professional growth during the first years of your career or did it take much more time to feel like an established photographer?
In any art forms there is a battle taking place: a mismatch between an artist’s ability to capture something and the idea or the concept that he wants to convey. When I look back at contact sheets (it was in 1990s, and there were no digital computers ), I see many opportunities, many moments that I didn’t really have the ability to capture. It took a long time to train the eye. Despite the technical aspect, there’s also artistic development. As a journalist you have to deal with the extremes, which is very difficult. For example, I went to Georgia in 1993 to shoot the civil war, then I went to Nagorny Karabakh and Chechnya. Being in such places drives your personal growth. At that time I wasn’t aware it would be that hard. I grew up in a generation with no war. And emotionally it was very complicated and very distressing. With all these feelings, you still had to work correctly. 1990s was the big time of growing up, sometimes harsh, sometimes coming on its own without your awareness – there was just something happening.
Your photos – despite being works of a photojournalist – most of the time leave the impression of fine art photography. How has your artistic style been formed?
Photography is such a different art form to painting. It is a strange form, it’s like at the same time you are creating and not creating the frame you’re capturing, because things are going on on their own. What is interesting about photography is that if you put 20 photographers in one place, there will be 20 different images. It is very personal. And this point of view will be different not only in physical sense, there’s also a different point of view in terms of artistic response to what we see.
I am very concerned with the artistic quality of the image. I think that some photojournalists are often concerned by dynamic of the action more, and I am also concerned by it, but I also work hard on the framing. You should be using every single part of the frame. I am looking at the corners, balance the background and the foreground, shape the image. Not everyone’s like that. I have been criticized that I make images of war too beautiful. I don’t want to deny that accusation. What I want to do in depicting war is to show that the two things can exist at the same frame, violence and beauty exist at the same moment. I am trying to make a person spend some more time in front of the picture, questioning themselves. Because to me, photography is a question rather than an answer.
One of the painters always influenced me is Giotto. When you look at his paintings you see so much going on all across foreground and background, it’s very busy and lifelike. There’s a church in Padua painted by Giotto, and there’s an extraordinary panel where you see the body of Christ and the people standing around him grieving. But there’s a strange detail, as there are figures in the foreground turned with their back to the viewer. And this is the moment that brings life into image. This is the concept of the wholeness of image, which is very important. It must be comprising many different details that a viewer is able to find. It doesn’t always work, but that’s the aim.
Who else are the artists and photographers that influenced you?
There are 2 photographers that influenced me most. They are Irving Penn and August Sander. I just find what I like in the portraits of both of them is that they’re very honest and very intimate. That’s the most important thing – the sense of intimacy. The person that you’re photographing removes their defences and you can not only see what’s outside but feel what’s inside.
You already told us about your experience in Karabakh, Georgia and Chechnya. Was it much different for you later, when you got back to war in early 2000s and went to the Middle East?
I was much more ready emotionally, having been in other wars. It’s very true what a famous photographer Robert Capa said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. I think you got to be prepared to get very close to war. It doesn’t only take physical courage, but also emotional courage.
In 2003 I was in Iraq for three and a half months. I was surrounded by US Marines. This invasion was a very strange war, there wasn’t really very much resistance. There were ferociously armed American and British troops, and the people they were fighting were not equipped at all. We often traveled at night, sometimes there was an intense fight for a very short period of time and then nothing for a couple of days. I was asking myself many questions about the role in these events – was I involved or not?
When I was in Afghanistan, I was by myself, I wasn’t with any force. What I felt was this extraordinary extreme, a very cold relationship between life and death. Death was a daily occurrence accepted without much reaction. There were people very poor and still ready to share their last piece of bread. Then they start asking you who you’re with, who you support, and in the next moment you can’t say whether they like you or not. I was really captured by the beauty of the nature and the people, at the same time I was astonished by the lack of emotional response to people’s death. I had a hard time moving between these two extremes. And I think that eventually when I came out from there I wasn’t in a very good state.
My wife was pregnant during me being at both wars, this helped me a lot to come back to peaceful life. It’s really thanks to her I recovered. She used to tell me that for a while after I got back she felt much like there was a stranger in her bed. This brutal experience really changes you. You become very hardened there, you have to, otherwise you can’t do it. It’s huge and traumatic stress, but luckily I managed to get over it.
What made you settle down in Russia after that?
I often say that edges are the most interesting places to photograph. One of the most fascinating journeys to the edge was the trip to Chukotka that I did in 2007. We traveled for 3 days through tundra and all we saw was endless whiteness. And as we arrived to the sea – it was frozen. It was like we were contemplating the end of something that was endless. The edges exist in many different forms. And being in Russia for me is an attempt to get to the edge in the physical sense. I also feel that Russian people themselves are people who emotionally exist very much on the edge. They are very emotionally interesting.
Why is your first book called ‘In Russias’?
That book is a collective production. We had a very hard time deciding what to name it. And of course, there was an idea to convey that I am showing Russia in the eye of the foreigner. I think that some Russians find it curious to look at, and others find it absolutely insulting or completely wrong. They see what they see: maybe too many military pictures, or too many tall blondes. It seemed so impossible to capture Russia in one go, there are so many different faces of this country. That is probably one of the main ideas: what the photographs reflect is the pass of the enormous, everchanging, impossible to capture space.
How did winning international awards such as Pulitzer Prize and Word Press Photo influence you?
I don’t think it really changes anything. An artist is always doubtful about the quality of his work. Getting an award is the moment of aware that you can put these doubts away. It’s very satisfying that your work is recognised within the community. In a way it’s also very bounding. It is something that I’m very grateful to receive, I feel that my work is valued.
You seem to have work with many celebrities and politicians. Do you think they are very different from all the other people?
It’s very interesting to work with famous people. Sometimes they let you close, sometimes not. Sometimes they work hard to make an image with you, and sometimes not. I did a portrait of Naomi Campbell for New York Times magazine, she was very late for the shoot. When she got there, we made 200 images, which is approximately 15 minutes of intense work. She made probably 200 poses. She is very beautiful and looks amazing at every shot, but she really works for it.
I find it very frustrating to do portraits. It’s complicated: there are many things that influence the result, including location, light, psychology. But sometimes a person really wants to help you, or he or she is extremely photogenic, or it’s a gift. I once photographed Renata Litvinova. She was 1.5 hour late. When she turned up, she told me she had only two minutes. This isn’t not going very well, I thought. But when I developed the film, the pictures were amazing. And I realized that she did all the hard work: I wasn’t doing much except being angry with here coming late.
What will be your advice to young people who want to become photojournalists?
I think you have to find work you feel passionate about. Both the work you do for yourself and the work you’re assigned to do. Do the projects and photoshoots that you really want to do, and this will be your best work. But I think it’s also important to take yourself out of your comfort zone and do projects that you’re not very comfortable with. It’s also important to push yourself. When I went to wars, I was pushing myself to the edge. But this edge can be around the corner as well. And It’s not about distances, it’s more about yourself. Not only about looking at the world, but also about trying to see what is inside of you and find your character.
To see more of James's work, visit his website: