Conversation: Christopher Morris and Jošt Franko

Conversations is an ongoing series where photographers, editors, and curators talk about concepts in photography as well as recent projects.

As a part of the VII Mentor Program, emerging photographer Jošt Franko has been mentored by VII member Christopher Morris for the past two years. In this edition of Conversations, Morris talks about what sets Franko’s work apart, Franko shares his future goals, and together they discuss the dynamics of their working relationship. To go along with their conversation, Morris selected some of the most iconic images from Franko’s portfolio.

CHRISTOPHER MORRIS: Well, we pulled it off to get us all in one place. I just came back last night. Trust me, the one thing Jošt will attest to, because I’ve worked with him for two years: I can be very difficult to nail and track down. Right, Jošt? I’m not the best at multitasking, but once Jošt starts sending In good material, once he’s onto a story, I take great interest in it if the stories are good. And then I really work closely with him on those edits.

I first encountered Jošt before I had met him, in that first contest [The Slovenia Press Photo awards]. What year was it when you won that award?

JOŠT FRANKO: That was 2010. I was 16 when I shot that project.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I was asked to help jury the Slovenian Press Photographer’s contest. And at that contest there was a story that stuck in my mind. It was so unique. It stood out against all the other entries. It was called “The Widow.” I believe it won first place, did it not, Jošt?

JOŠT: Yeah.

CHRISTOPHER: When I looked at the material, the treatment and the style that it was done in, it was a very old style of photojournalism. It had a very kind of 1950’s-style aesthetic to it. So in my mind, I thought I was judging a photographer who was probably in his 50’s or 60’s, a much older photographer. And then when I found out it was a 16-year old that shot it, I became very intrigued by him. The following year I was not a judge, and Jošt ended up winning again for another story called “The Shepherds.” That’s when he applied to the VII Mentor Program. And I and the other photographers at VII realized that Jošt was really special. We felt he was exactly perfect for the program in the sense that he was young, needed guidance, and had a great talent. So we brought him on. But as Jošt will attest, he’s kind of on his own. He still has to produce and shoot.

One of the times I met with him I was passing through Slovenia for a show I had, and I remember him telling me he wanted to be a news photographer—he wanted to shoot news, he wanted to shoot color, everything was digital. And his early work was in film. And I kind of told him, “Look, you’re going to get lost in the hundreds or thousands of other photographers that shoot digital and shoot color. You really need to stick to, and refine, and develop your work based on what your original vision was, that’s why we brought you into VII.” So when you look at his work, the stories all have that same timeless 1950’s reportage style. And that’s kind of what has led us to where we are now. Each story he’s done has been true to his style.

JOŠT: So yeah, from the beginning I always wanted to do these traditional black and white, old school reportages. But I got lost on the way because I got really bad responses from the editors. No one wanted to publish my work, etc. Yeah, Chris’s words actually helped because now I know I’m on the right track when I’m doing what I’m doing. The color thing quickly disappeared from my head.

CHRISTOPHER: After “The Bathers” he did “The Miners” story in Slovenia. Poor Jošt, there is all this stuff going on with Syria and Libya, and you want to get out there and you want to shoot hard news. You want stories. But I’m trying to encourage him to do stuff closer to home, which was shepherds, miners, bathers. And then with his own funding he went to Gaza and did this fantastic story on farming in Gaza. And again, it was just visually stunning and very classical photojournalism. And now, finally, he’s working on a story about Syrian children refugees in Lebanon.

In each one of his stories I can go through and pick two or three very iconic photos. Iconic photos meaning these are pictures that can stand the test of time. And that’s very difficult to do, especially when you’re dealing with very subtle subjects like he’s working on.

JOŠT: Thanks Chris.

CHRISTOPHER: It’s why we took you in. If you felt like I’ve ever left you out there hanging it’s because in the end, photojournalism is a very solitary profession. You have to learn how to work by yourself. You’re on your own basically. In a sense, I’ve left him on his own to see what he would do and what he would produce.

JOŠT: You know, I came to the agency really young, like 18 or 19, and I had no idea how this business works. I know it must have been hard for all of you guys at VII to deal with me from time to time because I had no basics whatsoever. I didn’t even know how to write captions. But as Chris said, when I’m out in the field like with the Gaza or the Syrian refugees, we really work closely together. I send him stuff on a daily basis, and he usually responds on a daily basis. We communicate to see where the project is going. Whenever I start a project and it doesn’t really move, I’m very self-critical. If Chris is there he really helps me to go past that.

CHRISTOPHER: On his first day there, he’ll say, for example, “Okay, I’ve arrived in Palestine. I’ve just started. It’s not really going well,” but he’ll send me the photos, maybe 10 to 15 photos. He’ll make an edit. And that edit is the beginning, and I realize it’s just the beginning. He really works the situation well. He’ll have maybe three, four, or five images that are very similar, and what I try to help him do is quickly edit down. I’ll say, “Okay, you just sent me 15 pictures. These three we keep, just these three.” He might write back and say, “What about this one?” or “What about that one?” and I’ll try to point out what the flaws are or why I don’t like it. And sometimes he’s right, sometimes I’ll make a mistake. So I’ll look at it again, and then I’ll let him put it in the edit. And then the each day he’ll upload more pictures.

For me, editing is like building a puzzle–you don’t even know your first days of shooting what the story is. I try to convince him just to keep shooting. At the very end, when you put all of those pieces of the puzzle together, all the selects, that’s your story. I mean you may go there to photograph children or farmers, but by the end of the story all your selects are a completely different story. So how you shoot can change what the story actually turns out to be. I work with him on that give and take. So it’s helping him find his style and find his way in picture storytelling.

JOŠT: Editing, for me, was very hard in the beginning, but it’s a very big part of photojournalism. And I think I’ve learned how to edit better throughout these two years. I think we agree on what goes in and what stays out fairly quickly now.

CHRISTOPHER: For me, with Jošt it’s all about trying to encourage him to continue. My encouragement comes by acknowledging when he’s done really well and acknowledging when something’s not working. I’m very straightforward with people when I look at their work. When I do portfolio reviews, I try to be honest with people and tell them when things don’t work. I think there are a lot of flaws in modern photojournalism, at least since the 90’s. There’s a lot of bad photography in photojournalism—a lot of successful bad photography. I was guilty of it in the 90’s myself. It started with the invention of these zoom lenses that photographers use, these 16mm-35mm zooms. Too often in photojournalism I see photographers trying to show too much in the frame, causing too much drama and emotion through lens selection. When I say “lens selection” I mean they’re using the distortion of the lens to create drama. The real masters of photography don’t rely on that kind of trick. In so much photojournalism the images don’t contain the viewer. There is so much space in their framing and composition that the viewer gets lost and ends up leaving the images. That’s what I like about Jošt’s work—it’s all shot in a perspective that’s compositionally and structurally from the human eye. That’s what makes it so classical. His framing and composition trap the viewer in this interesting world, and your eye moves around the frame. That’s something amazing in his photography because of his age.

JOŠT: I try to restrict myself, so I only use 35mm and 50mm lenses. I cannot go wider than that, so I sometimes have to use the vertical to get the picture.

CHRISTOPHER: But that’s where your success comes from. And the photographers in the 40’s and 50’s did not have anything wide. They did not go below 35mm. They shot with 35mm and 50mm, and that’s what gives you that classic look. It’s all about creating this beautiful masterpiece, and you do this with lens choice and composition. Not to mention the right moment and light, and of course there are other factors in there. I’m not against wide-angle photography, but it’s a very delicate lens to use and you have to be very careful with it because it causes an unnatural distortion that the human eye does not have. True masters of photography, when they use 35mm and 50mm lenses, they’ve eliminated that gimmick of visual distortion.

JOŠT: I started with photography when I was 14, and I quickly understood that this was the one thing I want to do in my life. And at the age of 16 I realized I had to do something about it, so I sold all of my digital gear and started shooting with a manual Nikon film camera. So I only had a 35mm and 50mm lenses. That’s how I got into that, and I’ve stuck with it.

And up until like two years ago, I was not able to get a driving license because I was too young. So I had to do work in Slovenia near my home, which also helped to open my eyes a lot. Later on I went to Gaza to work on the farming story. And what I’m trying to do in the next five or 10 years is to find these little stories in conflict areas that are not covered by the mainstream media. I don’t want to cover conflict in a traditional kind of mainstream way. I want to find these little stories that show bigger pictures. I see this indifference about everything that’s going on in the world, which really bothers me. I think photography is a way for me to express that and a way for me to see what’s going on—photography has a lot to do with explaining and realizing what’s going on in the world for myself. So hopefully I’ll be able to do this sort of thing in the next couple of years.

CHRISTOPHER: And hopefully get someone to help fund it. Can you imagine if Jošt goes to Crimea? All the little undiscovered little stories he could do there. These little sidebars outside of what all the photographers tend to go there to do. It’s like his Syrian refugee story. When he first told me what he was going to do I thought, “Oh no. It’s going to be another refugee story.” But when the first take came it was like, “Oh my gosh. This is different.” He’s following children around. These lost children. It’s fascinating. He’s not going up to the border to photograph people in the camps. It’s a much deeper look at societies. The issue though, is funding.

JOŠT: This sort of stuff drives me. You know? And I’m really surprised that these sort of stories are not covered by the media. Because it’s a huge part of the problem. Imagine your kids being eight or nine years old and having work for 16 hours a day to help their families survive. How can anyone overlook that?

CHRISTOPHER: Yes, well the world can overlook many things, that’s for sure.

The industry is really hurting. It’s not the same industry I grew up in. The way it was done before doesn’t exist anymore. But it’s imperative that professionally trained photojournalists continue to document the world. I’m curious to see what the future is. I know that it’s a very difficult field. It’s even difficult for agencies to survive. For VII to survive, for Noor to survive, for Magnum to survive. They all have to reinvent themselves in different ways, to find different funding. Who’s going to spend the 5,000 or 10,000 Euros to send Jošt to Crimea? Who’s going to invest that? What type of organization is going to let Jošt do the kind of documenting that the world needs done? Right now it’s not there. But I see talents like Jošt and the stories he’s doing. I’m trying to help get his name out there so at least people know and word of mouth spreads. And hopefully he will get funding to go to a place like Crimea.

JOŠT: Yeah. I’m trying to start working as a professional—to live on photography, which I’m currently not because I’m still studying. It bothers me a lot. All of the photographers who are currently working probably have the same problem, and they go into photography knowing that it’s a huge problem that awaits them. But I think things are starting to move for me.

CHRISTOPHER: Well at your age, yes they are Jošt. You’re definitely ahead of the game.

JOŠT: I think the basic thing is that you need to stick with what you want to do and try not to change your style to fit the current trends because the trends are moving and changing all the time. And you have a hundred photographers who are trying to follow that. I think that’s the basic thing.

To see more of Jošt Franko’s work, visit his VII profile.
Christopher Morris’s work can be viewed on his website and his VII profile.

For a more in-depth discussion of contemporary photojournalism, join the photographers of VII for Reinventing Photojournalism, a day-long photo seminar on May 17th in Washington D.C.

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