Sorrow, Horror & Joy: Through the Lens of Brent Stirton

In this Q&A with a National Geographic photographer, Brent Stirton talks to us about patience and what makes a powerful photograph.

Brent Stirton is driven by a passion to help others. Whether photographing sex workers in Ukraine or rangers on the front lines of the fight against illegal wildlife poaching, Stirton uses his photographic gift to tell these stories in a way that makes us take notice. We spoke with Stirton for our new series “Through the Lens,” where we get to know the photographers behind the unforgettable images showcased on National Geographic.

What was the first picture you made that mattered to you?

The first picture that mattered to me was probably shot in 1994 during the run-up to the first democratic South African election. I had been shooting images for less than six months at that stage. I remember I was in a crowd that was quite agitated—a police dog bit one of the people in the crowd, and they were reacting. This kid was right in front of me, and he immediately tapped into the anger of the crowd. I remember realizing how powerful unity could be and how ridiculous it seemed that a small minority had been able to hold back that collective anger for such a long time. It’s not a great image, but it had some emotion, and for the first time I could sense the potential of that in photography.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

If I wasn’t a photographer, I’d probably want to be a professional soldier, a military paramedic at the highest possible level.

Who is your greatest influence?

My greatest influence is an ever present fear of failure, but in terms of photographers, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, and Nick Nichols were inside my head from early on. These days, Yuri Kozyrev, Alex Majoli, Paul Nicklen, Edward Burtynsky, Moises Saman, Helmut Newton, Steven Klein. The list goes on.

What fuels your passion for photography?

My passion is fueled by the fact that I constantly meet better people than myself in the course of my job, and those people inevitably need and deserve help. I’m often in a position to highlight that need—not doing so would be cowardly. I think this job often has moments where your character is tested. I guess having a sense of self-respect means always trying to make the right move. I don’t always succeed, that’s for sure.

What is the perfect photograph?

A perfect photograph for me is something that transcends its time. Truly remarkable pictures endure as part of the consciousness of our civilization. In the kind of work that gets done at National Geographic, it’s an image that reminds us of what it means to be commonly human and all the connection that entails. On a personal note, I know that when I am in a situation when a good image is possible, it always makes me nervous. That happens because it’s a moment of responsibility made manifest—I have to be good enough to see it when it passes in front of me. If I blink, I’ll miss it and always remember that moment with a bitter taste in my mouth.

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

My most treasured possession in the field is my light meter and my camera. Nothing happens without those. Second would be my fixer and an inexhaustible supply of patience. The fixer I can usually make happen ...

What is the most important advice you can give emerging photographers?

My advice to emerging photographers is to find what you love and have faith in it since you are going to spend a lot of time pursuing that, and it's not always going to love you back. Go for overwhelming passion—that, for me, is the greatest luxury I can imagine in this profession.

Brent Stirton's work is featured in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Check out more of his work.

Read This Next

Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world. Can we save them?

The world’s oldest known wild bird just turned 70—why she’s so special

Buried for 4,000 years, this ancient culture could expand the 'Cradle of Civilization'

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet