Photographer Gianfranco Tripodo has achieved one of the most prestigious awards in photojournalism, the World Press Photo, thanks to a snapshot that shows one of the harshest realities of the European Union: the situation of immigrants in the border city of Melilla.
The first time I heard about Gianfranco Tripodo was in a church. Specifically, in the Niuewe Kerk, a religious temple located in the centre of Amsterdam which annually hosts one of the most prestigious photojournalism competitions, the World Press Photo. It is impressive to see images of the wars in Syria, Gaza and Ukraine among huge stained glass windows and stone pillars. It was there that I found the photograph of Gianfranco Tripodo, winner of one of the awards in the category ‘General News’.
The first time I saw Tripodo (Manila, 1981) in person was at a cafe in Madrid. He arrived early to the appointment and was already working on the large wooden table of the cafe, full of papers. The mobile in one hand, a list of tasks to be done in the other, and a coffee waiting to be drunk during the interview.
I wanted to start talking about the winning photograph, how were the circumstances surrounding the image.
I had been working on the subject for three years but I knew I was missing the photo of the jump over the fence [the Spanish city of Melilla, located in northern Africa, is separated from Morocco by a triple border fence]. For one reason or another I was always missing that moment, sometimes because the Civil Guard stopped me, other times because I just left the day before it happened. In fact, I had already decided that that would be my last stay and it was my last day of work in Melilla. I was in the CETI [Temporary Stay Centre for Foreigners] doing an interview when I was notified that a jump was taking place. When I got to the area I found about 40 people on top of a booth next to the border. When they got to jump the last fence, the clashes with the police began and they started to deport people back to Morocco. Some escaped and managed to hide under the car shown in the photograph. I remember I was shooting a scene that was happening to my left, I don’t even remember what, and suddenly I turned and saw these two people under the car. One of them is not seen in the picture because he’s behind the other. I photographed them and went on to something else I do not remember. It was all very fast. Later I found out that the two were able to stay in Melilla and not be deported at that time.
How do you choose the topics and places that you want to photograph?
They are coincidences, though I am not too interested in ‘breaking news’ topics anyway. In fact, when I started in Ceuta and Melilla the issue was not in the spotlight and there was barely anyone covering the events. I was alone and because of that I could access the CETI of Ceuta.
I have seen your photos of the CETI, in which you depict the football team created by the immigrants of the Centre themselves. I think it’s good to have images that show people, because we usually only get pictures of immigrants as if they were an undefined mass.
For me it is a long-term matter, so I’m not trying to sell anything to the newspapers. That’s why I did not suffer the pressure that freelancers do, who go directly to the scene to take the topical photo. It gave me time to get more images of the context.
How do you compensate for being able to spend so much time on projects that are unpaid on the short term?
I work for magazines and commercial clients that allow me to earn some money and then dedicate myself to these initiatives.
You gain time, so to speak.
Indeed. And by that I can decide. Having a sustainable economy to make my own projects is something I have thoroughly calculated.
Do you remember the time you told yourself you wanted to devote to this?
I’ve always liked photography, in fact, for First Communion I got a camera, the typical automatic Nikon I still have. As a teenager I always carried a camera with me and when I got to college I became interested in documentary photography. But the definitive inflexion moments came when I moved to Madrid and was assistant to Ricky Dávila and when I collaborated with Cesura Lab, a group of young Italian photographers who are very in touch with Alex Majoli, a photographer of the Magnum Agency.
It must be something pretty vocational as the beginnings seem complicated.
Well, the beginning is very complicated …
Is it necessary to persevere?
Alex Majoli always says that the key lies in determination.
The other day I read an interview with Manu Brabo and he said the same thing, in the end you have to be stubborn.
Yes, it’s being stubborn. We must work hard and make many sacrifices. For example, I hardly see my friends from Naples and I always reserve a month of my vacation time to go somewhere on my own, just to take pictures. And all the money always goes to producing projects or purchasing equipment.
Which cameras do you usually use?
I always try to optimize the equipment. Right now I’m working with Olympus, a camera without a mirror, small. I have other Olympus bodies and three or four lenses. I prefer to use fixed focals, I have 28, 35 and 50. I do most of the pictures with that.
Do you decide to use black and white depending on the subject you’re taking?
It depends somewhat on the issue, yes. The black and white has the capacity for abstraction, which I think that for certain things is more powerful. Most of my references are photographers who use black and white, so when I started I felt much more comfortable using this kind of language, very different from the color one. But every time I feel more comfortable with color and I’m using it more.
Who are those referents that you’ve mentioned?
I like portrait pictures a lot, for example Richard Ravedon. I also follow Anders Petersen, Daido Moriyama, Paolo Pellegrin, Laia Abril…
Is there a kind of clique in the photojournalists world, or is a lone wolf profession?
It is a lonely job. I have a number of friends with whom I share experiences and photos, but the world of photojournalism and photo documentary is very small. More or less everyone knows each other, we know who is who and what they do.
Is there competitiveness among colleagues?
Healthy? Or do you steal topics from each other?
Both types, both. It depends on each one, it is an extremely competitive world, because it’s teeming and the outflows of your work go to few media outlets, 20-50 worldwide. And at the same time there are a thousand people who want to access those outlets. From this thousand there are 500 who are extremely good. There is a lot of competition.
Many photographers complain about the lack support from the media, they say that the photographer is undervalued.
Especially in Spain. The situation is complicated. The media are few, it is very difficult to get to work with them and they do not cover difficult issues.
Difficult in what way?
Topics that could raise controversy. They tend not to cover them.
Why do you think they don’t?
Because in the end, all media, to a greater or lesser extent, are funded by advertising. When editors and publishers gather, they not only gather to do journalism, but they have in mind what their advertisers and management boards might say, which are not formed only by journalists but by shareholders and people who have nothing to do with this. What does that mean? Well, that maybe controversial issues such as evictions have not appeared in the media, although it is a big issue and a social emergency in Spain.
They have only appeared in the alternative media …
Yes, and there are photographers such as Olmo Calvo who have been working on this for a very long time and have brought up the subject abroad. In addition they have published it with great galleries, very in depth. It’s an issue they hardly let you publish in Spain.
Publishing is not allowed because of the opposition of banks that are advertised in the press?
Yes, you get blocked. In the editorial board there are influences. The same happens with the issue of Melilla, they have showed it only when it’s been an emergency and has been on the front page. But they lack in-depth reports that speak of the situation of Syrians in Melilla, for example.
Lets continue with political issues, because I’m sure you know that it has recently been approved in Spain, the so called ‘gag law’ . How does it affect you, for example?
They are trying, and I think they are succeeding, that you think twice before taking the picture. Because if they consider it appropriate, they can put penalise you directly. It is the police and not a court, which will decide whether it’s right or wrong what you’re doing. No possible trial. Most of these complicated issues are covered usually by freelancers and they can not afford to pay a 30,000 or 60,000 Euro fine. What this law does is to criminalize free information, it is a law of the dictatorship itself.
Could you have been fined for your winning photo?
Not for this particular picture, as police officers don’t appear. But before taking the picture there was a space negotiation with the agents. Today those negotiations could end up with “If you continue you’ll get a fine.”
You work as a freelancer. Would you rather stay that way?
Yes, yes. I do not want to a contract with anyone.
Because of the freedom?
Yes, and because I started in this with the crisis, in 2007…
And in the end you’ve got a good result thanks to this photo because you’ve been given the prize. Did you expect something like this?
No, you never expect it. You always wish for it, you dream of this and every year you sign up for the prize, but you never expect it.
Like Santa Claus …
It’s a bit like the lottery. 100,000 photos have been submitted this year. Of all of those, 40 will pass, and that from these 40 yours wins is almost like a small miracle.
Has the prize somewhat changed your life, besides having people like me interviewing you?
Besides (laughs). Certainly your name is better known and it also gives you a certain prestige. It’s a note in the curriculum that stands out. But I think it does not make you a better or worse photographer. My way of working has not changed, neither has my personality.
How do you get to differentiate yourself, other than through the perseverance that you mentioned before?
Through the stories that you do and the kind of mission that you have as a photographer. I would not call it style, but has to do with how you are as a person. Your vision really is your personality, your way of being in the world. That’s what sets you apart over others covering the same story.
From what I see the traditional photographer working for only one means …
Has died. And I believe for certain things that is even better.
But it is more unstable.
It is much more unstable, which leads to people taking advantage and to a very strong precariousness. As they know everybody is desperate, they lower prices, the conditions are abusive, they disregard image rights and so on. This seems dreadful to me and I think that as photographers, as a freelancer, we need to have a very clear and strong position on these abuses and establish that under certain conditions we won’t work and that’s it, no possible mediation. That said, in general it’s a great season for photography because everything is yet to be invented. You do what you want. There are digital platforms on which the public is more committed and visually educated. It allows you to do many more things. I find it amazing. To me that figure of the photographer who has only worked with three customers throughout their life seems boring, horrible.
The exhibition of the photographs awarded at the World Press Photo will involve up to 100 locations, including Madrid, Moscow and Mexico City
For more information: http://www.worldpressphoto.org/exhibitions
Gianfranco Tripodo will soon publish a book about the “Southern Border” project, which will include the winning photograph of the World Press Photo.