Xaxii Exclusive Interview: Stephen Thorne
Xaxii creative team recently had the honor of getting an exclusive interview with Stephen Thorne, world renowned journalist and photographer, devoting four decades of his life to the latter. His impressive and extensive resume includes features in Time Magazine, Maclean's (including one cover),Weekly World News, Legion Magazine, International Journal (three covers), and many more. His work has been displayed in several photography exhibitions across the US and Canada, including a 14-month exhibition about the war in Afghanistan. He was the only journalist with 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, throughout their March 2002 assault on the Whale's Back in eastern Afghanistan, Canada's first wartime assault in 50 years and he reported from the frontlines on numerous combat operations during a year in Afghanistan and time with NATO forces in Kosovo. He has had mutliple TV and Radio appearances, and we are very glad that we have a chance to share his story with you.
"That's me — a journalist of 30 years seeking art and tenderness in pictures for a change.
After 20 years covering disasters and war, I want to contribute to the beauty of life."
Xaxii: Tell us a little about yourself, where you were born, grew up, what were your interests?
Stephen: I'm from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada. Growing up, my family's household was always filled with magazines and books — Life Magazine, Time, National Geographic. Pictures had a huge impact in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War, the social revolution. Television was just coming into its own and the great magazines like Life and Look and so on really wielded great influence through pictures. There were arguably more iconic images taken during that period than any other time in history. I was captivated by imagery from a very early age.
Xaxii: When did you get your first camera?
Stephen: I picked up a camera for the first time when I was about 10 or 11 years old. It was my dad's Olympus Pen F. We were on a ferry and I asked him if I could take a picture. I took one of him and my mom. I was hooked in that 1/250th of a second. My first camera was a Brownie Star — a hand-me-down. I carried it with me all the time. Eventually I got a Praktica LTL with a screw-mount lens, then I got into the Olympus OM system. I've been using Canon since about 1980.
Xaxii: Why journalism?
Stephen: I have been writing — or composing — stories for as long as I can remember. News, documentary and feature work, along with pictures, have been a passion since my middle school days. I don't think I ever considered anything else.
I was both a writer and photographer full-time when I started at my local newspaper. But when I moved over to our national-wire service I focused on writing. I covered a lot of disasters over a 15-year period. I did some overseas work — I spent a month in South Africa before the elections in 1994 — and I shot on foreign assignments.
Xaxii: How did you get started in war photography?
Stephen: I moved to our nation's capital and took on the defence beat in 1999. As part of that, I covered war for the better part of five years — Kosovo and Afghanistan. I shot a lot in Afghanistan and lost about 20,000 images in a disastrous hard-drive crash. I still have a pretty extensive archive of Afghanistan work.
Some journalists aspire to cover big-league sports; some want to cover national politics; and some think writing columns represents the pinnacle of journalism. My calling was to cover our soldiers overseas. To me that was the most honorable thing I could do, the greatest service I could give to my employer, my country and the guys making the sacrifices whose stories needed to be told in words and pictures.
Xaxii: How did you end up going to Afghanistan and Kosovo, was it voluntary?
Stephen: I was asked to go by my employer. I didn't have to. It was voluntary. The first time was in Kosovo in 1999. Then I spent three years coming and going from/to Afghanistan — a year in-country.
Xaxii: Can you describe your experiences there?
Stephen: What I saw and did there was life-changing in a number of ways. I was in firefights and I saw a lot of things. But the stuff I was exposed to over 15 years of disaster coverage probably had a more lasting impact — sea disasters, airline crashes, a mine explosion. I had grown up with stories and images of the Second World War. Vietnam was always playing in the background of my childhood. I'd spent years studying the history of conflict, so what I encountered in Kosovo and, more pointedly, Afghanistan, wasn't unexpected. I felt destined to be there, and it was the first and only time in my life I confronted and accepted the very real possibility of my own death.
Xaxii: Did you have some kind of protection?
Stephen: The first time I was over there, in 2002, I rented a house with a compound in Kandahar. I had a whole staff, led by what we call a "fixer." Thats a translator, guide, etc. I also had a cook, a cleaner and two mujahedeen guards, Sayed and Abdul, armed with AK-47s. I always had a local fixer and driver when I was in Afghanistan. Though I was embedded with the troops in 2003 and 2004, I was often able to accompany patrols, etc., with my own people and vehicle. That enabled me to use my own translator and stay on after they left a village or whatever if there happened to be a compelling story there I wanted to flesh out. In actual areas of combat or most hinterlands, I was with the soldiers. Naturally, I wore a helmet and flak jacket in high-risk situations.
Xaxii: Why made you quit and enter the world of art photography?
Stephen: My bosses made that decision for me. My Afghanistan work won several national awards in print and broadcast, and my pictures and stories formed the basis of an exhibition at our national war museum. My bosses made me an editor. Then I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Art photography was such a contrast to all that disaster and war, and so peaceful, positive and rewarding. I called it a balm to the sores wrought by tragedy, war, torment and heartbreak. It soothes and feeds the soul.
Xaxii: How do you think the two styles compare? Does art photography have less feeling, is it just visual beauty as opposed to journalistic photography?
Stephen: Both can make strong social, political or artistic statements, but one is contrived to one degree or another, and the other isn't. In photojournalism's simplest form, it's about being in the right place at the right time, and you take what you get, and make the most of what you're given. With art photography, you "create" the image — the mood, the aesthetic, the technical quality all blossom from a collaboration with your model and in postwork. Beyond camera and Photoshop skills, the photographer's got to have tact, insight, empathy and other people skills to get the best out of that collaboration. I love my models. I respect them and I want to do right by them, always. In many ways, journalism's much the same. Beyond the technicalities of writing, shooting and editing, an awful lot of it boils down to people skills. In journalism, good people skills always come out in good writing and good shooting, I think.
Xaxii: How would you describe your unique style? How did you come to it?
Stephen: It just evolved. How would I describe it? I don't know, really, because it's still evolving and always will be. I want my stuff to be beautiful but not sappy. I want it to have depth, insight and impact. I want it to be original, technically strong and consistent.
W. Eugene Smith was one of the great Life photographers, probably the greatest. He said:
"Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold."
That's pretty much how I see it.
Xaxii: I can't help but notice, your photos are edited fantastically, do you do your own editing?
Stephen: Thank you. I do my own editing. I want to sink or swim by my own hand.
Xaxii: What inspires you? Where do you find inspiration?
Stephen: I am a perpetual student of photography. I have a somewhat extensive library of photo books — not instructional books but photoessays, collections, retrospectives, etc. — that continually teach me and inspire me. So I take inspiration from the work of others, and from the models themselves.
One of the things I found most rewarding when I got into this aspect of photography was the collaborative process. I love when I'm working with a model whose thought processes and vision are similar to mine. Where she comes up with an idea or I come up with an idea and the other one of us builds on that and makes it better or gives it momentum and suddenly we're in this creative whilwind. It's very gratifying and rewarding.
I don't go into many shoots with a preset idea of what I'm going to do or some elaborate theme in my head. I take my cues from the model I'm working with, Number 1, and then build from there. I'll have a seed of an idea, maybe, but I am almost never hard-fast-about what it is I want, at least not initially.
I want to reflect tasteful but compelling beauty in my images. I am inspired by beauty and I want to honor female beauty and not be seen as exploiting it or disrespecting my subjects or women in general. I had a sister who died of breast cancer six years ago. She was a philosopher, a poet, an artist, and an ardent feminist. At the same time, she had a great passion and curiosity about life in all its depth and breadth, and an appreciation for beauty in its every form. I wish she were alive to see this work and tell me what she thinks. I am sure whatever she had to say, she would've made me a better and more thoughtful art photographer.
Xaxii: In the big picture, what do you think photography is?
Stephen: Photography is simply a way of seeing. A good photographer "sees" pictures everywhere, all the time. And those who look at photographs, "see" different things in photographs in the same way that those who view classical painting "see" different things in the works of The Great Masters.
There are many forms of writing — fiction, non-fiction, science-fiction, fantasy; poetry in its many forms — and you don't see people questioning the value or aesthetic of one form over another. Likewise, there are many forms of art. Specifically, there are many forms of imagery. I just attended an exhibition of the work of Caravaggio and his 16th and 17th century contemporaries. Breathtaking stuff. They were masters of light. But their work and their styles were very different than, say a Monet or a Van Gogh or a Picasso. Is one style better than another? Whos to say? But they are all undeniably art, and great art at that.
There is far more to good photography than just taking a picture. An experienced photographer brings to his work a way of seeing forged over a lifetime of experience. The great photojournalists of our time — Sabastaio Salgado, James Nacthwey are two — their work is not a fluke. They deliver time and time and time again, with visual eloquence and impact. Salgado shoots epic projects 10 years in the making. His books are profoundly important documents of our time "Workers"; "Migrations", these are masterpieces by any measure. Spend an hour or two with Nachtwey's "Inferno" and try to tell me your view of the world has not changed.
The great art and fashion photographers — Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Herb Ritts — their work is beautiful and has become an almost seamless part of our culture. They are everywhere, from ads to art galleries.
I think photography went through a bit of an identity crisis when digital came into being. There were ethical issues to be addressed — in journalism, particularly. And then, too, photography was suddenly more accessible than ever. Its popularity skyrocketed far beyond anything the makers of the Kodak Instamatic ever envisioned. Everybody with a point-and-shoot or even a cellphone was suddenly a photographer. I think were coming out the other end of that, now. I think people are beginning to recognize and appreciate what makes great photography and its intrinsic value as an art form. I would like to think that peoples immersion in photography has ultimately given them a new interest in and appreciation for what masters like Nachtwey and Salgado, and Demarchelier and Penn have done.
Xaxii: From the whole Xaxii community I want to thank you so much for your time! Truly an amazing story, we really appreciate you finding the time to share it with us.
You can see some samples of Stephen Thorne's recent works, below. Take a moment to look through his portfolio, with both war photography (not featured here) and his art photography at his website