I was introduced to him by a Moldovan Zebra in Boston...

John McConnico
Recently I’ve discovered the amazing Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog. After reading this article please visit them — http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/ — you won’t regret. The World Animal Day collection attracted me in the first place since I am a birdwatcher. From the 40 pictures shown there, the one with the zebra attracted me most. I can’t tell exactly why, but I’ve watched it a little bit, then went down to reading the caption and the zebra was from Chişinău, capital of Moldova, where I actually live. First surprise. And the picture wasn’t taken by a Moldovan, of course, but by a guy called John McConnico. Who’s this guy? Google answered. Pulitzer prize winner, worked mainly for AP in 70+ countries, covered conflicts in Haiti, Afghanistan, Kenia, Balkans... Why would a guy like this take a picture of a Zebra in Chişinău? His home page — http://johnmcconnico.com/ — answered. Because he stays there right now. There was a Moldovan phone number there, I called, introduced myself and asked for an interview. “Sure“, said John, “I have two free hours tomorrow, write down the address.“ I did. Through the window I could see his house. It was 100 meters from the place I’m staying the last 15 years.

Interview with

- Let’s say that someone hires you to make a portrait of John McConnico. Please describe the final picture. - Well, I usually get uncomfortable when I become a part of the situation. I’ll get to the portrait part later. I am the kind of photographer that hopefully people don’t notice me or if they do notice me they forget after few moments that I’m there. Because everything I do has to do with what people would do naturally, not what I tell them to do. I have no interest in doing a picture that tells more about me than about them. It’s not truly an accurate way to portray reality if the photographer says here’s what you’ve got to do… There’s an issue in many countries, especially developing countries without traditions in photojournalism that the picture says more about the photographer than about what is happening. I’m pretty steadfast against that. Regarding the portrait…I’m really uncomfortable being photographed (blushes). As well as photographing other people who know that I’m there. That said, it would have to be something as close to me being casual and normal as possible. I think that if I will be ever photographed by Annie Leibowitz or other portrait

photographer it would probably be a much better picture than anything that I’d dream of. This is something I have to do all the time. If you have a good reputation, people know who you are and they assume that you can do everything. (laughs) I think five years ago if somebody asked I would say (proudly) “Yeah! Of course I can do portraits. I’m a professional photographer! I can do anything I want!” But now I’m confident enough to tell that is not what I do. And that all goes back to the reason why I chose to do photography. I was so bad at interacting with people that this became a way to interact with people without having to talk to them. So, you can show peoples’ lives without having to physically interact with them. And you’ll find that a lot of photojournalists specifically are quite shy, quite withdrawn, and they’re in photography because the camera feels like a shield. I feel pretty strongly that that’s why I started and why I continue to do photography. - Do you remember the first picture you took? - I think that was when I went to School to

England… I was 18-19… And my mom gave me one of those little point-and-shoot cameras. I went to Oxford for half a year and I have never left the country before and it was such a remarkable place. And I remember exactly that my mom told me – I give you that to document your trip. She didn’t mean anything by it, I’m sure, but that stuck in me. So the trip became more about documenting the place than about learning Shakespeare and literature. And I had never taken any picture before that so the pictures weren’t technically very good, but I came back with 100 rolls of film. Then, in my first three years in college I tried Economics, English, Philosophy – everything. I was never good enough to excel in anything and eventually I took a photography class and that was one of few things that I was good at, pretty much right away. And I’ve got a real passion for it. - You were still in Texas? - Yes, University of Texas. - Do you see yourself as a Texan? - (laughs) Well, last years, until a few days ago, I didn’t feel like a Texan at all. Now that we have a new president I feel very comfortable of being Texan and I am very proud to be American again. Because Bush is from Texas… I mean he didn’t even have a passport until he became president. He’s really the antithesis of everything that I am and most people that I know are. Being a Texan while he was president was very, very… (can’t find the word) But I’m considering myself a Texan and there is something about me that is very Texan and something about him that is not very Texan. Anyway it’s a lot easier being Texan now that we have Obama in the White House. - Journalism and photojournalism became more dangerous the last few years, isn’t it? - Yeah… I was friends with a few people that have been killed. A lot of colleagues… Like Danny Pearl, the guy killed by the Taliban in Pakistan during Afghanistan war, was kidnapped and beheaded. And this is weird, because he wasn’t a crazy guy at all. He was just a cautious journalist caught off the road. And there are a lot of other journalists that are just crazy... I’ve been in a lot of places and in very dan-

gerous situations, but essentially I’m a coward. I try to stay – if the guns are going off – I stay in the hotel room and when things calm down again it’s safer to go out. In the last few years, probably since September 11, actually, it’s much more dangerous to be a journalist or an aid worker. Let’s say the United Nations bombing in Baghdad… Places that people would never dream of attacking are being targeted now. The targeting of journalists and aid workers proves how much more chaotic the world is now than it used to be. Even during Vietnam war… There were times when they were kidnapped, like Terry Anderson in Beirut. But since the war in Afghanistan, all these journalists are just ambushed on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul and killed, just like that. And they knew that they’re journalists. - You’ve mentioned earlier using the camera as a shield. Do you feel like you have two different personalities – one with a camera and another one without it? - Completely. It’s like an alter ego. I’m much, much more daring with the camera. I remember a time when we had an interview in a medrasa in Peshawar, Pakistan. Medrasa is a place where young Taliban were trained. This was before the Saudis came I was based in India and traveling along Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was the time when the Taliban was getting much stronger. So we came out of a medrasa where these guys were saying in front of the camera: “Death to America! Death to all infidels! Death to anyone who’s not a Muslim!” But after the interview they were telling us: “Don’t worry – it’s just talk. We say this for the paper because, you know, it’s our position.” - Public relations… - Yeah… They were good hosts. The table was full of sweets and they had tea. Muslims are extremely generous, even when they’re the Taliban. They are really kind people all over Afghanistan, Pakistan, India… So we woke up from the table. And that was a medrasa, a fundamentalist school of Taliban movement. I mean that were people as bad as you can get. And a guy opened the door and came back and said: “No, no… Step back in!” And all these guys were terrified – there were

the Saudis out there. So they told us that we can’t leave right now. And in that moment I’ve got scared – I was without camera and I thought – well, this is it. There were two trucks loaded with Saudis outside. And I remember that I was completely fearless inside the medrasa when I was shooting with my camera. And when we got out from it, I literally was close to wet my pants, because I was pretty sure that we were going to be killed. So, it showed to me the difference between me photographing and me carrying my camera. I have never been more scared in my life. Eventually we stopped a taxi nearby and we’ve been chased by the two trucks all through Peshawar until we returned to our hotel and left the city immediately. - Do you consider yourself a person with good intuition? Do you see the signs before something happens? - I think all photographers have intuition, especially photojournalists. I don’t think it’s something out of this world, but I think I have highly sensitive intuition. It’s probably from

seeing things over and over and over again. It has nothing to do with the spiritual world (laughs). I can always predict things during a protest, having covered thousands of them, they all tend to have the same pattern. All wars end up the same way they always do the same things, week after week after week, they don’t change. I know it. - How do you manage to being back a normal person after returning from wars? - You can pretend, like I do, that you haven’t seen them. But I think that somehow internally you’re messed up anyway after seeing so many deaths and tragedies. Especially for me – I was really cold-blooded the first 15 years I’ve being doing this. But in the moment I became a parent it changed. Now I have my own children and it changes the whole view on the world. It changed what I do – I don’t accept dangerous assignments any more. And even if I did I’d be much more careful than I was then. And I am really surprised of myself because I am really a compassionate person, but I remember witnessing deaths and seeing dead children on streets, but I was completely cool

about that if I had my camera especially. But now I’m pretty moved and this is quite more healthy the way I view it now. And I can specifically remember that when I became a parent everything changed completely. - This may be seen in your photographs, I believe. There is a switch to more nature pictures, the big picture type of pictures from action and conflicts covered earlier… - I’m probably in a transition phase now. I tend to do things that are more thoughtful in a reflective way. I think before about how the picture will be composed. But I still have the moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson defined photojournalism as capturing the decisive moment. I still feel very much about him that he’s the main guy. So what you’ve got to do is choosing the right position for composure and waiting the decisive moment. Not changing anything, but placing yourself and waiting and waiting and waiting… And all the best photographers, I mean the ones that are much better than me, the elite photojournalists like Jim Nachtwey , all these guys they’re more like fishermen – they’ll put themselves in a place and then wait until they get the picture. - Is photography a drug? Can you imagine yourself not making pictures any more? - You know, camera is for me more like a tool. There are many different ways to express and photographers try to express themselves somehow. They try to make some sense of this world and make sense of the world and news photographers like I am try to make sense of the places people don’t want to go to, like Baghdad, Beirut or whatever. You try to explain people as accurately as you can what happened there. But now that I take my personal life as more important than my work, since I have children…Yes, it is like a drug until you have something else to guide you away from it. So I try to make sure that my children get more of my attention. I am less narcissistic now. I don’t think any more that I am the only person in this world that could take this picture in this situation. Things change. - What was the biggest shot that you have missed? - There have been a lot of them. Nothing that

McConnico family— Sandie Blanchet, Liam (4), Luka (3 months) and John. would be like career breakers. I remember my work in Haiti. I was working in Puerto Rico before the US intervention and everybody was waiting US troops to come at that time. - I recall the picture with two guys welcoming helicopters… - So that is a picture that was in newspapers all over the world. So we were a few journalists before and then more and more photographers came after the intervention and AP has also sent photographers from the US. The new guys have never seen Haiti before and they didn’t know how you’re supposed to behave. So I’ve been wearing the same shirt all the time. For me it was like my passport. Of course I washed it and I took showers, but I was wearing it for like 60 days. It was my lucky shirt. So the new photographers were supposed to take more of the office work and allow me go out and shoot more. But they called back to New York and said “I think John is going through some mental troubles. He hasn’t changes his shirt in 60 days.” And the moment he said “He hasn’t changed the shirt in 60 days”… I’ve got a call like on the next morning and it was during the US intervention. And I was ready for the big picture, I mean I was there already for four months, what do you guys want, you just came here… (laughs) Instead it has been interpreted that I was going off the deep end. And they kicked me out.

So I lost the whole occupation and Haitians went crazy, they started to fire on US troops and then firing on each other. So I lost all the dramatic pictures that I prepared for and I was ready to do it physically and mentally and all, but they’ve taken me out because I was wearing the same shirt. If I would just change my shirt before they got there, I’d stayed on through… And then this friend of mine Carol Guzy, this was before I had won anything, I was a very young photographer, just out of college. So Carol Guzy from Washington Post won the Pulitzer that year [with pictures from Haiti] and it was devastating because we would always shoot pictures together. She was sort of my mentor and I felt like I have just been there and… If you go back to her career and she’s one of the best ten news photographers all time. And at that time I was really quite jealous, but now looking back at that it probably was a good decision to take me out. I probably was off the deep end. (laughs) - Have you met any cases of journalists loosing control? - I’ve had quite a few colleagues that don’t

shoot any more. One worked in Rwanda and Somalia – conflicts that were really, really brutal. So I have a mate from college and he just can’t deal any more. So he was walking into those villages in Rwanda before the aid helpers, before anybody else. And he’d walk in and there would be ten thousands dead people. The whole village was dead. And he goes to the next village and the next village is dead. Dead children on the streets… It was completely insane. It’s worse than anything you can imagine. So he looks to the river from the bridge and there are two hundreds, three hundreds bodies. Forgetting about being a journalist it was hard to be a human being any more. He’s the worst example, but I have a lot of friends who have gone into that direction one way or another. They completely dropped out because they couldn’t handle it. - And then the case of Kevin Carter… - Boy, that was a lesson. People asked him questions. Because he won the prize and then he was celebrating, congratulated by his friends… Then people started to ask questions what happened to the chilled. And he went like I… I… He basically didn’t have an answer.

So I think he just said I don’t know. And people asked – what do you mean you don’t know! There was a child alone and a vulture hanging on… What happened to the child? And then after several weeks he just killed himself. - His partner then said that the vulture wasn’t the kind able to kill a person and that kid’s mom was close. She left him for a moment as the plane with food arrived and then took him back… - Of course the baby wasn’t eaten by the vulture, but this became a symbol of how bad it can get. It was such a powerful picture. […] - Then, there’s a quite side of this planet, like Greenland for example… - Yeah. Stylistically it is very refreshing, but from a tragedy point of view what happens in Greenland can make the conflicts completely trivial. World I set on this spin of destruction. The climate changes in Greenland and in the moment the Greenland ice goes, everything goes. You know if Greenland ice melts, even Moldova… Well Moldova may be not affected directly, but places like Florida, New York,

Louisiana, California, Bangladesh, almost half of Africa goes under water… - So people fighting in Africa and Middle East and other places look like tourists fighting for a better place in a sinking boat… - It’s true. Nowadays in Greenland they are growing tomatoes in November! It changed radically since five-six years. I remember staying on the top of this glacier that was the symbol of Greenland and it’s receding like twothree miles per year. And sitting on the top of the glacier you can hear it cracking and it makes you feel unbelievable small, like you’re not a part of this planet, thinking that possibly we did this and we’re about to cause our own destruction. There’s still a discussion if we caused climate change or it’s a natural phenomenon. It’s a possibility that we did it and I take it as a 50/50 proposition that human beings have caused this and we’re about to pay the ultimate price. So on my first assignment to Greenland I though it’s like a joke and I’ll take some pictures of ice that melt and that’s it. But then I understood that that is an incredible greater problem, hundreds of times more important than any wars that I have covered.

- You’ll stay in Moldova three more years. After seeing so many countries, what could inspire a photographers’ eye here? - Mainly what I’m trying to do is before I start picturing anything as Moldovan… In any other countries that I go to I know what story I cover and I know what kind of pictures to take. But Moldova is an unbelievable complex place. A country with a thousand of years of civilization that has been occupied for hundreds of years has virtually no concrete identity. It was occupied by Romanians, Russians, Turks… you name it… This is again generalizing things, but there’s thousands of years people live here and yet they have no concrete identity. I’ve been trying to think of how that could be showed. This mix of cultures between people who consider themselves Russians or Soviet and people who consider themselves Romanians or Moldovans. So a lot of pictures that I’m taking now I don’t do anything with them. I take lots of pictures and I’m trying to fit them into one bigger, cohesive essay that would explain what is happening in Moldova. I think that after two three years from now I’ll have a pretty remarkable project about what’s happening here. But I wouldn’t pretend yet that I

know what it is. I’m just photographing things and hopefully pictures will become more and more powerful and I will understand what is actually happening in Moldova, if I ever will or anybody will. Moldova is a complex country, like our country also that woke up with a black president suddenly… (laughs) This was beyond imagination a hundred years ago. - I’ve seen that you also became interested in wildlife pictures in Moldova… - Certainly when you’re being affected by climate change and what is going to happen to the planet, this drives you more to the things that didn’t cause the trouble. So may be that’s why I’m a little bit more interested in wild life. Because I think that what is going to happen in the next 20-30 years may be pretty sever. No matter what we do at this point. No matter if we blow up air conditioners… No matter what we do, something really dramatic is going to happen. - That’s not what I’d like to hear from a guy with a good intuition… Interview by Ion Grosu www.iongrosu.com

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