Stephen Heyman / © 2016 The New York Times
Franco Pagetti is one of the most seasoned, accomplished war photographers of his generation, so he was a bit skeptical when Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian luxury fashion brand, asked him to shoot the company’s fall advertising campaign on the streets of Naples. “Why me?” he asked. The brand wanted a gritty reportage, something that would evoke the neorealist cinematic legacy of Naples immortalized by directors like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica. And there seemed to be something in Pagetti’s direct, unsentimental images that fit the bill.
For Pagetti, 66, a member of the photo agency VII, the job was an unexpected return to form. Pagetti cut his teeth as a photographer shooting for Italian Vogue in the 1980s. He has always pursued “softer” themes in his spare time; he is now at work on a photo project retracing Goethe’s “Italian Journey” from the perspective of a native Italian — one, he says, “who is not so smart.”
But Pagetti has spent most of the past two decades darting from one bloody conflict to the next. He was imprisoned in Afghanistan and has been shot at routinely, particularly in Iraq, where he was based on and off for six years. In the following edited interview, Pagetti explains what photographing war and fashion have in common, and the aesthetic and ethical rules that guide him while taking pictures under fire.
Q. How did you first discover photography?
A. By chance. I was teaching chemistry in Milan, and one day I met a lady, Carla de Benedetti, who happened to be one of the best architectural photographers in the world. We met occasionally in a bookshop. She told me, “I need an assistant.” I said, “I’ve never taken a single picture in my life.” She told me, “Don’t worry, I know how to take the pictures. You just have to be yourself” — she saw that I always was very grumpy — “and keep people out of the shot.” Well, that I could do very well. So I spent two years with her and she taught me about light and how to use a camera. Then she kicked me out. “What I have to teach you,” she said, “you already know.” So I started working as an assistant on fashion shoots in Milan, in Paris, in New York. And then I began shooting fashion myself .
Q. What made you want to cover war and conflict zones?
A. I’m not a public person. I don’t like parties. I don’t like the scene. And I felt like I was immature, that I wanted to discover the world and grow up a little bit. I was lucky: I had a good job, I was making money, so I thought, Let’s do something interesting. In a way, fashion and conflict are not all that different. Either way, you have to make people interested in your work, in what you have to say.
Q. When you arrived in your first conflict zone, were other photographers suspicious of you because you came from fashion?
A. I was already 47 when I went on my first story, to cover the famine in South Sudan. So they had a little bit of respect for me because of my age. And they didn’t know that I came from fashion because I didn’t tell them. I was ashamed of it! I said, “Oh, I was teaching before this.” I didn’t want them thinking, Oh, that’s the chichi guy coming to make something glamorous.
Q. What does it feel like to take pictures under fire?
A. You’re often scared. Sometimes you can smell the blood, the fear of people — like when I was with the marines in Falluja or the special forces in Ramadi. But in a way taking pictures in a conflict is a game. So many things happen, but you have move one step at a time. You make your move, you assess, and then you make another. You are not thinking about something bad happening to you. You think it will never happen to you.
Q. Do aesthetic considerations fall away when you’re photographing in a war zone?
A. I sometimes call my pictures dirty. If I’m doing conflict photography, I don’t have rules: a picture can be out of focus, blurry, backlit — everything is allowed if it’s part of what’s happening, of what you’re seeing.
Q. What about ethics? Are there things you choose not to photograph?
A. I don’t like taking pictures of children. I don’t want to exploit them in any way to shock people. I also don’t like photographing wounded soldiers. In 2013, I was in Aleppo, in Syria, and I did a story about curtains, these pieces of fabric that mothers or girlfriends stitch together and they hang between buildings to protect their husbands or sons from snipers. For me, they were symbols of love. I think that story talks about war much more than images that go bang-bang.
Q. What was it like returning to fashion photography after so many years covering war?
A. For the Dolce & Gabbana project, I was wearing something for my knee so I could crouch down, and this is the same knee protection I had in Iraq. Everyone was making fun of me. They said, “You know, you are not in a war here.” I said, “No, it’s even worse. Because in a war I have 12 marines watching my back. Here I have 12 of you — models, stylists, art directors — and everybody has something to say.” It was not easy for me. But I loved that we were shooting in normal neighborhoods, with normal people in the background, wearing normal clothes.