Real Life in Pictures: A Pulitzer-Winning Photojournalist on Telling Hard Stories
Telling stories with photographs is Yannis Behrakis’ life’s work. As a photojournalist for Reuters, he’s spent nearly 30 years covering everything from natural disasters to war zones. Last year he was honored, along with a team of Reuters photographers, with a Pulitzer for his deeply moving images of Syrian refugees.
Yannis told us about standing on the shore in Greece, meeting and photographing refugees fresh from a perilous journey across the sea. “When these people are coming to shore with small dinghies and rafts, the first thing they do is throw away their wet life jackets. Then a lot of times they will come and hug me because then they feel that they are safe and they made the first step to a better life by stepping onto European soil,” Yannis explains. “The emotions are there, so you don’t have to do something to make a sensational photograph. You just have to capture these emotions and show the world their story.”
It’s Yannis’ mission to tell these stories of profound struggle, pain, and hope that might otherwise go unnoticed. “I know how important it is to be there and become the voice of these people, to tell their story. A lot of them come to me and say, ‘Thank you for being here. Thank you for telling our story to the world.’”
Getting Prepped for the Field
While being there is a big part of capturing the story, there is a lot of preparation that goes into getting it right. For Yannis, this includes research into the geography, climate, culture, language, and current events in a region.
He also keeps a collection of cases, rucksacks, photo equipment, clothes and gear for hot and cold weather, sunscreen, and a bulletproof jacket and medical kit all ready for the moment he’s called to the scene of a disaster. He’s even had to stop at an airport medical clinic during a layover to get a quick batch of vaccinations. It’s all about getting to the scene quickly, and being as safe as possible. He says, only half-jokingly, “There are a lot of things out there that will try to kill you.”
Finding the Moments, Angles, and Light
Capturing news photos is a different kind of challenge from studio sessions or planned photo shoots. There’s no time to set the scene or make sure lighting is ideal, so Yannis has strategies to work with what’s around him. “I always have in my mind the picture I want to take. For example, if I see somebody walking, I try to find the right angle. Sometimes I walk or drive ahead and wait for the right moment or background and use a long lens because it makes sense and gives more energy and power to the picture. In some other cases, I go near to catch more of the emotions.”
Lighting is one of the most difficult elements to manage when he’s working in the field. “I always try to find the best angle to have the light on my side. I obviously can’t tell somebody to stop, turn around, and face that way — that’s unethical. But if I have the light in the wrong place, I might try to do something more creative, like shoot against the light and have a very dramatic silhouette. If there is rain, you can see the rain better if you shoot with the long lens, and you want to have pictures of the rain because it adds reality. You show that these people are going through bad weather.”
Perhaps the most critical skill is to know when to press the shutter. For Yannis, it’s an instinct gained over years in the field, combined with a constant watchfulness for just the right moments.
Seeing Photos Change the World
Taking photographs of people in crisis can be dangerous and heartbreaking, but there’s also tremendous hope in how people respond to the stories they see in Yannis’ images. “I think the most important thing about my work is when I see the impact of the pictures; when people feel empathy through my pictures, or through the pictures of my colleagues, and they decide to do something, either giving money to NGOs, or sending clothes, or putting pressure on the government to do something positive to help people, not only with the refugee crisis, but with a lot of other situations like earthquakes and big natural disasters. You need to show these pictures for big organizations and governments to do something.”
He sums up why he works so hard to tell stories of suffering, struggle, and resilience like this: “I’m a romantic. I believe that pictures can show what is really happening. They can change the world and make it a better place.”
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