Candid Conversations: Paolo Pellegrin and Ksenia Kuleshova

In the first in a new series, two photojournalists – one an industry stalwart, the other a rising star – talk candidly about storytelling techniques, technological advancements and the importance of community.
A black and white image of multiple families inside a large tent, with children eating and clothes hanging from lines.

A family forced to live in a tent after their home was destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, Israel's 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. Italian photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin is behind some of the most astonishing humanitarian photography of the past three decades, documenting conflicts around the globe. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/80 sec, f/3.5 and ISO800. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Paolo Pellegrin's formative interactions with the photographers he admired were "mute" – a dialogue through the pages of their photo books, which he consumed religiously in his youth. In this new series, Candid Conversations, the world's most experienced and esteemed photographers will connect with today's rising stars, facilitating a sharing of knowledge through the photography community that wasn't available to a young Paolo.

Here, the 10 times World Press Photo award winner and Magnum Photos member joins fellow Canon Ambassador and documentary photographer Ksenia Kuleshova in conversation. One of the most prominent documentary photographers of her generation, Ksenia, like Paolo, has won the W. Eugene Smith Grant. She is known for her work exploring unseen aspects of life in conflict areas, such as her series on Abkhazia, a largely unrecognised state in the South Caucasus that suffered significant damage during the Georgian-Abkhazian war in the 1990s.

A black and white headshot of photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Paolo Pellegrin.

Born in Rome in 1963, Paolo initially studied architecture, his parents' profession. "You're trained to think in spatial terms and organise volumes in space, which is something I do in my photography," he says. © Kathryn Cook

A headshot of photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Ksenia Kuleshova.

Born in Russia, but now based in Germany and Belgium, Ksenia's work explores unseen aspects of life in conflict areas and has been exhibited and published internationally, including in The New York Times.

Paolo: I come from the pre-internet world where these exchanges were really hard. Maybe somebody who reads this will find something which triggers a thought or an idea that they recognise about their own journey. I read a couple of interviews of yours last night. I really liked when you talked about the power of 'dream'. I recognise that. I think you are, as I was and to some degree still am, quite possessed by what you do. I think that's absolutely necessary to be able to do this work at its fullest.

Ksenia: It's a privilege to hear that from you. It's always a big inspiration to have such conversations, to see different visual languages and approaches in the photo community. And, of course, to learn from people with such big experience…

Paolo: "Big experience" – you can just say "old". No, I share that. It was a pleasure for me to discover your work in the last couple of days, reading where you come from, your thought processes and what animates you. That is always enriching.

Ksenia: Your recent story about turning your camera from war to your family during the pandemic really resonated with me – when you captured this personal life.

Paolo: Yes, I'd never photographed my family before in a form which became public. I'm a late dad. Luna, my first daughter, was born when I was 45 and Emma, the second, when I was 49.

Ksenia: What was different this time?

Paolo: This is the first time I made a very conscious, and not easy, decision not to go and document an event of such magnitude as the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, it was quite hard to see all of this coverage, my colleagues and friends shooting…

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Ksenia: I think it's also very important to document this big event from another angle, in another light – not just struggle, but this joy and pure emotions. Being together as a family is a gift of this time.

Paolo: Agreed. And when I was shooting, I was also thinking that this is something my girls will rediscover one day, when I'll be very old and blind, or I'll be gone. They will find this box of prints, and it will be a memory of that time. That idea was close to me.

A young woman sits on a bed with two young children, one on her lap and the other sat next to her.

In this image from Ksenia's Ayal series, a 19-year-old takes care of her brothers in a village outside Moscow. Like Paolo, Ksenia has a humanistic approach when it comes to reporting conflict. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/3.2 and ISO1600. © Ksenia Kuleshova

A woman in a headscarf sits cross-legged while playing with an infant with two blow-up balls.

Shahrizada, seen here playing with eight-month-old Kagan, started the Aiymdar KG organisation in Moscow to help Kyrgyz women like herself navigate life in Russia and to provide a safe space to talk about relationships and family matters. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/3.2 and ISO2000. © Ksenia Kuleshova

Ksenia: Speaking about the necessity of documenting global events… war conflicts were always very problematic for me. I admire the bravery, but I have a feeling that some young photographers want to go to war because they want to be famous. Where is the line between the desire to make a name for yourself and the necessity to document a conflict?

Paolo: Before I try to answer that, I should really tell you that I never thought of myself as a war photographer. I come to photography from another perspective, which is more humanistic. There is, of course, a strong interest in the relationship that photography has with history and the idea that we can use this medium to record facts... but it was more about storytelling.

A wet dog in the foreground of a rural scene with ramshackle houses and a cow in the background.

Ksenia wanted to show the disputed territory of Abkhazia in a different light – capturing significant moments but also recording everyday scenes. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO160. © Ksenia Kuleshova

Ksenia: What would your advice be for young photographers who plan to go to war for the first time?

Paolo: Proceed slowly. Understand there's no rush. I know what you're saying: there is, especially in young photographers, this desire to go and to expose themselves in that space. There is a large picture where we deal with macro issues of history and countries, but then there's the individual stories of the people that you encounter. The latter is such a fragile and delicate space that you have the privilege to enter. You have to treat it with the best of yourself and understand that it could be you – how would you like to be treated and photographed in that situation?

Ksenia: We're often a bit overwhelmed by sad and difficult stories. Of course, it's very necessary to document and to show it, but sometimes I feel that there is no space for optimistic stories. I see this as one of my goals: to try to find something positive, even in the worst situations. For example, in Abkhazia I tried to show the war area in a different light – to concentrate on traditions and on the soul of this region. Abkhazia means 'country of the soul'.

Paolo: You're absolutely correct, of course. At the same time, for the most part, I still believe that it is important to take these pictures. Imagine there is no coverage, no photography, no journalists. Then, for the powers that be, there's no accountability. I think by being there, it is a form of not letting things become even worse. But for sure, there is a need for other stories. It doesn't have to be happy, sad, or positive and negative, but to reflect the complexity of life. It is never one thing: tragedy always coexists with beauty, and joy exists with sorrow.

A thin crack in an ice sheet proceeding diagonally across the frame from bottom left to top right.

An aerial shot taken from an aircraft flying over Venable 01A. Paolo has also made a short film as part of his climate crisis project. "In the last few years I've been working quite a bit on the relationship between the moving image, the still image, sound and music," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 105mm, 1/2500 sec, f/10 and ISO800. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

A shot of a wide crack in an ice sheet that splits the frame in two.

In November 2017, Paolo joined NASA's IceBridge expedition to document the impact of climate change in Antarctica. This aerial shot was taken from a NASA P-3 aircraft flying over Seelye Loop South. "This is what I'm doing for the next few years," says Paolo. "I also just want to celebrate nature, to show the beauty, the strength and the fragility of the ecosystem." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 29mm, 1/3200 sec, f/9 and ISO1000. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Ksenia: I really loved your short film on NASA's IceBridge expedition surveying climate change in Antarctica. Do you think that journalistic work now can consist just of photography, or is video a necessity?

Paolo: I think there is space to do whatever you want, though photography proceeds hand-in-hand with technology. A century ago, war photographers used to recreate battle scenes because the cameras were so big and the exposures so slow that they needed two hours to expose a plate. I started introducing video, not because I think it's necessary, but because it's something that I wanted to explore. It's about telling stories. These are the tools we have, so you can use whichever is needed.

Ksenia: Speaking of modern technology and new possibilities, have you tried the Canon EOS R5 and R6? I find the autofocus and using the electronic shutter to take photographs silently very useful.

Paolo: The R5 is such a major breakthrough. I'm very short-sighted, and to have its autofocus follow a person around the frame is incredible. AI has entered photography in an extraordinary and an extremely helpful way. I celebrate that. It's a celebration, also, of who we are: man is such a terrible and destructive animal, but also such an extraordinary one.

Ksenia: What does your editing process look like?

Paolo: Oh my God, Ksenia, my editing process!

A group of Abkhaz men sit around a table near the sea playing dominoes under a lamp.

From student to Canon Ambassador

Documentary photographer Ksenia Kuleshova discusses her career path and offers advice on how to get ahead in photojournalism.

Ksenia: I know that some photographers use the star-rating feature to rate images in-camera and filter a catalogue. Or maybe you just put your images aside and slow down?

Paolo: Well, there was actually one very famous and amazing Magnum photographer who, when I joined Magnum, said: 'Paolo, you have to wait three years before looking at your contact sheets. At least'.

Ksenia: That's slowed down!

Paolo: You have to create emotional distance and memory, and just look at images as form. Editing really is the other 50% of the equation. It's where you try to identify your intentions when you were shooting. For me, it's a slow process. It's not about choosing the best picture – that's obvious. It's how pictures work with each other.

A portrait of a woman in side profile, cropped just below her eyes.

"Now, more and more, I think of photography as being being like a sculptor with a block of marble," says Paolo. "Michelangelo knew that David was inside the block of marble and his task was to make him come out. I think of photography in this way; it's a subtractive process." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 269mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO3200. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Ksenia: Do you see the world, or your everyday life, in black-and-white pictures?

Paolo: No, not necessarily, but I do see in forms. I always catch myself composing.

Ksenia: It's difficult to switch off the motor.

Paolo: Yes, it's like... What's the word in English? Wait, let me look it up: Condemned. You can't really switch it off. I'm condemned to always be looking.

Ksenia: It hasn't been long since I joined the photo community, but what I've learned quite fast is that it's important to find your people – people who understand your ideas and your vision. Of course, it's important to receive critique, but to not take it personally, rather to listen to and take what is necessary.

Paolo: Photography is the quintessential lonely profession. For me, Magnum was important in that sense because you have a resource of people. They can be very enriching.

Ksenia: Knowing now everything from your whole career, would you do anything differently?

Paolo: I feel very privileged to have this capacity to enter people's lives – I'm always amazed at the access that we have as photographers. I feel very fortunate to have found what I think is my 'voice'. I wouldn't change anything.

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