Image: South Africa. Transvaal. A young black girl, scarcely more than a child herself, looks after a baby girl for a white family. 1968
English photographer Ian Berry has won prestigious awards, been shot at and risked his life on countless occasions, and for years was a leading choice of colour magazine editors. You name it, he’s been there and done it. Interviewed by Head On Interactional’s Features Editor Tony Maniaty, Berry reflects on a momentous life in photography and discusses his latest book, his ninth.
Image: USA, Alaska. A firefighter couples his hose to a fire hydrant during an emergency while a youngster with his bike ignores the excitement and continues eating his smoothie snack.
In 1962, the year The Rolling Stones were formed, Ian Berry was invited by Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum, which was back then – like The Stones – just a fledgling outfit. Now, 60 years later, having stuck with his game as long as Mick Jagger has, Ian Berry is a certified legend. Born in England in 1934, at 88 he’s the oldest and longest-serving full member of arguably the world’s best-known and most prestigious photo agency.
When we connect on a Zoom call – Berry in the UK, me halfway around the globe in Sydney – he’s about to head off to Egypt on a holiday with his wife, but it’s impossible to imagine a pro like Ian Berry lounging around the pool when there are photographs to be had. One thing’s certain: he won’t be heading off to Ukraine. “No more war zones,” he insists, “I’m too old for that, I can’t run fast enough.” Fair enough, but his voluminous photographic output includes plenty of life-threatening, ‘incoming’ danger.
Image: South Africa. Northern Transvaal. Nr Pietersburg. Annual meeting of members of the Zion Christian Church. Just prior to the elections leaders of the main parties including whites attended attempting to influence the outcome. 1994
That’s where the story starts: on 21st March 1960, a young Ian Berry was the only photographer at the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, when police opened fire on black protesters, killing 69. Those shots launched an endlessly roving career. Moving to Paris, he hooked up with Magnum and followed the conflicts of that troubled era: Vietnam, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, apartheid-era South Africa. About the difficulties of life on the road, he’s sanguine. “You learn to adjust, of course. One night you’re in a five-star hotel, the next you’re in a doss-house.”
“I do have some regrets about not going to Ukraine,” he adds, wistfully. “But it’s not an easy war to cover. Unless you have a backer it’s difficult to operate there as a photographer. You need an interpreter, a hundred bucks a day. You can’t even hire a vehicle because nobody wants their cars smashed up. I don’t envy the guys working in Ukraine.” Back in 1968, Berry recalls, for about four days he had the Soviet occupation of Prague all to himself. I mention the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka was there too, and he laughs. “Oh, that’s right. I saw this lunatic with his camera climbing onto Russian tanks and I thought, ‘Well, good luck to him because the Russians won’t like that!’ I met him years later when he came to Paris and joined Magnum. Great guy, Josef. Very eccentric.”
Image: South Korea. Chungcheongnam. Boryeong. Daecheon Beach.11th annual Mud Festival. Bank employees undergo exhausting army exercises in a company bonding day in the mud of a river estuary
So how did the rookie Ian Berry get into Magnum? “They invited me to join and I was flattered.” To enter Magnum back then was easier than now, but you still needed the okay from Henri Cartier-Bresson. “I arrived with all my prints and showed them to Henri. I didn’t tell him I thought he was a great photographer because we English don’t do that, it’s not the right thing.” The first encounter went rather badly. “The Paris bureau chief said, ‘Henri hates you!’ Why, I asked? ‘He didn’t want to see prints – he wants to look at your contact sheets, so he can see how you think.’ Henri was an Anglophile, and after that we became the best of friends.”
Over the decades, Magnum has grown into a complex enterprise. Berry wishes it wasn’t so. “It’s not the group I joined. When I signed up, I think I was member number 13, and now there are close to a hundred members. It’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t know most members on the street if I passed them.” Back in 1962, the Magnum co-op included some of the great names of post-war photojournalism. “Elliott Erwitt, Ernst Haas and Eric Lessing, Denis Stock, and Brian Brake.” When I mention Brake’s famous 1960 photo-essay for Life magazine, ‘Monsoon’, shot in India, Berry seizes on what he really wants to talk about: water. “My big passion for many years now. Water and climate change.”
Image: Azerbaijan, Baku, A sea mist shrouds the mixed pollution of oil and water in the capital city on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Image: India, Maharashtra, near Lonavia. Field workers shelter from the monsoon rains in basket work capes.
His latest book – working title, Water: Source of Life – is due out later this year from GOST Publishers in London. “On this journey I’ve been to Alaska and Greenland, Bangladesh, India, the Congo with NGOs installing water pumps, and with refugees in Central America. I’ve sailed up and down the world’s greatest rivers – the Yangtse, the Mekong, the Nile, the Mississippi, even the Thames. And even when I’m shooting other stories,” he adds, “there’s usually a water element too.”
Berry sees water as the key link in critical global issues. “In Bangladesh, for example, where dam building had changed the water table, they were pulling up water with arsenic in it – the government painted the pumps red to show people not to use it, but they do because it’s their only source of water. Their hands are covered in sores you get from arsenic. Bangladesh used to be an exporter of rice, and now it’s an importer of rice, because the sea water is rising and of course you can’t grow rice in sea water. So they’re building levees by hand – no help from the government, nobody helps them at all.” Mexico City, he says, will be importing water because the water table has almost disappeared. And in Britain, a lot of towns on the Thames estuary are going to be flooded.
Image: Bangladesh, Sylhet, Itna village. Wooden boats ferry people from one part of the village to another when flooded each year. Here, in the monsoon rains, a man returns from the bazaar with the family’s shopping.
When I ask him to estimate how many ‘water’ photographs he’s taken, he says matter-of-factly, “I gave the publisher 1,000 images, and he said, ‘Where are the rest?’ I ended up giving him 5,000. He’s a glutton for punishment.” So too it seems is Berry himself. “When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was all ready to go. Then I fell off my motorbike in England and broke my leg. I was riding until I was 80, before my wife stopped me. A broken ankle still gives me trouble.”
Image: Bangladesh, Dhakin Shatialbur in the Lalbag district north of Chittagong. Bare-handed men and boys prepare to drag a huge load by hawser in the ship-breaking yard. Huge asbestos-riddled tankers are driven at full throttle and high tide onto the beach where they are broken up.
A few years ago, when I first met him at a Head On/Magnum workshop in Sydney, I saw what I’d long suspected: calm, never drawing attention to himself, Ian Berry is someone who can’t stop doing what he loves, taking great pictures. It’s been like that since the start. As he approaches 90, any regrets? “None personally. But I’m sad about the decline of the great colour magazines. I was lucky to be around at their peak. I spent five years at The Observer on a contract for 100 days’ work a year. In the year before Covid hit, I did one assignment for The Daily Telegraph magazine in Colombia, and one for The Observer in Uganda. That was it. And in the past two years, because of Covid, nothing…”
For Ian Berry, photography has been the longest road, a road still without end: he’s adamant he’ll never retire. “I’ll keep shooting until I drop,” he says. He’s got more packing to do.
About the author
Tony Maniaty is a Sydney and Paris-based photographer, author and journalist, academic and reviewer who works across a broad creative canvas. He is the features editor for Head On Interactional.
Ian Berry is a British photojournalist with Magnum Photos. He made his reputation in South Africa, where he worked for the Daily Mail and later for Drum magazine.
Image: Daniele Mattioli