The Rome-born, London-based photographer talks us through what makes a great image, how his subjects call the shots, and why he’ll never call himself an artist
Working on personal projects and on behalf of NGOs, David Brunetti’s work takes him across the globe documenting people in vastly differing circumstances. Shot in personal, often domestic, spaces, his subjects emanate a level of trust that pays testament to the respect he affords them. Following nominations in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and Prix de Photographie, and currently exhibiting in Foto8’s Summershow, he spoke to us about the roles and responsibilities of social documentary photography and the issues at stake in the field today.
Dazed Digital: What do you set out to achieve when taking a photograph?
David Brunetti: For me a photograph needs to be a document, a testimony of an event. A good image needs to spark emotion in the viewer or convey an immediate message. I’m off to Ethiopia in a couple of weeks time and I’m hoping to come back with a body of work that’s going to show it’s not just people suffering, or people that are very, very thirsty, but maybe something else as well.
DD: Your subjects always seem comfortable with you. How do you approach taking their portrait?
David Brunetti: I never take a portrait of anyone I haven’t had a chat with. If you don’t have a good rapport with you subject, I don’t think you’re going to get the best out of the image - perhaps a nice photo, but nothing more. Photographers are, to some extent, intruders into the lives of others and by paying due respect to the subject and showing genuine interest, I try to create a relationship that will show in my photography.
DD: Tell me about your use of wide-angle lens...
David Brunetti: I love it, I can be so close. I like the personal space of the subject within their environment and the wide angle creates more depth within that space. I like to get information about what’s in the background, what’s on the wall, ingredients that are going to enrich the photograph.
DD: What issues do you encounter, entering situations as an outsider?
David Brunetti: Working in places caught up in conflict and abject poverty, journalists and photographers can be seen as making money out of misery, or in some cases as a Messiah who can bring about change single-handedly. It’s difficult to strike the balance and convince people of my intentions; that I’m not profiteering. I try not to do any harm, I don’t want to echo stereotypes but let them show me their reality.
DD: Does the emotional investment make it hard to release your work?
David Brunetti: Yeah, everything becomes personal. It’s like an umbilical cord, I can’t break it!
I spent four months on the West Bank in 2005 and chose not to publish my work online because it’s like looking into Pandora’s Box. It’s painful for me to see the photographs, or any photographs coming from that part of the world. I’m tired of seeing kids throwing stones and the usual cliché photography coming from those places. The actual family drama is never portrayed.
DD: You describe yourself as “a documentarian and photographer, not an artist.” Why the distinction?
David Brunetti: It seems to me that in recent years this word has been overused and lost a bit of its meaning. I just think it should be the audience who decides whether you are an artist or not.
DD: Photographers often speak of an addiction with recording life, is it the same for you?
David Brunetti: I think subconsciously why I do this is there’s only three of four photos from my childhood, there’s no record of me existing in my parents life. Perhaps that flicked something in my head to start taking photographs of my parents. I’ve been working on photographs of them for several years now, I self-published my own book in 2004 about them and I’m going to work seriously into this project again next year.
Foto8’s Summershow is at HOST Gallery until 12 August.
Text by Emma Lewis