f/8 and Be There

Samuel Aranda 

Currently on assignment for the New York Times in his home town of Barcelona, Samuel Aranda is in a reflective mood when we talk. “I read somewhere,” he says, “that there are two kinds of photographers: hunters and fishermen. The hunters go looking for what they need – for their story. The fishermen? We’re maybe more lazy, more chaotic, and sometimes we catch good fish, but if the sea is not good...” he shrugs, “we don’t.”

You couldn’t describe Samuel’s attitude towards his work any better than this; he’s a press photographer who relies on immersion. Like the fisherman, rather than the hunter, he prefers to engage with his subjects or his environment intimately, not keep his distance. As a winner of the World Press Photo of the Year award (along with numerous others), and with a 20-year career behind him, it’s an approach that clearly pays dividends. 

samuel aranda sony alpha 7RII revellers at the tomatina festival relax in pools of tomato remains
© Samuel Aranda | Sony α7R II + 35mm f/2.8 ZA | 1/1250s f/5.0, ISO 800

More than anything else, Samuel’s interest is in people and their stories, their happiness and their struggles; photography is simply the tool he found to communicate that. Born into a politicised environment with his father working in the communist party, he says there was always a spirit of activism at home, which encouraged him to start photographing his neighbourhood.

“There was always things going on with the police and squatters. They started arresting my friends, so I started shooting that, then demonstrations, and clashes with police.”

samuel aranda sony alpha 7RII protester squares up to a policeman during catalan unrest
© Samuel Aranda | Sony α7R II + 85mm f/1.8 GM | 1/125s f/4.5, ISO 200

He went pro aged 19, working for local and national newspapers, before moving to Jerusalem when he was 21 to experience the conflict there. Since then he’s covered some of the most important stories of our time, including the Arab Spring, wars in Iraq and Yemen, and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. 

samuel aranda sony alpha 7RII spanish wild horses jostling
© Samuel Aranda | Sony α7R II + 85mm f/1.8 GM | 1/800s f/8.0, ISO 200

He believes it’s the emotion that makes a good documentary photographer. “I always need that. No matter what camera I’m using, whether the picture is in or out of focus, in black & white or in colour...you have to see the photo and feel something.” That’s where his involvement with the people he’s documenting helps. It’s the only thing that’s close to a formula for Samuel: “I need to be with the people. Like with the Arab Spring in Yemen and Libya, these were young people who wanted change. They let me sleep in their houses and go to the front line with them - I was connected with them, and that makes it easier to tell the story."

samuel aranda sony alpha 7RII spanish rustlers trying to restrain wild horses
© Samuel Aranda | Sony α7R II + 35mm f/2.8 ZA | 1/160s f/7.1, ISO 50

“But there are limits,” Samuel adds, “as a documentary photographer, I have to be comfortable with my decisions. I never put work first; if I’m in a situation where I don’t feel I have to take that photograph, or the person is not comfortable, I don’t do it.” He describes his six month long assignment following an African street vendor in Barcelona for the New York Times. It was the story of how migrants arrive in Europe and how they survive.

“I followed him for months, then all of a sudden he called me and said he didn’t want a photo to be published because he thought it was taking advantage of him. For me it’s a pity, professionally, as they were strong, but I couldn’t ignore his wishes. I need to show respect to my subjects; it’s like an agreement. They’re suffering, and going through real problems.” 

Those who’d do the opposite, he says – the hunters – are forgetting the point of what they’re doing, “letting themselves become bigger than the pictures.”

samuel aranda sony alpha 7RII senegalese fisherman pulling their boat out of the water
© Samuel Aranda | Sony α7R II + 35mm f/2.8 ZA | 1/1000s f/3.2, ISO 100

Exposure to these kinds of situations is something else he’s well aware of, along with what happens if you become too invested in the story: “You have to believe in what you’re doing, but you need to take a step back sometimes, too.” Samuel describes how this happened after covering the 2015 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. “When it ended I wasn’t able to carry on, I was just so full of emotion from the things I’d seen. I had to take a break to clean my mind because it was the hardest thing I’d done.” He goes on to explain the intense and extreme emotions he felt; how he saw the pain of the people, but also the positive effect you can have as a photojournalist: “We published a story about a hospital with no resources, where people were dying, and it made the front page on the New York Times; three days later, there was help arriving and the nurses called us to thank us.”

samuel aranda sony alpha 7RII rose left on pavement following barcelona attack
© Samuel Aranda | Sony α7R II + 35mm f/2.8 ZA | 1/80s f/8.0, ISO 100

More recently, whilst covering the independence movement in Barcelona, Samuel has found out what it’s like when you can’t escape your subject. “Most of my friends were in the movement, and we had helicopters over our houses for months. People were shot and a friend lost their eye. And I was running down to photograph people being beaten by the police, then then running back upstairs to send them to the New York Times.”

It was the first time he felt that barrier had been destroyed. He explains that there was “no safe distance. After the referendum, I drove to my village, and everyone there was destroyed. Military police broke into the school to get the ballot boxes, and they beat people I knew. It was harder in the rural areas because it was the military police. But it’s why you need people on the front line telling these stories.”

 Products featured in this article 
α7R II with back-illuminated full-frame image sensor
FE 85mm F1.8
Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA