5 May 2015

From Beirut to Brixton: war photographer on election trail

American photojournalist Stanley Greene has documented conflict, violence and human disasters across the world for over 25 years. Channel 4 News asked him to capture the battle for Number 10.

From Chechnya and Afghanistan, Rwanda and Somalia, Stanley Greene has consistently captured the realities of war with a unique editorial style that has earned him many accolades, including five World Press Photo awards.

So during this tightly fought election campaign here in the UK, Channel 4 News embedded him with the four main English parties to document the battle for Number 10. His black and white photo essay airs on tonight’s programme at 7pm. We caught up with Stanley to see what he made of the British elections.

This is your first job in the UK, what made you choose this assignment?

SG: I love challenges and this seemed like it would be a considerable challenge. I don’t want anyone to typecast me as certain type of photojournalist. I want people to constantly be surprised by my work.

What were the challenges you faced covering our election campaign?

From the beginning I knew I had to find a way of making my work different from the way elections are normally covered and avoid the usual clichés. So first thing I did was throw away the rule book and treat the assignment like it was street photography with loose camera shooting.

It reminded me of my days as a newspaper photographer when I had to cover lots of ribbon-cutting events. If I wanted a front page shot back then I would have to make my work different, shake it up, find the energy and never allow myself to get comfortable.

I tried to think in the same way during this shoot by searching for the elements that define the party faithful that surround the candidates.

What were your impressions of our election campaign?

The campaign is very controlled but then so are many of the campaigns I’ve covered. What really struck me was how polite everyone was. There was a sense that everyone was aware of their role and that no one wanted to step out of character. Everyone is very proper, polite and respectful of office.

I found it very interesting to watch Jon Snow interview David Cameron. They were polite when they met, then when they got down to the interview Snow came at him with some really hard questions and then when it was all over they were polite all over again.

In America, they [the interviewee] would run away from it, especially after something so confrontational. Look at what happened to Robert Downey Jnr – he felt ambushed and left.

In a strange way I found the British people to have much more familiarity with their candidates yet the candidates seemed to be far removed from their constituencies. There is still a distance between them and it is curious to me how we make our system work.

How else does our campaign differ to others that you have covered?

In America the campaign is just a beauty pageant. It’s all about power, money and keeping the people that got you there content. That’s what we vote for, we don’t vote on substance and we don’t hold people to account. The Republican and Democratic systems are machines and you have to pay your dues to keep the cogs turning. The people who control the machine decide who is going to win.

In Russia it is essentially a dictatorship; the campaign is just about extending one-party rule. It is hard-handed politics and strong-arm tactics.

In the UK, the candidates try to find ways of appeasing their constituents whilst pushing through their own agendas and manifestos. I don’t see politicians as power- hungry maniacs. I really believe that your candidates care about the people and believe in their ideas.

How do you think the British people are feeling about these elections?

There is confusion. The Brits want the best for the country and have honest concerns but they know it’s going to come down to either Labour of Conservatives, both of whom carry heavy baggage.

What are your predictions?

I think there will be a second vote. The writing is on the wall. Unless someone makes a major faux pas then you are going to have to have another election.

Report and photographs: Stanley Greene
Assistant Producer: Katie Arnold
Producer/Director: Girish Juneja
Photographs of Stanley Greene in Aleppo: Alessio Romenzi