Mr. Wolinsky, as a National Geographic photographer you’ve traveled all over the world for 35 years. Do you remember your worst landing?
I’m sure everyone who has ever landed at the old airport in Hong Kong would tell you the same story. The airport was right downtown, and it was amongst skyscrapers and the apartment buildings. The plane would drop down very quickly, you could look out the window and see people barbecuing on their balconies, or look in the apartments and see people reading. And it was like – oh my God, we’re crashing. People who flew often to Hong Kong were still reading their magazines whereas others – like us – were gripping the seats and waiting to die.
When was that?
It must have been in the late 1980s. An interesting thing about being an assignment photographer, especially working in a magazine like National Geographic, when the projects take months, or years of your life, is that the magazine becomes an index of your life. I don’t talk about years, I talk about during which story did this occur.
During which story did this occur?
That was before the days of cellphones. I was having a dinner in Boston, and National Geographic editor tracked me down in the restaurant and called. I got one of these classic movie moments, when the waiter comes over and says: “There is a phone call for you sir”, and I say: “It cannot be for me, nobody knows that I’m here”. “Are you Mr. Wolinsky? Well it’s for you”. I went to the phone, and I hear the editor saying: “I need you to go to Beijing. There is this major demonstration going on, in Tiananmen Square”. I had really good contacts in China but, suddenly, I was being thrown in this political situation, which was getting worldwide attention, so I was hesitant to use them. I also knew that I could fly to Hong Kong, and try to get a tourist visa – with enough of cash. I did not call my contacts in China, I instead went to Hong Kong, bought a visa, and then the next day flew into Beijing.
Almost by chance you ended up witnessing one of the most important political events in the recent history of China. Do you have any comparable experiences of political significance that stayed in your mind during your career?
You never know when political events will come to you. One came to me when I was working – believe it or not – on a textile story. I was in Saint Petersburg, which at the time was still Leningrad. I was trying to get the permission to photograph the oldest known carpet in the world, in the Hermitage museum. I had a contact with a young man, who was based in Moscow, well connected politically – I didn’t know how well connected he was, but he turned out to be the son of a KGB general. He was happy to help me, but one day he asked: “Why don’t you do something more interesting than these silly, old carpets?”. “Like what?”, I said. “Why don’t you do the story on the Kremlin?”.
And you answer was?
This was the time when you wouldn’t expect to get into the Kremlin to do anything, so I said: “Sure, let’s do the story. Can you get me in there?”. “Yes, I can”, he said. At that moment the Soviet Union was unraveling. I happened to be on the floor of the Congress when Gorbachev was sitting in front and members were voting on Communist Party proposals. After each proposal was read, delegates unenthusiastically raised their hands to confirm their support. For 72 years no one dared to vote against the Communist Party. At one point some members of the Estonian delegation raised their hands and, suddenly, everyone in the room was whispering. I turned to find my interpreter to find out what was going on. She was on the other side of the room. Should I get to her to find out what was going on? I could see Grobachev smiling. Luckily I chose to grab the shot of the Estonian raised hands before knowing the facts. It turned out to be the first vote cast against the Communist Party under Soviet domination. My photo of the Estonians ran as a lead shot on the story about the Kremlin. So yes, I witnessed history without knowing I was witnessing history.
It also seems like you also had either lots of freedom, or good relationships with your editors.
I was very lucky in my career, because I was on assignment for National Geographic at the time when we really couldn’t get much more freedom. That was one of the reasons why job was not only a joy, it was magic. “Give us good ideas, and go photograph them” – I experienced that for most of my 35-years career. The relationship with the editors was one of trust, which is to me the most ideal relationship you could possibly have. I knew that when I walked out the doors, I could be gone for months, and that they expected that I would come back with a publishable story.
And what does the publishable mean in National Geographic?
Well, it means a lot: it means you must return with a great story, it is an important story, full of great images. The difference between working for National Geographic and other publications is the others told me what picture they wanted. National Geographic asked me what story I wanted to make.
Your body of work is unique: you are great in reportage, illustration, still life and staged photos. Why are you able to work in so many different styles?
I discovered that I’m a storyteller first and a photographer second. I felt the power of photography that didn’t have to be limited to the single approach. If you look at my work over the years you’ll see, it’s not always photojournalism, not always the studio. Photography can be either and everything in between. Sometimes I would find ways of mixing journalistic style with an illustration within an article. There is a picture that is very popular of a half shorn sheep, and that’s an illustration, but it’s embedded in the story that is mostly journalistic.
What kind of skills does that require from you – being able to transit from documentary and illustration, or even still-life photography?
This is not a single skill. You have to be willing to look. You have to be willing to try, experiment. You cannot be a religious purist about your photography. I always tried to ask myself: how can I be more creative? The next step is to learn the technique. I took time to learn techniques that interested me knowing that they may have application one day. After visiting a film studio and seeing how they diffused light, I started building equipment of my own in order to get the kind of soft lighting I wanted to see. It wasn’t long after that that we saw portable soft boxes in the world of still photography. I am curious to see how other people make things happen.
Your career in NG lasted for 35 years, you are a well-known photographer, you make films, and are successful in other fields of activity. Yet, you once said that photography is 99 % failure.
I think it’s true of any art form and true of life in general. In order to be successful you pass through a crucible of experiences and it’s only by failing that you learn how not to fail. Photography is actually a great metaphor for this, because the process of getting to the great image, is one of working a scene. I think of it as “seeing deeper into the scene”: working to shorten the gap between the vision and the finished piece.
When we see great work by a brilliant photographer we have the illusion as viewers that this person makes nothing but great pictures. We’re not seeing the many photographs they made before they got to the best. And so – those are failures. But they are also steppingstones to the successful picture. Once you embrace that, there are never failures anymore. And yes, when I do the exhibition or publish a book, I’m perpetuating the illusion that I got to a brilliant picture by just pulling out a camera making a picture. But it’s not the way it happens. You don’t sit down and write your first draft and it’s brilliant. You have to have a bunch of failures along the way. Or, maybe you don’t, but I sure do.