Stuart Franklin’s Political Ecology

Photography: Stuart Franklin

The entry on our school calendar was unassuming and inconspicuous—”Franklin, Journalism.” The description in our student guidebook was even more humble, simply a thin line that read “Stuart Franklin, English photographer.” I glanced at it and the night before, on a lark, I decided to google the name to see Franklin’s previous work. Much to my shock, I soon realized that Franklin was a world-renowned Magnum photographer, the man who had taken the photo of Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. Yes, That photo.

On the appointed day, we eagerly gathered in class, where a bespectacled chap carried himself with distinction to the front of the classroom. “Dr. Stuart Franklin, Political Ecology,” read his first slide. The student next to me poked my shoulder—wasn’t this class supposed to be about journalism? What’s political ecology? Are we sure this Dr. Franklin is a photographer, and not someone else with the same name?

As it turned out, Franklin is a man of many talents, not only a career photographer for Time and National Geographic, but the recipient of a PhD in geography at Oxford University. He now publishes and teaches courses in political ecology and photography at Oxford.

The burning question: what is political ecology? As he defined it, it is the analysis of complex political economic relationships between society and land- or marine-based resources or products. It’s political economy + environment. It’s a network of cultural interactions with the land around them. Food chains and the working conditions of migrant workers are two topics that might fall into this lens of analysis.

Convinced? Skeptical that this is just another newfangled invention of concatenated existing subfields? Regardless, Franklin took us on a fascinating trip around the world, as we looked at slash-and-burn destruction in Indonesia and Afghans fighting in a bread queue, all photographed in pristine condition. The following are some of his thoughts on photography, politics, and the luckiest break of his career.

There was an uprising that spring. A lot of factors were in play, but it was mostly due to increasing flows of information and the large amount of corruption going on. Young people were finally getting annoyed by corruption by people in power, and so they came out to the streets. It was a huge moment for the Chinese to demonstrate, and I asked if I could go to Beijing. My plane ticket was paid for by Magnum, but when I got there, Time put me on assignment and I ended up just staying there.

The epicenter of the action was Tiananmen, and at that point, I had been working as a photojournalist for about 10 years, and I was a pretty hardened war photographer. I knew that I had to get close to Tiananmen, so I found the Beijing Hotel, and I parked myself there.

Lots of other journalists were around at the time and even staying at this hotel, but they missed this moment. You see, the Beijing Hotel was run by the military, and the food there was terrible—just rice and noodles! Up the road though, there was another hotel with better food—they did hamburgers. So, everyone went over there. The lesson is, stay with the story, no matter if you don’t eat.

That morning, the military had taken over the lobby and they were stopping people from leaving. I was out on my balcony and noticed the tanks moving out. This man jumped out in front of the row of tanks, and I thought, “What a boring photograph, why can’t I get closer?” There are lots of other photographs like this—men standing with tanks—in the history of photography. Like Josef Koudelka’s photo of a man standing on a tank during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, there was a writer from Vanity Fair next to me, saying “This is a really important moment.” I thought, “Really? That’s rubbish.” Only later, my Paris office called me and asked, “Did you get it?” Yeah, I got it. And there were large celebrations in Paris that night.

The challenge as a photographer is to find a photograph that crystallizes the moment. I wanted something that clarifies the emotions of the Chinese people.

In the United States, a lot of people saw this as a movement for democracy. That is rubbish; the Chinese have never had a democracy and don’t know what it’s like. This was about responding to government corruption.

This photo was taken in the rain, and many other photographers had to go hide under a tarp. But this Leica can handle a helluva lot of rain.

I did a lot of work in China; one of the challenges was to show how much China was changing. I think the work I did in Shanghai and Beijing was instrumental in showing to Americans that not all Chinese were socialists or Maoists, but that this was a capitalistic society in a rapidly changing environment. I had a bicycle in China—it’s the best way to get around. Time magazine got me a bike that I kept in their office, and that was the best way to get through the alleys.

When you stand, you tower over people, and they notice you. So one of the tricks of photographers is to sit low, on the floor. Squat on a stool, be lowdown, be unnoticeable.

Patience is a virtue. You can’t just get onto a desk, take one shot and think you’re done.

National Geographic did a series on megacities. I went out first to Lagos, not even bringing my camera, and had to speak in the parliament, explaining why National Geographic wanted to be here and what we wanted to do, so they would let us in. Then, after they were convinced, they supplied us with an armed guard and everything else to cover the city.

It’s always a struggle to find something joyful going on in a city. In this photo, I wanted to address the architectural influence of Corbusier and reflect that in the photo, and also get a great moment—it took hours. I just sat under the shadow as people were playing, and suddenly there’s this moment, and it turns into something joyful.

What does environmentalism mean? It means something new to different people in different contexts. For one story, I met Julia Butterfly Hill, who you might know as the activist who lived in a redwood tree for two years. Climbing up a redwood tree is sort of dodgy, and requires a lot of clips and ropes. Julia just navigated the branches with her bare feet. I made it up to my platform and spent the night in a tree. I was the first one to have done that—the L.A. Times sent a photographer too, but he didn’t want to climb into the tree.

When you sleep in a tree, you have this peculiar sensation that you are sleeping upside down, because there are lights below from the lumber mills, and total darkness above.

When you tell a story in a TV documentary, a narrative emerges. You have a series of images that are linked to interviews and a narrator who tells you a story. They’re all set in order, so at the end of the program, you’re informed about say, drug running in Colombia. The aesthetic is almost secondary to the narrative drive.

By contrast, in photography, there is a lot of the narrative that’s missing. There’s a lot of spaces in the photographs for you, the reader, to put your thoughts into. Most of the most successful photographs are somehow ambiguous. Most of the least successful television programs are ambiguous. So photography celebrates ambiguity.

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