Paolo Pellegrin and his historical photojournalism

Snapshots of the past to preserve our future

One of the main subjects of photojournalism are war scenarios. Paolo Pellegrin’s shots capture the raw, tragic image of what is happening in the world around us. Conflict is a discussed topic, especially in recent times, but it has always been present in previous years and explored in detail. He defines reportage as the union of the photographer’s critical thinking and impersonal vision of reality. The photographs we propose make people aware of this issue, showing war in all its facets.

Wherever I am, I always consider myself a guest and, in return,
I am almost always treated as a guest. The camera then becomes an extraordinary passport.

– Paolo Pellegrin

He was born in 1964 in Rome and studied architecture at La Sapienza University. And then, he devoted himself to photography. After ten years at Agence Vu, he joined Magnum Photos and became a full member in 2005. He worked on a contract basis for Newsweek for about 10 years and enjoyed a remarkable relationship with the New York Times, whose Kathy Ryan has praised his poetic photojournalism. Furthermore, he has received various international awards in his career, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award. He has travelled to harsh and extreme environments on earth to shoot photos which tell of a profound commonality of human experience.

As a member of Magnum Photos, his reportages emphasize the way human beings react to events such as wars and massacres. Expressions of pain, caused by the violence of other human beings captured by photography and become eternal memories. This shows that Pellegrin’s work aims to be long-lasting, to become a testimony for posterity.

According to Pellegrin, reportage is not a fast, cold and impassive operation, but a personal matter of interpretation involving aesthetic and expressive judgement, anguish and suffering. In his work, he has documented many of the major disasters and conflicts of this generation, from revolutions to wars to tsunamis. His photographic interest rooted in humanistic photography.

He narrates man through appearance and history, thus creating an eternal link between present and past. His desire to create testimonies for posterity led him to Kosovo, then seamlessly to Iraq, Israel, Palestine and the Middle East, as well as to Haiti, Indonesia, Sudan, Cambodia… The choice of these places was the result of a combination of magazine offers and personal requests, which do not always coincide.

He moves within history, putting man at the centre and his scrutinizing eye around him, participating in the turbulent flow of events. This way of thinking about photography establishes a dialogue with those who are not present, drawing their attention. He defines it as unfinished photography, as it describes what he observes and directs the viewer to pay attention and ask questions. In this way an active dialogue created without detachment and abstraction often found in the media. To underline this, the use of black and white prevails in his shots. In other words, while colour links the observer to something real, black and white makes the specific and the global converge, becoming a metaphor.

Travel to Nigeria

In 2017, Italian documentary photographer Paolo Pellegrin was commissioned by TIME Magazine to travel to Nigeria and document the recovery of victims of the terrorist organisation Boko Haram.
After the militants began a scorched earth campaign to take over the northeast of the country in 2009, many thousands of individuals have been subjected to abduction, indoctrination and savage mistreatment. With each wave of liberation by external military and diplomatic efforts, people are returning to society and beginning to rebuild their lives and relationships in light of their traumatic experiences. In this series, Pellegrin captures the different paths of recovery taken by individuals who have survived this ordeal. He follows the victims through ideological assessments, group therapy and IDP camps, as well as documenting family reunions and visiting familiar landscapes laid bare by Boko Haram’s activities.


Reportage in Uganda won him the World Press Photo award in 1995 and made him known worldwide. He possesses a formal and compositional elegance that comes from a love of art history and the reworking of the teachings of his masters (from Robert Frank to William Klein). This war photographer is striking for the originality of his portraits, which lack the urgency of testimony. His interest lies in the testimonial value his images take on, and in his ability to capture the signs of human suffering in places marked by tragedy. In these places he has taken the time to set his gaze, choosing a shot to convey the sense of the tragedy he is experiencing. Also, these shots function as a denunciation. In Africa AIDS is a serious problem because it affects a high percentage of individuals and causes the death of individuals.

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