Born in Rome in 1964, photographer Paolo Pellegrin—whose magazine “Storm” is the latest in Magnum Photos’ ongoing fashion magazine project—studied architecture for three years before turning to photography, working at the Instituto Italiano di Fotografia and assisting other photographers until the early 90s, when he took his portfolio to the VU agency in Paris. In 1995 his reportage on AIDS in Uganda won the World Press and the Kodak Young Photographer Award at Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan; he has since garnered a string of international awards, including eight World Press Photo Awards and, in 2006, the prestigious W. Eugene Smith in Journalistic Photography. He became a member of Magnum Photos in 2005, and has published six books, including As I Was Dying. We caught up with him to get his insights on photographer fashion.
Before working on Storm, did you have any preconceptions about the fashion industry?
I didn’t have any preconceptions. I don’t think that fashion is frivolous and superficial. Lots of work, talent and creativity goes into it, and it’s an important aspect of man. I’m interested in the concepts of beauty and aesthetics. I had to find a way of treating an entire fashion magazine in a way that I could accept.
What’s your personal take on fashion?
I suppose you could say my “style” is the way I choose to present myself. My working outfit is very casual: jeans, a shirt, documentary photographer shoes and a jacket. When we meet in these godforsaken places, we all look alike with our Timberlands, our scarves and jackets with lots of pockets. I guess there is such a thing as a documentary photographer look.
Your most fashionable possession?
My set of Afghan scarves.
Any surprising must-haves in your war bag?
I always have my little conflict bag ready with my cameras, computers, cables, a stash of cash in different currencies etc… But I have a little ritual and I also have a couple of objects that I carry for that purpose, including a handmade pouch with 11 shells that I collected 25 years ago on a beach in Southern India. On the one hand you feel stupid being superstitious, on the other it’s a way to connect and focus.
Your work reminds me of Italian neo-realist cinema.
It helped shape my visual language, but not solely. I’m interested in cinema in general and that includes the bad Hollywood movies as well as the good, like Blade Runner. I’m also a Tarkovsky worshipper and I love Kurosawa.
If you could be a character from a film, who would you be?
The replicant who dies at the end of Blade Runner.
Has your background in architecture brought anything to your work?
A sense of thinking spatially; of organizing elements in a given space, which is very much what we do in photography. We have a rectangle through which we see the world. We compose and organize things in a way that is understandable for us and for the viewer.
What’s the first thing you do when you get home to Rome or New York after an assignment?
It’s completely idiotic, but no matter what time of day or night I arrive safely back home, I have a coffee at the airport. It composes the end of my trip.