Could you brave bullets being fired at your car, being arrested for spying or building a raft to transport a Land Rover across a river to escape being caught? Ian Berry has – all in the name of photography

Why do you take photographs and what drew you to photography in the first place?

I was an amateur photographer, but decided on journalism, then swiftly realised photography – with its opportunities for creativity and independence – was much more exciting. I also wanted to travel and my family had a photographer contact in South Africa willing to guarantee me there for a year.

How did you become a photographer for Magnum Photos?

I heard the former Picture Post editor Tom Hopkinson was coming to South Africa to edit Drum, a magazine for black Africans. He offered me a job, which brought me into contact with all aspects of South African life. It was Tom who introduced me to Magnum and Magnum photographers with whom he’d worked on Picture Post. When I moved to Paris, I met up with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who subsequently invited me to join Magnum.

Image by Ian Berry

What does being a Magnum photographer mean to you?

For a young photographer back then, there were two potential ambitions – either to work for Life magazine or to join Magnum. It was my coverage of the Sharpeville massacre that brought me to the attention of a wider world, which led to me leaving South Africa for Paris.

In your career you’ve tackled some extremely poignant issues. What is it that inspires you to pursue a particular project?

On returning to Europe and becoming involved in world events, I was initially drawn to the political consequences of the troubles in places like South Africa, Israel, Prague, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, etc but, as the world got smaller, I became more and more interested in social issues.

How do you approach your work? Is there generally an amount of painstaking preparation and organisation, or do you prefer to go with the flow? 

When approaching a potential subject, I do the essential research. However, I don’t believe in too many preconceptions, because the reality on the ground always changes and I like to be responsive to those changes. There are always more elements involved than the obvious. But, in the final moment, it’s about recognising a potential scene developing, waiting for the peak moment and then having the ability to make that moment work as a shape. It’s essential to separate the record shots from the memorable images.

You’ve captured some extraordinary moments. What tips would you give for getting in the right place at the right time? 

You need to anticipate a story; look at the background to a war or an uprising. Then after research, intuition and experience are what count. You have to think on your feet
when getting into a difficult situation. I was the only photographer to enter Prague on the day of the 1968 Russian invasion. All the other photographers were sitting on the closed border after flying to Vienna. I flew to Munich, drove south and blagged my way across the Russianheld border by claiming I was a delegate for an architectural conference being held in Prague.

Image by Ian Berry

With such a prolific career, you must have faced some threatening situations. If you had to pick the worst, what would it be?

Most of the threatening situations in my life have involved travel – for example, helicopter crashes. While covering the Congo, I hired a twin-engine plane, whose American pilot looked on the brink of a stroke, which then had one engine fail. I was arrested for spying and spent days in a West African prison sharing a cell with half a dozen locals. Not fun! My hire car was raked with bullets in South Africa, but the hire car company never said a word or
charged me, so I’ve stuck with them ever since. That seven-month assignment in West Africa, apart from the prison episode, also involved having my Land Rover confiscated in Liberia and building a raft to float the Land Rover across the Ubangi river to escape being re-arrested. I’d paid to get out of jail only to be pursued again – no doubt because of the money. I was deported from Russia overnight and imprisoned in Naples when working on a story about the Camorra. But the upside was the coffee was great! I do not regard myself as a war photographer, but throughout my career I’ve covered numerous wars. Luckily, the only injury I’ve sustained has been a rubber bullet hit in Northern Ireland. But the nastiest was being put up against a wall facing a firing squad in Katanga in the Congo struggles – and being rescued only at the very last moment by a Rhodesian mercenary.

On the flip side, what would be the best or most moving situation?

One always hopes that one’s work will benefit people, but rarely does one have an almost immediate result. When covering a presidential election in Peru, I chanced on an English woman running an orphanage in a small town who was about to close through lack of funds. After the story ran in The Telegraph magazine, the newspaper organised a benefit for her and she received enough money to buy her building and continue her work.

Image by Ian Berry

What do you like about the Olympus system and why is it well-suited to your work?

For years I worked exclusively with Leicas, because of their relatively unobtrusive profile, until I was asked to do a shoot in Rome with an about-to-be-introduced Micro Four Thirds camera. As a result, I was completely bowled over and converted to Micro Four Thirds. I now have four Olympus bodies: two OM-D E-M1s, an OM-D E-M5 Mark II and a PEN-F.
My Olympus cameras have proven quiet, light and durable in all climatic conditions. I’ve gone from -15°C in China to 24°C in Egypt in the space of a couple of weeks. I have never been let down by my Olympus cameras.

Do you use different set-ups for your documentary and portraiture work?

My approach to photography is to be prepared for all situations I might encounter on any given story – whether it be documentary, landscape or portraiture. So, in my bag are three Olympus bodies, with lenses from 24mm to 300mm (35mm equivalent). The bag is light enough and portable enough to pass through any airport check, or for my usual eight-hours-a-day walk around a city.

Image by Ian Berry

Which photographers have inspired you throughout your career and can you recommend any new talent we should keep our eye on in the future?

I had the pleasure of working with photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud in Paris, and I also followed the work of W Eugene Smith. Today, among contemporary photographers, although I’m basically a black & white photographer, for colour, Alex Webb would be my favourite, together with Jonas Bendiksen. I was a great admirer of Abbas Attar for his black & white work, and also Larry Towell. Happily, at Magnum we now have a number of young photographers following the Magnum tradition – notably Matt Black.

If you could travel back in time to the start of your career, what piece of advice would you give your younger self?

Although the purely reportage/documentary photography – call it what you will – has faced a rapidly reducing market, the young photographer with an eye, ability and dedication to hard work will always succeed. When I met the other Magnum photographers for the first time and asked for advice, I received useful tips, like how to pick up a girl in Israel on a Friday night at the Wailing Wall. But the only piece of advice that has stuck with me throughout my career was from Elliott Erwitt who said simply, ‘never give up your copyright’. This has always been my guideline and would be the only necessary piece of advice to myself as a young photographer.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 62 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.