Bruno Barbey (1941 – 2020), who died on Monday November 9, was a citizen of the world, dedicating his life to documenting conflict and celebrating beauty with sensitivity and understanding. The Moroccan-born photographer of French and Swiss nationality studied photography and graphic arts at the École des Arts et Métiers in Vevey, Switzerland, before embarking on his first major project, The Italians (1961-1964), a career-defining series inspired by Robert Frank’s landmark monograph, The Americans.
With the understanding that “photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world,” Barbey began his relationship with Magnum Photos in 1964, becoming an associate member in 1966 and a full member in 1968, before serving as Magnum Vice President for Europe in 1978-79 and President of Magnum International from 1992-1995.
Fight the Power
Although he photographed conflicts in Nigeria, Vietnam, the Middle East, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Kuwait, Barbey rejected the title “war photographer,” perhaps recognizing the fight for freedom was an integral part of life. It was something he witnessed firsthand in Paris during May 68. “I’ve never seen such violence in a western capital as I saw in Paris that month,” Barbey told Magnum Photos about his work documenting the historic period of civil unrest.
Though most of the actions occurred at night, Barbey, along with photographers Marc Riboud and Henri Cartier-Bresson, worked without flash to preserve the atmosphere of the streets of Paris in their photographs. They also risked injury for the shot, forsaking protective helmets when they realized it made it impossible to use their Leica properly.
Although Barbey wasn’t a militant, he acknowledged his sympathies lay with the demonstrators, and spoke in awe of what he witnessed during that time. “Many were disillusioned at the end of the May movement but I wasn’t; I was occupied with other causes that were more urgent.” Barbey revealed.
Celebrate the Extraordinary
For more than half a century, Barbey traveled the globe making photographs of five continents and producing more than 30 books, documenting the extraordinary beauty of life in Kenya, Ceylon, Portugal, and the Gabon. Barbey’s love of humanity was reflected in his passion for photography. Always open to new techniques and styles, Barbey pioneered the use of color film in photojournalism while on assignment for Vogue in Brazil in 1966 — an innovation that came about through the need to adapt to the heat and humidity of the region.
Throughout his career Barbey photographed Morocco, returning time and again to make pictures in the land of his birth. “It is very difficult to photograph there,” he told Magnum Photos. “You have to be cunning as a fox, well organized, and respect some customs. The photographer must learn to merge into the walls. Photos must either be taken swiftly, with all the attendant risks, or only after long periods of infinite patience. Such was the price of these images… The memory of Morocco can only be captured with respect.”
Respect was a guiding principle Barbey carried with him throughout his illustrious career, always pushing the boundaries of the medium in search for beauty, justice, and truth. “Let’s admit it, we are the hunters of souls,” Barbey said in a 2017 speech at the Turkish-German Film Festival. “But hunters of a delicate kind, and with a touch of wizardry. We do not want to capture images for our own use but to reproduce them for everyone, to keep them for everyone.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
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