James Mollison: Picture Perfect

James Mollison: Picture Perfect

JAMES MOLLISON: My projects are
always series of images. I think the individual
images, in a way, don’t matter that much. It’s when you see the groups,
the set of images, that a pattern emerges to
form a narrative. So whether it’s just seeing
the different clothes that people wear to different
concerts, and their make up, or the different bedrooms that
children have around the world, or looking at
chimpanzees’ faces with lighter skin to darker
skin to freckles– you’re letting people compare
and therefore, I think, tell a larger story. I’m James Mollison. I’m a photographer. I live in Venice, in Italy. I studied documentary
photography. I suppose where my heart is
is the books that I do. And then I also do commissioned
and some commercial work. I got here because I
went to Fabrica. Fabrica is a center for creative
research, funded by Benetton, where they also
have “Colors” magazine. It was started by Oliviero
Toscani. And it’s really this place
that’s kind of halfway between a college and halfway
between an agency. I got there just because a
good friend was there. And my friend said, do you want
to come out and visit me for the carnival? And I came and ended up
meeting Oliviero. And he said, you want
to move to Italy? So I moved out to Italy a
couple of weeks later. And I’ve been here getting
on for like 10 years now. I felt, for the first couple
of years, I didn’t really create anything that was any
good, until we started to work on “Colors.” And then that was
a moment where we got to travel to some interesting
places and began to do some interesting work
photographically. The first one was, I
think, going to the Lukole refugee camp. And we went to that camp. And we spent three weeks in the
camp and, I think, made a solid body of work. I then would work on other
issues, from the prisons issue to old age to taking pictures. And I think each one went in
depth into these communities. I’ve just started to work again
on “Colors” with Patrick Waterhouse. He’s the art director. And I’m a consultant
creative on it. The last issue we were in Libya,
looking at how the rebels have been customizing
their cars. What do you do when you’re
a rebel army that doesn’t have any tanks? You’re going up against
Gaddafi. I think we’re looking at trying
to do the magazine which becomes more socially
engaging again. Getting a little bit some of the
fun back into “Colors” as well, as well as it
being serious. The projects that are most
important to me, and I think the most interesting medium as
a photographer for showing stuff is the book. I learned quite early on that
getting people to commission you to do your ideas just
doesn’t happen. So I found that the best way
is just to do it yourself. And the first project that I
did was “James and Other Apes,” which is 50 portraits
of the great apes– chimpanzees, gorillas,
and orangutans. And that had really just come
from an observation. I’d been watching a wildlife
program on primates. And I was looking at them. And I was thinking, god,
their faces are quite similar to our own. And then I was thinking about
how, actually, with animals in general you tend to think of
them quite generically, not as individuals. So I thought, I wonder if
I apply this idea of the passport photo, I wonder if
you’ll see them as having different identities. This was about Aaron, who was
an 11-month-old chimpanzee. Katie– she had been kept in a box by
a hunter for the first few months of her life. And she was seriously
disturbed. The project took me about three
years, although probably only five or six weeks actually
taking pictures. It was getting the permission
that was very difficult. Because I didn’t want
to use long lenses. I wanted to be in with
the animals. I wanted there to be an intimacy
within the portraits. And then some of the
gorillas had been re-released into the wild. So I had to trek in Congo
to find them. All of the apes I photographed,
except for two of them, had their parents
butchered in front of them for the bushmeat trade or for
the live pet trade. So there’s this second reading
which is about that plight. Well I think as a photographer,
you’re always working on quite a few things
at the same time. The next thing that came out in
terms of the book was “The Disciples,” which in a way was
the natural progression to the ape project. I think with the apes, I’d been
kind of interested in looking at individuals within
groups of animals. Whereas, with “The Disciples,”
I wanted to look at how individuals formed groups
to create an identity. It’s 58 montaged pictures taken
outside concerts mainly in the UK and America. And I tried to cover all genres
and give a real sense of the different people
that listen to music. This is probably my favorite
image, which is Rod Stewart. And in a way, it was more
interesting than bands like Marilyn Manson, where in a way
you’d kind of expect it. But with Rod Stewart, it was
less obvious as a subject. The projects that I do tend to
be these typological projects, which have quite a rigorous way
of working, where I set out a set of rules. And then I’ll follow those. So “Where Children Sleep” is 56
portraits of children, and then their bedrooms. You know, we were all supposed
to be born equal. But that clearly isn’t true. So I thought, if I photographed
the children equally on this plain background
and then their bedrooms separately,
the bedrooms will talk about their situation. Jazzy, who I photographed
in Kentucky, she had all of these crowns. And her mom was saying
how she’d entered a hundred beauty pageants. She also said that it cost about
an average of $1,000 for each pageant to enter, which
meant the mom had spent $100,000 on pageants. Jazzy’s only 4 years old. I had made a conscious
decision. Nearly each child is chosen
specifically to tell a story about their particular
circumstance. And that’s the map of the world
of the places we went to and photographed at. I do kind of a range of stuff
as a photographer. I don’t know how you can do it
any other way, unless you have a trust fund. I do portraits for
magazines, some celebrities, people in fashion. I’ve done campaigns for Nike. So really, it’s kind of
whatever comes up. And sometimes you’re doing
assignments which are great. And other times you’re doing
assignments which you’re doing just because you need
to pay the bills. And you need to be able
to fund those other projects you are doing. So we’re going out to visit
the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, close the Somali border,
which has been in the news a lot. Some white backgrounds, if
we’ve got the space. They’re talking of
a new famine. They’re calling it the worst
humanitarian disaster in the world right now, affecting
Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and northern Kenya. When Vice asked me to do
something about the news, something that was happening,
I thought, let’s go and see. Let’s try and see, learn a
little bit about these people. I don’t know what this
is going to be like. I’ve been in refugee
camps before. But I’ve never been to an
actual famine situation. So for me, it’s going to be a
completely new experience. The UNHCR have told us that
you need to have a permit to go in. We haven’t got that. We’re just going to be seeing
what happens on the ground. -Ladies gentlemen, welcome
to Nairobi. JAMES MOLLISON: So we arrived
in Nairobi on Tuesday night. And then set off at 6:00
AM for Dadaab. One of the most important things
when you’re going to places like this, is
getting a good car. I normally actually
drive myself. But in this situation,
we’re going close to the Somali border. People have been kidnapped. You need to have somebody who
knows the local area. We picked up Mohammad in
Garissa, our translator. Hey. Hey, James. Nice to meet you. -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: All
of our team are Somalis born in Kenya. So how are we going to
do for Mohammads? We’ve got two Mohammads. We met you first. So I’ll call you Mo. And I’ll call you Hammad. We’ve got Ibrahim, who’s just
generally helping out. The drive was about an
eight hour drive. And then we made it to Dadaab
at around 4 o’clock, which gave us a chance to go out
and get a little bit of a sense of the place. Dadaab is a refugee camp where
you have Somalis who came here in ’92 That’s when the
camp was founded. And now they’ve had a lot of
people leaving Somalia to flee from the drought, and also from
the security situation. So in the market here they
have everything. You have restaurants. Which is the good restaurant,
Mohammad? I think the camp
is interesting. Because in some ways, it seems
very rural when you see it. It seems like this
desert scrub. But actually, when you look a
bit closer at it, it’s more like a city. You’ve got the downtown center
park, which have barber shops. There were camera shops,
electrical shops. And then there were kind
of a market area. Can you see anywhere where we
could get a bit higher to do a kind of landscape shot, like
those water towers? And then as you radiate out from
that, you have the houses of the refugees who have been
here a longer time. And then as you keep on going,
you get to the refugees who have been for a little
bit less time. And then once you go further
and further out, it’s the really new arrivals who had
much more basic, dome-like structures. But it goes on and
on, the camp. The next morning, the first
thing we did was go to MSF who had arranged the permit from
the Kenyan government. So how long have you
been working here? DR. EDWARD CHEGE: I’ve been
working here for eight months. JAMES MOLLISON: As a doctor? DR. EDWARD CHEGE: Yes,
as a doctor. JAMES MOLLISON: Tell me a little
bit about the camp. How big is the camp? DR. EDWARD CHEGE: As of now,
UNHCR estimates to be a 370,000 inhabitants. JAMES MOLLISON: 370,000. How big is it supposed
to grow? What is the forecast? DR. EDWARD CHEGE: Due to the
trends that we are seeing now, we expect that by the end of the
year, we’ll have more than half a million inhabitants
in this camp. Way beyond it’s capacity. JAMES MOLLISON: Dadaab was
originally built for less than 100,000 people. And while we’re here, apparently
1,000 refugees are arriving each day,
as an average. From MSF, we were able
to get this permit. And we went first to an area
where they had quite a lot of new arrivals. Took the white background out
and photographed some of them out on the street. I think the white background,
for me, is really that taking them out of their location. I think that it’s this dusty,
arid desert, which actually isn’t bad as a photographic
backdrop. But I think to take them
out, it really becomes just about them. How long did it take
him to walk here? -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: On one level, I
want my photographs to work on an aesthetic level, where
within them, they’ve got the information to tell the
narrative, to tell the story. And they stand in
their own right. But it is also important to have
text with them that give you other layers
of information. So for me, it’s often very
important that you interview the people, that you have
those other layers of information. Now what I want to do now is
go to their houses to see where they live. The shelters seem to change. The very basic ones are these
domed ones that are made with bent branches. You go in just to see how few
possessions people had. I did ask one of the guys
what he brought. And he said he couldn’t
bring anything really. He just bought the clothes
on his back and came with his children. -Yes. JAMES MOLLISON: How’s
it going? Where did you learn English? At school? What do you want to do
when you grow up? You want to go to the USA? No. I come from England. And you? Born in the refugee camp. So are you Somalian
or are you Kenyan? Kenyan. I was born in Kenya as well. Yeah, good country. Yeah, I was born in Kenya. I lived there until
I was five. My mom was born there. My granddad went out as a
missionary in the 1930s. My dad shot some super
eight footage of us while we were in Kenya. I think that memory of when
you’re a young kid, a lot of it, if I actually think about
it, is tied up in that super eight footage. I can remember when I was about
3 and 1/2 walking down the street with my mom, holding
her hand and asking her why I wasn’t black
and everybody else was black around. I’ve gone back a lot of times. I’ve made some friends there. So I’ve gone back
for assignments. And then I’ve gone back
for holiday as well. It’s a fascinating place. So the next day started
by going back to MSF. And MSF showed us around the
hospital that they are running at the camp. And we saw some incredibly
malnourished babies. -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: James. What’s your son’s name? And when did she arrive
in the camp? – [SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: And how
far did she have to walk to get here? -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: I think that I
felt that what I tried to do through these portraits and
these interiors is give a sense of this camp. So to give a sense of people
who’ve been here for 20 years, some who’ve been here a shorter
time, and some people just a month or a few days– I think that within that story,
this mother with her baby that is close
to death is an important part of the story. It’s what’s happening here. And it felt right. And it felt as though it was
needed within the series. And why did she leave? -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: When did
the last rain come? -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: And that was
pretty tough, really. I didn’t really feel as though
it’s the moment to try to take a picture. But I think it was important. And the mom wanted it. And then the mother also, I
think, seeing the Polaroid, she was happy about that. I’m always slightly
uncomfortable about these situations, because I think that
there can be this very negative view of Africa. Often it’s the image
that we see. We see the famines. We see the wars. We see the bad things
that are happening. I think there’s this paradox
between, on the one level, promoting this idea that
journalists do of Africa in a place of need. And charities do it,
of course, as well. I’m being part of that. But then there’s this other
thing where actually, Africa isn’t reported on enough. But I do think it’s important to
show different things that are happening. Because I think I see it more
as like you’re throwing into the debate. So after that, we went towards
the market area to try and meet some of the refugees who’ve
been for a longer time. And we parked the car and
began to look around. And there was this gate
with the Kenyan flag. And It was the compound of this
guy called Insa, who’s a 21-year-old. It was this brightly colored
toilet block which had been painted in the corner. And then we went through. There was a house. And he’d painted various things
on the side with “I love you” and hearts
and flowers. And it turned out, he was
getting married the next day. Tell me a little bit about
the “I love you” house. -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: What’s
her name? Her name is Famii. -[SPEAKING SOMALI] JAMES MOLLISON: He’d come to the
camp when he was just two or three years old. And he’s going to be getting
married to a girl, also from the camp, the next day. So thank her very much. Thank you. For me, that is one of the
most amazing things about being a photographer. I, perhaps, wouldn’t have
gone there on my own. But to be asked to go there,
it gives you a reason. I always feel incredibly
privileged to be able to go into a situation like that. But you know, I’m allowed
to leave it. I’ve got that passport. I can fly back to Europe. Perfect. We can call it a day. Photography is this key into
experiencing the world. [MUSIC – AAR MAANTA,

77 thoughts on “James Mollison: Picture Perfect

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    More fluff?

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    first to be the bitch of the comment section.

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Picture Perfect is probably my favorite vice show, great stuff!

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    to get raped in the bumhole by a fat sweaty black man.

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Good show. This James Mollison fella is awesome

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    It's amazing how Vice comes up with these videos! This is the part of Youtube I love the most 🙂

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Cool documentary. I like how Vice mixed things up instead of about 3rd world country all the times.

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    …to submit to a TSA full body cavity search 🙂

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    We need more picture perfect documentaries! If you can, do Jonathan Mannion!

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    aVERY INTERSTING……..0965)*(&

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    Motherfucking hasselblad… <3

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:46 pm


  • April 1, 2013 at 3:47 pm


  • April 1, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Really insightful never heard of this guy before. Interesting refugee camp footage. Good work!

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    5:44 is that copper cab in the blue shirt da faq?

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Haha it's what 80% of us subscribed for though.

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    how can u speak for 800.000 people ??? …moron

  • April 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Is vice's premier on hbo today?

  • April 1, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    And around that 80% people of the world live in 3rd world Countries. Fortunately its not all about the First world problems I would say.

  • April 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    I cannot watch the video. "the browser doesnt recognize the video format. HTML5"

  • April 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Awesome video nice job.

  • April 1, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    quit at blatantly trying to look like johnny depp

  • April 1, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    thanks vice 🙂

  • April 1, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    HEMP can end hunger and feul and clothes

  • April 1, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    I remember the first time I saw some of this guys work, definitely gave me a new perspective about photography.

  • April 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    or guns and shit

  • April 1, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    i subscribed for documentaries in general.these are pretty interesting.just as much as most of the other ones

  • April 1, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Very nice video.

  • April 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    but how a 3rd world actually is

  • April 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    18:27 Good god, she is beautiful… I hope that helps to reach out to more people about the starvation/drought problem, we all know the world is superficial.

  • April 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Really great documentary Vice! One of my favourites

  • April 1, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    lol nike its nikeeeeeeeeee.

  • April 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    This is the stuff I subscribed to Vice for.

  • April 1, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    Over a year ago I stumbled upon those ape pictures and I picked out five going from young to old and drew them. They aren't top notch but it's cool this videos up on Vice now!

  • April 1, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    See this is the kind of stuff vice should be putting out. Not that ATL twins Springbreakers shit.

  • April 2, 2013 at 12:04 am

    best vice docu in a long while, honest, insightful and mainly just real life….more of this and less of the fake shit ( the twincestors come to mind)

  • April 2, 2013 at 12:44 am

    more of this!!! this is what vice should be doing. More of this, less tits and dicks.

  • April 2, 2013 at 2:17 am

    fedoras and broadrim glasses inspire the looks of fat slobs everywhere

  • April 2, 2013 at 2:50 am

    Thats so cool that ive read where children sleep. Wow!

  • April 2, 2013 at 3:03 am

    This guy is so cool, he's very real.

  • April 2, 2013 at 3:37 am

    Almost thought this guy was going to end up at spring break…happy he went somewhere that needs to be shown.

  • April 2, 2013 at 8:13 am

    How is that not a Developing Country.

  • April 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Youtube is a pile of shit recently, when it comes to maximizing the video

  • April 2, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Ill call you Moe and you Hammed xD

  • April 2, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    where do they get their food ?

  • April 3, 2013 at 2:58 am


  • April 3, 2013 at 5:23 am

    Tvika's room was the coolest.

  • April 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

    Such beautiful people. I wonder what the mother with the starving child was feeling while he photographed them. It was an odd thing, and moving too, to see her pose like all was normal.

  • April 3, 2013 at 6:47 am

    This is one of the best documentaries I have seen on Vice.

    Just purely fucking amazing, nonetheless very interesting.

  • April 3, 2013 at 10:26 am

    More documentaries on photographers, Vice! I love it and it's beneficial to my work.

  • April 3, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Photographing with a 10.000€ camera in the middle of a refugee camp. Okay….

  • April 3, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Hi how are you? Where are you from? What age is your child? How long has your child been dieing? Oh there are more dieing babies over there we can photograph.

    Oh man this is tough.

    Bye then 🙂 back to Venice for me 🙂

  • April 3, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Please tell me he at least gave the people who he took pictures of just a little bit of his western money.

  • April 4, 2013 at 12:58 am

    Those pictures hes giving them has some kind of caloric value.

  • April 4, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Don't be stupid. My point was that his European money is guaranteed to be worth far more than whatever currency they have. So don't be stupid.

  • April 5, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    its actually awesome that they can take that equipment and capture the pits of this world with such purity

  • April 6, 2013 at 4:11 am

    stunning colours

  • April 6, 2013 at 4:47 pm


  • April 8, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    wonderful photographs. the indian little girl is the one i like the most

  • April 9, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    what you prefer him go there with a normal camera?
    because than you couldnt see shit.
    with this device hes able to caputre most of the situation instead of just some parts.
    of course the camere is more expensive than most peoples belongings together but he comes from a different place
    i dont see your problem

  • April 9, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Are you realling tryin to tell that a normal camera wouldn´t produce anything visible? Really?!

  • April 11, 2013 at 2:24 am

    ★★★★★{SB/////SOVEREiGNTY boy\\SB}★★★★★

    this is, how government propaganda, in the uk, is, done.
    this artist, photographer, sports-figures, ect.., will all, drop little
    hints, for example, Gaddafi, is negatively shown in this production


  • April 11, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    im telling you that there is no shame in using a good camera for what he does. its his job and therefor to make the best out of it for people like us i dont understand why you want him to use a normal camera.
    do you think that it makes a difference? most people there dont even know how expensive these cameras are.
    do you think that this makes him feel better and the others worse?
    please just tell me your problem

  • April 14, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    is it safe for black americans to travel to west africa and other parts? i ask because i am a black american who would love to visit africa but 100% of the journalist/media from america that travel to the "bad" parts of africa are never black americans

  • April 15, 2013 at 1:28 am

    it would end clothes and fuel!

  • April 19, 2013 at 9:10 am

    You can't just live off HEMP. It's not all that healthy. You are still breathing in smoke.. Hemp will not end world hunger…

  • April 19, 2013 at 9:11 am

    There are good parts of Africa. Every places has their good parts. If a white man can travel to Africa why can't you? Who cares…It's not about skin color.

  • April 23, 2013 at 3:41 am

    Yay James Mollison. Nay Fedora.

  • May 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Give that baby some food!

  • May 20, 2013 at 3:55 am

    hahahaha, ahhhh hahahaha.

  • June 17, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    but it would free our souls, so this wouldnt be a prison planet anymore, the bosses dont want that.

  • June 25, 2013 at 4:26 am

    I like to see it all. The contrast is important.

  • July 3, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    what kind of camera is that?

  • July 31, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    why do all photographers no matter their skill level or noteriety wear shit fedora's ?

  • April 26, 2018 at 4:17 am

    Beautiful documentary. Very beautiful photography as well

  • May 10, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    I just love the thinking that's behind his projects!
    The most of photographer "wannabe" (including me) tend to think that the beauty of the photograph that you've taken is the important thing, when the "real deal" is the idea that stand behind it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *