© Co Rentmeester

What drove you to photojournalism, particularly in Vietnam?

“When you go out into a war zone as a photographer, that’s actually the most consequential way of getting something onto a piece of film. By having a discussion with an ambassador or some kind of a general that sits in an office, you do not get very interesting pictures. The conflict is there, where bullets fly, where planes roar, where flames are all over the place, and where wounded people come out of the jungle. That’s where the story is.”

What do you consider to be one of your most innovative practices in war photography?

“My goal as a photo journalist was to present the reality of war in a way that no one had ever seen before. For example, I mounted a camera on the back wing of a nuclear aircraft carrier. I strung a lead wire through a 200-foot wing so I could sit inside the cabin with the bombardier to see the exact moment that the bombs were dropped.  When the moment of truth came, after flying for over 12 hours and sitting and doing absolutely nothing, I had to hope that I had a picture in the tenth of a second that this event happened.”   

When documenting historical events and particularly sensitive issues and conflicts, how do you maintain objectivity?

“When you are out there in the front line there is reality. There is reality of what happens. If you somehow distort the facts of your photo later on, that of course is misleading. However, it happens sometimes that you have a very beautiful situation that is just poetic…where dawn takes place in the jungle, and the fog of war, meaning smoke, drifts through the trees. And then the sun rays come through it, and it is just a wild display of light and rays and the grass has become just like diamonds, this high elephant grass, and in the elephant grass, you see all these soldiers sitting silently.”

What is the balance between planning and on-site discovery in your work?

[About his work in Java, Indonesia in 1969] “I wanted to do a story about humanity and the life and death of the people of Java. In my head, I set up a shooting script. In my mind, I had to divide what I wanted to do because I had to represent something logically that would be true of what I want to communicate. The masses, the work: one has to eat and one has to exist. I called it the birth and death of the society. In my script, I wanted to photograph the birth of a child and the death of somebody. It turned out to be a young boy. This is the cycle of life. And then in that pattern, I would set up photos in my mind. I was looking for a pregnant lady so I sat there for a week waiting for a woman to give birth…when you go out to do a project you analyze it somehow. Even as a photographer, you cannot just go and hope by walking around that something happens in front of your camera and then come back and try to make something out of it. The proper way is to have an idea.”

© Co Rentmeester