Italian photojournalist Paolo Verzone is known for his long-term, award-winning documentary photo projects, which have been featured in many publications around the world.
The documentary photographer has been capturing the world around him since the age of 17, when he would spend hours in his mother's home darkroom. A professional photographer herself, Paolo's mother often included him in her editing process, and soon he graduated from taking photos of his friends to more serious work and his first published photograph. In the years since, Paolo's images have appeared in a wide range of respected publications, including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Le Monde and Vanity Fair.
Paolo's documentary projects give full meaning to the label 'long-term', spanning decades of his career. His work has run the gamut from portraits of Europeans at the beach, The Seeuropeans (1994 to 2002), to his project photographing cadets at European military academies, which he started in 2009 and which aims to answer the question 'what is European identity?'
"Being a photographer is hard… but it's better than working," Paolo has quipped, and it's the freedom the job affords that keeps him excited. Inspired by the likes of Josef Koudelka, Nadar, Avedon and Robert Frank, Paolo believes in taking risks with each image and his pictures are fuelled by an almost zen-like mindfulness of everything around him.
Working such long projects requires extensive planning, Paolo says, from conducting local research to curating the gear he'll need to accomplish the job. It's a large investment of time, effort and money, so Paolo chooses his projects carefully. A potential story usually begins with something that piques his interest while on assignment, or after reading about it in the news. Paolo will then devote some time to deeper research into that story and place. If he still sees potential to tell a story after these efforts, he'll make the commitment to pursue it as a long-term project.
The biggest challenges Paolo faces in his work, he says, are telling a story while not being influenced by outside factors, and getting himself through the phase in any long-term body of work where he begins to doubt what he's doing. In these situations Paolo seeks to remind himself of the reasons why he started the project. Likewise, he has to recognise the signals and understand when a project should end.
Paolo has received many awards over his career. Among them are World Press Photo Awards in 2001, 2009 and 2015. His Peshawar project received the 2001 Canon Best Portfolio award. His photographs are also part of collections at London's V&A Museum, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome.
Born in Turin, Italy, Paolo is now based in Paris and Barcelona and is a member of Agence VU.
Working on longer projects, how do you organise a kitbag to cover you for every situation?
"I customise my camera bag according to the project I'm working on. Usually, a project I'm working on will have some very specific needs that I can accommodate by bringing flashguns, a tripod or a wide range of optics. I will then customise this kit on location each day according to what I'm going to be shooting."
What do you pack for shorter assignments?
"For a short assignment I like to keep it minimalist. I'll typically use a limited range of equipment because the less gear you have to carry, the more you can concentrate on the essentials of telling a story."
What advice would you give a photographer who wants to begin a documentary project?
"Take your time, a lot of time, while making it and ensure you're telling a good story. Don't be in such a hurry to end it. Think about the value of each image and how they can help make your project meaningful rather than 'beautiful'."
"I typically set myself into a 'listening' mode when I begin a project so that I can come to better understand the personality of the person I am with. A portrait session for me is an extraordinary way to meet and understand people on a deeper level, and learn more about their life. This is the starting point of every project for me. I would never ask someone to 'relax' in front of the camera. I prefer to let them act and be themselves in whatever mood suits them – otherwise I am asking them to put on an act."