Photojournalist Darrin Zammit Lupi
"I want viewers to feel empathy with the people in the pictures"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / October 13, 2021
(Courtesy of Darrin Zammit Lupi)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: It must have something to do with my dad subscribing to National Geographic at the beginning of the 1980s. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I was always artistically and visually inclined - I certainly spent a lot of my childhood drawing and painting. But then, when I saw a feature in NG on the eruption of Mount St Helen’s - I must have been 12 or 13 at the time - I just got blown away, excuse the awful pun. Something about those pictures, and the risks people took to take them, triggered something in me.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I use Canon equipment, with a wide range of lenses. My favourite combination these days seems to be the R5 and a 35mm f/1.4 though you really can’t stick exclusively to those when you’re shooting for a wire service. I occasionally also use a FujiFilm XT2 and 18-55mm lens for when I’m casually roaming around just doing a bit of street photography, as it’s so small, light and discreet. But at the end of the day, these just tools to get the job done. I try not to get too hung up over equipment matters.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I’m on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DarrinZammitLupiPhotography), Twitter (https://twitter.com/darrinzl) , Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/darrinzl/) , Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/darrinzl/) , Vimeo https://vimeo.com/user6455645 , Web www.darrinzammitlupi.com
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I do a lot of research beforehand, especially if I’m going to be covering something for the first time, irrespective of whether it’s a small local assignment or something more major. Standard kit in my bag nowadays is a Canon R5, a 1DX, 16-35mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm or a 100-400mm, together with a flashgun (something I very rarely use), extenders, Wireless File Transmitters, a MiFi unit, several memory cards and spare batteries, and a MacBook Pro. Sometimes I’ll add the 35mm f/1.4 or a fisheye, possibly a second 1DX, a Rode external microphone, but that really depends on what I’m going to be shooting. On things like migrant rescue missions at sea, I’ll also have a GoPro action camera mounted on my helmet shooting video – I wish the batteries lasted longer in those – battery usually runs dry after an hour and often rescue operations can last way longer than that. Back home, there’s plenty of other gear I can load into the car if I think I’ll be needing it – longer lens, tripod, monopod, stool, step ladder, lights, PPE kit. And I’m one of those guys who must own a gazillion camera carrying systems – always looking for the perfect solution to carry my gear but never quite finding it though I’m getting close!
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I don’t know if I have a specific style or not. Maybe others are better placed to notice that. I think I shoot pretty instinctively on the whole, while keeping my eyes open for the way great light and shadow can create different layers within the composition to make it visually interesting. Most of the photos I’m taking are to report the news, tell a story about daily life and so on – I’m just trying to show it to the world from my perspective while remaining faithful to the truth. If my perspective happens to be a particularly powerful one because of the kind of access I may have, then so much the better, because the impact is going to be so much greater.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: However many is needed - it can be a handful of images but can run into thousands if it’s something I’m working on over an extended period. Many stories also require me to shoot a lot of video. I wasn’t happy about the latter originally but I’ve since learnt to embrace and enjoy it.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I’ve just got home from a seven-week long assignment on a German NGO migrant search and rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean. I’ve done this sort of thing often before, but this time the duration was much longer because of quarantine requirements before and afterwards, as well as a lot of training and preparation on the ship before departure. This was a particularly intensive one, as I found myself having the additional role of rescuer on the RHIBs, which meant I had to play a very active part during rescues which often took priority over taking pictures. Prior to this, I’d had to take a long break from this sort of thing because of my late daughter’s battle with cancer, something which I also found myself documenting extensively.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: It’s hard to predict, especially when you work for a wire service…. I’ve got a couple of story ideas for features I’m tossing over in my mind, but nothing concrete or tangible at the moment. Right now I’m just getting some much-needed rest after this mission at sea while covering daily routine stuff and doing some commercial work on the side. Truth be told, most of my work is just covering the local colour of where I live and any newsworthy events.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: Favourite is the wrong word here, but the ones which are most special to me are definitely the ones of my daughter during her epic battle against cancer, even though she tragically lost that battle at the beginning of this year.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I want viewers to feel empathy with the people in the pictures, to understand that sometimes, they’re just fellow human beings in a very unequal world.
(All images © Courtesy of Darrin Zammit Lupi)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: It needs to knock my socks off, fire my imagination and make me feel I was right there with the photographer, feeling what he or she felt as they captured the image. It needs to linger in your memory long after you’ve stopped looking at it. Maybe I’m deviating a bit here, but the real challenge - I found out when working on a local newspaper and covering very routine stuff - was trying to make - let’s not say great, but interesting - photographs on what could often be very mundane and boring assignments.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: Pretty much as I just mentioned a moment ago.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I get very itchy fingers if more than a couple of days go by without my taking a picture. The drive to take pictures almost feels primal, I can’t not do it.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: Several years ago, ill-prepared for this sort of thing, I followed a police snatch squad making its way into a very unruly mob and ended up surrounded by rioters who turned on me and beat me unconscious before the police could intervene. It still doesn’t feel like the biggest risk I ever took on assignment, but it was the one time things went sour – it happened on a street I used to walk down practically every day, felt so unexpected almost to the point of being ridiculous and embarrassing, so the whole experience was extremely unnerving and surreal. I ended up suffering from mild PTSD, and that drove home the importance of looking after your mental health in this profession, nipping things in the bud before they develop into something worse.
That all being said, perhaps the biggest risk I took was giving up my staff job on the largest newspaper here and going freelance around five years ago. That’s gone pretty well so far. It enabled me to concentrate more on my work for Reuters and other personal projects.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: Covering migration the way I have been these past years, spending long periods out at sea, is pretty much a dream come true. Also, it would be amazing to get to have some long-term assignment in Africa covering something related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, something I have had a taste of doing in several African countries, but always for relatively brief periods, so I’ve only got to see snippets of the reality on the ground. If pressed to come up with something really different and new, I’d really like to be shooting more sports and cover the Olympics some day.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: Of the top of my head, I’d say curiosity, passion, empathy, creativity, stamina, a good sense of humour. Apart from the technical skills, naturally.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: I’m not saying anything new here, but in photojournalism, it’s absolutely unacceptable to manipulate images digitally apart from the most basic of corrections, such as the removal of sensor dust marks, cropping, and slight colour, exposure, shadow detail and contrast correction - Which is pretty much the widely accepted industry standard. Anything which manipulates the content of the image and alters its meaning or context, no matter how minor, sets you down a very slippery slope, one that can easily bring one’s entire body of work, or the industry itself, into disrepute. It’s the quickest way to blow one’s credibility to pieces.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: It goes without saying that one must always being truthful and honest in the way one reports and photographs a story. That includes not staging pictures, and always maintaining and respecting the dignity of your subjects. I guess you need to be following some sort of a moral code, not necessarily consciously, but it’s got to be there in who you are as a person, as a human being. What I’ve learnt whilst covering immigration intensively is that it’s so important to know when to put the camera down – not because some things should not be photographed or you should be censoring yourself - but because sometimes you just have to physically lend a hand to save someone’s life – something that happened a lot on this last assignment. My being allowed to join the rescue ship meant I was occupying a bunk that could have been taken by another rescuer, so during actual rescue operations, I had a dual role – that of a RHIB crew member and rescuer, and that of a journalist. Saving a life is always more important than taking a picture. That said, I always made it very clear to the NGO that I was still an independent journalist and not in any way one of their activists, unlike the rest of the crew. At the end of the day it worked out well - We saved some 600 people and I also came away with a very strong body of work.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: Absolutely not. We’re swamped by millions or billions of images daily, and it’s more important than ever to have trained, ethically-correct photojournalists creating powerful work within all that noise and chaff, so it hopefully stands out and continues to have the impact it’s always had.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Darrin Zammit Lupi: You don’t have to travel to exotic places or conflict zones to find great stories. Often you’ll find them in your own backyard, or on your doorstep.
Darrin Zammit Lupi
Darrin Zammit Lupi is an award-winning Maltese photojournalist whose main works focuses on migration in the Central Mediterranean. He has been a Reuters contract photographer since 1997. Through much of that time, he was also a staff photographer with Times of Malta, Malta’s biggest newspaper.
His work for Reuters and other international clients has been published in newspapers, magazines, books and online worldwide. He holds a Masters Degree with Distinction in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the University of the Arts, London, U.K.
In late 2014, he published his book ‘Isle Landers’, covering a decade’s work on irregular immigration and asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. The work from that collection has been exhibited or screened in several venues in France, U.S.A., Japan, Malta, Luxembourg, Australia, and Portugal.
He is the recipient of the Yannis Behrakis International Photojournalism Award 2021 for his photo documentary (part 1 , part 2) about his late daughter’s battle against cancer during the Covid pandemic.