Photojournalist Yuri Cortez
"I try to transmit people's emotions through pure photojournalism"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / July 21, 2021
(Courtesy of Yuri Cortez)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Yuri Cortez: The possibility of thinking that through photojournalism we can contribute to having a better world by creating awareness of social problems and publishing the atrocities of a war for example. Through the image we can generate opinions that are often controversial, but it is important to put problems or issues on the table for discussion.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Yuri Cortez: Yes, I really like the Nikon D6 and I often use a 35mm 1.8 lens, although it always depends a lot on the type of assignment or coverage I have to do. I always prefer fixed lenses but sometimes zoom lenses are necessary.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Yuri Cortez: I always like to plan my coverages for know what to put inside my bag, but let's say I go out in search of daily life so I carry a 50mm 1.4 lens, a 35mm 1.8, a 70-200 2.8 zoom lens and a body of camera which is usually the Nikon D6 or D5. In addition, I always have backup batteries, the device with mobile internet, so if something important happens on the road or I find myself facing a complicated situation I always have what it takes to solve a coverage.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Yuri Cortez: My photographs always try to say that something good or bad is happening, I try to transmit people's emotions through pure photojournalism and my style is always contrasting: many times with the lights, many times with the parallel realities of such an uneven world and with great distances between people with economic power and those who have nothing.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Yuri Cortez: The number of photos I take always depends on the type of story I’m making and how many days it will take me to work on a topic. But on average I could say that about 300 photos and of those I choose between 20 and 30 images to transmit to the editing table.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Yuri Cortez: My last trip was to my country for vacations but the pandemic exploded in Latin America and in El Salvador, as in many countries the airports were closed, I could not return to my current country of residence, Venezuela, and I had to spend the quarantine and many months in my country. I took the initiative to work on the issue of how COVID-19 affected the population and I was impressed to see that many people died on the street or at home.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Yuri Cortez: The next coverage I have are the Olympic games in Tokyo which will also have the “ingredient” of the pandemic and the measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Yuri Cortez: It is very difficult for me to say that I have a favourite photo, after more than 30 years working as a photojournalist. I can say that I have impressive images and have been described by editors of large media as historical. The most recent I did during the semi-final of the World Cup in Russia when the Croatian players fell on top of me as they celebrated the scoring of their second goal against England. Were images that went around the world and had an important impact in all languages. I have a photo of soldiers and policemen carrying the body of a seriously injured comrade when a guerrilla attacks a town in El Salvador during the years of the civil war. This photo for me summarizes the cruelty of a war and the suffering of those who participate directly in it.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Yuri Cortez: I like that my photos reflect realities and shout without having audio that something is being done very wrong or applaud for those things that are done well. I like to draw the attention to the people who have in their hands the possibility to change situations or solve very common social problems in this world.
(All images © Yuri Cortez and Agence France-Presse AFP)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
Yuri Cortez: I think that if a photo attracts a glance and if it is published on social media for example and has a clear reading without people having the need to enlarge it to know what it is, then it is a good photo. The photo must have a balance and have a main point of attraction so that the message we intend to send is not distracted by elements around our objective. A good frame and a well aligned horizon.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Yuri Cortez: Within this world so loaded with millions of photos daily, editors always choose the photos of the day or the week and we can always appreciate how the images of relevant events standout such as breaking news but also the photos worked with light, the composition, nature and the environment. I think that to the extent that we produce photos out of the ordinary, are those images that many times we find in daily life or prior to coverage. I will tell an anecdote to illustrate a little more, during the visit of Pope Benedict to the city of Guanajuato in Mexico, there were thousands of people waiting for the passage of the mobile Pope, a street dog leaked right to the centre of the avenue where people cheered flags of the Vatican and the national flag of Mexico. The dog ran and I captured the moment that seemed curious to me, from that March 2012 to date the photo continues to be published on social media and although people do not remember or comment on my photos of the Pope that day, they do continue talking about the photo of the dog.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Yuri Cortez: I still think as at the beginning of my professional career that through photography we can generate changes and every day I think about accepting new challenges, looking for photos that impact consciences and I try to maintain a mental health that allows me to think about current issues.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Yuri Cortez: I have had to cover the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestine-Israel conflict and many difficult situations generated by coups, but I had never been shot directly with clear intentions to kill me until April 4, 2009 in the most peaceful country in Central America, Costa Rica. Some bodyguards of the famous Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen shot at the car that I was driving after refusing to hand over my memory cards from the cameras with some photos I had previously taken. It was an incident that marked my life a lot because it was also a fight between Goliath and David, the economic power of the couple influenced a lot even in a legal trial against the bodyguards who were finally sent to prison for attempted murder.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Yuri Cortez: I think my dream assignment would be to photograph the Northern Lights, photograph nature or go to the Amazon rainforest.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Yuri Cortez: I am impressed with how the needs to be a photojournalist have changed. Before, in addition to knowing how to take photos, you had to know how to develop the film, posit in the laboratory and transmit the images. Now, in addition to all that, you need to know how to use a satellite phone, know the compass and know how to orient it, know at least one or two languages other than your mother tongue, know or have gone through safety courses that allow you to know how to move around in risky situations, know photo transmission programs, know how to put together a FTP. My opinion about programs that help improve images is that you must learn to photograph using speeds, handle, and apertures and not have to go to a program to highlight elements of a photo. But use them in moderation to do the basic things of a laboratory. Every day there are new things to learn, the technology of the tools we use to work is so changeable that it forces us to keep up to date. Maintaining a stable mental health is important too, so doing physical exercises or walks that help eliminate the stress accumulated in work missions is very important.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Yuri Cortez: I think it is a problem of lack of professional ethics and lack of ability to handle the basic principles of photography, speed, lens aperture and ISOS. It is shocking that someone called a photojournalist does that.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Yuri Cortez: Professional ethics is learned in the university classrooms, so the path starts from there. You have to learn to respect the victims and keep your distance from their pain, keep the sources safe many times, and know that you should not cross that fine line that exists between right and wrong. It is a decision that is often made at a precise moment and is often disrespected because people believe that they can win an award or gain popularity and admiration for having achieved an image.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Yuri Cortez: I think that photojournalism is not losing importance but it demands every day more speed and less time to think about the photos, it demands to be more concentrated when you are editing and to think about putting together your story when you are taking the photos in the field. Although, it is true that there is competition with the images that are disseminated quickly through the social media, this does not always have the same quality compares to a photojournalist. Another important point is that here the issue of professional ethics plays an essential role again. Photojournalism has evolved like everything else in this world and it is very important to recognize the new proposals of young people and the new tools, now for example we have the possibility of aerial photos with drone and this allows us to show dimensions that were previously more difficult or more expensive to achieve. There will always be new proposals and new tools that allow us to take angles or shots that were previously impossible.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Yuri Cortez: I like to talk to young people in universities when they invite me to give lectures and one of the things, I repeat constantly is that they must always organize their work, be disciplined and very responsible, these three axes are important and very useful when you are in the field working and when they assign you a coverage that requires a lot of responsibility.
Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, he holds a degree in Journalism at the University of El Salvador specialized in Photojournalism. He started his journalistic career when his country and the Central American region were involved in a political and social crisis generated by civil wars, within this framework, his photographic experience was dominated by conflicts. So far, he has covered coups in Honduras, Haiti, Venezuela and Guatemala. The war in Iraq, Israel and Palestine, the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan, among others. Four World Cups, Olympic Games, Confederations Cup, America's Cup in various editions and other high-level sporting events. Political meetings of world leaders in different countries as well as natural and civil aviation tragedies. He has been working for Agence France-Presse (AFP) since 1991.