For over five decades, Bruno Barbey photographed across five continents for major international magazines, such as TIME-LIFE, Paris Match and Stern. He also published over 30 books. What he has left is an astounding legacy of photography, which, as he put it, “is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world”. While his reportage included wars and conflicts in countries such as Nigeria, Vietnam, Iraq, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Northern Ireland, Barbey never considered himself a “war photographer”. Instead, as he noted in 2017, “we are the hunters of souls…but hunters of a delicate kind, and with a touch of wizardry. We do not want to capture images for our own use but to reproduce them for everyone, to keep them for everyone.”
In 1964, Barbey joined Magnum, the renowned cooperative photo agency founded in 1947 by the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Maria Eisner and others. Barbey later become its President from 1992 to 1995 at a particularly difficult time when the art of photojournalism was beginning to founder with the waning of once affluent news organizations on which so many photographers relied to support their work. Nevertheless, he still managed to build up the agency. “He was a sophisticated and suave man; he was also generous with his time and thoughtful about the situations that he spent time covering,” recalled Magnum president, Olivia Arthur.
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As Jim Hoagland, a columnist and former foreign correspondent with The Washington Post, who was with Barbey in the Middle East including Iraqi Kurdistan, noted: “Beirut in the mid-1970s was not a fun place to be — unless Bruno Barbey happened to be in town. Bruno’s charm, his professionalism, and his ability to make his friends your friends set him apart. And if you happened to be in a watch tower using binoculars and long-distance lens to watch a sniper blaze away at unsuspecting targets, only to have the sniper turn his deadly gaze and bullets toward you, Bruno was definitely the unflappable companion to have. He instinctively understood the difference between risk and foolish risk.”
A gentleman and a believer in elegance
Barbey clearly marked many of those with whom he worked or encountered. As American author and journalist Jon Randal, who met him on various occasions during their professional coverage, observed: “I always remembered Bruno as exceptionally thoughtful and Hollywood-style handsome in the manner that only the French can be.” This was shared by many others, such as fellow Magnum photographer David Hurn, who saw him as “an elegant photographer, as good as they get”. French documentary film-maker Raymond Depardon described him as an “eternal child” who was “always curious about everything”.
Ed Cody, formerly of The Associated Press, then Washington Post, remembered this: “Bruno and I arrived together at the splendid Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay after spending several days in Goa. I checked in normally, but Bruno, just behind me, was asked to pay in advance. Feeling dissed, he asked to see the manager, demanding to know why he was being asked to pay up front. The manager, eager to avoid a noisy problem, explained that it was standard procedure for people with little or no luggage. ‘Zat may be sooo,’ Bruno said in precise but gloriously accented English. ‘But eet ees nut verrry eyleygant.‘ Whereupon the manager ordered him to be whisked immediately to his room.”
For Edward Girardet, editor of Global Insights Magazine, who first met Barbey in Paris, one of his concerns was how to find the funding for photographers, particularly the new generation, to continue with the sort of dedicated work many wished to embrace, but lacked the means. “Bruno considered it absolutely vital that photographers be able to explore and depict the soul of the earth and its people, something that only perceptive photography can achieve.”
Yet another Magnum collaborator, Indian Raghu Rai, described Barbey as a “gentleman photographer” who was “sensitive and caring to the core… Bruno’s instinctive and powerful images arose from his heart – and naturally touched every heart – a torchlight that will illuminate many searching minds lost in trendy photography.” Referring to a recent visit with Barbey and his wife, French filmmaker Caroline Thiénot-Barbey, to a Paris art gallery, Rai marvelled how this man could “connect with points of significance in other people’s lives…”
Photographer Jean Gaumy regarded Barbey as one of the pillars of the second generation of Magnum photographers, but also of those that followed. “Totally curious about the world, he knew how to calmly and finely analyze situations.” Bruno, he added, was one of those “rare people who – when I am in certain difficult situations or I have doubts – I wonder about, and think: What would Bruno have done?”
Barbey, who received numerous awards, including the French National Order of Merit, never forgot his roots in Morocco, where he was born. He always returned there whenever he could. In 1999, for example, the Petit Palais museum in Paris organized a major solo exhibition of his photographs shot in Morocco over a period of three decades. In 2016/2017, La Maison Européenne de la Photographie – also in Paris – hosted a retrospective which is currently still being circulated across the globe and has been published in his exceptional catalogue book: Passages. Elected as a member of the French Academy of Fine Arts in 2016, Barbey was in the process of working on a new project based on extensive photography in China when he died.
This article was compiled by the editors with input from various photographers and journalists, including Magnum Photos.