On the trail of photographs, ancient and modern

An odd side-effect of being an editor at Folio is our garnering of incidental obsessions. We work, solely, on wonderful books, so this is hardly surprising. To be fiction editor, well . . . as I see it, my job is to immerse myself as thoroughly as possible in the text we intend to publish. The immersion can at times go too far: after working on my ninth Patrick O’Brian seafaring novel in a row, I ended up living on a boat, in sympathy with Jack and Stephen (we’re now very much on first-name terms). Fortunately things don’t usually reach that stage (particularly as the last novels I’ve been working on have been by Mario Vargas Llosa and Margaret Atwood – apocalyptic and dystopic in turn). But the process – familiar I suspect to most Folio readers – does throw up some unlikely fixations. Ryszard Kapuściński certainly had that effect.

Travels with Herodotus is a hard to define volume which interweaves the great Polish journalist’s stories with those of the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus. It was Kapuściński’s last, most personal book, massively wide-ranging in time, theme and geography. But how to illustrate it – how to make of it the finest edition available? Various illustrator’s names were mentioned, but none felt quite right.

Then one of our designers, Karolina Maroszek, passed me a book of photographs taken by Kapuściński. These astonishing pictures which mix reportage with private revelation, an understanding of crowds and of individuals, eventually led us to the Green Gallery in Warsaw where his photos are lovingly held, and on an obsessive pursuit through his archive – some published, some not seen before outside his family.

We were trying to find images which somehow expressed the tone and atmosphere of a book which intermingles the eras of Kapuściński and Herodotus.  Could the expression on Darius’ face as he faced the Scythian hordes across the plains be the same as that of a Rwandan fighter in the midst of civil war? It seemed to me that Kapuściński was asking this same question throughout the book. Most importantly perhaps, this also appeared to be the central concern of his photography.

He was, above all, a portraitist – he understood individuals and what drove them – he befriended them, and listened to their stories  both in his books and, it seems, with his 35mm Zorca. Herodotus, we are told, had the same impulse, and it is this that links the great men; this that allows us to feel the kinship of common concern across the centuries. I leave it to you readers to decide whether the obsession paid off, but I for one am excited about the prospect of seeing the book finally in print early in the new year.


PS  fascinating lecture by James Daunt aired last night, rather corroborating earlier views on this blog re the mutual compatibility of e-readers and 'real' books.

 All photographs in this article © Ryszard Kapuściński, Estate