The Influence

Acclaimed war photographer Stephen Dupont traces his vocation back to the shock of first seeing Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.

By Kate Holden.

Stephen Dupont

Detail of Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco de Goya, and Stephen Dupont (inset).
Credit: Museo del Prado, Madrid (above), Alberto Morales (inset)

Stephen Dupont is a globally acclaimed photographer whose work explores the consequences of war. He has portrayed victims of conflict in Rwanda, Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere for 30 years. He was an official war artist for the Australian War Memorial twice and has won photography’s most prestigious prizes, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal citation and the World Press Photo, the Leica/CCP Documentary Award, the Bayeux War Correspondent’s Prize and three Walkley Awards.

He also makes limited edition artist books on a variety of themes such as exploration, imperfection and First Nations landscapes. From his home on the coast south of Sydney he recently produced Are We Dead Yet?, an online exhibition currently presented by aMBUSH Gallery in Canberra that depicts the ravages of Australia’s Black Summer fires and other landscapes stricken by climate change.

He chose to discuss Francisco de Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823), one of the “Black Paintings” from the walls of the Villa of the Deaf Man where Goya lived in Madrid.

Tell me, why this artwork?

I was inspired by painting. I’m a photographer, but painting has been a big thing for me with composition and light, just as important as photography. I went for the Goya because I found it when I was travelling. Looking back, you can see how things evolve and maybe that painting had something to do with it.

I left school after HSC and sent myself around the world for a year backpacking. I had black-and-white and colour film, photographing stuff for my diaries. I was just doing it for fun. But when I went to some of the museums in Italy and France and then of course the Prado in Madrid, it was almost spiritual. I saw these great master works and then went into the Goya space and saw this painting. This Saturn Devouring His Son. I’d seen it in a book but not in the flesh.

I just remember standing there looking at it. I was shocked. I don’t think I’d been shocked by any painting until that point, but this painting genuinely shocked me and I thought, this is something I haven’t seen before. It’s the ultimate savagery, it doesn’t get any more grotesque.

In that period when Goya painted those expressive, almost Modernist paintings, he was really on the cusp. He was leaving the Old Masters behind. Almost the ultimate Modernist. Even modern paintings of Dali, Picasso … I couldn’t remember seeing anything this disturbing before. I looked at it for a long time and I remember wondering what was going through this artist’s mind when he painted it, what were his motives, what does this really represent? And I was sucked in: by the violence, by the texture, the monstrosity of it – and the eyes. I remember the eyes of Saturn, the eyes were just so wild, and I thought, here was an artist who was expressing the real trauma of what was happening, through the eyes. I was just drawn to the power of this image.

When I think back on my initial response to that painting and then I look at what I’ve done in those 30-odd years since, there seems to be a connection. The connection, in terms of subject matter, is death and conflict. After I saw that painting I started to get interested in photography and the work I was inspired by first and foremost was by a man called Don McCullin, the English war photographer who did incredible work during the Vietnam War and many others. A critic described it as “Goyaesque” – one particular photograph that was incredibly macabre. Just that description alone is interesting, considering my own journey with Goya.

From the painting to photography to McCullin and then seeing these Goya connections … It’s also, even looking at the painting now, that I can see a real unusual perspective in how he painted that. Cutting off the legs and chopping away parts of the body and only showing elements of it was really quite radical, I thought. It reminds me of what photography can do. Free framing, without thinking too much; you’re moving with the moment, you’re moving with the subject, to capture that moment, and I feel that Goya has captured something in painting that could almost be that way, and it has what I think makes photography powerful.

When I go out and photograph people, my main connection is the eyes, the gaze, the expression in my subject’s eyes, and I’ve been thinking about what the eyes of Saturn were doing to me when I was looking at them in the Prado. The question: How can I bring something to the gaze, the eyes of my subjects, that would have the same kind of power? I don’t mean in conflict or violence only, but in everything. Everything leads to the gaze, at least in the way I try to photograph: to find a meaning in someone’s expression, in their eyes. That’s a really difficult thing to capture. The gaze in the painting is just mad, it’s absolutely crazy. Goya was going through a lot of pain and suffering personally, not being able to hear. Maybe Saturn is him. Maybe it’s him crying out.

When I was looking back I thought: If Goya was a photojournalist now, how would he photograph? What would he do with a camera? Then I started to think, well, if he could paint something like that and have a father eating a child in that kind of violence, if he can go to that place … I started to think of the sorts of places that I’ve been to. Why did I go to cover the genocide in Rwanda, where I saw similar things? Why have I spent a lifetime covering conflict and looking at death? Why do I do that? In the same way I would ask Goya, why would you paint such a thing?

So I found this kind of connection, in the question of what draws you to that kind of image. Whatever Goya was imagining or interpreting in that particular painting, I’m equally documenting.

One of the common readings of that painting is about Chronos, time, devouring the future generation, and this speaks to your recent work on climate change.

I never thought of it like that. But yes. Time is devouring each of us, me too. We’re killing the planet, killing each other, killing ourselves.

I look at what I’m doing with Are We Dead Yet? and the climate crises. And going back to Goya and his influences and his ideas, the macabre and the madness of humanity, all these things I feel in my own work. I didn’t know anything about that when I saw the painting, but if I look at my life sometimes I can certainly imagine that we have similar interests, maybe are inspired by similar things, maybe we want to project our art into that kind of world: the madness, the inhumanity of the world. That world of war, of conflict and where it comes from … it’s certainly a place that I feel I can say something about. Maybe he felt that way too.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Stephen Dupont".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.