Photojournalist Stanley Greene, whose coverage of war and social upheaval spanned the fall of the Berlin Wall, the war in Chechnya and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, died May 19 in Paris. He was 68. NOOR Images, the cooperative he co-founded, did not provide the cause of death, but Greene had been diagnosed with hepatitis C nearly a decade ago, and had been in declining health in recent weeks.
Photographer Andrea Bruce, a fellow member of NOOR, describes Greene as “a poet.” “His rage at injustices equaled his love for his friends, for photography and its power,” Bruce says. “That is the hardest thing to explain: his pure love for others, as if he was balancing the hatred he found in war.”
Greene, a dedicated film shooter, brought an artistic eye to stories he photographed over the course of several years. He described photography as “75 percent chance and 25 percent skill” and his own career as “an accident.” He happened to be in Berlin in 1989 when the border between east and west suddenly opened. “I heard the Berlin Wall was coming down so I drove to Checkpoint Charlie and started photographing demonstrators,” he told Jean-Francois Leroy, director of Visa Pour L’Image, in a 2012 interview before an audience at the LOOK3 photography festival. “The adrenaline got into me. I realized it was part of history.”
His photo of a young woman standing on the Berlin Wall in a tutu and passing a bottle of champagne, was published around the world. From there, Greene went on to cover conflict and suffering in Mali, Iraq, Somalia, Croatia, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and other countries. In a bio published on the website of NOOR Images, Greene said, “Sometimes I wonder if societies just lust for tragedies.”
In 1993, he was nearly killed while covering an attempted coup against Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Several months later, Greene began covering the war in Chechnya. He traveled to Chechnya about 20 times over the course of the next decade to document the gruesome brutality of the Russian invasions there. Greene sided unapologetically with the Chechens. In 2004, after the publication of his book Open Wound: Chechnya 1994-2003, he told Newsweek magazine, “I have been accused of having lost my objectivity. But when you sit on a fence and watch genocide without doing anything about it, you are as guilty as those who are committing it.”
In the 2012 interview at LOOK3, Greene offered a more tempered reflection on his work in Chechnya: “When you watch someone on your left and right being killed, you become angry, and have this naive idea that pictures are going to stop it. You go back more and more to show proof, and you hope pictures that get published will make people stop it. But it’s not the case.” (See “LOOK3: Stanley Greene on Film, Luck and Helping Young Photographers.”)
Greene won numerous awards during his career, including five World Press Photo awards, the 2004 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, and the 2013 Aftermath Project Grant; both grants were for his ongoing work in the Caucasus. Among his other notable projects were his five-year documentary of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and his project documenting the trail of electronic waste and its impacts in Nigeria, India, China and Pakistan. In 2010, he published Black Passport, a memoir and scrapbook which combined images from throughout his career with meditative reflections.
Sara Terry, founder of the Aftermath Project, notes, “Unlike many of his colleagues, who often concentrate on the most gripping, and sometimes most gruesome, images of conflict, Stanley’s war work was always imbued with soulfulness, with the sensibilities and lyricism of a poet.” Terry describes the image on the cover of Open Wound—showing the impression left in snow by a body—“one of the most haunting images of war ever made.” Greene used his Aftermath grant to revisit people and places he had photographed in Chechnya, producing “Hidden Scars.” Terry calls the series “a perfect companion to Open Wound, each work complementing and echoing the other, seen through one photographer’s eyes and heart.”
Greene was known for his generosity, particularly toward young photographers. “I believe in the community of photography. I believe we have to give each other a helping hand,” he said during the 2012 interview. He added, “It’s important for all of us when we discover talent to try to help them.”
Andrea Bruce says, “He encouraged female photographers, brought them into the light. And [he] had a profound appreciation for life, he believed in all of us. He is the reason NOOR is a family.”
Born in 1949 and raised in Harlem by parents who instilled in him a commitment to social justice, Greene protested the war in Vietnam as a teenager, and joined the Black Panther Party. “I was stupid,” he said of his Black Panther membership in the 2012 interview. “I was a big fan of Che Guevara. I was attracted to the Panthers by the berets and leather jackets.”
He began his artistic career as a painter, and used photography to catalogue his work until W. Eugene Smith–whose assistant Greene happened to be dating at the time–began to mentor him and encourage him to pursue the medium seriously.
Greene studied at the School of Visual Arts, shot some freelance assignments for Newsday, then moved to San Francisco, where he photographed punk bands. In the mid 1980s he moved to Paris to shoot fashion. He told Newsweek, “I was a dilettante, sitting in cafes, taking pictures of girls and doing heroin.” Around the same time Greene had his first success with his Berlin Wall pictures, a close friend died of AIDS, and Greene resolved to kick his drug habit and get serious about his photography career.
He was represented for years by Agence Vu, but he left in 2007 to co-found NOOR with Kadir van Lohuizen.
Despite health issues, on April 17, Greene gave a lecture at the World Press Photo Foundation festival in Amsterdam, where he had been honored numerous times.