Stanley Greene’s Rock & Roll Journalism Recorded War and More

One of the world’s great photographers died in Paris on Friday, but not before he had inspired a whole generation of journalists.

Olga Kravets

MOSCOW—One conversation with the American photographer Stanley Greene turned me into a reporter.  It was a late night in the fall of 1999, during the second Chechen war. A giant black man in black leather pants and dirty cowboy boots walked into the café at our hotel. Two Leica cameras hung around his neck, a black bandana covered his head. Stanley sure stood out in that room full of war reporters. He stood out in any room.

But it was not his striking looks that made Stanley a legend among journalists of the post-Soviet space. To us, young beginners, Stanley was special because all he was thinking about was journalism, restless, a powerful ocean of commitment bringing us ideas like polished stones even after a long day of shooting in combat zones. We did not know that first night that we were dining with one of the greatest war photographers of his generation.

Stanley pronounced his words very clearly, punctuating his sentences with his long fingers covered in silver rings, as if he were playing some invisible musical instrument. His English was beautiful, almost poetic. Stanley Greene’s inner music came right from the core of his heart, which you knew was huge from the moment you met him, and that music was rock, of course. You could almost see his favorite Tom Waits and Miles Davis playing along.

His message for us was simple. I still remember it clearly: “We are witnesses of the crises. We return to places where people suffer to hear their stories,” Stanley told me. “Because if we do not hear and tell them, nobody will.”

After talking with him, it was absolutely obvious what to do: get off your chair and go back to the people, to the field. Now, when I cannot Skype with Stanley, and thank him for his mission; cannot even say goodbye to him, I can only take solace in the memory of my teacher share with so many other reporters he inspired in Russia, and Ukraine, in the Middle East, in his latest hometown of Paris, in his original hometown of New York, in the Netherlands, in the Caucasus, in dozens of countries where Stanley had friends, where people witnessed his courage and heard his heart’s music.

Greene came to cover Russia’s post-Perestroika crises in 1993, after taking some iconic pictures of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Moscow was a hot story, where dozens of big Western publications had bureaus full of staff, solid budgets. Some bureaus even had full-time photo editors.

Greene never stopped working. He found his stories and stayed on them. He was almost killed inside the Russian White House when tanks were storming the building during the violent unrest of 1993; he was kidnapped by Chechen guerillas, and caught pneumonia, but, as he told us, his kidnapper warmed him up with her body. We knew and loved Greene’s stories.

He photographed dead victims of serial murders, of the first Chechen War, of the second Chechen war, victims of terrorism, prostitutes, the family members of the crew of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk–Stanley covered big stories in Russia for two decades.

“It seemed that nothing could ever kill him, he risked his life to save his colleague’s life, worked in highly polluted areas without any protection,” Stanley’s long time girlfriend, photo editor Anna Shpakova, told me.

By 2001, Shpakova and Stanley had a cozy home, their joint creation in the heart of Moscow, on Old Arbat, a pedestrian street. The place was often crowded with reporters, artists, intellectuals from all over the world.

Stanley met Shpakova in 1999, when she was 25 and he was 50.  Anna was working on her master’s dissertation about post-traumatic stress disorder and interviewing war reporters at Moscow State University.

“He was a very strong, unbending man; his work was the meaning of his life,” Shpakova told me on Thursday night at her house, still full of Greene’s childhood drawings, photographs and personal things, like a private museum.

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And he always told the truth about his wild youth New York and in California. At his last master class in Russia in February, in Saint Petersburg, he told students that his mistakes made him the photographer he was. “His voice, his stories enchanted me; I was touched by how much time Stanley spent talking with each student,” the organizer of the master class, Katya Bogachevskaya, told me.

Wars and the humanitarian crises that sought out again and again took Stanley away from Russia to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and many other places of conflict.

On one of our road trips in Ukraine, Stanley told me bitterly about his constant struggle to finance his work, the lack of assignments, of funding—he invested everything he made in his next project. What made him truly happy was NOOR, the photo agency he had created together with his friends and fellow war photographers. "NOOR is the light in my life," he told me, playing on the idea that noor means light in Arabic.

Stanley returned often to Chechnya, a place where he took some of his best black and white masterpieces. Many of them made it into his book, Open Wound. A Russian documentary photographer and videographer, Olga Kravets, worked as Stanley’s assistant in Chechnya in 2013. “People recognized Greene, stopped us on the streets and thanked him for his work during the war; it was striking to see how much he cared about people.”

“In spite of rough times for journalism, he always stayed professional, faithful to journalism, objective,” Kravets said. “I remember now how he called me, ‘Grozny girl’ and the way he always said goodbye, ‘Stay safe and live,’ and I cry.”

In 2014, Stanley and I traveled in war-torn Donbas, eastern Ukraine, looking for stories about people living among the gas fields. The sun was going down, and militia at one of the checkpoints were already drunk. The armed men, some in masks, detained us, collected our cell phones and drove us to a prison in the rebel-controlled Luhansk region; they said they had nothing to lose, and could execute us. While most of us reporters in two cars were thinking of the days and nights ahead in some dirty basement, Stanley seemed bored.  He looked calm and distant, like a busy man who was deprived of his chance to do his important work.

Less than a month ago, a freelance photographer, Sergey Ponamarev, last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, attended Stanley’s lecture in Amsterdam. “Imagine Greene in his black hat, a black coat, standing inside a black box reading his text and throwing his notes on the floor—it was a performance about rock-and-roll of photography,” Ponomarev said.

It is hard for me to write these lines, so I decided to say it at the very end: Stanley Greene died in Paris Friday morning at the age of 68, which seems to me unreal, because he was always the the strongest of us. And he made all of us stronger. He shared so much of his inner music with us, it is inside us like a heartbeat, wherever we go, whatever the risks. His thoughts, his ideas, his inspiration, his rock and roll music of journalism… Stanley, today we cry for you, tomorrow we will do what you taught us to do.