Pete Muller: TIME Picks the Best Photographer on the Wires

Pete Muller—AP Photo
Pete Muller—AP Photo
February 4, 2011. Southern Sudanese from the pastoralist Taposa tribe take part in a nationalist celebration in the remote area of Kapoeta. Support for southern independence was strong even among groups in the most desolate areas.

Of the millions of photographs moving through the news services—known as “the wires”—this year, the work of Associated Press freelancer Pete Muller, 29, stood out. His exceptional photographs—focused on Africa and particularly Sudan—take an individual approach to storytelling, one that combines a distinctive aesthetic with journalistic integrity.

The U.S.-born photographer moved to Sudan in 2009 knowing that the country was at a critical point in its history. Sudan had been devastated by decades of brutal civil war between the Arab-Islamic north and largely Christian south and was on the cusp of formal division. This July, southern Sudan became the world’s 193rd country, and Muller knew that very few journalists were in the region covering the story. “I thought that spending a few years documenting southern Sudan’s transition to independence would be of value to the historical record and might shed light on an underreported but geopolitically significant story,” he says.

Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography says Muller’s work showcases “a distinctiveness of voice combined with a fairly unique access.” Muller has found subject matter that balances the AP’s desire for news with a personal passion for more in-depth story telling. “I hope that, when appropriately paired with words, it contributes to the record of South Sudan at its long-awaited birth,” the photographer says of his work. “In an intellectual sense, I hope that it underscores the challenges of national identity and nation-states that exists in countless countries across the world and has, for centuries, been the source of immense bloodshed.” Internationally, where the majority of AP’s photo content is staff-produced, Muller is a rarity. He has been working for the AP since April 2010 and is one of a handful of freelancers the wire service works with, in part because of his location in Africa. In addition to his long-term work in Sudan, Muller has shot several stand-alone portrait stories, including one about rape victims in the Congo, in the last year.

Along with the work of a select group of established staff photographers—sprinkled across the bigger news agencies—Muller’s work diversifies the output from the wires to include work that differentiates itself from the standard news assignment fare. Other wire photographers who’ve also succeeded in adding their personal touch to their reportage work this year include Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly, who produced a topographic series from Afghanistan and Libya, the AP’s Kevin Frayer, who shot an essay offering a different perspective on Afghanistan, the AP’s David Guttenfelder’s, notable for his series in North Korea and Japan, and the AP’s Rodrigo Abd, who used a box camera that developed the film inside the camera to make portraits of indigenous Guatemalan women. Getty’s John Moore deserves special mention for his work in Somalia, which was sandwiched among his coverage of some of theyear’s biggest news stories, including the revolution in Libya and the Occupy protests.

In an era of image saturation where it is more difficult than ever to differentiate one set of images from another, this more personal approach is finding support from the within the agencies. “We want photographers to have a voice and as long as that voice is journalistically sound and is as objective or impartial as it needs to be meet AP standards for fairness and accuracy,” Lyon says. “It is Important to have diverse group of photographers and it is important to let them express themselves—to let them to do something that, once upon a time, was not common and add even unheard of in the wire services.”

Although the lion’s share Muller’s work this past year went out through AP, he also worked directly for the New York Times, the Times of London, Foreign Policy and others publications. Muller has what Lyon describes as a triple threat: an accomplished lensman and writer who applies his skills within the rigors or art as well as journalism. “We’re not just about pretty pictures,“ Lyon says. “We want our pictures to say something, there’s a story there.” Muller’s work bares creative testament to this ethic. His photographs bring his stories more attention through his creative process, which balance a unique vision and aesthetic with journalistic integrity. And in this last year, Muller has been peerless in raising the bar for photography on the wires.

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