The adrenalin photographer

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Jesper Storgaard Jensen speaks to renowned Italian stuntman photographer Massimo Sestini who specializes in spectacular, often risky, aerial photographs

“I’m often told it’s impossible to take a certain photo, or forbidden to go into a certain area to take photos. At that moment, when I hear the words ‘not possible’, something clicks inside me. It’s like waving a red cape in front of a bull. This prohibition becomes a challenge and I have to prove that it is actually possible to take the photos.”

Massimo Sestini, renowned as the so-called ‘stuntman photographer’ from Florence, is sitting relaxed in his studio. That peacefulness contrasts starkly with what he was doing the day before our interview. A storm had ravaged the Ligurian coastline, causing massive destruction. The 49-year-old had sent himself on a daring mission: to photograph a natural disaster while it was happening. 

“I heard about the storm and widespread destruction early in the morning, so I rushed to Florence’s small airport. I managed to find a small chopper and a pilot who was willing to take off immediately. There was a strong wind, it was raining, and it felt like the chopper was made of cardboard. So it was not exactly a joyride. We took off a total of three times and we were spinning around in the air for several hours. It was so bloody cold. Near the end of the shoot, I was so cold I couldn’t keep a grip on my camera,” recalls Massimo with a chuckle.

However, the frozen fingers and risky ride paid off. The next day, when the natural disaster appeared in the headlines of all the Italian dailies, the accompanying photos bore the name of one person: Massimo Sestini.

Michelle Hunziker in the first official release from yachting team Mascalzone Latino, (Valencia, Spain)

From a different angle

A completely self-taught photographer, Sestini’s interest in photography was sparked when he received a Miranda DX camera for his 13th birthday.

“From then on, I was focused on photography. I set up a darkroom in the family bathroom where I developed mainly black and white photos. Later on, in high school, I shot all the annual photos of the school’s various classes. At 17 I started to shoot lots of photos during rock concerts in and around Florence,” he explains.

His first real job as a photographer was with the local daily, La Nazione. He learned how to track down important news, but it wasn’t until he left the paper to become a freelance photographer that he quickly discovered another key aspect to the business — there are only two categories of photos; those that sell and those that don’t.

“As a freelance photographer I soon learned that to sell your product you need to be able to offer something extraordinary. You have to be able to tell a story with your photos and, if possible, from a totally new angle. Remember, many dailies and news magazines are able to get their images at a low cost from news agencies such as Ansa, Reuters, or Associated Press. They will only spend money on photos if they can get something really special.”

This philosophy prompted Sestini to go airborne in 1991. He began shooting photographs of VIPs from a small airplane. One of his most lucrative and memorable paparazzi shots is of a bikini-clad Lady Diana on board a luxury yacht in Italian waters. He nabbed this shot from a two-motor sports plane. It was published worldwide and no doubt earned Sestini a king’s ransom.

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Soon he added feature photos to the paparazzi shots. In 1992, he went to Sicily on a feature assignment on the day after the Mafia assassinated prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone, who for years had investigated organized crime.

“The day after the murder of Falcone, Palermo was totally packed with photographers. Falcone had been killed by a giant dynamite explosive hidden under a road in the small town of Capaci, just outside of Palermo. He had to take this road to get to the airport. The deadly explosion made headlines worldwide and the photographers present were elbowing each other to get good shots. I was becoming fed up with the situation and, at that moment, it came to mind that I had to do something to get a shot that was different than those of my colleagues,” Sestini recounts.

He found that different angle — from the air. He rushed to Palermo’s airport, where in record time he managed to find a small Piper airplane and talked the pilot into taking off. Sestini’s aerial photos allowed the entire world to see how the Mafia bombing had left an enormous crater in the road.

Not work, passion

Sestini speaks with unbridled enthusiasm. He seems to be drawing figures in the air as he speaks. It’s obvious that photography is not a job, but a passion, especially when he has air under his wings.

“I love taking photos. It’s my job but also my hobby. But, as you know, in any job routine inevitably sneaks in at a certain point. However, after many years of photography, shooting from the air has not yet become routine and probably never will. It’s still fantastic,” he says thoughtfully.

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Over the years this passion has become his artistic trademark. He’s capable of creating photographic art like few other photographers. An excellent example is the April 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome. Hundreds of photographers from all over the world were present to immortalize this important event. But Sestini couldn’t be spotted among them.

“I knew beforehand that many photographers would be present, and it would have been difficult to work. They were all crowded on top of the colonnade circling the piazza. So it was obvious that I needed to be airborne that day,” he says, laughing.

He adds that this shot is probably the one he’s most proud of. You see dark clouds hanging heavily over the Italian capital above hundreds of thousands of mourners overflowing from the piazza that’s surrounded by Rome’s many brown and ochre-coloured buildings. At the end of the day, Sestini was the only one of hundreds of photographers who was able to showcase the funeral event from a bird’s-eye view.

When you look at Sestini’s collection of impossible images, it’s clear he’s a master at improvising and getting that important shot, even when he faces obstacles. Look at his amazing shot from another funeral, this time for the victims of the April 2009 earthquake in Abruzzo, Italy. During the funeral, a total of 287 coffins were lined up on red carpets. Many photographers, including Sestini, weren’t permitted to enter.

“The mass funeral in Abruzzo that year was such a huge event that I simply had to cover it from the air. I flew with one of my friends, who has a licence to pilot a chopper. Obviously, we didn’t want to disturb the ceremony in any way, so we chose to fly at an altitude of almost one kilometre. I used my most powerful teleobjective, a 500mm that weighs about three kilos.”

When you see the photo (above), you quickly understand why it has made its own personal trip around the world. Despite the sadness and horror of the event, Sestini’s photo has terrifying beauty, because it manages to give the viewer a clear idea of the event and its emotional implications that would have been impossible to understand through an ordinary image.

Aerial view of the ship Costa Concordia (Isola del Giglio, Italy)

Juiced up

Sestini’s passion when he speaks about aerial photography is tangible. Asked if he gets an adrenaline rush when going up in the sky with his camera, the answer comes quickly: “Oh yes, definitely.

“Shooting from the landing skids of a helicopter really gives you a crazy rush. Finding a chopper or a small sports plane can be a difficult job in itself. Keep in mind that often you have to act really fast. And before you leave, you really don’t have a 100-per-cent guarantee that the trip will go as you plan. You don’t know if you will actually be able to get the needed shots. It depends on the circumstances, especially the weather. So when you occasionally manage to get the dream shot that makes the paper’s front page, that’s a great moment,” he says with a wide grin.

But how does he actually do it when he’s perched on the chopper’s landing skids, is there a special technique?

“Very often I am standing outside the cockpit attached to the chopper with wires. I need to have both hands free to manoeuvre a 500mm lens. It therefore goes without saying that you need to be strapped in very well. I almost always shoot without a lens hood, to avoid the wind grabbing the hood. Apart from that, I usually try to point the camera lens directly toward the ground. This allows me to focus on geometry and search for frames to my photos.”

An example of this geometry is Sestini’s photo in the airspace over a beach in Ostia, outside Rome. It’s a shot of five rows of sunbathers on the beach. The lines and colours are so perfectly aligned that you clearly perceive the humour in this photo — a definite Marin Parr touch to it.

Trip inside the shipwrecked vessel Costa Concordia, with Navy divers (Isola del Giglio, Italy) [2]

It’s not easy to put a photographic label on Sestini. Over the years, he has worked in a wide range of genres — paparazzi, features, portraits, news, and the risky, off limits shots. So you’d think that would be enough, but recently Sestini has expanded his repertoire again. He photographs on land, in the air — and now underwater. Last year he joined professional divers exploring the wreckage of gigantic cruise ship, Costa Concordia, which capsized close to the Italian coast in January 2012. The photos complement his aerial shots in which the Concordia cruiser looks like a giant floating toy ship.

Trip inside the shipwrecked vessel Costa Concordia, with Navy divers (Isola del Giglio, Italy) [1]

Danger on the job  

Today Sestini runs the photo agency Massimo Sestini News Pictures. He has 10 employees covering Italy. On a daily basis he sends his photographers on various assignments around the country. They must be masters of many genres, from features to classic portrait photography. They also have to be able to handle some unusual tasks, including dressing up to sneak into off limits, high society events, such as weddings.

“These undercover challenges are the situations where the real art is not to get caught, to avoid a sharp kick in the ass,” he says, laughing.

The true danger, however, is when Sestini decides to go airborne for a photo.

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“In recent years I have experienced some rather dangerous situations. Once I was returning to Florence after a shoot, we were over the Majella National Park in the Abruzzo region. Due to a violent storm we ended up in a gigantic cloud. When we eventually came out of the cloud, we were too close to a mountain. We just barely avoided a disaster because the pilot managed to make an incredible manoeuvre.”

In another incident he climbed up a small tower to take some photos. When he climbed down, the railing he was holding onto broke loose and he fell four metres with a huge camera around his neck.

“I hurt myself quite badly, especially my left foot, which was almost totally smashed. I couldn’t walk and I had to stop working for nine months. That was really a bad experience. But when you are out on an assignment, you really can’t think about the potential danger.

“You need to focus on the right shot. The good shot from the right angle,” he concludes.

For more of Sestini’s work visit massimosestini.it