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Q&A with Mario Testino

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(CNN) -- Peru-born Mario Testino is one of the world's most sought-after fashion photographers. Here, in extracts from his interviews with CNN, he talks about the power of photography, his South American roots and the 1997 images he took of Diana, Princess of Wales.

CNN: What is the power of photography?

Testino: It depends what sort of photography you are talking about. Photography conveys either a moment or emotion -- it documents something. In fine art you see this in a different way because usually what you see isn't always what (the photographer) is trying to say. Photography has many different purposes.

My favorite type of photography -- apart from fashion photography -- is journalism, which in a way documents something that exists in a very precise moment, that didn't exist in a moment before and will not exist ever again. This has influenced my work a lot -- I usually try to make my images look like they just exist, like no effort was put into it.

If you look at the description of photography it means "writing with light," so I guess it's a combination of capturing a moment at the right speed at the right composition -- different elements come into it.

CNN: On an emotional level, what can a photograph make you feel?

Testino: A photograph can make you feel so many different things. When you look at war photographs of Vietnam, or something similar, it makes you feel anguish and sadness and pain. Then in other moments, when you look at Jackie Kennedy walking down Fifth Avenue, that makes you feel glory and richness. I think you can feel so many things.

CNN: How do you build a relationship with the subjects you are photographing?

Testino: I get really obsessed with the person I am photographing. Some photographers treat models like models and they don't want to know anything about them. They want them to be a blank canvas that you go and paint with. Me, I like people. I realized a long time ago that a part of my life is my work and it's the biggest part of my life. So unless I enjoy this person that I am photographing, my life can be pretty boring if I treat them just like a blank canvas.

When I photograph, I'm really into the girl, you know, what the girl brings to the table, not just for their outside aesthetics. For their taste, their ideas, their humor, their personality in general. I often try to bring out the girl. And I guess that some people would think that it doesn't do a lot for me because I am giving the picture to (the model) really. I am making them more important than the lighting, the concept, the idea, what I am trying to show in my latest trick of lighting.

CNN: Talk us through the shoot with Diana, Princess of Wales. What tactics did you use to make her relax?

Testino: I always employ the same tactics -- I get nervous and I over-talk and over-perform and I'm just nervous, you know, in front of these people. I didn't really know how I was meant to react with Princess Diana.

To be honest, I didn't quite realize at the time the importance the shoot would have on my life because everyday we get to photograph somebody important. My life is to document those people, so when I went to photograph Princess Diana -- obviously, I was nervous and you know in a way unprepared really -- but I had this CD. I have quite a naff taste in music, I quite like cheesy stuff sometimes and I always listen to this French singer called Alida. I was blaring this music -- (Diana) probably thought I was a freak. I was showing her how the girls do the catwalk, how the men do the catwalk. I was trying to create an atmosphere of relaxation. There was a funny moment when I was trying to get her to dance. I repeated the same question, "Please could you dance," And she goes, "Alright, I know what you're asking me -- I'm just not Peruvian. You know, I'm English."

It's a weird thing for me because I never wished for this moment to come, I didn't know it was so important, I didn't know it would change my life and that for the next 10 years I would be known in England as Diana's favorite photographer.

The same thing happened to me when I photographed Madonna -- she was the first one who asked to be photographed by me. She spotted my work in a magazine. She'd been booked to do Versace by (photographer Richard) Avedon and something didn't go right and she asked Versace if she could do it with me and I was really unknown at the time out of our business. I was doing OK within the fashion business but it's only when I photographed Madonna that I became known outside of my business and people on the street started to hear my name.

When I delivered the photos to Gianni Versace he said that I really understood how to photograph clothes because he said it's a talent that few people really have -- how to make a dress look the best it can possibly look. He decided to put on the first page where he introduces the whole photograph that we had done, he wrote in Vanity Fair, in Vogue: "Versace presents 'Madonna by Testino.'" At the time I said to him, "Don't you think it's a bit pretentious to put my name?" He said, "Yeah, but it's my choice. It's me putting it, not you." That had a big impact on my business.

CNN: Talking more about both Gianni Versace and Diana, how did you react to both of their deaths? Many people around the world reacted to Diana's death, particularly, and they'd never met her. You had, so what was your reaction?

Testino: It's amazing the power she had to move you to do things that maybe you wouldn't normally do. I have to say that I've never really been very conscious about charity but after spending a day with her I was completely moved and driven to participate like she did. I was moved when we did these photographs, she was donating the money from the sale of the clothes for the charities -- for AIDS, cancer and landmines. And she moved me so much that I decided to donate that income from the pictures to the same causes. I felt -- not fulfilled because that's something that doesn't come to me as a natural thing -- but she moved me to do it so in a way I can understand people that were moved by her. She was like a little star floating around our lives.

I got linked to her for life when I went to visit Althorp, where her family comes from, they have a little museum for her and my pictures appear there. It was really odd for me to see my name in there -- you know, as part of her history and really I have no reason to be in there in a way.

CNN: Describe the conflict to do with commercial versus artistic fashion photography.

Testino: I like to believe that I'm not just a photographer. I quite like the idea of commerce and art mixed together, in the sense that our job as fashion photographers -- whether you like it or not -- can be done very commercially or very artistically. Our job is to make people want to buy clothes. That's what we do, and however much it is fascinating to have our pictures hanging on walls afterwards and selling as fine art prints, I think that our initial job is to sell clothes and magazines and whatever we're told to sell.

I like to believe that I do make a difference because my productions are expensive. I hire the best team of hair and make-up artists, the best team of set designers, the best stylists, the best models and when a company is spending all that money you want to make sure they're making a profit because otherwise you are redundant.

For a while I was criticized for it. Some people believe that as photographers we should be more artists than focus on commerce, but for me I chose fashion photography because I didn't choose to be a fine artist because I didn't want to be alone in a studio. I prefer seeing my work in a magazine and I like making a difference in how people see something.

CNN: What are your views on digitally enhanced photos?

Testino: I started with digital a couple of years ago. For many years my retouching was done by my hand. I really hate to retouch a person. I sort of clean. I like it when I get the pictures. I don't believe (retouching) will happen afterwards because I like reality.

I am obsessed with the idea that photography is taking a picture of a moment that really exists. Not everybody works like that. A lot of people work, apparently people have told me that they are at a photo shoot and when you look at the screen there is nothing like it will be afterwards.

I did not grow up with digital. I am 52 and I only decided to do that two years ago so I have not been trained to think in that way. For me, it comes in a later stage, I am not used to sitting in front of a computer, working and editing for hours. I prefer getting it right before.

When I take a picture, it is a picture already. The rest is just enhancing. Even if you do not enhance the girls, you can look at the screen and see, "Wow, it looks great." Everybody here is like, "What's it going to look like?" And it's a surprise.

CNN: What does it mean to you to be from Lima?

Testino: Lima offers a lot of different things for me -- it offers family, it offers friendship, it offers the beach, it offers a sense of relaxation I certainly put on a lot of weight because the food in this country is so incredible. And as much as I say I have to stop, I cannot since the food is so good.

It is very good to come back here. It recharges my energies and makes me relook at what I have done. In Lima, I can detach from my world. It does not have this stress of the constant demand of work and the fashion business in Peru is a growing industry but it is not established as such.

I am very much about promoting Lima because I think Peru and the mountains and the Incas, everybody is aware of those, but Lima is something that people should discover -- especially our food.

CNN: How does being Peruvian reflect in your work?

Testino: I think it totally reflects in my work. Being Peruvian means to come from the farthest place possible to get to Europe. Peru is the land of the Incas. It was the capital of South America, it was where the Spanish founded their empire and took over the Inca Empire and made it into a colony of Spain.

I think it is exactly that, I am a result of a merge of cultures. My family has different origins. My father come from Italian descent, my mother comes from a mixture of Spanish and Irish decent I was raised in an American school. It is many, many things. I'm very proud of being Peruvian, I would not want to be from anywhere else. I've lived in Europe for 30 years, but the moment I see our flag I get soppy in a way.

Testino: "I like to believe that I'm not just a photographer. I quite like the idea of commerce and art mixed together."



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