Pellegrin studied architecture at L'Università la Sapienza, in Rome, and after three years he decided to change career directions and left to study photography at Istituto Italiano di Fotografia in Rome, from 1986 to 1987. During these years, he met the Italian photographer Enzo Ragazzini, who became his mentor.
Between 1987 and 1990 he began working on his first photography projects in Italy, concentrating on immigration, the circus and homelessness. He was also working as an assistant for a number of photographers and videographers. In 1991, after completing a well-paid assignment for the Italian state TV channel, he bought a second-hand car, filled it with his prints and negatives, and moved to Paris where he met Christian Caujolle, who invited him to join Agence Vu, which represented him for nine years.
In 1992 he began working on personal projects, on subjects such as the Romani people in Italy and Bosnia and made several trips to the Balkans after Albania opened its borders. Through Christian Caujolle, he met Grazia Neri, who represented him in Italy. Between 1994 and 1995, he started working on a project about children in post-war Bosnia and travelled in Italy, Romania, Mexico, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Kenya for a project on HIV/AIDS. In 1995 he won his first World Press Photo award for his work on AIDS in Uganda.
The year after, he was awarded the Kodak Young Photographer Award / Visa d'Or at Visa Pour l’Image photography festival for his reportage on AIDS in Uganda and participated in the World Press Joop Swart Masterclass. In 1997 he published his first book, Bambini, on his work about children in Bosnia, Uganda and Romania and was awarded the City of Gijòn International Prize of Photojournalism for his work on children in post-war Bosnia. In 1998 he worked on a project for Médecins Sans Frontières, which became a book, Cambodia, and a traveling exhibition. He won a World Press Photo award for his work in Cambodia. In the same year, he was given his first assignment by Kathy Ryan at the New York Times Magazine to work on blood feuds in Albania with reporter Scott Anderson. This assignment with Anderson marked the beginning of a long-time work collaboration that will result in over ten cover stories for the magazine.
Between 1999 and 2000 he travelled frequently between Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Serbia during the war, creating an in-depth reportage on the conflict and its aftermath. He won a World Press Photo for his coverage of the conflict in Kosovo. In 2000 he was offered a contract position at Newsweek magazine by Director of Photography Sarah Harbutt and was awarded the Hasselblad Foundation Grant for Photography for his work in the Balkans. He also published the booklet L´au De La Est La, with his work on children in post-war Bosnia.
In 2001 he became a Magnum Photos nominee and won a World Press Photo award for his work on anti-terrorism in Algeria. During the same year, he won the Leica Medal of Excellence for his work in the Balkans. He began to travel extensively, covering news events mainly in the Middle East and Africa. In 2002 he published the book Kosovo 1999-2000: The Flight of Reason and won the German Hansel-Mieth prize for a story in Bosnia. In 2003 he travelled to cover the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2004 he began travelling to Darfur to cover humanitarian crisis and won the Olivier Rebbot prize by the Overseas Press Club, USA, for his coverage of Darfur. He also won a World Press Photo award for his reportage on Yasser Arafat’s funeral. With Thomas Dworzak, Alex Majoli and Ilkka Uimonen, created Off Broadway, a traveling multi-media project. He became a Magnum Photos full member in 2005. In the same year he covered the aftermath of the tsunami and hurricane Katrina and won two World Press Photo awards, one for his work on the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and another for the reportage on the backstage of fashion shows in NYC.
Between 2005 and 2006 he worked on a project about the Guantamano Bay detention center and its former detainees in Afghanistan, Albania, Kuwait and the U.K. In 2006 he travelled to Lebanon to cover the war, where he was injured in Tyre. He won a World Press Photo award for his work in Lebanon and the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his long-term project on Islam. In 2007 he was awarded the Robert Capa Gold medal by the Overseas Press Club for his work on the war in Lebanon and won the Leica European Publishers Award for Photography, as the result of which his As I Was Dying was published in seven languages. 2007 was also the year of Double Blind, with his work on the war in Lebanon, with a text by Scott Anderson. He also won City of Gijon International Prize of Photojournalism for his work on Lebanon. During 2008 he travelled to Syria and Jordan for a story about the Iraqi Diaspora and won the Deutsche Fotobuchpreis 2008 for the book As I was Dying and The Lucie International Photography Awards 2008 Book award. He also worked on the New York Times Magazine annual Oscar’s Portfolio.
In 2009 he was awarded Getty Image Professional Editorial Photography Grant for his work on the Iraqi Diaspora in the Middle East and a STERN Spezial Portfolio was published with a monograph of his work. In 2010 published the 5th annual Magnum Photos Fashion Magazine, STORM and the 130th number of the Photo Poche collection. The book Dies Irae was published in 2011, when he travelled to Egypt and Tunisia to cover the revolutions in North Africa. On assignment for Zeit Magazine, covered the Japan’s earthquake and tsunami destructions. He also went on a road trip from San Antonio to Oakland for the Magnum project “Postcards from America” with Jim Goldberg, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky and Susan Meiselas.
In 2012 he published the book Paolo Pellegrin (Kunstfoyer der Versicherungskammer Bayern) and won a World Press Photo Award with his reportage about the tsunami aftermath in Japan. On assignment for Zeit Magazine, he went to Guantanamo once again, to document the U.S. Naval Base and detention center conditions under the Obama administration. He worked in Rochester and Miami for the Magnum project “Postcards from America”. On assignment for Zeit magazine, made a second trip to Rochester.
In 2013 he won his tenth World Press Photo Award with his reportage about Rochester, New York, Photographer of the Year in the 70th annual Pictures of the Year International competition and the prestigious Dr. Erich Salomon Prize 2013.
In 2014 Pellegrin's photos of the band U2 were used in the digital booklet accompanying U2's album Songs of Innocence.
Main solo exhibitions
1993 - The Homeless, Visa pour l'image, Perpignan, France
1996 - AIDS in Uganda, Visa pour l'image, Perpignan, France, 1996; EFTI, Centro de Imagen, Madrid, Spain, 1997.