Category Archive: Friends
A few months ago, at a Belgrade photo night called Periskop, I saw Marija Janković present one of her new projects about her time as a patient at a Serbian maternity hospital, which she calls GAK. The first time I saw this work, with Serbian text, I could only really react to the photographs and the audience around me, who were often left gasping. After the event she told me the project would soon be available on her new website with English captions. I found the quotes she paired with the scenes she had photographed to be extremely compelling. They added a fascinating depth to the reportage and made me think of a slew of questions about the project and the hospitals themselves. Janković has generously agreed to publish the complete series GAK here on dvafoto and to answer some questions about her wide-ranging projects.
I’ve long admired Janković’s approach to her work and the novel ways of framing some very serious topics in Serbian history. I’ve known Janković for a few years but we had not had the chance to have an in-depth conversation about her work and what she was accomplishing. It is my pleasure to present this interview with Marija where she elaborates on GAK and some of the other projects she has completed in her career. Visit her website www.marijajankovic.com for these and many more projects.
dvafoto: Where are you from and what is your background? How did you come to be a photographer?
Marija Janković: I grew up in Sombor, a small baroque, multiethnic town in [the Serbian province of] Vojvodina. Before the WWII, four large ethnic groups lived together in this quiet little town. Now there are two, plus the minorities. My father was from Kosovo and this mix was important for my future work.
Visual art is pretty much all I ever wanted to do in my life. I went to a design school, than I studied painting. I quietly painted still-life until the day in 1999 when the bombings of Serbia started [ed: the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia]. It was the first time I experienced fear for my life. The involvement of the media was shocking to me. I thought that the news was supposed to follow the events, not to create them. On one side there was the Milosevic’s manipulated news, on another, the Western manipulated news. From that moment, there was two ways: close your eyes or get involved. I chose the second. I wanted to understand how the media machine looked like from inside. And I also got my first decent camera, so when I had to make my living, working in the newspapers was the solution. And I loved it, at least at the beginning…
Some of the work on your work on your new website is classic reportage, and other projects are very conceptual, featuring dioramas and models. Do you work on both of these sorts of projects simultaneously? Or do they represent different periods of your career?
If there were only two… hahaha. It’s a parallel work, sometimes more conceptual, sometimes more photojournalistic. Sometimes conceptual becomes documentary, and reportage artistic. I had, for years, worked in the press in a more traditional way (and I still do). I noticed that there are some patterns on how to make a good picture for publishing. Once I learned how to do it, I got bored. To me it was more interesting to do things differently. Unfortunately, at least here in Serbia, there is little space for that. But if I am touched by something I’ll do it, published or not. And then I decide about the approach. Not being under pressure of publishing gives you a beautiful freedom. But it also means that you will work on some other creepy, non-creative photo job to support yourself.
What do you see as the difference between these two ways of working, and why do you choose one approach over the other? How did you first come to make set-up scenes for your pictures?
When stock photography became hysterically popular I thought to join the crowd. In my shopping basket for the set I just dropped the bag of cheap plastic soldiers; it was a strong symbol to me. Back in the studio I made a salad spiced with figurines and I was suddenly in the war zone. [ed: see Janković's War Story]. Pictures from the front line followed me from childhood and in 1999 I made collages with pictures I found in newspapers from the war zones around the world. I got a wish to make my war material but I was aware that, despite my wish, I will have little opportunity to go and cover one. So I created my own. That way I could be critical about whatever I wanted. As I said: freedom.
From the series “Bor” by Marija Janković
Did you feel there were limitations in the traditional reportage you practiced before? Are there freedoms that you are able to explore with these studio photographs? Do you consider them documentary? Either if so or if not, is that label important to you?
Two of my stories (Staro Sajmište and GAK) would be impossible to make as a classical reportage but they are based on true stories. Sajmište happened 60 years ago and many people photographed the actual place, or wrote historical essays or books. For me it was important to show the feelings of the victims and not only the political background. This is how I chose testimonies of survivors, to give them a second life. During the process of making every picture, besides double-checking facts, I had to ask to myself “Who am I in this story? Am I a victim, a reporter, a German soldier or a simple citizen?” As a matter of fact, there are only few original pictures from the time of the camp and none from the period when it was the “Judenlager”. But we are aware that the Germans made pictures and movies. In the way I tried to make the missing pictures. Later I found only one single picture of the “Semlin Judenlager” in the archives of the Novi Sad museum.
Also GAK wouldn’t have been possible as a classical reportage. No woman would tell these things with a camera or a microphone pointed at them. Because I was a patient, without camera, in the intimate atmosphere, women shared to each other their life stories. Gynecological hospital is like a micro extract of our society.
Now we see all the fantastic work from photographers reporting from Kiev. I must admit that I would like to be there, I love the adrenalin of the protests and teargas. I did cover protests in Serbia, but we all know how classic photojournalism can also be manipulative.
Labeling… I couldn’t care less. If somebody needs labels they have all the freedom to attach some to my work but I don’t start my project by giving them this kind of definition. I begin with the problem.
Your work takes on some very complicated and occasionally sensitive topics, such as concentration camps, the destruction of a mining town and loss of the German community in Vojvodina. What motivates you to photograph these stories?
In Serbian society many historical topics are either forbidden or rewritten and people tend to go with the mainstream flow. Nobody ever told me what happened with the Germans after WWII. First, it was dangerous to speak. Then people forgot that thousands of German women and children were kept prisoners by the Partisans in camps in ghost villages in Vojvodina. Thousands died from hunger, cold and diseases. That story was challenging. Many of these German men, husbands and fathers, committed crimes, but we tend to generalize. Women and children were not guilty. It can sound naïve, but I’m often driven by the simple feeling of “justice for everyone”. Some of this motivation comes from the feeling of guilt for the crimes that the Serbs committed, against the will of many Serbian citizens.
Across the body of your work I feel there is a very thoughtful and determined confrontation with certain areas of Serbia’s history that I don’t see many other artists or photographers tackling. Do you in any way see all of the series you’ve published as part of a single, larger narrative? And why do you focus on Serbian stories rather than regional or global issues?
I don’t see Serbia as a very happy or healthy place. It’s country with a constant problem of finding its place and direction. For example, you can’t be a patriot and in the same time say that your people committed crimes. I think opposite: first as a citizen, and then as a photographer. But no matter how much I’m stressed about many things in Serbia, it’s my country and my people and I wish them well. I would like that the Serbs know their history better and that Serbian women (and all other women in the world, for that matter) have better conditions, more human rights, more jobs and better work conditions. I traveled around the region and in Europe and made some good pictures, but there are still a lot of topics to be covered in Serbia. I’m sure that the female stories are similar in the whole world but I think we should start with what we know the best. And experiment.
Are there other artists, from Belgrade or the region, that you look to for inspiration or camaraderie?
Ten years ago I was more inspired by my colleagues work than nowadays. Many of them are good friends and I love to see their work, but at this point I have the feeling that I walk alone. Working with dolls is not my invention. Dolls are a universal symbol and inspiration to many artists. There is always something traumatic about these replicas of humans. However my recent work is more appreciated by my colleagues abroad. I don’t inspire myself just with photographs. Books, fine art, music, daily life and news, global news… All this make us who we are.
I see your latest series GAK and your photograph “Original and 52 notarized photocopies, 2012″ as a direct and logical continuation of the investigations that you completed in your earlier work. But it is much more personal. How has your work lead up to these projects? Do you feel better prepared now to document your own life and the people around you?
In the past few years I went through some difficult personal times. It’s not accepted today to complain, or to be weak. We should be up to every mission all the time, but we witness many complications due to unresolved personal problems. Domestic crime is very common in Serbia. I love the stories that nobody else talks about. I did it in my name and the name of other troubled women. Putting yourself out there is much more difficult than photographing hooligans (this is my artistic side). “Original and 52 notarized photocopies” was very popular in the Serbian media; it became a symbol of bureaucracy. It’s my baby on the picture and my documents, but the problem is universal, and concerns the whole region. During pregnancy, instead of working, I had to spend time collecting useless documents. If I had found that story and those documents somewhere else I would have used it. But one day I just realized that I am the story and the reporter in the same time. Hahaha.
“Original and 52 notarized photocopies” by Marija Janković
As a man – therefore not a patient – and as a foreigner who does not speak Serbian well, I cannot conceive of having any access to the stories of these women in a gynecological hospital if it was not for your reporting. The anecdotes and quotes struck me because of their very distinct and uncomfortable voice, I suppose because they are phrased in such a frank and unguarded way, overheard and not polished for quotation. This, coupled with your photographs of a dirty model of a hospital filled with ghoulish nurses, makes an interesting approach to reportage.
How did you come to conceive of this way of telling this story? Did you consider other more traditional approaches? What advantage (as I was asking above) did you see in telling the story with models and quotations? Do you see any disadvantages with presenting this story in this way?
As I mentioned above, I didn’t set out to make “GAK”. It wasn’t a situation where I made a decision and strategy, like we do for the stories. I was kept [in the hospital] in a t-shirt, with a dying mobile phone, and one notebook. During the next 5 days I was surrounded by sensitive women talking about their deepest secrets and fears. Two weeks after I found the notebook, it clicked together. I was just open to see it. Now, finding a text for this kind of work is difficult. Also, if I imagine the same text with the portraits of those women, it would be less strong. It’s like a painting of a shoe by Van Gogh; it’s much more exciting than a pair of real shoes.
I have my “test audience”, my closest friends and colleagues and I send them the projects to get some feedback before I publish more sensitive things. Most women replied “I can donate you a story!”, and men: “I didn’t know, I feel sick, great work but I can’t look at this twice”…
From time to time we read reports about hospitals and what is noticeable is that people react more to some dodgy pictures that patients made themselves with their mobile phone. You need to be extremely upset to take things in your own hands. 99% of these women accept with resignation these conditions, saying “What can I do?”
How would you like this project to be received? Is there any advocacy present in this project, for example to challenge for better conditions at your hospital?
Once I got the same question (referring to Original and 52 notarized photocopies). My answer then was “Yes, it would be nice to see somebody change something”. Today I am more realistic. I don’t think somebody will see those pictures and say “She is right, we don’t need form 227/b. II” or “We should order nurses to be nicer to patients”. But it can always serve as a support on the level of “woman to woman”, or help in reaching a critical mass of complaints where things need to be changed. It’s a job for all of us to make some pressure.
Are you continuing to photograph your family? Does this project mark any turning point in your work?
Becoming a mother is a turning point, now all I do is photographing family. I’m less prepared to deal with heavy and dark stories, or to run towards burning buildings to get more dramatic shots. At least at this moment. On another hand, I want a better environment for my child, so I will continue to challenge this absurd but well established social structure.
Thank you Marija.
Maybe our own M. Scott Brauer, recently returned from a hunting trip in Montana, can give us some better advice than this guy, who just sort of hung out with an Elk while he was trying to take pictures. The video is awkward and asks a lot of questions.
Scott, did this guy do good? Should he have run away screaming? Or stood up and scared the Elk off? (Which was what I was rooting for). Or. better yet, gone for a close-up? Strange video.
Alan Chin is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for his new project Toishan, China: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away. Chin’s project will take him back to his family’s home in the Toishan region of China, an area that is undergoing rapid development since his first visit in 1989. The fundraising campaign will run until October 28th but we are happy to report that Chin has already exceeded his initial goal. Congratulations to him, but the project is still worthy of support and we hope that with further fundraising he will have more time and flexibility with the project, something every photographer would dream of.
Chin answered a few of our questions about the new work, and I also encourage you to have a look at Chin’s Kickstarter video below and his fundraising page for more information about his plans for this project.
Tell me something about the region of China that your family comes from? How many times have you visited the area?
Toishan (or Taishan in official Mandarin Pinyin romanization), is about a hundred miles from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Two-thirds of all Overseas Chinese immigrants to the United States came from the greater Toishan area, until the 1960s. Today, Chinese-Americans hail from diverse regions in China, especially from Fujian, but for a hundred years that was Toishan.
I first visited in 1989, when I was eighteen years old. I was there again in 1997 and then many times in 2008 and 2009.
Do you still have family in Toishan that you are in contact with?
My last close relative was a great-aunt who died in 2009 after I saw her for the last time in 2008; I still have more distant cousins that live in the village.
What is the relationship between this area and Chinese-American communities, particularly in New York? Is immigration from this region still prominent?
Starting in 1965 with LBJ’s immigration reform to reunify families (as important a piece of landmark legislation as Medicare or the Civil Rights laws), the Chinese-American community expanded tremendously. And as the Cold War ended, commercial and diplomatic relations improved between China and the US. Individuals began to travel to-and-fro with much greater ease and frequency. Toishanese continue to emigrate abroad, but now are one of many Chinese clusters rather than the majority. The old part of New York’s Chinatown in Manhattan, dating from the late 19th century, was originally Toishanese and remains predominantly Cantonese. (Toishan is part of Guangdong, the Cantonese province.)
Are you going to be documenting Toishanese communities from both countries with your book?
Yes, but the emphasis is on China, on where we come from.
How do you plan to use your family’s photographs in this project? What are some of your favorite photographs in this collection that will help tell the story?
I will use some of my family photographs to track our specific history, which is typical of so many families. The oldest photograph we have is of my great-uncle, Sing Chin, who emigrated to Cuba in 1927 and then the US in 1935. The photo is a formal studio portrait from his time in Cuba. It shows him in a tropical suit, and he was younger then than I am now. I think it will help show just how transformative the 20th century was in its global impact of revolutionary change.
My favorite photographs? That’s too hard a question to answer!
Click image above to start Chin’s video about the project
Asim Rafiqui, Aftermath Project Grant winner and the writer behind The Spinning Head, has spent much of the last year photographing in Pakistan for his Justice in Pakistan project. Rafiqui was named an Open Society Fellow by the Open Society Foundation last year to embark on this major new work. Last week he debuted the first chapter of this project “Bagram: The Other Guantanamo” with an exhibition in Islamabad, Pakistan. He will also be presenting this work in Washington DC on September 12, 2013 at The Fridge Gallery. The project features portraits and interviews with family members of the nearly 40 Pakistani men still detained at the Bagram base in Afghanistan and is presented in a highly organized and internally referenced website that links the families, prisoners and their stories.
Rafiqui has generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his new project and share some of the images here on dvafoto.
“Nearly 40 Pakistani citizens remain indefinitely imprisoned at the Bagram Prison in Afghanistan without charge or trial. Denied the right to a legal defense these men have become victims of a cruel and unjust detention system with little or no hope for a fair trial or release. Some have been behind bars for over 11 years. Periodically allowed to speak to their immediate family members via Internet telephone calls, they are denied access to the outside world. They are isolated from the law, the media, and human rights organizations.” – About The Bagram Campaign, Justice Project Pakistan.
Dvafoto: What drew you to the idea of a large new project about Pakistan?
Asim Rafiqui: I had been looking to do something in Pakistan for some time. I had also been looking to extend the work I had done in India – a work that explored colonial histories and their continuing impact on our modernity, into a new direction. With the War Against Terror tearing apart the fabric of so much of Pakistan, it was difficult to simply stay away. I had already begun work on a project on the victims of the War Against Terror in late 2011, and now, once the work in India had been completed, I realized that I had a chance to return to Pakistan and produce something new. Perhaps in the end I was most attracted to the idea of producing new stories from Pakistan, and doing so from the perspective of the individual Pakistani. This has rarely been done – we have become used to speaking of ourselves in the collective. Perhaps worse, we have become used to speaking of ourselves through borrowed narratives sold to us through the Western press and pundit who maintain an inexplicably powerful influence amongst the country’s political, bureaucratic and class elite. What that means is that there is a vast chasm between those who hold the power and the wealth in this country, and the tens of millions who hold all its burdens of existence. As Saadia Toor, author of the brilliant new book The State of Islam said:
…[the] liberal discourse reveals [a] profound dissociation from – and even a distaste of for – ordinary Pakistanis and their lives, hopes, dreams and struggles, reflected in the abandonment of mass political work. (page 199)
I see the same dissociation amongst our celebrated literati – most all of whom can only speak about the country through the prism of borrowed frameworks – the War Against Terror, globalization, Islamic radicalism and a whole host of dehumanizing, debilitating, distancing and degrading structures of thought and engagement that remove the individual Pakistan as a real subject, and replace her with victimhood, dependency, helplessness, and irrelevancy. My work in Pakistan will be built around 300 individual stories, each of which is meant to reveal the genuine struggles of the ordinary Pakistan and most importantly, provoke thought about the social and legal justice as it needs to be fought for and delivered.
How did this specific project about Justice in Pakistan come about?
It always begins with a thought, and these thoughts always emerge during the process of a reading. The idea for a project on questions of justice in Pakistan came up during the summer of 2011 when I was living in Delhi, India. I was taking time off from my field work on the Idea of India project and had set aside a month to review a number of articles and books on South Asian colonial histories that I had been meaning to read but had been forced to set aside. It was during that summer that I noticed that I had collected into a pile a number of books that focused on the law and colonial history – I had been avoiding reading these sections because I had thought them irrelevant to my current work in India. But as I came back to them and started to go through them I thought that it was a theme worth exploring and something that may be a way to do something new from Pakistan. By coincidence a close friend had introduced me to Osama Siddique – a brilliant lawyer and professor in Lahore, Pakistan, who had written some remarkable papers on the continuing impact of colonial institutions, laws and practices on modern day Pakistani court and legal methods. And I was hooked. It took me a few months to work out the details and transform what were purely academic questions into a workable concept of a photo project. That phase I completed sitting in a small apartment in Queens, New York in early 2012.
What is your partnership with Justice Project Pakistan?
There is no formal partnership as such. I am a Soros Fellow this year, and JPP is an OSI supported legal chamber. I was introduced to Sarah Belal, the director of JPP, when I arrived in Pakistan to start my justice project work. We both quickly realized that we share a deep commitment to the same questions of the rights of Pakistani citizens, and the objective of the law. What has emerged is a collaboration between two liked-minded individuals, both deeply naive and idealistic, but equally committed to speaking out on behalf of some of the most dehumanized, degraded and marginalized members of our society. Sarah was well aware of my ongoing work on the human cost of the American/Pakistani War Against Terror practices in the country that were / are tearing apart the lives of tens of thousands. And she approached me to see if I would be interested in doing something on the question of the Pakistani prisoners in Bagram. She and her team had already been working on a report about the situation of the Bagram prisoners, and I suggested that we broaden the focus on the work to include the lives and struggles of their families as well. We were soon able to transform a lunch conversation into a pilot project, and pitch the idea to funders, who, upon seeing the pilot website, were soon backing our work with the necessary funds. Our recently launched website (www.jpp.org.pk/bagram), and released report, and the various events and exhibitions we are holding in Pakistan, USA and the UK, are all a culmination of earliest discussions where we felt that we could do something new and more powerful by working together.
How long have you been photographing in Pakistan?
For this project I have been photographing since October 2012. However, I have been working in Pakistan since 2002 and have produced a lot of work from the country. I don’t live here, and in fact have not lived here since 1984. But I do keep coming back and can find my way around. In fact, Pakistan was the first country I travelled to when I decided to become a photographer. The current justice project work will keep me engaged here for at least another 2 years, though I am also in the midst of working on a draft of my India book, and starting work on a new project in the Middle East.
Where have you been traveling to work on these pictures?
There is really no specific travel agenda. I am going wherever I can find the stories. I am looking for individuals. So in many ways the physical and geographical dimensions are not so important this time. This is in sharp contrast to my work in India which was all about geography, sites, locations, and regions.
So far my work has taken me to the main urban centers – Pakistan as a very high rate of urbanization so this is not so unusual. The recent work trying to locate the families of the men in Bagram of course took me out into remote settlements along the Afghanistan – Baluchistan border regions, and deep into the slums of Karachi. But I also met some of them in legal offices, as for example when I was working with the victims of drone attacks. As I said, I am trying to find certain kinds of stories, and meet individuals with certain life experiences. The geography of the country becomes unimportant in some regards.
What is the process of identifying the prisoners and their families, and getting access to them?
We began with the court files, and those that had decided to join the various litigation that JPP had filed on behalf of the families of the men imprisoned in Bagram. These were the families that were easiest to reach. When I say easiest I meant that they had at least had left a mobile phone number at the office. That is how I began. Read on »
Serbian photographer Boogie, known for his street photography from all over the world, has been working on a series of wet-plate collodion portraits in his hometown of Belgrade over the last few years, a project that he calls “Demons”. I had the chance to see the fascinating process of making this work up close in 2011 when I was photographed in his studio’s courtyard for an earlier version of the project. This year Boogie took delivery of a new custom-made 11×14 inch wet plate camera and he is pushing forward with new portraits (and still lifes). You can see a lot of the new pictures on his website for Demons.
He recently posted a link to this great behind-the-scenes video made by Stud 7 and Sima Film in Belgrade, which reveals somewhat how his massive camera works and the complicated chemistry that goes on to make the pictures happen. A cool little video that shows off Boogie’s process. The Tom Waits soundtrack and mad scientist vibe fits him too.
Over the past two or so weeks of protests in Istanbul surrounding Gezi Park and Taksim Square, we’ve seen a lot of stories and photographs. Some of the first and best pictures I saw though were by my friend Andrei Pungovschi, a photographer based in Bucharest. While he was in Istanbul he was making a series of daily posts on his blog about what he was seeing and photographing in Istanbul. I wanted to share some of his work from the past week and his responses to a few questions I had about how he was covering this difficult and fast moving story.
dvafoto: When did you arrive in Istanbul?
Pungovschi: I arrived in Istanbul on Thursday evening, last week.
Did you go specifically to cover the protests?
When I first saw the protests on TV I thought it was just a local issue in Istanbul about Gezi park and didn’t really think it was something that could get any bigger. However, the brutality of the police intervention on what was a relatively small and peaceful protest triggered a very strong reaction in Istanbul. The movement turned from an ecological issue into a political one. That’s when I decided to go.
How have things changed in the time you’ve been there, what is the atmosphere in the park and the square?
By the time I got to Istanbul the police had backed off to such an extent that you could not spot a policeman anywhere around Taksim Square. Each evening, the square was filled with people and the whole scene looked more like a festival rather than a protest. The park and the square are two different scenes. The square is the place where each day after work people from all over Istanbul come to express their protest, sing, dance, or simply watch from the sidelines. The park is a community of people who want to express their support for their mutual cause by living together in this place in spite of the authorities who want them out of there. Most people I’ve spoken to in Gezi seem determined to stay there until their demands are met.
Tuesday seems like it was the most dramatic day in the last week, what was it like to photograph?
Everything changed on Tuesday morning around 7am when the police decided to clear the square (not the park). They attacked with what seemed like excessive use of gas and water canons. People fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails. These things tend to get chaotic and this was no exception. Photographing under these conditions is not complicated, because there is always something going on. I prefer to get close to people, so I don’t use a telephoto lens. The problem then is that you have more than your frame to worry about. Plus the gas. Unless you have a proper gas mask, there is not much you can do at close range.
How are the police and the protestors treating the media and photographers? Is it difficult to work?
The police ignored us for the most part, which was good. I wish I could say the same about the protesters. They seem to be very discontent with their own media, so they would often throw rocks at groups of photographers and cameramen. Once you get close to them and get a chance to explain who you are and what you do, things get easier. The other problem I encountered was the way the police used the gas. The gas projectiles are supposed to be shot upwards at a 45 angle degree. More often than not, they would shoot horizontally, actually taking aim at protesters. A guy was shot in the face a few meters away from me while trying to throw a rock.
Overall, I can’t say it was particularly difficult to photograph. It’s not war photography. Common sense rules that apply everywhere apply here as well. With a little bit of luck and a lot of caution, you can get your job done.
I met Camille Lepage in South Sudan last September when I arrived in the capital Juba on a two-week assignment. She had already been living there for almost two months, and has been there ever since. She was a huge help in getting our story off of the ground and filling my colleague and I in on how South Sudan works, with all the necessary tips and tricks that help make things happen there. And there are a lot of tips and tricks needed.
At the time she had just finished a stint at a local newspaper, The Citizen, and was starting work as a stringer for AFP. Since I met her, she has traveled all over South Sudan and the border region and begun to produce impressive stories on her own. I wanted to feature her project “The Silent War” from South Kordofan, which was was photographed in October and November last year and published this week in Le Monde. We also wanted to ask her a few questions about what life is like as a freelance photographer in South Sudan.
Dvafoto: When did you arrive in South Sudan?
I arrived in South Sudan in July 2012, just after finishing my degree in journalism at Southampton Solent University in the UK.
What was the main story you wanted to cover when you set out?
The wars at the borders with Sudan really pushed me to come to South Sudan. They are going on in complete silence and I have always wanted to cover underreported (if reported at all) wars or humanitarian crises, so I figured going to South Sudan, which was a new nation under construction, would probably be a good way to start. On top of that, I thought it was very unfair that a one year old country was constantly referred to as doomed or failed so I wanted to see it for myself and perhaps bring some new light on it.
How has the story you’re pursuing changed?
I think I really have two main focuses. The first is the humanitarian crisis in both Blue Nile State and South Kordofan where locals are being bombed by the Sudanese government, where NGOs and journalists are forbidden. Since June 2011, it has led hundreds of thousands of people to be displaced to other countries. I didn’t think I would spend so much time and energy on this, but after having spent 3 weeks in South Kordofan last November, I know I have to go back as often as I can. I also want to make my way to Blue Nile, which is trickier and much more costly too. Also, I can only go to those places during the dry season, when roads are practicable, so from November to May. I also need to finance those trips by working for NGOs at the same time, it’s a little challenging.
The second story is on the quest for identity of South Sudan and how a country that has been at war for decades can become a united nation. I’m looking the obstacles such as lack of infrastructure, which results in the lack of health care and sparks tribalism around the country but also the way forward, like a youth which wants peace and education.
How are your pictures getting out? Where are they being published?
I started freelancing with AFP when I arrived so through them they are often published in The Guardian, Time Magazine’s Lightbbox, BBC, sometimes on the NYT Lens Blog etc. For my personal projects, I’m pitching them to pictures editors here and there, the South Kordofan story was published in Le Monde, but I’m hoping to have it published in other places soon. The other one isn’t ready at all, so I’ll wait until I feel I have some good material to pitch that too.
In general, what is life like for a photographer like you in South Sudan?
Life isn’t easy, really. Everything is very expensive here, I used to rent a tent at a hotel for 600$ a month. Now I live in a local house far from the town and without electricity, but it’s only 200$ a month. I obviously don’t have AC or a fan, so the temperature can go up to 38 degrees at night. I got used to it though, and now whenever I go to the field, which should normally be more rough, I have more comfort. I always think it’s quite amusing.
At the moment, we are only two photographers in the country so we can quite easily get assignments with NGOs and UN agencies, but I only do so to pay my bills and finance other reportages.
At first, people here are seriously reluctant to be photographed. They get very very aggressive, I even had my life threatened a few times when I wanted to photograph people. I’ve learnt how to approach them, so it’s becoming easier and easier every time. But it takes time!
Are there many other photographers there? Are they staying as long as you?
We were four only a few months ago, now we’re two only. I think just like most foreign correspondants, stringer photographers stay between one and two years. There are also some people who come over for a one week or two on assignment.
What is the benefit to staying longer?
You get a much better understanding of the place. Especially in a country like South Sudan where everything is logistically complicated, you need to know the rules, to understand the ‘un-said’, discover how to approach people, to make them trust you too. After six decades of war, the South Sudanese are very suspicious of spies, and they remain in this ‘war spirit’ when you know at any time things can go wrong if you say something they didn’t want to hear. On top of that, it’s really a fascinating place, they are so many stories to tell, and it takes time to get proper insights of it.
What is one story that you wish you could be covering in South Sudan that you so far have not been able to, due to access or due to resources?
Apart from the Blue Nile story that I previously mentioned, I’ve been meaning to go and spend some time with the Murle tribe in their cattle camp in Jonglei state. Cattle camps are huge areas where armed kids are keeping hundreds of cows (cows show the wealth of a family and often are used for securing a bride). Traditionally the Murle go and raid other camps to steal their cattle either as an initiation into adulthood or to simply increase ther ‘wealth’. They often end up in very violent fights between the tribes unfortunately. The Murle are also said to be sterile, so at the same time they steal children from other tribes; but there is very little documentation on the Murle, so I’d like to see it with my own eyes. I haven’t managed to cover it yet as the UN are forbidding journalists to go to Jonglei state because of security issues, and no NGOs are able to facilitate journalists to go there because the area is too sensitive.
What is your background in photography, where is your home?
I don’t really have any photography background. I studied print journalism, but was more than often interested in the visual part in each story. It clicked about one year ago, what I was really into was photojournalism and I decided to go for it. When I arrived in South Sudan, I introduced myself as a photojournalist, despite my very meagre portfolio at the time. I think people didn’t take me very seriously at first, but I worked hard and still do, so I think they see me a little differently now. and I’m from France!
In 2011 writer Pete Brook took his blog Prison Photography on the road. He used Kickstarter to successfully fund his trip, and produced a number of interviews with photographers, prisoners and activists, gave six lectures and visited three prisons. Last year the project grew in to the exhibition Cruel and Unusual at Nooderlicht in the Netherlands, with a newspaper-style exhibition catalogue and an upcoming Prison Photography on the Road (PPOTR) book.
After he was safely back in Portland last fall, he and I were discussing some of what he had accomplished and what he was thinking about doing next. Fortunately for us, he agreed to an interview so I can share some of his interesting insights and ideas. It has taken a while for us to find the time to put this together, but I’m excited to share some of Pete’s reflections on PPOTR and how he sees his work as a writer and curator evolving. It is especially relevant for other photographers and bloggers as they think about producing work ‘across platforms’ and offline, and what is possible when engaging and collaborating with our community at large.
dvafoto: I heard through the grapevine that you had an interesting experience right as you hit the road?
Pete Brook: I think you’re referring to my arrest. Before the trip began officially, I was in California. I’d been at a wedding, dancing and drinking in the sun all day. When the after-party began to die down, and being a gent, I offered to walk a couple of ladies home as they were across town and not staying at the hotel. Along the way, I took a piss on a palm tree (not so gentlemanly).
Thirty seconds later, two California Highway Patrol squad cars pulled up. I was pulled aside and told that urinating in public was an offense. I didn’t think a discrete piss on parkland at 5 am would land me in jail so I may not have taken the interaction as seriously as the officer expected.
I was on the road, had no permanent address, I was a bit merry, had no ID with me and was generally bemused as to why so much attention had fallen upon me. When asked if I would answer the officer’s questions, I said I didn’t feel compelled to do so. He took my wrist, turned me round, cuffed me and walked me to his patrol car.
The officer said, “We’ll do it your way. You could be in jail for days, weeks, months, even years.” A nonsense statement. He was reacting emotionally to the situation. Not good. He was also proving who had the power. I’m guessing it was late in his shift and he may not have had the patience for an inebriated me. I get that, but his solution, so to speak, was unnecessary and disproportionate.
I was in jail for 9 hours (as quick as they process anyone, I was told). Upon release, I was served with a court date and faced two misdemeanor charges of ‘Disorderly Conduct’ and ‘Willfully Resisting Arrest’. Just ludicrous. The court date was two weeks away, by which time I had scheduled to be in Ohio. I had to juggle my itinerary, bring all my Southern California appointments – that were to be in the last week of PPOTR – forward, and extend my research in the Bay Area.
Two weeks later, at the courthouse, I didn’t even see a judge. Not wanting to waste court time, the District Attorney threw the charges out. Common sense prevailed but not before I’d been inconvenienced.
The arrest nearly jeopardized PPOTR’s main prison visit, to Sing Sing in New York State.
Visitors to prisons must go through a criminal background check and mine flagged the arrest. So, now the New York Dept. of Corrections knew of the interaction, but had no details. I had to explain that no charges were brought and scramble for the paperwork to back up my claim. The workshop I did with the men in Sing Sing was a highlight of the trip and it would have been a sore loss to miss out.
I remain in the system. I am interviewed about the interaction by Customs & Immigration every time I re-enter the U.S. I’ve been told the record cannot be updated to include the info that there was no conviction; I’ll have to go through the same conversation every time I travel from overseas.
The experience was not great, but the irony could not have been greater. If I can get a copy of my mug shot it’ll be my press-photo for life!
Now that you’ve finished the fieldwork for PPOTR, co-curated an international exhibition, and printed a newspaper, do you think that Prison Photography the blog will change at all?
I’d like to say no, but it probably will. Not because of these projects but because more like them are in the pipeline. These emerging projects will take away from my time at the keyboard-helm.
Before I tell you about those new developments, I should say that PPOTR was designed to test the limits of the blog, test my stamina with the issues and test the reception of the public. In some ways, maybe I could or should have had the imagination to take on new formats earlier?
Directly out of PPOTR came the opportunity to co-curate Cruel and Unusual at Noorderlicht and that was a phenomenal privilege. Given how much I enjoyed that there’s no reason to draw back from activities outside the blog.
Cruel and Unusual travelled to the Melkweg Gallery in Amsterdam last April and then to Photoville in New York in June. This year it will show in Ireland and Australia. There’s some logistics involved in making those exhibits happen, and Noorderlicht and Photoville are greasing the wheels with that.
I initially planned to self-publish the Prison Photography photobook for the PPOTR Kickstarter backers, but Silas Finch a non-profit photobook publisher expressed interest and I decided to make it a bigger production … and print run.
We’ve signed on the dotted line and I’m writing the text for it now. The image edit will come in the summer and we hope to release it later this year. It’s wonderful to have, again, institutional support.
A couple of photographers working on the topic of prisons have expressed interest in collaborating on books and that interests me, but it has to be right for them too. That might sound silly, but how many essays would I need to do before I became the guy who writes introductions for prison photography books? Not many! It’d be good bylines for me, but not necessarily for the photographer. As a reader, I generally enjoy photobook essays that are not about the photography per se but about the larger subject and there’s many activists, advocates and academics who can write better on aspects of the prison system than I. Perhaps one or two essays will get done in time.
Furthermore, I just agreed to curate a photography show on the East Coast in January 2014. It’ll be an entirely new collection of works with a new curatorial statement.
Yesterday James Estrin, co-Editor of the New York Times Lens Blog and Staff Photographer for the Times, announced that they are inaugurating the first New York Photography Portfolio Review, a two-day event in April 2013. It will bring together 160 photographers, in two one-day sessions, with more than 50 prominent reviewers, including a diverse selection of photo editors, agents, publishers, curators and buyers. The event will include private portfolio reviews, discussions and workshops.
They’ve also announced that the event will be free to attend for invited photographers, a step away from other major portfolio reviews in the US and Europe which can cost hundreds of dollars. The event, on April 13 and 14 at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, is divided in two sessions: on Saturday the 100 invited photographers will all be 21 years or older, and on Sunday all 60 photographers will be aged 18-27. To attend you must submit a portfolio by February 13, and invited photographers will be informed by March 8, 2013.
This is such an interesting event that I wanted to pose a few questions to Estrin, and he agreed to fill us in.
Dvafoto: Whose idea was this project, and how does it fit Lens’ and the NYT’s goals?
Estrin: I’ve always thought that the web, and social media were very powerful tools for communication, but significantly different than actual human interaction. Real Analogue interaction can have important and profound consequences.
I came up with the idea for the review with Lens co-editor David Gonzalez.
We have been lucky that our marching orders, from our boss [assistant managing editor for photography for the New York Times] Michele McNally, have always been to make the very best blog we could. Make the best editorial judgements that we could make, be willing to be smart, try to be principaled and don’t worry about traffic or business. So if this event can help the photo community, and create opportunities and discussion, then it fits into our mission. There are many ways to communicate.
Why did you choose to make the event free? This surely bucks the trend of most portfolio reviews and events for photographers these days.
It’s free because we wanted to create as many opportunities for photographers, regardless of background, to share their work.
There are fine portfolio reviews that charge- most of them non profit either by design or execution. I reviewed this year at Review Santa Fe and also at Lens Culture Fotofest in Paris and I think both were very was helpful for many photographers as well as for myself as an editor. At the same time I think we all have a responsibility to our fellow photographers, particularly the youngest new photographers amongst us.
Many people helped me when I was a young freelance photographer. I wouldn’t be here without them. I always remember how difficult it was to show my work in the pre-digital era, and how alone I often felt. There is an important tradition of experienced photographers helping newer ones.
Why the age categories? Will there be a different curriculum for each session?
The age categories are because I wanted to make sure that we did the utmost we could for up and coming photographers.
All photographers 21 and older can go on Saturday and I think the opportunities will be great. But on Sunday you have to be 18 -27 and there will be many workshops as well as reviews. By the way a very accomplished 21 -27 year old photographer could apply and get in for both days.
Ultimately, we just wanted to do some good, have fun, and help our colleagues in any way that we can. So we asked what would be a meaningful thing to do.
My colleagues from the New York Times, National Geographic, Time, Aperture, Abrams books, PDN, and many museums, magazines, galleries and blogs have generously agreed to share their time. We are adding new reviewers daily.
Thanks to James Estrin for answering some of our questions and for organizing this fantastic opportunity for photographers.
The deadline for submitting your portfolio is February 13, 2013 on the entry page. Good luck to everyone applying!
Prasiit Sthapit is a photographer based in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was introduced to his work by Sohrab Hura recently as he wanted to share some of the work of photographers he had met and tutored at a workshop in Kathmandu last fall. Sthapit’s project “Change of Course”, presented as an multimedia piece, immediately impressed me. Striking pictures mixed well with gorgeous music and documentary audio; it is evocative storytelling for such a hard to illustrate political and climate change story.
The story is also presented simply as photographs and text on his website, and you can get a chance to admire the quiet, intimate photographs themselves. Sthapit also describes the project as a work in progress, and that we will see more family photographs and found objects along with the photos of the place.
Change of Course
“We fought a lot for Susta, we suffered a lot in Susta. We didn’t know when we would be killed. Even after all that, we survived. But in the end, Gangaji swept us away,” Rajkumari Rana (Muwa), reminisces. I met Muwa, 79 years old and blind, at her house in Keulani,Triveni. She was one of the first settlers of Susta. Having come here from Kathmandu with her daughter and a small bag of belongings in 1967, she worked as a schoolteacher, headmistress, local leader and also as night patrol. She remembers times when even women had to patrol at night, with sticks in hand as protection against dacoits from Bihar. There had been numerous clashes in the past, which had wounded many and killed some.
Susta was once perched firmly on the west bank of the Narayani River, which has long been considered the border between Nepal and India. But with the river changing course, and cutting persistently into Nepali territory, the village today finds itself on the east of the Narayani. India maintains the new course of the river as the boundary while Nepal disagrees, making Susta a small, contested portion of Nepal within India, surrounded on three sides by Indian land, and on the fourth by the Narayani. The original settlers now express anger at the fact that they have been sidelined by both India and Nepal.
The flood of 1980 shifted the land to the east, displacing the whole village in the process. Muwa was among the displaced. The government gave each family a small plot of land in nearby villages of Triveni Susta VDC for temporary settlement, but this generosity was limited to those with Nepali citizenship. There were quite a few who were originally from India, and others needing a place to hide.
After the floodwaters receded, the people who were not given land parcels started returning to Susta, although it was now nothing but sand and rocks. They worked in these barren conditions, trying to get whatever little they could out of the land. Meanwhile, the Border Security Force of India was gradually preparing to encroach on Susta. It is estimated that 14,860 hectares have been appropriated through Indian encroachment thus far.
Dva: How did you come to produce “Change of Course”?
Sthapit: This project was first conceived for an exchange programme between Oslo University College, Norway, Pathshala, Bangladesh, Drik India and photo.circle, Nepal. I had already thought of it as a long term project and later on while the project was ongoing, Sohrab was also very much involved with the editing and the look of the project. (we had a workshop with Sohrab on September, 2012). He also gave me a lot of insights on how to continue the project further. By the end of the workshop with Sohrab we had to come up with somesort of a presentation and he suggested I do a projection.
How did you decide on the format of this video, with sound and audio and stills-as-motion? Are you showing it any other way, such as an exhibition of single photographs or some other medium?
While I was out photographing the place, I didn’t have anything concrete in my mind (I wanted the experience there to guide me along the way) so I collected everything that caught my interest. I recorded interviews with the people because even though I try to share my own experiences with the people there, I want them to speak for themselves. Sound is also a very important element in the whole story, if not the most important one. The family photographs also do the same. Photographs in the villages are prized possessions, they cherish these pictures. This is the way they want to be portrayed. The story is currently being exhibited as a print exhibition in Kathmandu International Art Festival, Kathmandu which also includes sound installation. The sound used in this is different than the one in the video.
Can you tell me about the music you chose?
The song that goes as the background is by a Nepali neo-folk band called ‘Night’. The song talks about the flood that waged havoc in Nepal in the river Koshi a few years back. I thought it would be appropriate for the piece and the music felt just right. As it doesn’t over power the piece with overwhelming sadness. I felt the sounds, the voice and the music gave a sense of community, a village.
Prasiit Sthapit is a Kathmandu-based visual storyteller whose work deals with societies at the borderline, both literally and figuratively. Through photography, he chooses to show the experiences he has shared with the people he has met, and what they mean to him. He graduated from Manipal Institute of Communication, India with a Bachelors in Arts (Journalism and Communication) and was the recipient of the Dr. TMA Pai Gold Medal for Best Outgoing Student, 2010. He is associated with Photo.Circle, an organization working towards building a strong community of visual storytellers in Nepal, and Fuzz Factory Productions, a multimedia collective.