Tag Archive: interview
I’m not sure what first got me to look at Laura El-Tantawy‘s I’ll Die For You, but I’m glad I did. It’s an ambitious attempt to photograph and tell the story of farmer suicides in India. The situation is staggering. From El-Tantawy’s statement about the project:
Over the past 15 years, more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Many had borrowed money through government lending schemes or private lenders to plant more efficient crops, but could not pay off their debts. Because of the extremely fast transition has undergone — from a rural to an industrial, urban economy with an open market — farmers have been confronted by immense social and economic problems.
To tell this story, El-Tantawy uses archival materials, strong portraiture of the women left behind, and a visual examination of the land and place. It’s a refreshing approach to something so difficult to photograph, and it’s a departure from much of her other work (which you should check out while you’re at it). I thought I’d ask her a few questions about the project and her approach. Our conversation is below:
What got you started on the project? What drew you to the issue? How did you begin work for the project (such as identifying potential subjects, approaching subjects for the piece)?
The start of the project coincided with me taking part in the prestigious Reflexions Masterclass. It’s a two-year photography seminar directed by Italian photographer Giorgia Fiorio and French Curator Gabrial Bauret. The workshop is based around developing a photographer’s visual language and story-telling capabilities by assigning a series of themes that participants use as inspiration to build on a new body of work or continue to develop an ongoing series. At the time the theme assigned was “faces”. I really struggled with this because all my immediate ideas were centered around portraiture, which I always considered as an area of weakness for me. I felt a strong portrait should convey an emotion and lend some insight into the subject’s character, frame of mind or emotional state – this I had never accomplished well. Meanwhile, as I am thinking about this, I come across an article about farmers committing suicide in India. Everything seemed to come together at that moment for me, in a way that I can honestly say I never reacted to anything else, subject or story. There was something different about this work from the start. So from the moment of its initiation, this project was very unique for me.
I went to India with nothing but the intention to meet the families and photograph their faces. This was my main motivation. I wanted to understand why they were committing suicide, such a brutal act and one with finite consequences. Having been in India before, I always saw India as a country where people really work hard to live in order to avert death. It was the country of vibrant colors, crowded streets – a country where life is seen at its best and sometimes worst, but life and living dominate. Death was not associated with India in my mind, which is why I believe I reacted so instinctively and vigorously to the suicide of farmers, which ultimately led me to think about my own grandfather, who was a farmer all his life. Perhaps you can see there were just too many elements here that led me to pursue this story as passionately and seriously as I did.
In India I landed with ideas, but I had nothing in hand that could translate my ideas into reality. I wanted to shoot the work on film (which I had never done before). I bought the film from a friend of mine living in India and borrowed his Mamiya. He also offered to send his studio assistant with me to meet the families and she became my team-mate at that stage in the project, doing what I consider half the work: translation.
When we left Mumbai we had nothing but the determination to meet these families and hear their story. Once we arrived in the village we had identified as the starting point, we just asked around and things started to work out.
We approached the families with total honesty explaining I had come from London and wanted to hear their story. At that moment the work as I had visualized it only centered around documenting the female survivors and making an archive of photographs of the men who died. The idea of “Man and Land” came later and after much searching for a visual approach to show the strong bond between the people and the land they inhabit, which I believed was ultimately the cause of these suicides.
What was your strategy for telling this story visually? I imagine it was a difficult piece to develop, photographically–the events happened well in the past and the causes of these suicides are abstract economic and psychological notions that don’t present themselves in a straightforward visual way.
Intimacy – all I could think about was intimacy. Given the sensitivity of the issue in and of itself and the delicate nature of addressing issues related to life and death, I felt that I had to move slowly, but somehow give a sense of intimacy. It was imperative to me to attach a face to the suicides and not follow a conventional approach that would deprive the story of emotion or developing a relationship with the women survivors and the men who died. I wanted to focus on the faces to make the suicides real to myself and to viewers and not just portray this as something abstract that could happen anywhere to anyone. I felt the urge and the responsibility to anchor this in reality, or at least what I perceived as reality (we all have our different realities or interpretations of it). For me a more photojournalistic approach would not have told this story the way I felt it and instinctively reacted to it: the deep emotion, sorrow and absolute sense of anguish and deprivation these men must have felt at the time of the suicides, all feelings that were carried onto the women now surviving them. People died – thousands of them – and I chose to tell this story. I was responsible for what people would think and feel when they see the pictures. This was always at the back of my head.
The suicides are continuing to happen, so this is not an old story, but very much an ongoing one. In the past 15 years, more than 250 thousand farmers have committed suicide and the numbers are still rising.
How did you get the women to be part of the project? In parts of India I’ve visited, women tend to be hidden from the public and I imagine they initially did not want to be photographed. What about the issue of suicide? In some societies, suicide is a very shameful act. Was there a societal or cultural stigma that you had to overcome in order to get people to even talk about the suicides? How did you approach that issue with your subjects?
A few things could account for me being able to gain access to the families. Perhaps the fact that I was a woman myself allowed the women to gain some sense of comfort around me, but I think ultimately the main reason I was able to talk to them is because they wanted someone to talk to – they wanted to be heard and in all cases helped (which I shamefully explained I was not in a position to do). They wanted their struggle to be acknowledged and the fact I had come from an entirely different country to meet them and understand their plight probably made them feel some sort of respect and seriousness towards me.
Yes, there is a huge stigma attached to suicide. You must remember India is a predominantly Hindu country and suicide is not accepted within the Hindu belief. Surprisingly, this was not an issue that took much of the conversation I had with any of the families I met. It was about survival and for the men who had committed suicide, living had become an impossibility. Tradition among the conservative and modest farming communities dictates men are the main providers. Girls get married because their fathers can pay their dowry and are of a good reputation in the village, so once a man starts to sink below the expected status in the community, he starts to be overcome by shame. Status and community standing play a big role in the decision to commit suicide in these villages and I think they would in any village in the world. Farmers are a unique breed and their work and lifestyle are about modesty, pride and survival under the harshest of conditions. But I think if any of these elements start to shake, their whole existence comes into question.
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Thanks to Jonathon Worth for writing in to tell us about this short interview with World Press Photo 2012 juror Steve Pyke (embedded above). Pyke served as chair of judging for portraiture. The discussion offers an interesting perspective of the judging process from Pyke’s own perspective, especially focusing on the discussions between jury members during the process and the influence that each jury member’s own specialty and expertise plays in picking the winners. Particularly interesting, Pyke says (at about 5:45) that the winners in the Portrait category weren’t entered into the category originally. Jurors pulled images from other categories into the Portrait category and chose those as the winners.
There’s also an earlier short interview with Pyke that covers the chore of looking through 8,000 entries.
The awards will be announced tomorrow, Feb. 10.
“My working outfit is very casual: jeans, a shirt, documentary photographer shoes and a jacket. When we meet in these godforsaken places, we all look alike with our Timberlands, our scarves and jackets with lots of pockets. I guess there is such a thing as a documentary photographer look.” -Paolo Pellegrin talking with Nowness
There’s a strange and small interview with Paolo Pellegrin at Nowness to accompany a small selection of pictures from his upcoming Magnum Fashion magazine “Storm.” If you’re reading this here, no doubt you already know Pellegrin’s work, but on the off chance that you don’t, go get educated at the Magnum site with Pellegrin’s portfolio.
I’m not a big fan of videos of photographers taking pictures, but if it involves two of my favorite photographers talking about their creative process, I won’t complain much. In the video, we see Trent Parke and Narelle Autio (and check out her previous agency Oculi for more down-under goodness) working together and on their own personal projects, as well as a glimpse into Autio’s less-glamorous assignments when she was at the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s a rare look into the way photographers work, and it’s well worth a watch.
(via Two Looks)
One of my favorite things from the photo-web-universe is the 2008 interview of portrait photographer Platon from World Press Photo where he describes the circumstances behind one of my favorite portraits of all time: the cover shot of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Vladimir Putin. The photograph won first prize in portraiture at World Press that year, and the story behind it is amazing for russophiles and to gain huge appreciation for what Platon goes through to get his images. If you haven’t seen or heard it yet, you must go listen. (click on the 2008 tab)
Jump to today, when a few people alerted me to The New Yorker’s presentation of Platon’s Portraits of Power. Each image of a world leader, taken in a five-day period at the UN this September, is accompanied by audio of Platon talking about the photograph, the situation, the person sitting.
It’s rich, inspiring and above all enlightening. You gotta have a look.
Thanks to Habitus Magazine for pointing us to their interview with Jason Eskenazi, whose book “Wonderland” (1 used at Amazon for $656.00!) you should know. In the video, Eskenazi discusses the narrative structure of Wonderland, the nature of being a photographer, finding pictures in Grozny, and collaborating with Valerii Nistratov for the portraits in “Title Nation.” The video was produced as part of Habitus‘ Moscow issue.
Rich-Joseph Facun is a favorite of mine. His essays come from unexpected angles and work subtly until they punch you in the gut. There’s always an undeniable energy to his work, but the quiet poetry shines through. Though we’ve never met in person, we’ve got a little bit of shared photo history in NYC and Chicagoland. After a few years shooting for the Virginian-Pilot, he picked up stakes and moved to Abu Dhabi as a staff photographer for the startup publication, The National. He’s been doing great work there, some of which can be seen on his website and blog. I was excited when he sent an email telling us here at dvafoto about a new project on the streets of Varansai, India, and the conversation grew to include Facun’s thoughts about the importance of personal work.
When he first let us know about the project, the email started out: “I just returned from India and it was an amazing experience. Initially I went for a recharge but also to look into an idea I had for a book project. I ended up in Varanasi which is known as the Holy City to the Hindus. Each year millions of pilgrims travel from around India to bathe in the sacred river Ganga. Some travel to die in Varanasi in order to attain “moksha” which is essentially to be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. It is believed by the Hindus that by being cremated at one of the burning ghats along the river will help them achieve this right. It was truly fascinating and beautiful…the trip has inspired me to work on an essay that will eventually take me from the birth of the river Ganga in the Himalayans 1500 miles south to the Bay of Bengal where the great river comes to rest. ”
dvafoto: Was this work done on assignment for the National or any other publication?
RJF: The work done in India was not done on assignment for The National or another publication. As I mentioned previously, this is a personal project. Working in the United Arab Emirates is very challenging for many reasons ranging from access to cultural differences. To say the least, it can deflate your passion and drive very quickly. Fortunately for me, my wife and muse Jasmine encouraged me to pick a country and go work on something personal. Rather than approach the work as a photojournalist she suggested that I get out and have fun by simply pursuing my first love with the camera, street photography.
India seemed like the obvious choice as it is only a three hour flight from Abu Dhabi and I could visit it regularly if I found something that interested me. After some very minor research I decided to visit Varanasi. It seemed like a perfect fit. I’ve always had a fascination with religious studies and Varanasi being recognized by Hindus as their Holy City felt right. Not to mention the Ganges is also considered a sacred river and is worshipped by the Hindus as the goddess Ganga. It was a no brainer. As soon as I landed in Varansai it was only a matter of minutes that I knew I made the right choice.
How was access during the shooting you’ve done so far? Easy to interact with people, get into their homes, the burning ghats, etc.?
Most of the people I met in Varanasi spoke some level of English and those who didn’t, well I got the feeling that we both shared an equal interests in each other so we made do with the small amount of communication we could share. I’m heavily tattooed so quite often the pilgrims visiting Varanasi came from small villages in India and were always curious about my stained skin. It was often an icebreaker. Others often asked me if I was Indian and when I replied no, they reacted with surprise and would comment that some of my facial features looked Indian. Sometimes, while sitting alone on one of the many ghats, groups of people would approach me to ask about my tattoos and where I was from. This opened up a few doors for some images to be made in a more photo-j approach rather than street photography.
The one place that I did face challenges was at the Manikarnika Ghat where cremations take place along the Ganga. You’re not allowed to take pictures at the burning ghats, it’s not unheard of, if you’re wiling to pay about 150-300 rupees a frame, roughly 3-6 USD a photograph. However, I found a local who introduced me to one of the untouchables who worked with the dead bodies and families at the ghat. Eventually I was allowed to take three photos but from a distance and at no charge. I could have shot more for a price but it just seemed forced and unnatural. This is something I’ll work on more when I return.
Do you plan on shooting more with the project?
I definitely plan on returning to India to further my work on this project, tentatively called Darshana Ganga. Roughly translated, “Darshana” comes from a verb meaning “to see,” and it conveys the understanding that any philosophy is one way of seeing a truth that can be viewed from different angles. “Ganga” is the Hindi word for the Ganges, the river, associated in myth and reality with the land and people of India. I hope that my work, when completed, will convey this title to some degree both literally and conceptually.
In January I’m planning to head to Kolkata where the Ganga breaks into several deltas before it finds rests in the Bay of Bengal. In March I hope to trek north to the Himalayans where the river is born. At that point I will have shot the locations that are considered the beginning, middle and end of the rivers flow. Afterwards, I’ll determine where to head next along the banks of the Ganga. Ideally I’ll end up in an another area that offers diversity in subject matter. Currently, I have a few towns and rural villages in mind. I’m in no rush to finish, I’m only in a hurry to get back to India to start shooting more on this body of work.
Why shoot this project now?
I’m shooting this project now because I can. When else will I live close enough to India that I can fly there so frequently for such a fair price? I never know what opportunity is going to come knocking on my door next so I want to make sure that I take full advantage of what is available to me today. As I mentioned earlier, shooting in the Emirates is very challenging. Photography is something I don’t choose to do, it’s something I have to do or else I get extremely manic. Ask my wife. But in doing photography I have to be shooting something that moves me. Something I feel connected to. But to get down to it, I’ve fallen in love again and her name is India. Don’t tell the misses, she might get jealous.
Any idea what the final project will look like?
This project started very much in the same manner as a previous body of work of mine entitled “Rollin’ Revival.” In the beginning I was shooting the resurgence of roller derby as an outlet outside of my daily photojournalism work. Later my wife and a friend suggested I consider investing more time with the topic in order to produce a book.
Well, three or four years later and I am finally working with the amazing former White House and National Geographic editor Mike Davis to finalize a selection of images for the book-in-progress. Point being, I didn’t know where I was going with the derby work, I didn’t have a purpose in the start, but in the end it is all coming together. I prefer the dynamics of this type of workflow.
All things aside, I hope the final outcome of my India work will ideally become a book. It’s really way too early to tell. It’s like proposing after going out on the first date (wait…I did that with my wife), it’s really too soon to logically know. In the end, I think it’ll simply be a love story.
Last week we had a look at Tomas van Houtryve’s brilliant and cunning pull-back-the-curtain look at North Korea called “Secrets and Lies”. Via his blog today I found this interview with the BBC World Service (which is playing today, I suppose. He also mentions it will only be available for 7 days) where he discusses his new worldwide project about the few remaining communist states Comrades Revisited and the methods (and reasoning) he used to photograph in a new way in North Korea. Have a listen, it is the first segment.
With the next interview in our ongoing series we’re talking to photographer Donald Weber who is based in Eastern Europe and is with the VII Network. You should quickly see why he and I have connected, given our overlapping interests with a certain part of the world. Many of the questions I asked, frankly, were bent to my own personal interest in what it means to move halfway around the world to photograph stories you’re personally passionate about. I’m sure some of you can relate. But more importantly to most of you, he is producing interesting and important work much on his own terms and is rising his profile, and has had an interesting life so far. And has interesting things to say about what he is doing.
Amongst many accomplishments Weber has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize and a World Press Photo award. He was a 2006 winner of the Photolucida Critical Mass review which just published his book Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl (which I previously mentioned here). Before becoming a photographer, he worked as an architect with the world-renowned Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For his full biography have a look at the about page on his website.
What is your background, in interests and academics? Where do you come from?
Well, Canadian, from Toronto, downtown, which may have influenced my outlook. Taking the subway at 12 years old to school everyday definitely gives an impression on a youngster, glad I was able to see what I did. Anyway, my academic background is not so academic, I studied at an alternative high school that offered an intensive arts education, from the age of 16 until graduation in grade 13, I studied art all day everyday. We had four hours of life drawing two days a week – that would be nudes, thus lots of people were jealous of us, plus an 8 hour day of art history and then we would major and minor in two artistic practices. I wanted to be artist, not really sure what that was or how I would do it, but initially that was my goal. I then went on to study at art college, the Ontario College of Art & Design, where I majored in – I forget the complex phrasing of the subject, something like Art and the Environment. Basically, making massive intrusions into the public landscape. Great! But I totally wasted my time, as far as I’m concerned, education is wasted on the young! It was a conflict in my youth of what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. I loved the idea of creating something, anything, I didn’t care how as long as I could. Then I had this interest in photography, and in particular photojournalism, which went against all the grains of an artistic education that I was brought up on.
So it was an interesting education, for almost 10 years I was schooled in very sophisticated forms of visual education that certainly influences me to this day. The practicalities may have changed, but the essence of being visual are always the same. Line, shape, form, colour, mood, tone, conceptual processes, etc., are all linked at the very core, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have had an education that grounded these roots into my young head.
Tell me about your time with architecture.
Well architecture came about rather haphazardly. in order to understand my time within that field, you have to understand first how I ended up there; it’s a rather convoluted process but one that is inherent as to my position today.
Back to my high schooling. As I stated before, I had an interest in both art and photojournalism. My passion, in my final year, was won out with photojournalism. It was in November of that year before graduation where in Canada we make our applications to post secondary institutions. I wanted to apply to two – Rochester Institute of Technology for PJ, and a smaller college just outside of Toronto for a basic three year photography course. I asked my photography (and I quote verbatim the following conversation):
Me: Robert, which school do you think I should apply to? RIT or Sheridan?
Robert (the teacher): What? Why would you apply to either? You suck as a photographer!
Thus, I literally brought my cameras home and put them in a drawer, not to be touched for about 10 years. It was then I decided to find a different path. I replaced photography with ceramics; my mother was not so pleased. Anyway, while studying at OCAD, I developed an interest in architecture, planning and landscape design and was captured by the writings and designs of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. So, I set my sights on working for him. When I graduated in 1996, I headed overseas to Rotterdam where his practice was based, and promptly got a job, precisely because I was not a trained architect. I worked there for about three years. It was a great experience, but certainly soul crushing. I found architecture to be a rather drab profession and nearly impossible to do anything of interest, save for the exception of Rem Koolhaas and a few others. But I learned about ideas, how to think in a conceptual manner and to find ways to bring those ideas into fruition. It also taught me on more practical levels things about budgeting and planning and just being professional; things I think we take for granted that all go into the realities of being a working photographer.
Anyway, it was not a highlight of my life but I think a necessary step.
What brought you to photography? Was there a specific event that made you say “I am going to be a photographer”?
Yes, very specific event! My whole life has these cascading elements that when all put together certainly illuminate what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I was born in 1973, thus when the events of the late 80′s and early 90′s came around, I was at the ripe age to start taking notice. For me, these were the most historical and important times of my generation. The collapse of communism, the events in Tiananmen Square, the first Iraq War. These were all events that were shaped and played out in magazines and television. I was a teenager and just discovering more than my backyard, it was an awakening physically, mentally, socially, everything, for me. I remember clearly watching hundreds of thousands of Eastern European refugees fleeing their countries for elsewhere, the Wall collapsing, the Ceaucescu’s being executed, Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank. All these events were seared into my mind, and those events shaped what I wanted to do with my life. I had always been aware of news images, but never before did I connect that somebody actually went out there and made those pictures until I was older. It was a massive lightbulb that went off and I wanted to be a part of it.
Anyway, that was event number one. The second event was my diversion to architecture for awhile; I listened to closely what my high school teacher had to say; never again! Anyway, it was while I was living in Europe that I remembered what photography was all about. I wanted to remember living in Europe, so I bought a camera – it was great! I couldn’t put it down, all I did was take photos. Crappy, but they were photos. It was then that I said okay – I’m going to be a photographer – but how was a much more difficult question. It wasn’t until March of 2000, a few days before I was to leave on a year long trip to ride my motorcycle across Africa (something I had previously done in 1998) where the jump was finally made. I had just quit my job as an architect, not really knowing what to do. I was taking the bike out for one last tune up spin when I got hit by a car. I just remember sliding across the hood of some old Chevy, sliding on my back seeing my crumpled bike and thinking, okay, now’s the time to be a photographer. So I never did the bike trip to Africa; I “became” a photographer. That summer I got an internship at the Toronto Sun, a tabloid.
What were your early interests as a photographer? Influences?
I don’t really know, for me it was such a long battle to finally start taking pictures that influences and interests were a secondary thought! But, as a teenager, photojournalism was a very powerful force in me. I remember Kenneth Jarecke’s burned Iraqi soldier from the first Iraq War, Chris Morris’ Panama photos, Don McCullin – it was important because what they were photographing was important – and that was important to me! So I’d say my interests were in the realm that photography could act as a document; the total opposite of my art education. to me art had become superfluous, something dilettantes dabbled in; it had lost it’s meaning. Photography was the opposite. As I grew, my more literal influences was the photographer Raymond Depardon, still is. To me he has managed to encapsulate perfectly what a photographer is and should be. Bridge influences and ideas from all facets and present them in his own manner. That is something I strive to do, to take what I see but also to take what I feel and make my own story of it.
My interests are always morphing; there was a time when I thought Chris Morris could do no wrong (still do). But my art training definitely influenced me in the way I see; not what I see, but how I interpret that. I used to really enjoy the old masters and specifically religious paintings of the 15 – 17 centuries. So much blood, red, white, gold, colour, pain; totally terrified me.
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