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Posts tagged ‘war photography’

That Day in Naivasha Revisited – January 27th 2008

Post-Election Upheaval in Kenya.  January & February 2008.

Grace Mungai is shot through the neck and killed by a stray bullet fired by police during tribal clashes in Kenya as her distraught 15 month old baby son Brian looks on.

I was wading through some news articles a few days ago when I came across one about simmering political tensions in the Rift Valley in Kenya (Rifts in the Rift – 23rd January 2016 – The Economist).  It talked about the tribal divisions that are still rife in politics in the country and showed how such tensions might boil over in elections around mid-2017, especially in multi-tribal towns like Naivasha.

I immediately felt some discomfort when reading the article especially when suddenly realising that by some dark twist of fate I was reading it the very day 8 years ago I had been in Naivasha itself covering the violence. On a whim, I decided to revisit that time briefly to see upon reflection what the images – and in particular the one image above of a recently deceased Grace Mungai and her traumatised baby Brian – that caught the media’s attention ever so briefly – means to me today.  It has taken a few days to be even able to sit down and do this… I hardly revisit or talk about anything from that time – In fact, I don’t really even ever look through my old photojournalistic website at all – let alone write a blog about it.  I find it really hard.  I still get edgy and very nervous thinking about anything from time spent in conflict situations in general.

I took a photo that day – very much the right place and time type – of a horrific scenario that spread round the media campfire through Reuters and initially via the New York Times and came to be very much a brief talking point.  Of course, I had no idea at the time.  The photo itself is not well composed, very graphic, intrusive and just pure overwhelming content.

It was pure luck I had made my way to Naivasha anyway.  I was actually en route to Nakuru further along the Rift Valley where violence was also apparently in full swing when news of clashes in Naivasha broke on the BBC World Service.  I made the decision to divert into the very scenic town more out of curiosity, still planning to move on down the road later on. Surely this beautiful flower producing tourist centre couldn’t have been so affected?  I was so wrong.  I’ll let myself take up the story as I wrote it 8 years ago:

As soon as I arrived in Naivasha town it was clear that events were unraveling fast, with fires burning in several locations and the increasingly familiar smell of tear gas sweeping the entire town. The crack of live rounds from the GSU (General Service Unit – the Kenyan riot police) could be heard in the distance. I found a GSU patrol, left the car and followed them into an area of shanty dwelling where rioters were still battling with police.

Suddenly the sound of screaming women and children filled the air. Drawn to the noise, I found a group of people wailing outside a small corrugated iron dwelling. Everyone was in a frantic state and a lady had began removing all her clothes seemingly so overcome that she was unaware of what she was doing. When I looked inside the house, the sight that greeted me was so gripping that I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread. Before me lay a dead mother, shot through the neck, with her crying baby sitting on a chair behind. The dwelling seemed to have been ransacked. I took a few pictures, but then realised the frenzy of the crowd had begun turning its attentions to me. They were asking that perennial question that is asked of many journalists in similar situations. ‘Why don’t you help us?

A few days later, after the photo was printed page 3 of the NY Times, people had started writing in and asking a similar question as those that had surrounded the terrible scene that day – What had I done for the baby?  Radu Sigheti – Reuters Africa Chief Photographer between ’03-’09 phoned me a few days later to get my side as a swell of readers had began asking that very question – maybe fearing a Kevin Carter style backlash in the heat of the media frenzy over his infamous vulture and baby shot.  Upon reflection it is unreasonable to ask such things.  I came to understand the role of photojournalist that day as being a concept that had become very mixed up in the general public’s perception.  The drive to always be perceived as a humanist, a compassionate witness responsible for far more than the narrow remit of reporting news but rather fulfilling the altruistic dreams of what many would perceive themselves as having done from their armchairs a million miles away.

I had very much by chance ticked most of their boxes that day.  I responded to the horrific scene and the restless crowd by seeking out an ambulance from the local hospital.  It had taken time to find one and when I did, the crew were fearful – being from a different tribe on the opposing side of the clashes – that they themselves would be set upon by the crowd.  The fact that news had got to me too that the baby’s dad was also on the scene  by then and that I had to continue doing my freelance duty put an end to the futile effort.

It was in fact my assistant that day who turned to me and said – ‘what are you doing?!’.  I had a job to do and here I was spending a disproportionate amount of time organising ambulances.  To be honest I felt ashamed by having been overwhelmed by emotion, by being driven by a misplaced sense of duty and it all felt very unprofessional.  It is this paradox – between reality and general perceptions of being a conflict photographer that has always left me bemused and something that has made me critical of this type of photography in the past (all covered extensively to the point of annoying in previous blogs so I won’t say much more about it here!).

What I haven’t said much about that day is that a bit later on I was set upon and nearly killed by a machete-wielding gang of youths.  I had been innocuously asked ‘Are you CNN?’ while walking back to the car preparing to travel to Nairobi to file the pics somewhere.  CNN were perceived then as having been biased against the majority tribe in Naivasha who were reportedly instigating the violence that day.  It was claimed in later years at the ICC that the violence was calculated and organised that day.  I remember clearly how a short young man watched on impassively as he directed the youths to attack me when I brushed their question aside.  They used the butt of their machetes to try and put me on the ground for what seemed like an age but must of been about a minute.  I knew I was in serious trouble as they didn’t even try and steal my cameras.  Had I gone to ground I feel I would have been in real trouble.  I think they were hesitant to really attack but – like all power games – the weaker one gets in a fight – the more it drives an uncontrollable lust for victory over the vanquished.

My assistant thankfully stepped in and gave me a few seconds breathing space to make a run for it.  I remember rugby sized rocks whizzing inches from my head.  I ran – carrying 2 DSLR’s as fast as I could down the middle of a wide road, lined on either side by drunken locals who had been whipped into a frenzy and were aiming projectiles at me as I ran.  It was a miracle I escaped that day.  I was bundled into the back of the car and we drove out as fast as we could back to Nairobi.

 

Looking at all the pics on my old website I think I am truly proud of only one from conflict zones and that is of a missile fired by SPLA soldiers on the frontline of fighting with rebel soldiers north of Bor in South Sudan. Another coincidence but it is also nearly the anniversary of this pic, taken 2 years ago on 26th Jan.

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I like it mainly because there isn’t any direct graphic content and only alludes to it.  I feel it is much more powerful because of it.  Taking it was difficult too – the scream and overpowering noise of the missiles is just unbelievable to the uninitiated.  I have never heard anything like it – completely possessing your body and shaking you to your foundations.  Concentrating on pic-taking with the noise and a fast moving body is hard to say the least, let alone trying to compose a decent picture.  I had to take video for Reuters as well that day and you can clearly hear me say very unprofessionally ‘Fucking Hell!’ after the first rocket was fired (much to the annoyance of the video editor later on.. Thankfully there was a lot more footage to select from)… I remember later on being a bit too eager and getting too close to one particular cartouche rocket being fired out the back of a jeep trying to get that perfect shot and the sound and energy literally knocked me on my back in slow-motion like in some cartoon (to the wild amusement of the SPLA soldiers and their usually very dark and brooding General).

Such moments of levity are few and far between.  I am writing this as fast as possible hoping to end the blog as soon as I can.  For all that I really remember is the unbelievable level of violence, darkness and evil that surrounds you in conflict.  And it stays with you – however brief you might have been there as an observer or ‘witness’ – it clings to the sub-conscience like a parasite.  A few months after I came back from South Sudan I travelled into the Karoo desert north of Cape Town with a friend.  I remember him joking about all the shapes he could see in the hills in the landscape around us… I recollect being very quiet not responding and not saying much – all I could see were the outlines of faceless dead people – rotten carcasses, and specifically those of women and children.

work on my journalistic website is at www.geojournalism.com

 

 

Masterclass, Misconceptions and Branding yourself as a photographer…

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Had the last session in Groningen in Holland last week with the Noordelicht Masterclass.  Another great couple of lecturers in David Birkitt  (MD of DMB – rep of photogs including Martin Parr) and Rob Van Bracht (Creative Director at brnstrm) and of course with the excellent mentoring from Lars Boering and Marc Prust again.

Looking at people’s work develop over the year and seeing projects come to a conclusion has been greatly satisfying and a humbling journey to have been a part of.

It is a shame that the Noordelicht institute itself is threatened with closure as Government funds might be withdrawn for what seems to be a new Government’s attempt in the Netherlands to push it’s own political agenda on the Dutch art world– Art and politics never mix and its politicisation is the first sure sign of cultural and spiritual decline in a relatively rich country like the Netherlands.  I hope sense prevails and we don’t yet see the demise of yet another fine bastion of photography.

One of the most revealing and interesting aspects from my point of view had nothing to do with the course itself but was rather a series of fascinating conversations I had with a fellow student (which I have re-told here with his express permission).

During the entire course, my colleague  – who is an established wedding photographer in his country, had expressed a great desire to go into conflict photography.  He was driven by the idea of diving into the worst depths of depravity and chaos that the world’s war zones have to offer  – building up real experiences and coming back with photographs that have meaning and a place of significance in the world.  I guess being very honest, it is the way I wanted to go a decade ago when I did my LCC course and went to live in Africa.  But I found it ironic, that getting away from this type of photography was the number 1 reason I did the course in the first place.

Won’t dwell too much on the financial disaster that is being a stringer photographer and doing this type of photography as I’ve dealt with it comprehensively in a past blog (Introspection, shooting vid and the way forward).  Although in the last part of the Masterclass in Feb, Magdalena Herrera highlighted the point that as Photo Editor of GEO France she was swamped by emails during the Libyan civil war by photographers saying things along the lines of ‘Hi! I’m in Libya.. USE ME!!’  Most major publications can’t use such pics anymore and if they needed them, they would go straight to one of the news wire agencies anyway (who don’t pay stringers well at all as I have mentioned before).

Most of the convos I had with my colleague were more philosophical on the worth of war type photography and on the authenticity of the experiences and stories that almost come de rigeur now with the pics.

There are many misconceptions and clichés with war photography banded about: I used to have this notion myself that stylistically, this type of pics should be ruled by content and it was wrong – even morally so – to try to mess around with the composition when taking such graphic images.  I used to rant at photographers like Alixandra Fazzina (NOOR) who describes herself as a ‘war artist’ (OK – however good her images are, I still flinch at the term).  But the point is, that the well-trodden path of taking straight up content-dominated images in war zones – done so by greats such as Don McCullin and Tom Stoddart, no longer has the same impact on the viewer as it did 30 or 40 years ago.  The general public have seen these pics a million times before and no longer react in the same manner as they once did.  I am now of the firm belief that adding compositional elements and stylising these images – making them look ever-so slightly artistic even helps such work to stand out and be noticed again.  And that’s what is ultimately crucial.

I am now also of the solid opinion that it is a dis-service to the art of photography itself – which is (or at least should be) the fundamental reason many risk their lives to go to conflict areas to take such images – not to stylise and have some strong compositional element to them.

More importantly though – are the stories and the way many war-type photographers brand themselves that now bugs me.  As the sailors in the colonial days of old (in true Heart of Darkness fashion), came back to regale ordinary folk with their magical tales, many conflict photographers tell of their dark woes, walking around almost with the weight of the world on their shoulders (that at closer inspection you realise is just a big chip).

Don’t get me wrong.  I have seen many horrific scenes in my time on the African Continent that have profoundly affected and disturbed me.  But – in my humble opinion – to go on and on about them is a thinly-veiled and cheap attempt to promote your own work and help establish and brand yourself as a serious war/conflict photojournalist.

As I have mentioned, I am starting to shoot a small doccie on child assault here in South Africa.  While I have already seen some pretty strong scenarios, I must ask myself the rhetorical question – what right do I have to use such dark experiences to basically promote the work when I will only see them and experience them first-hand for a few months, when those around me have been working in-depth with the issue for over a decade in some cases now?

Moving away from photojournalistic type of photography has also been a profound experience for me in terms of moving away from the stereotypes of how one brands him or herself as a photographer and finding a more unusual and unique voice.  In the past, when I was more insecure about what I did and produced, I would def feed right into these stereotypes.  About a year and a half ago, I decided to very much scr*w it and just be myself and to use my own unique voice in representing my work however anathema it might be to the normal stereotypes.

An off-beat example here – but I am a die-hard footie fan and sometimes marrying that with the often pretentious and snotty world of photography (borne out of the great insecurity spawned by a violently transforming profession) can on occassion be hard.  That’s why meeting people like Rob Van Bracht was refreshing.  While being a well-established and imaginative creative director, it became apparent (in the pub after the lectures!) that we were both die-hard football fans having travelled with our respective teams to matches (him Ajax?!  And me Arsenal of course!).

Even in photography, if you act and be yourself – and not let clichés define you – you will eventually attract the people and form strong professional bonds that will 1 day help your work and help you find a great pro-personal balance in life.  This profoundly different attitude has also affected other aspects of my work too:

Recently when working on my child assault film project, 1 of the forensic doctors – who I now see as crucial to my film – asked me where the film will end up.  I started with the usual spiel about interest in the original multimedia piece from certain international pubs but now I am searching for a production company that might take on a larger doccie-version (after getting a competent show-reel together) but stopped half way.

“You know what?” I said.  “who cares where it’s going to end up.  Even if it’s only ever seen by friends and family, this is a chance for you to voice your own opinions – get all your emotions and frustrations on film and get everything off your chest.”

That’s what it’s slowly becoming for me.  A chance to give these amazing people I am honoured to be working with – even for a brief moment – some form of catharsis.  And I could see in their eyes that they understood and it worked.

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