Welcome to 10.Q Interviews.This section usually features interviews to Humanitarian, Cultural & Travel Photographers, their work and photography.
This week in 10.Q Interviews, Lindsay Branham:
“After living in the Democratic Republic of Congo and visiting many places of war, I began to see the role of peacemaker as both beautiful and urgent. And so I have dedicated my life to the process and art of becoming a builder of peace, through words, images and love. And trust me, I am very new at this and recognize with humility those who have gone before.” [more about Lindsay]
1. Tell us about you and your photography. What kinds of shooting have you done? Have you worked for any humanitarian organizations/magazines etc.? Could you name any current or former clients?
I have shot photography all over the world, but primarily in disaster, conflict and post-conflict areas; from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to post-earthquake Haiti, post-Tsunami Thailand and Indonesia to Sudan, Northern Uganda, Northern Kenya, and the list goes on. My focus is on editorial photojournalism that documents story and the human element, both dignity and beauty, in the midst of extreme human pain. In the humanitarian organizations category, I have shot for Food for the Hungry, a large international relief and development organization and Discover The Journey, a non-profit which creates media highlighting seven categories of children at-risk around the world and connects intervention partners to the situation until change is realized. In the journalism category, I have shot for BBC World News American, CNN and CNN International. My latest project, a full length documentary called “Rescued” about two Haitian children, aired on CNN this May. I shot photography and video for the documentary and was published in a photography book accompanying the film.
2. We all know that you don’t get into humanitarian photography to become rich, so what does humanitarian photography mean to you? What’s your vision for it?
To me, photography is relationship. The privilege and honor I feel to have gotten to sit with, witness, and know the people I have photographed around the world, is at its core, an expression of relationship. Because I have worked so often in places where people have experienced severe trauma, whether that is due to armed conflict or natural disaster, the act of telling their story can be quite healing. I take that very seriously. I am entrusted with someone’s story and their image and then am tasked with representing them in their truest sense to the rest of the world. I do not want story or photography to be another export from the developing world. I am struggling right now with how to sort through that. But one way is to always keep relationship at the centre of what I do, and thus my concern is ultimately for the person, not the story and definitely not the shot. There are times when I was in a situation that I knew would be an incredible shot, but I put the camera down because that relationship came first. This may separate me from the great photojournalists, and certainly the bold war photojournalists, but I am trying to strike the balance between capturing reality, because I have a responsibility to do that, while honoring and protecting the people in that reality. Thus, I am committed to non-exploitative photography – and this word exploitation can mean a lot of things.Essentially, I never want to misrepresent someone I have photographed, or use their image in a way that would take advantage of them in any form. But this does not mean I shy away from documenting harsh reality, for this too must be shared. Story is the principal form of human learning, and photography is an element of that. My vision for my work once it reaches eyes in the developed world is that it would stir something in them to explore or learn or push outside of the bounds of their world. I hope that by giving someone else a chance to be a witness, they too will be changed by what they see, just like I have.
3. How did you get into humanitarian photography? Where did you get the idea to shoot these kinds of people and groups?
I had lived in Uganda twice, working with Congolese, Rwandese and Burundian refugees who had fled war and were trying to survive in a new country. I sat with my Congolese friends and listened to them tell me about this war that raged in their country. I was horrified. To learn that over the past 14 years, Congo had lost up to 6 million people to war and war-related deaths, shocked me. I wanted to go. I wanted to tell their stories, I wanted to capture their faces on film and show them to an unknowing world. A few months later, I was offered the opportunity to move to eastern DRC and work as a photographer and writer for Food for the Hungry. I went. I ended up living in the DRC and nearby Rwanda for a year and a half. And that is where I learned to be a photographer, in the homes, fields, roads, markets, villages, cities, rivers and lakes of Congo. There were many times I wanted to give up and go home. The pain I was witnessing was simply too crushing. But the strength I saw in my new friends lifted my heart just enough to keep going.During that time, a few friends and I from Discover The Journey discovered a group of former child soldiers who were struggling to reintegrate into their communities. We are now in post-production of a documentary, “No More Tears,” about these children, their friendships, their pain, their journey to become peacemakers. Two of these kids, Mwisha and Heritier, inspire me every day. I was told once to create your art for one person. I try to do this. In Congo, it is for them. In Haiti this spring, watching the earthquake ruin so many lives, I also found my one, a little girl named Cendy.
4. What are the challenges of shooting for NGO’s or non- profit organizations?
While shooting for NGOs, you struggle between that desire to be an un-bound story-teller, and the reality that you need to represent a particular organization with a specific agenda. But the beauty of it is that you get to find stories of hope, stories of success, stories of proof that help and love can really make a difference. This is a joy. Many organizations are doing incredible work and really need someone to come and elevate their story. This is a privilege.
Another benefit to shooting for NGOs is the access you gain to really remote parts of the world. I was shooting for Food for the Hungry in northern Kenya once and found myself in the middle of the Chalbi desert – an enormous expanse of cracked earth, hundreds of miles from anything. As a photojournalist, I would have wanted to get to a place like that but couldn’t have perhaps on my own. But with an NGO you are handed access to really beautiful, unknown parts of the world. And thus your work has quite a bit of meaning if you allow it.
5. How much do you travel every year? How do you manage your family time?
I travel very often. Now that I am not based in Africa but in Washington, D.C., I travel less. But as an example, in the last year I was traveling about 50% of the time. I was in Haiti three times, Indonesia, Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. I am not married and don’t have children so I don’t think I feel the impact as acutely, but it does impact relationships. I make a concerted effort to include my friends and family in what I am doing through lots of communicating, and I have an unbelievably supportive community who really gets what I do, encourages me and celebrates the stories I bring back.
6. Who’s been an inspiration for your photography? How do you stay inspired? Do you read blogs? If so, which ones would you recommend?
Jonathan Torgovnik is an inspiration to me. I got to shoot with him in Haiti for a day after the earthquake and was very humbled. Great photojournalists Marcus Bleasdale and James Nachtwey are also incredibly inspiring. James Nachtwey said, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” I agree with him. Nachtwey has been to the most difficult places on earth and seen the depth of the human capacity for suffering. And he shoots as a testimony. I, too, shoot to create a testimony. As a young photojournalist, I have this hope that my work could change things. I think it can.
I also stay inspired by beholding nature. There is almost nothing as perfect as the natural beauty around us. It is an important discipline for me to remember the beauty, when so often I am witness to pain.
7. How do you normally approach people from other cultures? What are your limits at the moment of shooting people in need, or in a complicated situation?
It is essential to have an understanding of a culture and place before you start shooting. Many of the developing nations have grown tired of western photographers, and in some places, that disdain can be felt. That is because they feel exploited. They see the photographer but never see the result of that image, printed in some magazine or ad or website somewhere they will never benefit from. This is a real moral dilemma. I am sensitive to this and in some places put down the camera, because I want to respect the people more than I want that shot.
Learning the basics of a language can allow you to ask someone for permission to take a photograph and to understand if something like eye contact is really offensive, for example. Because I lived in Africa for so long, I learned French and basic Swahili and then smatterings of other languages. This helped enormously to navigate cultural waters as well as to build deeper relationships. To be able to communicate directly with the people I am talking to has been really important to me. I want them to feel honored that I have taken the time to learn some of their language and it creates more authentic intimacy when we can speak directly to each other.
The limits of shooting in a complicated situation changes all the time. For example, when I was in Haiti this January, I was shooting a makeshift field hospital. There was a pregnant woman who has having grand Mal seizures, and I was documenting her as the staff pulled her into a truck to try to rush her to a different hospital. In that moment one of the nurses asked me to help. And so I put the camera away and helped to hold the woman down on the bed so she didn’t hurt herself. Lines are constantly morphing between observer and participant, especially in emergency situations. But that’s ok, and that is the nature of this work. You might be there to do one thing, but end up doing something else. If your primary focus is the person, than these opportunities to tangibly help are welcome. So often I feel this tension. In Haiti, I wanted to help the thousands of people I saw in need. But I am not a doctor. I wanted to build them new homes, but I am not a builder. And so I had to remind myself that I am a photographer, a story teller, and that telling their story was still important. But I treasured the moments when I was just with people, not behind a lens. These moments are why I do this. This is real.
I have a blog I have kept, musings about peacemaking, and stories I have seen from around the world. I have had my photography sold at benefits and featured on the non-profits websites I have worked for. And then of course working for CNN, I received great international promotion.
9. Tell us about the last piece of gear that you deemed important enough to buy. How about the one that’s been most important in your career?
The gear that has been most important in my career is a pen and paper. If I can’t document who I am photographing and where, than I have failed as a photojournalist.
10. What would be your advice for a photographer who is just starting out in this field?
Get in the field and shoot. Find any way to get yourself to a place you are interested in and then shoot. Embed yourself in a community, go under an organization, offer yourself to serve someone, and see what happens. The most important way to learn to be a photographer is to practice the art of photography. Starting out you probably won’t get hired to do a big assignment, but if you offer to help tell the stories of an organization that may not be able to afford an expensive media team, you could fill that gap and in turn have access to a place to practice. Curiosity and unquenchable interest is key in this field. Everywhere I go, I only get further inspired and interested in the world, in its people, in the way we work, how we operate, why we do the things we do. This curiosity has led me all over the world. Buy some equipment or borrow some, and go on a trip! What you learn there about the world and about yourself will help you discern if this is a good fit, and will provide fodder of inspiration for how that might look.