The award-winning photographer, who has covered Libya, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, shares advice for working in hostile environments…
How do you protect yourself when working in dangerous environments?
It starts with the research. No matter what flak jacket you’re wearing, you don’t go into a place without knowing the culture on the ground. Try to speak with people who have been there before or who are from that country. Find out whether there’s a history of targeted violence towards reporters. When you’re going somewhere – whether it’s Somalia, Colombia or Afghanistan – people will tend to look at the country and say, “Oh that looks dangerous”, but it really depends where you’re going. The situation can be very different from one city to another, sometimes from one street to another. And it depends when you’re going, too, because a place can be safe one day but two weeks later it’s impossible to work there.
What should you remember when working with fixers and translators?
You need to find the right people. That might come from working closely with an NGO [‘non-governmental organisation’] or from finding a very good translator who you haven’t met before but has been recommended to you. Try to arrange a good set-up because, in the end, they’re your security. If they’re bad they’ll work against you – they might try to rob you – or if they’re lazy they won’t see the danger ahead. But if they’re good they’ll have local knowledge and understand why you’re there so you can trust them when they say, “Now we need to get out”.
Translators often cancel at the last minute or they don’t pick up the phone; sometimes your driver tries to charge too much or drives like a crazy person. So you want to have as many contacts on the ground as possible.
What are you aiming for photographically when documenting conflicts?
With a violent conflict, you’re obviously trying to show how terrible it is and make people care about what’s happening, but the risk is that you make pictures people find unbearable to look at and they just turn the page. I try really hard to make a bridge between whatever’s happening in the country and my readers, who are mainly in Europe or America. Some of these people say, “Oh it’s too far away” or “What can I do about it anyway?” That’s something you have to take seriously. Instead of just thinking that they’re ignorant, try to make pictures they can relate to. I’m not fascinated by war or attracted to conflict, I’m interested in people. The expression on a face shows much more than another tank or Kalashnikov.
How do you prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for the shocking scenes you see – and how do you deal with this afterwards?
I’ve always been the kind of person who’d rather face the bad things in the world than know that they’re there and ignore them. I don’t enjoy looking at these things but it’s like with a doctor – it’s hard but you know there’s a reason why you’re doing it and that’s the way it has to be. And then how you deal with it afterwards is important. For me, it’s about trying to have a good balance in my life by talking with friends and family and listening to my own feelings. If I’m a big mess inside then I’m not going to be a good photographer.
Especially in the beginning, take it easy – one step at a time. You find yourself thinking things like, “I need to go back because this is so important” or “People are dying – what am I doing here drinking coffee with my friends?” But you have to take care of yourself. That will be of more benefit in the long term for the people you worry about.
Do you have any other advice for photographers working in conflict zones for the first time?
The responsibility is huge. If you’re going somewhere and risking your life, I hope you have the right motivation. You shouldn’t do it for the excitement. If you’re stepping into people’s lives, in a situation where they have suffered so much, they’d damned better be important to you.
Images (from top - taken in Libya, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo): © Mads Nissen / Berlingske / Panos.
Visit Mads Nissen's profile on the Panos Pictures website to see more of his work.
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