Intimate educational experiences with master storytellers from VII Photo Agency.
Ever since my career began in South East Asia in 1988 it has been characterized by a constant evolution and a reluctance to be confined or constrained. I have spent all of my career immersed in photography but the process and the outcomes I have sought have changed. Over the last 25 years I have photographed for news magazines, I have art directed magazines, designed books, chaired media juries, started media foundations, founded a photo agency and a University program and won awards and Fellowships along the way.
When it started I was driven by many motivations, some more dominant than others on any different day. I was young, romantic and impulsive. The two principle drivers then were the desire to escape from the prospect of a mundane life at home in England and a fascination with the world I didn’t know.
The beginning of my career was explosive, I became very involved photographing the war in Cambodia between the Khmer Rouge, their allies and the Vietnamese. This work started my deep interest in South East Asian culture and began my dismay with the utter lack of knowledge and empathy foreigners had for the region – a region that occidental countries had occupied or been at war with for over a century and had no excuse for failing to understand.
On my first foray into war and into journalism I was with a unit of Royalist guerrillas in Cambodia who were attacked by the Vietnamese Army and suffered 25% casualties. They retreated to a village where I asked one of the local women what life was like under the Khmer Rouge regime. She told me that life was good, that they treated the village with respect and they didn’t steal from them like everyone else. I refused to believe the translator as this was so at odds with everything I had read and imagined to be true. But other villagers I asked said the same, and in subsequent trips this was repeated in other villages. I mention this because it is the point at which I learned that you cannot make assumptions and that the world is complex and nuanced and the reporting of it in simplistic terms is helpful to no-one. What the villagers were telling me is that life under the Khmer Rouge was better for them than it was under French colonial rule or during the civil war, but of course for urban dwellers Khmer Rouge rule was murderous and vengeful. A better understanding of life under the Khmer Rouge would have benefitted us all and explained why they still had support in the countryside. Our poor understanding of the nuanced contemporary history of Cambodia prolonged the war and did nothing to make the aftermath of war as successful as it could have been.In January 1993 I moved to the former Yugoslavia then in a state of civil war where I became involved in documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity. I spent the next 6 years working in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo and rented an apartment there. In 2002 I published the monograph ‘Evidence – the case against Milosevic et al’ an in depth investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo. This book was used as evidence in war crimes investigations at the Hague and was exhibited in Europe and the USA. It was a turning point in my career, the process that started the evolution away from journalism per se and into a more immersive and reflective style of work. During this period I also covered conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans and worked widely in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and the Far East (including North Korea) concentrating on human rights and poverty related issues for the US or European media.
In 2000 with John Stanmeyer I conceived the VII Photo Agency which was launched in September 2001, two days before 9/11. At a time of agency convergence and the entry of giant commercial structures into the photographic agency milieu VII was an attempt at creating a new focused structure that would give free expression to the small number of leading news and current affairs photographers it represented. The photographers were all owners and through the creation of VII were able to remove themselves from the passive role of content providers for the media and were able to develop individual roles as advocates and documentarians. VII created a new space in the media environment that not only acts as a distribution hub for concerned visual narratives to the media but as a publishing entity and a platform for communication strategies with NGO’s such as MSF, Human Rights Watch and the ICRC. VII was named as the third most influential entity in photography by American Photo Magazine in 2003.
During the post 9/11 world I photographed the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan, the civil wars in Kashmir and the Congo and natural disasters like the Asian Tsunami amongst other stories and central to this work was a continued commitment to address the issues in the context of the condition of the world’s poor and other human rights issues. During this period I continued to return to Asia and work on a long term affair I call the Asian Journals.
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and after 15 years of covering wars of every kind all over the world I found myself in one of the most violent and terrifying environments I had ever experienced. With my colleagues at Newsweek (where I was a contract photographer for 10 years) I reported what I saw but what we saw and what we reported was never published. These reports foretold the nightmare that the occupation would become and what is now a familiar narrative. Our reports were not published because they challenged the status quo, they did not conform. One of our editors at the time later apologized for the magazine’s coverage, he was alone in his apology but Newsweek was not alone in the paucity of its coverage. On a bridge into Baghdad during a terrible battle I made the decision to move away from the world of journalism and the media.
In 2005 with a group of friends I founded the Angkor Photo Festival and Angkor Photo Workshops to support and train emerging photographers from Asia, a region where the training of independent media was not universally encouraged. Over 300 young media practitioners have graduated from the workshops under the tutelage of photographers from the VII Photo Agency, Magnum, Noor, The Associated Press and Reuters amongst others.
In 2008 I founded with Simba Gill and Mort Rosenblum the print periodical Dispatches, a quarterly publication containing long form written and visual narratives, bibliographies and political cartoons underwritten by in depth research that addressed the critical social, political and environmental issues of our time.
In 2009 on a telephone call from Boston to Rajasthan I was told that I had received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. So began one of the most formative experiences of my life, a year in which I explored new intellectual ground, embraced new ideas and started to observe very differently. The year at Harvard began the final transition away from journalism being the driver behind my inquiry and a move towards a more studied and slower approach supported by academia. I was invited to lecture at Tufts University that year and began a relationship there with the Institute for Global Leadership that has bloomed into a new program at the University. I founded with Sherman Teichman the Institute’s Director the Program for Narrative & Documentary Practice where I teach narrative non-fiction storytelling. I divide my time equally between education and photography and have moved away from the violence which characterized the early part of my career. My most recent completed project is the exploration of immigration into the United States through the photography of landscape in Southern Arizona which was made possible by a grant from the St Brieuc Festival in Northern France and the patronage of the Museum for Contemporary Art in Tucson, Arizona.
My work has been exhibited worldwide and is in the collections of several museums and private collectors in the USA and Europe. I don’t know who all the private collectors are because I never thought to ask the gallery that represents my work but the institutions include the Museum of Fine Art, Houston where one of my images is included in this years landmark War/Photography exhibition curated by Anne Wilkes Tucker, The Museum for Contemporary Art in Tucson Arizona. The War Museum, Dubrovnik, The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and the Aidekman Art Gallery at Tufts University. A full list of exhibitions is included in my ‘List of Work’.
I have been fortunate to have been the recipient of a number of awards in Asia, Europe and the United States including: Amnesty International Awards for Journalism in 1997 and 2002, Overseas Press Club Awards, POYi Awards and a number of others between 1998 and 2008. I have been the President the World Press Photo Award jury twice (2008 and 2013)I have been on the jury of the World press four times in total and sat on many other juries for the United Nations (United Nations Millennium Development Goals ‘We Can End Poverty’ Campaign. 2010 and the UNRIC Award 2010) and the WHO (where I was the Chairman of the Board for the WHO Stop TB Alliance Exhibition and Photography Award. 2007 – 2012) amongst others. I have been involved with a number of Foundations including being a Board member of the Crimes of War Foundation, a Trustee of the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation and on the Board of The Frontline Club Foundation.
The most meaningful part of my professional life has not changed in 25 years wherever my career has taken me. The one constant has been my fascination and love for being out there in the world immersed in – and sharing – the lives of others.
February 5, 2015
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