In her photo essay Flee, which is featured in Ten Years Later, Nadia Shira Cohen explores the border between Tunisia and Libya, where a sea of migrant workers and refugees had gathered, still wearing the hard hats adorned with the logos of companies that once employed them in Libya. She talks to Granta’s Artistic Director Michael Salu about finding and photographing moments of intimacy, even during times of war and chaos.

 

MS: Could you tell us about how you found yourself in Ras Ajdir, as opposed to, say, Tripoli?

Well, I have to admit that I was called for an assignment in Ras Ajdir to photograph the refugee situation because of the type of work I normally do, which is not typically the coverage of breaking news events. I usually come at my subjects from an alternative angle, aiming to do more than just capture violence or overt tension. I try to tell the story of the quiet moments or fallout of war.

Your delicate use of the lens arrested me as soon as I came across your work. When embarking on your career as a photojournalist, what did you think you would bring to this arena, and what is it you ultimately want to say with your photographs?

When I started out it was because of a desire to explore cultures that were foreign to me and people with fascinating life stories. As my work developed I realized that with these personal motivations I also had a growing sense of responsibility to the people whose pictures I was taking, that is to tell their story as I see it.

There is an unbridled intimacy with your subjects in the photographs for the story ‘Flee’, with some even engaging with the camera. How do you begin the process of taking pictures in such an emotionally charged environment?

These situations are not easy. More often than not, it’s very chaotic indeed. In situations of turmoil it’s hard to take time to build relationships with your subjects because moments within that environment are so fleeting. Unlike photographers who are used to covering news, I find I am better suited to slow reportage photography, which affords me opportunities such as entering people’s homes and meeting their families. So in fact being confronted with a situation in which all the images are happening in front of me was somewhat foreign. I suppose the visual intimacy you see in my photos comes from the intimacy I provoke from the situation or my own intimate experience with people. Often I am drawn into someone’s world in these chaotic situations by what they are doing or their look; maybe they have an intense facial expression or, as with the last image in my essay of the Somali man dragging on his cigarette as if it’s the best puff he ever had in his life his last. The photo works because anyone can identify with that image. Somehow it breaks down the walls of where this man comes from and his personal life experience, so that the viewer could put themselves in his shoes. I don’t want to show a mass of people in a nice geometric pattern with no real intimacy, to me that doesn’t say anything except that you know how to take a really nicely composed picture.

I imagine you were given clearance by the authorities. How did they respond to you? Do you shoot alone and what steps do you take to ensure your safety on an assignment?

In these situations the authorities are prepared for press and it all depends on if they want you there or not. The Tunisian authorities were very accommodating in the beginning. However once the tension flared up in the camp and fights broke out in the food lines, the authorities did not want us there and felt we were presenting them to the world in a bad light. The soldiers are trained to get nasty, if they must, with the refugees, and myself and the press did have a couple of close calls. You must use common sense in these cases and also try to have a buddy (another photographer) with whom you roam around with, especially as a woman.

It could be said the presence of the photojournalist immediately affects the outcome of an event. Whilst shooting, how much do you think about the way your images might be perceived?

I try not to, as I think that it’s idealistic to think that photography alone will change the world. What I do hope is to be able to tell people’s stories, people who might otherwise have been forgotten by society, locally and otherwise. I remember travelling to Iran and wishing that every American could have that same experience and that if they did maybe there would be a greater domestic outcry against unjust wars that our country has been waging. I hope that in some way a photo can bring us that much closer to understanding one another. That is why I think it’s important to take photos that make people look at it twice or even thrice, not something generic that we have already seen many times before.

It has been a fascinating year or so in world politics. In covering the Arab Spring, is there a particular moment that will always resonate with you?

The euphoria of the Egyptian Revolution: I felt privileged to be part of such an amazing historic event and I was very much in awe of the Egyptian people as they were living out principles that my country was founded on, yet which I feel may have gotten a bit lost along the way.

Access to and distribution of information is increasingly democratized, with phones allowing us all to upload news and images instantly from events across the globe. What do you see in the future for the role of the photojournalist?

I don’t think that the phone upload threatens our jobs as photographers. If anything it should be an encouragement for us to go out, find and tell original stories from our personal vision and not just wait around to report on what is considered ‘news’.

 

Photograph © The Virginia Quarterly Review

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