Angelique set up an interview with Armand, the 3 of us sat down for a chat. Jumping straight into the deep end. You are a documentary photographer and photojournalist, how do you manage to detach yourself to see the world through a lens.
Touching myself or detaching myself?
Damn, I really didn’t know they would have music here. That was funny though but let’s start with detaching yourself and we can move along from there?
When I started I was more into advertisement and fashion photography. That evolved into conveniently staying in the country where there was a civil war breaking out. I had a great mentor, an Australian photographer named Mr Phil Weymouth, he shot for Lonely Planet. He saw what was going on, that I was going from the commercial market into photojournalism and he asked me if I was ready for it, he said “You are 25 years old and are going to go into war” I said that I didn’t really know what was going on there but that I was ready for it. I feel alive in those situations. He gave me clear instructions to know that I was going to be in places where I would see shit that I shouldn’t see. Well, that’s your job, you force yourself to go through the logistical processors of getting into the nitty gritty of the situations and when you do get there it means that you are doing your job correctly. But detaching myself… it’s something that you have to do. I am not trying to over-romanticise it but if you sit in a corner and cry the whole time then there is not going to be anyone telling these people’s stories. That’s essentially what you are doing there, you are a witness to what is going on. You are not supposed to intervene. You are there by the grace of those involved.
Angelique – You are helping in a way by being there and just reporting on it. So you don’t have to get involved by helping the people in the situation, the help you are giving is by telling people’s stories.
There is also a misconception when it comes to photographers. Photojournalism was my first dream, one of the reasons I didn’t go there was because I didn’t know if I could get the picture, I would want to help. It’s almost like the 3rd wall you learn about in drama, you imagine the 3rd wall to divide you from the world in front of you.
The wall that you are talking about is physically the camera that is in front of you. Once you view things through the lens it feels like you are allowed to be there. Without that camera, you are in serious, serious danger. Usually, I am not talking about the Middle East, the Cape Flats especially, you take chances and you take chances because you are South African and you feel a part of the people. But if you are just left in there without a camera… that is your ticket in there, you might very well suffer some grave consequences. What is the other part of the question?
Is it is a misconception that photographers need to have a certain level of detachment?
It would be nice to think that we need to be so humane that we would just dive into every situation and try to save people and that is what humans are supposed to do. But there is a very real thing that you need to realise, especially with photojournalism and that is that you don’t always have the power to change the situation but you have the power to show the people who can change the situation what is going on there.
You have no power to make changes but your role as a storyteller is to start the conversation that will get the ball rolling towards that change.
Yes, your photos can change a situation, much more than you can physically change the situation.
So, it’s the photo before anything else. We were talking about this earlier.. you see someone in a grave situation, your human instinct would be to jump in and get involved but you know that you have an image to get. Have you ever gotten involved knowing you shouldn’t… you are an observer of a situation who has accepted this role.
I would love to say that I have saved somebodies life in this job but I haven’t. I can say that I have been lucky that I haven’t been in a position to make that kind of call, so far in my career, of 13 years. That feeling of being scared in a situation is the only thing that is keeping you alive at some points. I mean these dangerous situations don’t come about every day, that is what all your experiences and training and your studies do, they build you to be able to handle those situations. It has only happened a couple of times in my career. So, that fear is the only thing keeping you alive and if you are not alive tomorrow then you won’t be able to take any photos.
You were saying early that you were in a country where there was an ongoing civil war?
I started my photojournalism career after I had been a photographer, in the middle East. So I was in Europe and then went to the Middle East and spent about 7 years there. The civil war I was talking about happened much later on in 2010 that was the Arab Spring Syrian Civil war. I was in Bahrain, it was a really interesting situation. It wasn’t as Arab Spring, it was more Islamic sectors that were against each other, the minority ruling party was suppressing the majority of the inhabitants of the country. I had already spent about 4 years in the country, I knew some of the languages, I knew the back roads, I was already established there with the internet. When the war broke out all of my clients decided to leave the country and go back home to the UK or Europe. I was left in a financial crisis, a friend of mine told me that he had an ex-girlfriend or an ex-client that works for CNN and he knew that they were desperately looking for people on the ground there, the borders were shut already. I got in touch, they wanted me to start streaming for them straight away, mostly photos, so I was very lucky. I think that in my life I learned the art of how to jump onto the lucky boat when it comes passed because that boat doesn’t come every day. If you are ready and you have the balls then you need to jump onto a ship that is floating. So, that threw my life, I think I might have come in my career a little further than most in the time I have been in the industry but it is all because of luck.
Wow wee, working for CNN, what was that like?
I was a stringer for them so I didn’t have to deal with anybody directly. It got very dangerous because the situation was that all the big news agencies stopped reporting on the war because of the US industries, the Fifth Fleet which is a big naval base in the Middle East they keep there for strategic reasons to keep an eye on Iran and Iraq and countries that might be enemies of America. In the UK, the UK can’t deal with oil and trade with a country that is in conflict so if the UK reported, CNN being a part of the UK. If they reported on the war then the country was clearly in conflict and being a country in conflict they can’t trade with them anymore. So it was a difficult thing because the main countries that could report on the war couldn’t or didn’t want to. It was only Al Jazeera and their neighbour Quatar that really reported on the war and obviously PressTV which was Iran and they will report on anything. So CNN was interesting, it pushed me into a lot of different directions that forced me to grow in this industry.
I have seen a lot of photojournalism which is clearly the perception of the photographer and not the full picture, so bias. It is not the honest and true story, there are 3 sides to every story. Let’s talk about the power of photography to tell a story with integrity and without bias.
In that essence I think that photographers are.. well it does happen. It is your own responsibility to be ethical in this industry, that is probably the most important part of this industry, is to have your own personal ethics involved in every story. Once your editor or the powers of your publication see what you have, it might be easy for them to try and tell a sensationalized story to sell more papers or so forth. But you as the creator of the situation, of the photograph, you were in that situation and you had to deal with people on a personal level. In every story you would like to go back to those people, every situation you get yourself into, it is not just to take a photo and go. It is to start a relationship with that person, you ask their name and you even see if you can send them the photos because they might be interested in showing their kids what is going on. It is a gift that you have, if you are taking something from your subject as in the photo’s then you can just as easily give something back. Whether it might be; their dignity or something that you don’t value that much but they might and that is just a kind gesture of a photo.
From what you have told us, you stumbled into photojournalism, was there a desire to head in that direction at all? When I was a little kid I was always playing my father’s cameras, he told me once “Armand you will make a brilliant photographer one day, you are so creative and artistic.” But he also said that cameras are so expensive that he would never be able to buy me cameras. So I could forget about that. That was in my head, that was the deal – cameras are too expensive, so therefore I, unfortunately, wouldn’t be able to be a photojournalist or a photographer. It is only when I went to the Middle East when I walked into a job as photographer, my first job in 2006, that my new boss gave me a duffel bag with 2 cameras and 4 lenses and he was like there we go, there is your starter kit and everything made sense in my mind, it was never going to be my cameras. It was always going to be their cameras. So I found the gateway through there. Photojournalism came because I got really irritated by commercial photography. Everything that I did as a commercial photographer was trying to push an idea and it is never really an honest idea, you are always trying to make people more glamorous, make people better in some way using lighting or Photoshop. So you are trying to make a situation look better than it is, to sell a product.
Have you worked on any documentaries?
Yes, I have worked on several but it was never my initiation. I recently contributed to a documentary for an American NGO, it was all about sanitation in the Cape Flat areas. I also do multimedia documentaries, small short snippets of a 5-minute documentary. I have done some on the anti-rhino poaching. I recently did one for the anti-rhino poaching dogs. Further on for my university thesis, I did a short documentary, I called it Exile, it is about people in exile in different countries and how they deal with it. It is also part of my experience in Bahrain.
How do those in exile deal with it?
In most situation, they are in a better situation they used to be in, from where they came from. They might have some benefits from a specific government. They might be safer, their kids might be able to get a better education but it is still not home. That is something that is so needed especially for a kids upbringing – in that it will shape the person that you will be and not just your parents telling about how the homeland was.
Best picture you have taken?
That is going in there. I can’t even imagine how many stories you have, your photography is really incredible.
Thank you very much. I think one of the most incredible moments for me in photography was when I was in the Middle East, a mother had just lost her son. This was at the funeral for her son, these people were in a lot of danger at that point because if they were seen or photographed at a funeral which in the government’s eyes meant a gathering, then they could be picked up by the security police. That means you disappear or you will be interrogated for a couple of days. When I walked passed I didn’t know it was the mother of the boy who died and I asked her if I could take a picture and a lot of people around her said no, I was going to get her into trouble. But she said yes. So she allowed me to take that picture. It was the front cover of a few magazines in the Middle East. I do believe that that might have pushed a few people to see the message that the protestors wanted to give. That is the person who can’t vote, who doesn’t have a say, who doesn’t have a voice really.
I don’t want to get political here, but I have to ask how her son died?
He was shot by the police.
What makes for a great picture?
It takes a couple of elements to tell a story. For the last 4 years I have mostly been taking pictures for newspaper publications and there you mostly only have one picture that is going to be chosen. So, you need to make sure that sufficient information is in that one picture to be able to tell the story and grab somebodies interest. You need to get angles and your emotions right to have those elements in a story. For me I am all about people, for me what is important in a picture is human emotion.
What does the future hold for you? I know a boring one, I will try end with a bang.
What does the future hold for photography I think, I am never going to do anything else? Yeah, we go deep into it now.
Get right in there.
I am never going to do anything else. I have made peace with that fact. Whether the industry is on its ass, you need to push through it. You need to evolve and reinvent yourself. But I am here for the long run. So, the future is about adapting to the industry and the technology that we have. It is definitely multimedia. One of my lecturers in the UK once told us that we need to become media problem-solvers. We need to do those interviews, to take that video, do the sound recording, the editing and source your own stories. So, I do think that photojournalists can do a lot more than just being photographers. Back to the questions, what does the future hold for me? Me being a better photographer.
You have said that you feel alive when you are taking a photo, put us in your shoes… paint us a picture. I am getting the photographer to play with words.
There is always this sensation when things start getting heavy, so maybe you are in a crowd or a protest is turning more lively than it should. You don’t want anyone to get hurt but you do grasp that if a situation is going to unfold then you would like to be there. When it happens you wonder why you chose to be there as you are in a dangerous situation and you do feel the sweat building and you do feel your finger on that camera.
And you are aware that you are in a dangerous situation?
Very much aware. Your senses are so, so spiked. You are just looking for rocks in the air, looking for somebody coming from behind and luckily I have to give it to all the people in the industry. I have been saved by a lot of photographers that showed me to watch out or to stop, sometimes they call out the police to come and get us from a volatile situation. Adrenaline is spiking, your knees are shaking. Sometimes I feel myself getting a couple of frames of my camera out, I don’t know that I am pressing the camera even. Emotional situations are more appealing to me, an action-packed situation is going to happen whether you are there or not but an emotional situation is very much more dangerous because you are dealing with somebodies direct emotions and you are also in a position where you can take advantage of this person’s emotions. If someone is crying in front of you, you need to pick your time when you are going to take a picture. It is so sad, you can read the person’s emotions and you can sense if they don’t want you to be there with your camera then you need to respect that and move away. Funny enough it is always the really happy situations that get me emotional. About two years ago I found myself in Manenburg, taking pictures of the Grade R’s first day of school. I was sitting on a bench and with a long lens watching all the kids come in for their first day. Some of them had parents that held their hands and some of these little girls and boys had suitcases that were bigger than them. I just a moment where this little girl was leaning up and kissing her dad. I felt myself almost like lose control, that wasn’t supposed to happen as we are people who deal with emotion a lot more. But it happens sometimes. That is maybe the outlet, the happy situations where you can get emotional because other situations getting emotions might cost you. Not only for your sake but for their sake as well so you can tell their story and crying in the corner isn’t going to help anybody.
Is there a healthy respect for the media? Will you be kept outside of a situation e.g. a riot and not be pulled in allowing you the freedom to be there as a storyteller?
Usually, there is respect, people see the value in allowing us to be the voice for them, people who can change their situations even in the slightest. Unfortunately, I have personally, as well as my colleagues and friends, have been in situations where we get beaten up, stabbed, held at gunpoint, our cameras keep on getting stolen. Those are the people who don’t see the value in a storyteller, they see our cameras. Majority of people affected by crime or poverty or dooshbag governments, if they can see what the media can do then the media can do their jobs better. That is something that we as the media can infuse, it is social education which comes from parents. We need to get into those parents lives and change their ideas when it comes to educating their kids.
Ang, this interview was set up by you, so you get the last question? I find it very interesting that you still became a photographer even though your dad said that it wouldn’t be possible.
When I was a kid I got a National Geographic subscription, I paged through the magazine and saw the most amazing places. Around that time my parents were asking what I wanted to do with my life and I was baffled. Apparently a doctor was cool, I actually just want to be a fireman… eventually, I made the connect paging through the magazines that I wanted to be in those places, I just wanted to go there. If I was taking the photos I got to go to those places and so the photographer in me was awakening.