Now a mid-career photojournalist, he is one of the few who makes a living on assignments. Blink’s Laurence Cornet chats with him about the evolution of journalism in the region, the current challenges for young photographers on the field and his future plans.
LC: Do you want to start with a few words about your latest story?
BD: My latest assignment was in Southern Turkey, outside of Gaziantep, for the The New York Times. Chris Chivers and I went to see a family that had been struck by what they later discovered was mustard gas fired by forces from the Islamic State. The family’s newborn child ended up dying from the exposure and the story unravels the introduction of this terrifying weapon on the battlefield along with this family tragedy.
LC: You are working on a lot of stories that put both you and your subjects at risk. How do you cope with that?
BD: I am not so much worried about myself, but I am worried about respecting the concerns of my subjects—particularly when reporting on the Syrian conflict from border areas. My job often times consists of illustrating a story as best I can with limited access to people’s identities because they are afraid for their lives. In this case, it was challenging because I couldn’t show the father’s face completely.
He had been exposed to mustard gas, which is a blistering agent that burns your skin as well as your esophagus airway and lungs. He was about six weeks into his recovery when I photographed him, but he still had this terrible cough, which is a trademark of the gas. Every time he coughed, he would put a tissue up to his mouth to cover it. He was also very sensitive to light because the gas burns the surface of your eyes so he was wearing very large sunglasses indoors during the day. All you could really see in terms of his features were the bridge of his nose and his forehead so I thought that taking a portrait at that very moment would describe his condition, and at the same time protect his identity.
LC: When you are working with a writer, what is your level of involvement in the investigative aspect of the story? Do you have an example of a highly collaborative story?
BD: Some of the stories that I did in Libya with Chris Chivers were very collaborative. In Libya, during the siege of Misurata for instance, Chris knew that I had been spending a huge part of each day in the triage tent that served as a refuge for people who had been wounded while fighting in the city. We looked at my pictures each day and decided that a story about the hospital was important, as these images were a powerful document of the violence and who was being hurt in this siege.
With stories like that, the journalism can be pretty straightforward, and thus can often times read like a “long caption” for the pictures, and Chivers, who is excellent when it comes to working with photographers, knew that. He’s always been great about understanding the symbiotic relationship between photographers and writers.
That was one case where photography dictated writing.
Often times, just by nature of how magazines and newspapers work, I spend a lot of my time illustrating other people’s words. I like that, actually. I’ve always thought that good visual journalism and good writing can amplify each other in a way that makes both better. And I actually enjoy working with a writer to bounce ideas off of one another. It’s a great part of the process of reporting in the field.
LC: You work on a lot of assignments but you also work on personal projects. Could you comment on that?
BD: Starting in 2009, I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan doing personal work, which ended up becoming a big part of my assignment work from 2012 up until today. When I started working there, I was embedding with U.S. forces, who were surging into the South of the country at the time. During that time, from 2009 through early 2011, I was working off assignment—covering the war on my own time and exploring the issues and realities on the ground. It’s a daunting way of working but at the same time it’s also a way to afford yourself the opportunity to explore a subject deeply and build your own story.
At some point in everybody’s career, you have take that scary step and embark on something really personal and long-term without necessarily knowing if you are going to get paid for it. These days, I think photographers are very rarely sent on long-term assignments that they haven’t already spent time covering previously, and most of the time they started that work under their own steam.
LC: You moved to Beirut in 2006. Can you reflect on the evolution of the situation in the past 10 years from a journalistic perspective?
BD: Evolution, or devolution? When I came here in July 2006, I was on assignment to cover the July War between Hezbollah and Israel—my first big assignment for The Times. They sent in Tyler Hicks and Joao Silva as well, but I was living in Amman at the time, and was the closest to Beirut when the fighting broke out so they sent me before anyone knew how big the war was going to be.
I arrived and it quickly became clear that it was going to be a huge story.
I was lucky. I was pretty green, but they kept me here on assignment for 40+ days—the duration of the conflict. I was mainly doing smaller features in Beirut while Tyler was down South covering the impact of air strikes. That was my first really big news story and, maybe I’m misremembering it, but what still strikes me if I think back is that you would show up at these scenes and it would be absolute bedlam with the number of foreign photographers that were there. There were a lot of mid-career photojournalists, photographers distributing their work through agencies along with some who had a guarantee from a magazine. There was enough money in circulation to warrant this entire section of the industry that no longer exists on big news stories like this one. I think that was about the last time I really saw that.
It’s sad, especially in terms of conflict photography—those slightly older freelancers were the ones who kept the younger ones like myself alive a lot of times.
LC: Maybe now you are the mid-career journalist who protects and advises…
BD: That’s true, and I do try, but I don’t think there are enough people at that mid-career stage anymore. And, in addition, the wars of today are different in many ways but especially much more dangerous in terms of the risks of kidnapping.
For example, I don’t work in Syria anymore because of the risk of abduction, and I don’t know of a single reputable outlet that’s really sending people into rebel areas at this point. But, I still get a lot of requests from freelancers who are trying to plan trips—young people starting out mostly. There’s nowhere to go to school for that type of work; you have to learn through experience. One of the ways that we all learn is through the informal mentoring from more experienced photographers.
In general, there are just fewer people photographing conflict the old-fashioned way, I think. It’s always been a young person’s game in many ways. But now with publications refusing to take on much of the liability, there are fewer middle-aged, more experienced, photographers willing to put themselves at risk without the assurance that they will be covered if something happens.
LC: Now that you’re a father, do you feel that you want to step back and work on other types of stories?
BD: It’s really a pivotal time in this region’s history, more so than at any other point in the few years I’ve been here. My process will probably continue to evolve. I would like to find a way to do more documentary work that comments on the direction that this region is taking.
Iconic photographs from the 20th century stand alone as individual pictures, but I think we have now entered the age of iconic bodies of work. The emphasis is less on single images, and more on storytelling narratives that bridge photojournalism and fine art. So, I am refocusing and thinking about ways to tell stories that would enable me to spend more time at home. That probably involves doing more personal work. At the same time, I love working for The Times and covering the news. I always have. I feel pretty lucky to be able to choose.
—Bryan Denton interviewed by Laurence Cornet