Over the past two decades, award-winning photographer Stephen Dupont has produced a remarkable body of visual work focused on hauntingly beautiful photographs of fragile cultures and marginalized people. He skillfully captures the human dignity of his subjects with great intimacy—and often in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.
His last book, Generation AK: The Afghanistan Wars, 1993-2012 presents a retrospective selection of images from the country where he covered everything from civil war and the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, to the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom and the ongoing war on terrorism. The book has just been awarded with the prestigious Olivier Rebbot Award by the Overseas Press Club of America.
In the following interview, Dupont tells us more about what drew him towards photography, about the consequences of a life-long career as a photojournalist and about what connected him so deeply to Afghanistan, a country he spent nearly two decades covering.
LC: Why did you choose to become a photographer? What is it about photography that makes it so important to you?
SD: I have always blamed Don McCullin. After seeing his amazing war photography I knew I wanted to take pictures. It was McCullin and then photographers like Josef Koudelka, Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey, William Klein, Robert Frank and Gene Smith that got into my blood. I was transfixed into the world of photography through their pictures. They, in a way, were my teachers and so I was committed from a young age to go out and see the world and make photographs.
I am drawn to documentary work and the macabre side of life, I suppose. Recently, as I watched my mother pass away, I came to the realization that I had been searching out death in my photography my whole life, or maybe death had been searching for me.
When I am roaming the world with my camera I feel a kind of freedom that is more liberating and exciting then just about anything else. I love the challenges that photography brings to me, the challenge of capturing a great human moment in time. And then I like to see people’s reactions to my pictures, how it makes them feel and sometimes how my pictures might just make a difference or be that record of history.
Photography is like a gift to me and I always treat it with respect, passion and commitment. It is the closest thing I know to exploring the unknown; we’re explorers of light aren’t we?
LC: Do you think that photography can make a change? What is the power of photography that continues to inspire you?
SD: Of course photography has the ability to make change, to make a difference.
It is truly great photography, from dedicated photographers, that get themselves to the right place at the right time—and then the magic can happen. There is no greater or more powerful medium in the arts than photography.
Powerful emotive moments have the ability to stop people in their tracks, to make people think and to utterly move people to act. There is something unique and so powerful in the “moment” of life. Those kind of pictures inspired me to pick up a camera and teach myself the art of photography and it still moves me to get out there and make pictures.
It is a kind of wonderful addiction really, something that most photographers I know all feel universally.
LC: ”Generation AK: The Afghanistan Wars, 1993 -2012” collects all the compelling work you did in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. Can you tell us more about it? Why did you choose Afghanistan? How did you get involved with it in the first place?
SD: Afghanistan got into my blood and never left.
While living in London during the 90s I wanted to find an excuse to go there and see it for myself. While the world’s attention was on Bosnia, I turned my lens to Central Asia.
In the winter of 1993, I read that hundreds of thousands of Tajik refugees were fleeing a civil war in their own country and seeking salvation in neighboring Afghanistan. I found the absurdity of thousands leaving one war behind them in order to escape to a country that was at the height of its own brutal civil war enough of a good excuse to go and cover the story.
So why Afghanistan? Its intrigue, its mystique drove me there; its fear and savagery keeps me thinking, creating, wondering; its timeless beauty keeps me smiling and awe inspired. It’s in my face, there’s no escape: it’s a battlefield in my guts, surprising, shocking, always real.
I’m living on the edge of life out there, it feels like my first trip and sometimes my last. When I depart, I leave a little of myself behind.
But back to my first vists: I saw a story there that was not being told. When I started going in 1993, the world was not interested in hearing about Afghanistan. I saw a people and country that was crying out to be heard. Although I was just one small voice, I was at least able to offer my photography of life, struggle and war. At least I could bring back the moments that captured the horrors and the ecstasy of conflict. I felt my pictures mattered and somehow would—either then, or some day—provide a history of what took place during those savage years of war.
If I could reawaken a sense of responsibility in anyone out there who was listening, then I felt that I had achieved something important, something that was not done in vain.
LC: You’ve been a constant witness to human grief and pain. Do you cut yourself off emotionally in the field—or have another way of conceiving of your relation to your subjects?
SD: It’s never easy watching someone else’s pain and suffering.
Before I became a father, it was much easier for me to cope with that. Now I find it almost unbearable to watch people in crisis, in trauma, especially children.
But there was, and still is, a kind of barrier that is my camera.
When working, I find myself in a transfixed zone, mentally: I am on the move and capturing the things happening in front of me. The tension, the enjoyment and the energy of being caught up in life, while having the challenge to capture something extraordinary…that is so powerful and drives me to the edge of my senses.
I am a kind of realist in that I tell myself that what I am going through emotionally is nothing compared to what my subjects might be experiencing. I just put things into clear perspective and recognize my role as an eyewitness.
For me, the really hard part is editing my work. It turns out that being there and caught up in the event is easy—it’s the editing that brings home all the horrors you have seen. I relive the experiences all over again and in some strange way, I relive them more real than the original reality. Editing pictures is so emotionally draining and reflective…Memory is the strongest emotion there is and that is what makes photography so, so powerful. It deals with memory and acts as a window: not only into what you have just witnessed but also as a portal into your own mind and soul.
LC: In 2008, while on assignment in Nangharhar, a suicide bomber attacked your convoy. How did you manage to overcome this experience and keep photographing conflicts? How did it change the way you approach photography?
SD: Like any life-changing moment, this was a big one.
Of course, it is all luck. Right place, in the wrong place, at a really wrong time. The blast was meters away and I was sitting inside a Ford Ranger vehicle at the time. After temporarily blacking out and then finding myself under fire, I scrambled away from the car and behind a dirt mound with some Afghan policemen.
After realizing what had taken place, I started to make picture in the immediate aftermath. What else do you do, right? I am a photographer and this was something so relevant to the nasty war going on and so fortunate (in a way) that I was able to function and then move inside the blast zone to capture pictures moments after the explosion. This was a very rare situation to be witness to. So it felt natural to take pictures.
Still, I was lucky to have not only survived but to have walked out relatively unscathed. Having a newborn daughter back home in Australia really put the focus on survival for me: I was not going back in a body bag.
The experience has definitely changed my approach to photography. It made me more aware of my own vulnerability and a responsibility to stay alive for my family. I don’t want my daughter to grow without a father, my partner to grow up a widow. I take fewer risks today, I believe, or at least more thoughtful risks—calculated ones to get the photographs I seek.
LC: What are the consequences of a photojournalist’s life? How does it change you as a person, both for better, and perhaps for worse?
SD: The consequences are great, both in positive and negative ways.
Now, more than at any other time, I think covering conflict has become far more dangerous to photographers than before. There is no more neutrality: we are all targets now, which makes things so hard when trying to capture something and bring back pictures that will tell the story. Too many photographers are being killed these days and this should be a big worry for all of us.
Saying this, most photographers don’t cover war and I think being involved in capturing history is so valuable and fulfilling. Witnessing and seeing the troubles of our planet has certainly made me a better person; it has taught me so much about people, personality and philosophy that I credit my life to it.
Most of my close photographer friends are wise, thoughtful and generous and loving people…so photography must being doing something right.
LC: What other projects are you currently working on? Anything on the horizon that you feel excited about?
SD: I am a pretty good multi-task creator, so I am constantly working on many projects.
I spend most of my time creating books these days. I have a new book in production with Steidl called “Locks, Chains & Engine Blocks.” This a project about a mental asylum in Angola that I shot over 20 years ago while covering the civil war there. It is work that has never been seen and only now did I have the courage to dive back into my archive and make a new edit with fresh eyes.
I have also completed another book with my friends at Pholpo called “We Cut Heads.” If I tell you about it, I’ll spoil the surprise…so you’ll all have to wait and buy one!
—Stephen Dupont, interviewed by Winifred Chiocchia