Getting Started in Documentary and Conflict Photography (feat. Ondrej Vachek)


[Music] [Music] [Applause] [Music] [Music] [Music] this week I went to the Don McCullen exhibit at the Tate Museum and I’ve followed his work for years I’ve read his autobiography called unreasonable behavior I’ve got a bunch of his photography books I’ve seen most of documentaries about his work both in war and in famine in difficult parts of the world and his work here in the UK he’s always been a deeply impressive figure for me just listening to him talk he just sounds like an old sage or a philosopher who’s really thought about the work that he does and he’s very very honest about his shortcomings about the difficulty in the images that he brings back from these situations over the years and even whether or not it actually has a lasting impact on the world or changes anything fundamentally and when I walk through this exhibit and it is a difficult exhibit to walk through the images are heart-rending and very difficult to look at and really face us with what human beings can do to each other it made me wonder what makes someone want to shoot this kind of work I mean for one shooting that sort of work is so open to criticism you’re constantly having to justify why you were there why you took that image and brought it back with you why you shot the story from that particular angle and does that make it bias somehow it’s incredibly difficult to navigate that stuff and not to mention you’re bringing work like that back and it’s not easy work to view people I’m flooding into museums to see his shots because they just find them so beautiful and uplifting they’re very very difficult to look at and they put a lot of people off even wanting to see that sort of work and not to mention the fact that going to these places put him in personal danger time and time and time again to the point where on display there was his old Nick home which actually has a bullet hole in it because he was saved by his own camera from a sniper’s bullet so why do this sort of work well as luck would have it I have a friend named Andre and he is looking to pursue this sort of career and right now he’s taking the first steps to make that happen so he’s uniquely positioned to answer all these questions for me he’s always been fascinated with shooting stories in difficult situations and right now he’s putting his money where his mouth is and even though he has a day job which doesn’t pay very much he’s saving up loads on the side to take himself on training to learn about how to do conflict photography how to how to survive how to do it right – how to navigate the politics how to do triage and first-aid if it’s necessary and he taken himself on two trips to the Ukraine already to the front lines there and I thought it would be great to sit down with somebody who’s at the dawn of that sort of career and ask him some questions about why he wants to do what he’s doing so what I want to take up too much time because I think we’ve got some great stuff in this interview and I want you to spend some time with his images so I’ll catch you at the end of the video right now I’m gonna hand over to my friend Andre Varrick [Music] [Music] [Applause] [Music] [Music] [Applause] it all started with you with street photography like how did you get into street photography just by kind of being burnt out with photography and just wasn’t sure where it’s headed and I wanted to change because I kept shooting for on and off on and off since maybe 16 17 years old lots of the times I was shooting by just aiming the camera at a couple of people in a Serie and I just waited for them to notice me and I just waited for the eye contact because that expression as soon as they look in the camera I just love that at the moment now I realize it’s probably not the best kind of photography it’s being done to death just people looking at the camera when I go out shooting I look for three things in particular good story or a moment good light and good composition and lots of times I find myself not taking the shot because it doesn’t have the combination of all three and I walk away and five meters later I’m like shit taking the shot so sometimes at least one of those three things have to be there yeah but I always hope to have all three of them in there lots of the time I just used a 56 mil lens which is like an 85 so I do those really narrow shots I’ve only just about a year ago two years ago started shifting away from that forcing myself away from that recently especially in my latest trip to Ukraine I’ve gone much wider right I stopped using the 35.56 as much I’m using 223 more I don’t know I’ve been seeing a little bit of improvement but you know every time you know someone creative sees improvement they already think it’s bad as long as it’s finished I just never happy with my work why black and white originally I wasn’t too sure I just liked it he just looked good especially when I started 3 it was film and I know lots of film shooters are probably kind I want to crucify me for this but I just love XP too more than like Delta or hp-5 I just love the look of XP – because I’ve noticed on your X Pro – you you shoot in black and I’m you’re shooting raw but you’re shooting with that black and white thank you the whole time yes because black and white first of all I think when you shoot color and I’m gonna use the same analogies every time you have a woman in a red dress in a crowd you take the picture it’s gonna draw you to the red dress does it stand out whereas if you shoot black and white you have to think about the light and the composition more right because that’s what draws the eyes that being said for example if someone does three photography and it’s just bad three photography work I did in the start with like no clear subject just a mess people as in the street no good composition anything if you convert that to black and white it’s not gonna make it any better you cannot think of picture of just like being you know because it’s black and white it’s better that one doesn’t make better pictures you have to make the picture to work in black and white and yeah I have my camera set to black and white even though I’m shooting raw just because I already see at least 90 percent of my final image in there because the only editing I do is just clarity white and sometimes Beethoven yet sometimes bit of shadows I don’t even save my shadows as much anymore just keep them black don’t save your highlights mm-hmm so where did conflict photography confit well originally street photography just became too repetitive mundane I wrote you know was reading about what photographers ever since I was fifteen my first book that I got for Christopher birthday about what the photography was Patrick Chevelle I don’t know if it the book actually came out in English I think it was Frank Jack it was called war photographer a war reporter and it was just amazing like we read the first sentence and it just hooks you so much that you just have to finish the whole thing you just cannot stop and I finish the whole thing within two days then I was reading about Salgado about McCullen you know everyone knows those guys is promotional way we’re gonna ever live up to those guys but it just attracted me for some reason originally my brother he was actually in Mosul and in Erbil in Iraq just a little while after he left finish his job Isis took over that place and I really wanted to cover that kind of stir because it felt a bit close to me as well because you know my brother was there just just almost you know as it happened I knew that one of the most dangerous things a person can be to other people is when your photographer in a war zone without proper training right so I didn’t go to one for example day long Mosul offensive was happening when the Kurds were fighting the ice the Isis army on the outskirts of called Mosul and then in the city I knew that was a perfect story to go to but I didn’t want to go without the training I didn’t want to risk anyone else around being just be a liability right so tell me a bit about like the training you went on well it’s a week-long scenario in the mountains in Andalusia where you have three experienced war photographers and a couple of military advisers the first half of the week they just drilled into us like you know this is what you do in a firefight this is what you do on a mine for this is what you do if something happens to your leg you know first aid triage someone leg gets blown off you this is what you do and you they just drilled it into you sort of scenarios we’re just walking back to our camp from one of the buildings where we did some photographic training and suddenly we heard an explosion and screaming so you know we have to run towards it see what’s going on and we find out there’s a two people in front of them in the middle of a minefield just screaming because they were clearing out mines they stepped on fuel and you know it just went off and just today before or the morning before they were showing us how to navigate mind safely right and what to do if someone loses an arm right of course not something like that was gonna happen so we had to you know contact them tell them you know that were there we’re gonna help them tell them what’s going on if they see any mines around them we had to clear a path to them once we’re there you know bandaged make sure they’re okay tourniquets carry them away it was actually a mistake I did when I actually stepped on a mine in that minefield because I cleared the path to the guy didn’t clear around him right so I clear past to him I see his arm is blown off he’s like squirting blood everywhere so I jump across him I start wrapping his arm and turn to catching it and yeah stop none of mine so that was that not good so what did they tell you about when to take photos and maybe when not to take photographs well we had the scenario again unexpected we were just relaxing in the in the cam they told us like whenever there is downtime try to relax try to sleep as much as you can because you never know where it’s gonna kick off it midnight before in morning sleep even during the day when there’s nothing going on so we’re just in the camp just relaxing I was editing some pictures on my phone there was a checkpoint nearby that they had set up fake checkpoint of course with some soldiers and suddenly there’s a car passing by and they won at that car because they were short on supplies so they dragged a civilian out of the car they stole the car and drove away and they had the civilian there and I was already there as well all of us were they were just telling us like get out of here you know we’re gonna deal with him now get out of here that’s it you know we’re just you know staying around I said get out of here so we just you know take 1015 steps away just walking away and then we turn around and aim our cameras and just keep looking and this went on for a while eventually they carried him away the teachers came back and told us like that’s a good thing because if we were to just walk away no one knows what will happen to the guy right so you know they didn’t want to look bad in the news it makes you realize like there’s an immoral element to you a little goofy yeah and and there’s also no rule book for that morals yeah exactly it’s not black and white if you take pictures of it it’s you know you can be turned into their propaganda unwillingly without you even knowing it because they just want to show the world what they’re doing but on the other hand let’s say the war ends and those people need to be tried for war crimes you take in the picture is you being a witness and having proof so it’s really complex yeah you can’t really sure you can never be sure when yeah once what’s wrong was right when it comes to helping those people as a photographer let’s say you know there’s a this actually happened to Jason during one of his embeds that one of her soldiers stepped on the AED right and both of his legs got turned off and the guys were helping out there or patching him up and once they’re crossing the field to a helicopter and he noticed that they were all tripping over the straps that were just off you know coming off the of the stretcher right so he just picked him up and have them carried all the way to the helicopter and the guys were surprised you know you actually helped us yeah because of course you’re there to do a job if you don’t take pictures you know you’ve kind of pointless to be there in the first place but you’re a human in the first place yeah you have to help out when you can if for example you’re taking pictures of them patching him up and you know he’s bleeding out and they tell you like hole that won’t put your cameras down hold that one if you still have a free hand okay take pictures but you know help out yeah well you can so I was thinking about you know what kind of project I could take on I was thinking when as well I was kind of kicking off I was thinking South Sudan none of those were kinda in my budget because I just really can’t afford to go to distant places pay for expensive fixers mmm pay for expensive tickets so Ukraine was that was one of the reasons the price now when I say that I went to Ukraine just because it was cheap it actually wasn’t in the end but it also felt close to me because you know it is a European country it is a war in Europe in 21st century with lots of people still just can’t wrap their head around yeah I still had to say about for quite a bit but I did manage to get there and just the people like you don’t realise like you’re not someone who’s got like you know thousands of pounds in the bank you could just find yourself to go every you have a full-time day job yeah working in a camera store and you’re taking your extra money on the side saving over time so you can find yourself to go no one’s paying you to go no magazines are throwing money at you you’re just making this happen yeah yeah like I do work in just a camera store which I enjoy a job it is a good job I helped people who Sagra fee and I really like doing that but you know it’s electronics retail it never pays well so it takes me a while to actually have enough money to do something that I want to do the most expensive thing I would say on my trip to Ukraine was first of all the protective gear Kevlar isn’t cheap and the fixer wage yep she did charge a bit but she was worth every penny to people I don’t know what what is the fix it a fixer is a person who knows the language knows the country knows the people the culture how to behave who to talk to has contacts thanks to her we were able to pass through checkpoints easily without a single you know hiccup which that was one of the other things they told us on the workshop that checkpoints are thing to just be aware every single time even when it’s Rebell you know rebel armies professional armies or official armies checkpoints are one thing you always need to be aware you know you can go to a checkpoint paperwork everything okay and you can leave with just your underwear and you can’t do anything when we were moving among the positions trenches you know a little hideouts they had and when we moved back from the trenches to the place they were staying and sleeping that’s what I was interested in I wasn’t interested in like explosions and gunfire I wanted to see how they live you know they had strings with clothes hanging on and drying or they had a plate with cutlery and that had some bullets you know around it just like laying you know randomly they had there was a tree that had empty bird casings hammered into it in a shape of their crest you know to show like where we were here once they leave that’s gonna stay there I don’t know how they powered it but they had a washing machine there and there was this most of their tents or everyone really tent there was just holes in the ground covered with with like wood and dirt and some tarps so they were sleeping on the ground in case of shelling and one of those hoes was really dark could barely see anything in there but I could see some of the movement so on the bottom there was a cat with about five tiny kittens and that was a theme that I’ve noticed on every single position kittens puppies adult head dog dogs everywhere because they’re just strays that you know we used to live there with the civilians and now they pretty much you know latch onto the first humans they see yeah people you know people feed them they keep them company so you could see cats and dogs everywhere we are walking or you know towards the positions and in between the positions we have to stay as quiet as possible keep our heads down when walking through the trenches to not get hit by snipers or you’re walking on a narrow path the guy in front of you tells you you know don’t step off the path we’ve cleared the path ish don’t step off the path if there’s something on the path I’ll let you know which he did there was a couple of Mines like they were directly buried in there that just fell and didn’t explode so we had to step over them and then a couple of minutes later we were just walking down the forest and I see him like hunker down take the a.k of his back cock it aim forward and just keeps walking and he tells me to like you know slow down right and first thought that comes to our minds like what where do I jump yeah you know if firing starts what do I do do I jump in the voice do I risk it not to jump on them high run away yeah by minds potential yeah you get minds on the sides you get four more people behind you because we’ve got the press corps with us as well all right and there’s no evening soldiers behind you see Cantus run through them because they exactly ready to fight yeah so there’s nothing you can do luckily there was just one of the friendly soldiers who was on patrol that he spotted right so it ended up being just a false alarm how do you as a person handle that kind of like no because you have to you obviously knew that sort of thing would happen here gonna go to this situation how do you how did you deal with it being there but to be honest throughout the whole time I was there I never felt really in danger right I just felt you know my mind was just clear towards one thing I’m here to do pictures to you know get the story and if I don’t do that then I just wasted my time their time my money you know their effort to you know show us how everything is you know if you’re scary and if you’re twitchy and they see it you know you kind of lose any respect or just a little bit of respect they have for you yeah and you know they’re never gonna take you seriously you have to you know at least look like you know what you’re doing you cannot look scared because if you excursion they’re like alright we’re gonna have to do this but you stay here you stay are always not gonna get to come along exactly it’s this small village Kota Bittner it’s right on the front line close to active cocoa student ask that town or village pretty much been abandoned there is only about 40 people left and that place is just being shelved almost constantly most of the town is just gone so those people mostly retired or older people grandma’s grandpa’s they either live all together in one building that still kind of intact with just couple of holes in it right or they live in cellars right because either that’s what’s left of their houses or that’s why they feel the safest and there is no electricity no gas no running water they do get for example pension every month right but to get it they have to walk about six kilometres to the closest town where they can pick it up for them you know they they don’t have cars they work pretty much along the front line it it sounds terribly sad and it is but when we were there you know I could see that they make the most of it and there were incredible generous people you know we we come there they’re sitting outside in from the house and hiding under a peach tree from the south coast of 37 degree heat they’re just sitting down eating peaches eating apples they’re living off what’s growing around them one of the ladies and name was Tatiana she was almost in her 70s or 66 I believe she was at the time she was cooking these pea filled turnovers on a pan on an open fire in front of the house and you could see that you know that they don’t have much just pretty much what they have but as soon as they saw us they picked up the pan and they just you know there you go have some and so we head south and they were delicious they were amazingly good and you know once we told them how girlier there’s that yeah have some or have some I don’t know we wanna you know keep it we can go back in the city and buy food but know you’re here have some have some peaches and they really started walking around picking up peaches from the ground that they were just in a falling off the trees in here yeah something is a handful features those are really good too even when people have almost nothing they still find a way of just trying to be the best host trying to stay graceful trying not not trying they actually were proud people that say oh they were just not gonna be depressed because of the war they’re just gonna keep on living as much as they can they’re just gonna stay you know they have nowhere else to go they don’t have money to buy or to rent a house you know away from the war zone they cannot sell their houses because no one’s gonna buy that so they just are stuck there they don’t have family elsewhere so they have to stay there and they make the most of it so the first time you went is middle of summer like 37 degrees yeah and then this last time you went that was totally opposite yeah what what was difference of deep deep snow and freezing temperatures like how is it different when you went back it wasn’t much more quiet it like the first time I was there we heard gunfire any time we went to the front line we heard shelling this towns there for two weeks I haven’t heard a single shot fired well right so you know that you know everything is just slowed down because of the winter but it’s still very similar to normal life right it’s weird I don’t know how to put it exactly you know they lived there on their base they have TV they have 3G they’re watching YouTube they’re posting stories on Instagram all the time there’s lots of times when jail they were just like six seven of us sitting in the common room drinking tea and watching Indiana Jones in Ukrainian and that was you know I’ve noticed that the TV had like a marathon because it was all for movies in a row like two days in a row so yeah pretty much watch all in Daniel Jones’s I never seen him before the stuff that you’re getting in those down times for me looking at those images I think of what you did there and the images you brought back like like a Tim Hetherington stuff and Restrepo where he’s shooting that series on was it Tim Hetherington yeah we’re shooting images of sleeping soldiers you know because there were just days where nothing happening but those for me are some of the most compelling photographs because they’re very human stories and I think that’s almost where you’re maybe it’s a thread that runs through I feel street photography like looking for story it’s even going here you don’t want to shoot you know big guns and you know cannons going off you want to sit and have tea with people and just happens to be an incredibly interesting difficult complicated situation that they’re in yeah once I got there I knew it was gonna be a slow time I thought there was gonna be a little bit of action I thought they were gonna be going to the positions more often or there’s gonna be something going on about two three days in I realized yeah this is the story I’m gonna work this and actually happy it turned out this way because if it was just you know guys gun blazing on the front line it would just be boring nowadays media get clicks by sensation you know by the most powerful story or the story that gets most shares or the video that gets the most views whereas no one really cares about just people living in these conditions how do people make a living out of this I don’t know enough but I’m guessing 50 years ago it was much easier to be a career 15 15 years ago yeah and and now it’s like self-funding and struggling and even the big guys are land spending their own money to get there and hoping they sell enough photos to kind of pay for the trip and make a bit of money but it sounds like a huge risk yeah look 15-20 years ago like for example in Afghanistan and Iraq started you know those guys could just make up a list of expenses and you know win in one year that’s why I was told by you know one of the guys that was actually covering Iraq for some time that in one year he just took home 100k with no problem whereas now you know I don’t make living out of this I make a living selling cameras and helping people with photography and this I do I mean it sounds terrible saying it as a hobby but as it’s just that’s the truth how does your wife feel about it she’s definitely not happy right first trip she tried to talk me out of it for a long time I felt really bad because she cried a lot as well being terrified forever and whatever is gonna happen to me yeah but I just told and eventually she understood and she understands now that this is something I have to do I keep trying to tell talk her out of this but there isn’t just no way of doing it she’s really scared of death and it just won’t be that terrifies her we don’t talk about it at home or you watching movie that’s sad and where people are dead or something she just doesn’t like that at all which is exactly the opposite of my point of view I don’t worry about this at all I feel like it’s gonna happen eventually there’s nothing can do about it so make the most of what you have before it happens I mean she’s terrified I could get hit by a bus on the way to work you know she’s such a caring person I don’t think I deserve her she’s just too good for me the biggest reason that I love Andre story is it robs me of all my excuses I mean how many of us are sitting at home making excuses about how we don’t have the money we don’t have the time we don’t have the access to be able to go out and shoot this stuff we say we should be shooting and that we really care about I have some personal projects I really want to get done that I say are very important to me but I’m constantly making excuses in my own head about I don’t have the time right now or I don’t have the money right now or finding this access or the admin around it is gonna be really really difficult and so I sit back down on the couch to keep binge watching that Netflix series and I put off that thing I say I really care about for another day and here’s a guy in his mid-20s newly married in a retail job that doesn’t pay very much but with a burning passion to go out and shoot and tell these visual stories so he’s not making excuses he’s sacrificing putting his money where his mouth is and he’s going out there with no guarantee of success to make it happen and I find that really courageous and inspiring I hope it makes you think about the work that you say is important to you that you really want to do and helps you get honest with yourself about how much you’re sacrificing to make it happen because I think that the amount that we really want something can only be measured in the real world sacrifices that we’re willing to make to make it happen down below I’m gonna leave you links to Andres website and his Instagram and also the training that he mentioned for conflict photography in case any of you interested on his last trip he also created an IndieGoGo in case people wanted to help him fund future trips in exchange for prints and other perks so he’ll probably post those in his social media channel so if you’re looking for an opportunity or a way to support him or what he’s doing keep an eye out for those opportunities and lastly down below I’m gonna post the links to the two photo essays that he brought back from his two trips to the Ukraine I’d love you to spend some time with them read through the stories that he’s telling you take some time with his images and if you found them compelling and important share them far and wide it helps get those stories out there and it especially helps Andre in the pursuit of this career for himself [Music] [Music] [Music] [Music] [Music]

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