Photographers in the Battlefront
The exact moment when the protagonist of a suicide attack explodes; the despair of a seriously-injured policeman in Rio de Janeiro; a mother running with her daughter in the arms in the middle of a shooting spree; two boys who comfort each other upon seeing their house in ruins. Truly understanding the drama that populations in Brazil and around the world suffer is difficult when you are far away and in safety. Photographers Gabriel Chaim and Felipe Dana opted to see it with their own eyes and capture these situations through images in places where nobody wants to be and many are unable to escape from. In this interview, they discuss what drives and encourages them to risk their lives in the name of photography.
Was there ever a moment in which the risk was so big that you asked yourself if it was worthwhile being there?
Gabriel Chaim: There was a specific situation when two suicidal ISIS members exploded themselves a few meters from where I was in Mosul, Iraq. This attack caused the death of a few soldiers I was following in the incursion. It was certainly the worst moment in all these years covering wars. Nevertheless, I never felt regret, just an imminent fear of death. When you are in a situation like this, you have to accept the fact that you might die right there.
Felipe Dana: Several moments. When covering such situations, you are always trying to predict what is going to happen so that you can do your work in a relatively safe manner. Obviously, predicting the future is impossible, and many times I have been in situations that I wished I was not there. The biggest challenge in this type of coverage is being able to do a good job and, at the same time, stay safe.
While covering a war zone, did you ever feel emotionally tied to the drama of someone you were photographing?
GC: Emotions arise whenever you witness human drama. However, over the years, you become more professional and learn how to manage these feelings in a better way, even in situations where chaos has taken over. Those who are not used to dealing with catastrophe will be much more affected than in my particular case. The professional challenge means you being able to tell a story without it overly affecting your emotional side.
FD: In several moments. When covering an event like this, I end up spending a lot of time in places where I am photographing. Hardly ever do I photograph for just a few days and leave right after. Sometimes I spend months or return several times over a few years to tell a story, so I end up creating ties with people and also the places I am photographing.
For a photographer working in regions of conflict is there something that balances the value and importance of aesthetics versus the denouncement character of a photo? How can the photo of a devastated place be beautiful at the same time?
GC: At times you see beautiful photos but with no story behind them; in others you see photos that are not that beautiful, but their story transforms them into an incredible image. For me, the most important is the story behind the photo. I like to know what I am doing, who are the people involved, and what is happening. Then comes the photo.
FD: As a photojournalist covering conflicts, I believe that the most important is to show the greatest number of people what we are witnessing in front of our cameras. The importance of the mission is to report the absurdities we see and not let these moments be forgotten, without doing nothing to change them. The aesthetics of photography itself is another tool for this, something that is already incorporated in the way I see things and work. I do not try to turn photos of conflicts into beautiful images, but I believe that light and background come together in the moment of the photo to help transmit a message.
In the Syria series, you used real characters posing before a devastating scenario. Given the intervention, do you believe that this is a step beyond the work of a photojournalist?
GC: Everything I show is real. The world I photograph is much more real than the one where I live when I am not working. I am a storyteller, so I try to capture these real characters and put them in front of my lenses so that people can understand. I often come across doctors or professors who, all of a sudden, have to deal with arms or escape the country. The people photographed are real people, like you, me, or any other person.
In addition to international conflicts, your work also involves Brazilian dramas, such as crack users and wars between drug dealers. What similarities and differences do you see when doing these jobs here and abroad?
FD: Yes… I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro and did a lot of coverage on urban violence and drug trafficking issues. One can say that the undeclared war between the police and drug dealers can be easily compared with the declared wars in the Middle East. But I can say that when I compare, for example, a war in Iraq with what we frequently experience in Rio de Janeiro, there are many differences, but unfortunately a few similarities too. For me, the most relevant similarity is that in these conflicts, whether in Iraq or Rio, the biggest victims are civilians, who have nothing to do with the war and are caught in the middle of the crossfire, many times losing their lives, their children, relatives, etc.
This piece was first published at the second edition of SP-Arte Magazine, in August, 2018.