FRONTLINE/World's Mimi Chakarova talked with Jan Grarup by phone from his home in Copenhagen about how difficult it has been documenting the crisis in Darfur and why he chose to shoot black and white. He also describes what he sees as the complex political situation that has prevented the rest of the world from stopping the genocide and how it compares to atrocities he documented years earlier in Rwanda.
Mimi Chakarova: Describe how this project came about.
Jan Grarup: I've been working extensively in Africa since the genocide in Rwanda in ’94 – covering numerous wars, conflicts and catastrophes there. In 2004 and 2005, I became aware of the situation in Darfur, not that I hadn't heard about it. But I got really interested in it and went there for the first time to see what was happening. I was quite shocked to see how massive this ethnic cleansing was.
How did you gain access to this area?
Access is one of the crucial things there. It's even worse now than it used to be, because you are observed by the Sudanese government at all times. You have to ask permission on a daily basis to leave Nyalla and go to the different camps. You can't trick them, you need to [travel] officially; otherwise, you're stopped at the first checkpoint and turned back. It makes it difficult to work. The thought has crossed my mind that the areas that I was able to access are probably not the areas hit the worst, due to the Sudanese government’s very well orchestrated system.
What is your understanding of the number of people who have been killed in this conflict?
Talking about the death toll of 200,000 is very conservative. I've heard people say 400,000, but nobody really knows the truth.
People compare this current situation to the genocide in Rwanda. What’s your view of this since you covered Rwanda as well?
From a political point of view, it's different [from Rwanda]. Using the word “genocide” is difficult because it's Western civilization rhetoric, written down in a U.N. chapter somewhere. But that doesn't work in the real world, where people are dying. I’ve seen a lot of things I can compare directly to Rwanda; this is like Rwanda in slow motion. Rwanda happened over four or five months; this has been going on for years. It's definitely ethnic cleansing, and I'm not afraid to use the word “genocide.” But you can't use the word the way it's written down in a U.N. chapter or the way it was in Rwanda. What's interesting is that the U.S. was very quick in calling it genocide. But this is all politics -- it's a game between the European Union, the States, Russia and China. And what people really have to realize is that civilians are getting killed every day in large-scale ethnic cleansing.
Why is the world watching and not intervening?
For the same reason we didn't in Rwanda: We didn't find Rwanda to be that important. The same is going on in Darfur. At the same time, we are maybe a bit scared to have a political situation with Russia and China. [Those countries] are definitely in touch with the president in Khartoum. The Russians are selling weapons and the Chinese are buying oil, so if the U.N. security council were to sit down, call it “genocide” and wanted to put an end to it, I'm quite sure Russia and China would say no. It's a very complex issue. There has always been fighting between the villagers and the nomads, but never on this scale and never with one party supported -- as the Janjaweed [the violent militias] are now -- by the government in Khartoum. [Government officials] have given them weapons, four-wheel drives.... The balance has changed. It's the civilian population that is caught in the middle. In my opinion, the EU and the U.S. should have intervened long ago. I'm quite sure it could have been stopped if we decided to put pressure on the government. But the interests of the Western world are simply not present in Darfur.
How are the civilians involved in the fighting? Are they supporting certain sides?
The civilian population is not involved in [the conflict] at all. The people I’ve photographed have been traumatized. They have absolutely nothing left. They've just been chased out of their villages for no real reason, and a lot of them don't even know why they've been chased away. It's shocking to see how little the African Union forces have been able to protect these people.
How does religion play a role if at all?
This is not based on religion, not in the sense we see in Iraq or elsewhere. It's more about the tribes, the nomads and the villagers against each other.
I want to talk a little about the images and your decision to shoot black and white. Are you shooting film or digital?
I'm shooting both digital and black and white, depending whether I'm there on assignment or to work on my book. I’ve decided to do the book all in black and white, because when you look at color images from that part of the world, you see these women in beautiful fabrics – very colorful. It takes the attention in the wrong direction of what I want to say. Not that I want to make it more depressing, but I want to make sure people pay attention to the faces in the photographs.
How do you find the truth in a place like Darfur?
Finding the truth there is really difficult. It's a task that I wouldn't even say I was close to doing, and that's not what I see as my primary objective. I'm just trying to show a more humane side.
What is your hope for the work that you do?
I see my work as being part of the documentation. In 10 years -- when we look back and say, “We feel sorry for what happened” -- I can pull out all these images and say, “We did try to tell you the story.”
I see myself as a storyteller, and still photography is an excellent way of documenting the times in which we live. I’m very honored that all these people have let me in when life has been so difficult for them. It takes courage for them to do that.
What about your level of frustration, witnessing and documenting something that is an ongoing tragedy?
My frustration is enormous. I'm angry that whenever it has to do with Africa, we're not doing enough. When we are in a situation where we have so many things working for us, we should have empathy toward other people who have absolutely nothing. We should be able to do so without our own interests at stake, but we don't. I can't believe that we in the Western world can act like this.
After ’94, after Rwanda, everybody said never again. And it's going on right now. It's been going on for three years, and we're still not doing anything about it. Relief workers who are going there, media people who are going there, politicians who are going there are shouting and screaming for people to get involved, for the governments to get involved, and nothing happens. And that is very, very shameful.