Ive been in probably every refugee camp in the world and Ive seen more people die than mostfrom disasters, from war, from hunger. And after a while it got to the point where I could not take it anymore.
Because I become the person I am photographing. Once, during a situation when I was photographing a child dying of starvation, I had to aim the camera and at the same time, turn my head away, because I couldnt deal with it. Their pain. Inside, every time, I was crying more and more, because all I could do is take the damn picture. Just a picture. Though Im not out to save the world, it was getting to me.
You see, I dont take life too seriously its a big game. Ive seen too many people die not to take it that way. How can I take things seriously I kept putting myself in these situations Not because I wanted to be blown away. I have my own feeling s about survival. When you are in situations like that you must concentrate on whats around you, and that alone. If youre married you dont think about your wife. Or you dont think of your girlfriend. Nine out of ten times I dont do stupid things, like stand up when they shoot. But Ive seen others forget, stand upand thats it. Its about being there. You have to be aware of every moment. Each time I went to a war I said, " Never again." And meant it. I didnt want to die. A couple of lifetimes ago, in the Iran-Iraq war, we were pulling out when the guy before me was killed; the guy behind me was killed and the guy near me had his heart ripped out. Only the cameraman and me werent scratched. How do you explain these things?
You cant. So I tried to escape it; the portraiture I do now is of political figures, of well-known actors or actresses. It doesnt engage me in the same way; neither does it hurt me. My hearts not being tramped on like it was before; with celebrities it doesnt take anything from you here (holding his hand over his heart). But dont get me wrong. I take it seriously. When I make a portrait of a head of state (and Ive photographed maybe sixty of them) my political opinions do not enter into it. I respect who they are, I appreciate their position, and I want them to look good. Thats my job. What Im saying is that their politics dont mean anything to me. Heres one example: Zia, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was said by many to be a bad guy. So I was in Pakistan and after I finished the official portrait some magazine had asked me to make, Zia requested, as a favor, that I take a picture of him with his daughter. And then he brought down this twelve-year girl, who was retarded. He was proud of her; he clearly loved her very much. That to me made him a good manI dont care what his other politics were.
On another occasion I spent several days with Castro and I really liked him hes funny, hes cool, he has great sense of humor and warmth (I mean as a human being here) and we went duck hunting, which is something of an honor. He has a plaque with the names of those he has gone hunting with engraved on it, and with all the Eastern European names and Russian names, I could only see one other U.S. guyTed Turner. But because our government says Castros no good, were supposed to hate him. Its propaganda, no matter what you say.
And the curious thing is that I know some of those sixty heads of state in a way writers cant, or maybe their own staffs cant. Because with a writer they have to be very careful; every word is measured, calculated, but a photographer is
harmless. I talked to Anwar Sadat, of Egypt, whom I had a good relationship with, for a long time about the 67 warI gave him some belated advice about military maneuvers. And he laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. "I had to do what I had to do," he said, talking about whether or not he lost the war, saying that he needed to fight back for Egypts honor. He was a good man. And when I first met Indira Ghandi I was taken aback. I had some big fat tough woman in my mind, and instead she was dainty, attractive, charming. And I just came out and said, "Madame Prime Minister, you are much more beautiful than your photographs." And she laughed and said, "I think they print all those on purpose."
So portraiture is something I feel connected with. When I photographed the defenders in Speak Truth to Power, there were moments where I could see the photograph, where it really worked as a representation of that person. When I met that the young Burmese activist, Kha Hsa Wa, I didnt know the meaning of his name (white elephant). I just looked at him and thought, "jungle," trying to make a connection to his situation, and asked him to get up on that elephant. In the case of Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, I had photographed him several times before in his role as president of that country and know he is a warm and real person, besides being a leading intellectual and a very bright man. But I took this picture at his home in Costa Rica, to make it about that very personal humanity he has. Bruce Harris is another one, working in Guatemalavery definitely a real person. We went out at night to this area with ten year-old prostitutes, little girls; the police shoot them to get them off the streets; I couldnt believe it. He took me to the cemetery where some of the street kids he helps were killed by the police and others and have been buried. We spent a few hours there and as we were leaving we walked through a corner we hadnt been to and I said," Christ this is perfect," and took the picture thats in the book. It just worked right awayI threw the rest of the stuff out. Kailash Satyarthi of India, who frees children from slave labor, was another case in point. I had photographed him before in India and enroute on another trip, as we were passing by, I said, "Lets try a reshoot." So we did, and it worked, because kids hang on Kailash all the time, hes a big, friendly guy.
Because when you are doing portraits of unknown people they have to be interesting enough that people stop and look at them. Abubacar Sultan from Mozambique was the first person I photographed for this book, at the home of Ethel Kennedyand I felt immediately that the picture was successful, in the sense that it is how Abubacar should look- hes handsome, strong, a true individual. And with the nun from Guatemala who was tortured, such a sweet girl, Dianna Ortiz, we must have 300 other frames where she might look better, but then all of a sudden she looked down, in a private moment of recollection, and that was the picture that was real.
The reality in portraiture is that if the subjects are comfortable they will fall into the best pose on their own. Its going to happen. I never touch anyone, move him or her around, even if there is a hand that looks in between somehow. I just let them find their own space. Something happens between a photographer and a subject and when it happens, they know it, too.
Marina Pisklakova from Russia, who runs the domestic violence hotline, kept saying, "I dont deserve anything, to be singled out for this." Nice woman. We were in my studio on East 11th Street. Suddenly a little ray of light came in and crossed the wall where she was standing and I moved over very quickly before it was gonethat was the picture. We discussed doing environmental portraits from the beginning of Speak Truth to Power- in their own country, in their own place. But after a while it was clear that because of money and time and other constraints, that couldnt happen as we had thought, so we started doing the portraits here and there, wherever. It was complicated, but sometimes things worked amazingly well, in spite of it all.
Such as when I was in Czech Republic doing President Vaclav Havel that morning; I was happy. He had canceled before twice, and I only had ten minutes with him, but even so, I still like himfor what he stands for, for what hes done, and just as a personI liked him an awful lot. But I was leaving the next morning, when Hungarian mental rights activist Gabor Gombos showed up at midnight. He came up to hotel room and I had him stand in a corner of the room and backlit him and it actually worked out!
When Kerry told me the story of the government of Algeria looking for Anonymous and that he would be killed if found, the picture to take was obvious. I didnt know it would become the cover of the book and everything. Right away I told them what I wanted to do. I saw the whole picture in my mind the Middle East was part of my territory as a journalist from way back. Before we left America, I told my assistant Melissa to find out how to make a hangmans noose, so she downloaded plans from the Internet. I didnt want to take it with me, knotted, in the bag, because, well, its Algeria. When we got there I went into the souk and I told the shopkeeper I needed a length of black material. "What kind," they asked me. "The kind you use for a bag on someones head when youre hanging them," I replied, and they all started laughing. So I got my rope, my bag, and started working on the knot. I found the place I wanted in the middle of the desert and we started to photograph. We were over the horizon from anything- the security issue was a big thing. At one point, off in the distance we saw a truck, a semi, and I got really paranoid; we waited until they had passed. I worked fast; didnt want to take long. But the timing was crucial. I wanted it to be high noon for this picture; I wanted the sun to be harsh, and the environment to be primitive and ugly, nothing living, emptiness. It says it.
Words and pictures have a continuing struggle for primacy. In my mind, a person can write the best story in the world; but a photograph is absolute.
Heres my story: in early 1977 I noticed a couple of paragraphs in the New York Times about people escaping from Vietnam. Associated Press had just signed me up with carte blanche to cover the whole world, and complete editorial control. (The first person before or since to get itthat was the deal I made with them.) And I went to the president and said, "Boat people. Heres a story I want to do," and started making calls all through Southeast Asia to AP bureaus to find out more. No one, no country, was letting the refugees land. You couldnt even find out about them. At first, I went back and said the story was impossible to cover. Then I had an idea and got in touch with the Thai Marine police (I knew Thailand very well) who had been shoving the boats right back offshore to certain death. I told them would like to go with them on patrol in the Gulf of Siam. They OKd it, so we headed for the most likely point in northern Thailand, getting there at 4am when a refugee boat had just pulled in; the Thai authorities were getting ready to cast it off again. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1976. I suddenly asked the Vietnamese if I could go with them I bought gas and rice they had no fuel or food. There were forty-nine people aboard that fishing boat, including children in the hold that same day a baby was born. The Thais towed us back out to sea and set us adrift. On that boat, there was no room to lie down, so they all had to sit up straight, waking or sleeping. I cannot describe the despair. There were dramatic pictures of mothers with half-dead children in their arms but something even worse was there. Whenever you go to refugee camps in a war zone where terrible things have happened, where bodies might be stacked up, and disease everywhere, you still find children who gather before the camera with a smile. This was the first time in my life that no child smiled. I called the pictures, "the boat of no smiles." The boat was hardly moving- they didnt even know where to go. Then we were approached by another Thai boat with a megaphone ordering me off at gunpoint they were afraid someone would let them dock knowing there was an American aboard. I had mixed feelings about getting off. I wrote the story and sent the pictures immediately, and they ran. Peter Arnett did a story also and a few others. Within a couple of days the administration asked the AP to present the photos to Congress. And Carter said let them come to America. The Congress had been thinking about it, sure, but the pictures did it, pushed it over. To me that was the only thing I ever done that I cared about, valued. Pictures do work, at least sometimes. They carry conviction. Go back to the pictures in Speak Truth to Power and you can look at them in another way. These people, those faces, are the person next door. These are real people, and the pictures prove that no one made this up they are the evidence that they exist. Ordinary people, doing extraordinary things.
--Interview by Nan Richardson October 2, 2000, New York City