Questions to Clare Thomas, Photojournalism Nights guest speaker
Claire Thomas is a photographer and photojournalist from Wales, UK, currently based between London and New York. Her photojournalism work focuses on issues relating to global political and military conflicts, human rights, and humanitarian and environmental crises. During her extraordinary career, Claire has produced compelling and timely images and has been extensively covering frontlines battles in ISIS in Iraq.
Q. How did you end up going to Iraq?
In December 2016, I decided to travel to Iraq independently with the goal of focusing on stories related to the military offensive to liberate the city of Mosul and the humanitarian crisis of people displaced by ISIS. Before that, I was based in Greece covering the refugee crisis where I met Kurdish and Iraqi families who had been displaced by ISIS. Hearing their stories, I wanted to better understand the horror that was driving people to flee their homes and risk their lives trying to reach the safety of European shores. As there was a lot of media attention on the war against ISIS in Mosul at the time, I decided to head to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and an entry point to Mosul.
Q. How long were you there for in total? Will you go back?
My first visit to Iraq was for just 2 weeks, but I returned a few weeks later and ended up living in northern Iraq for two and a half years. I’ve been back for a few short trips since I left in June last year, and I hope to return later this year or next year. Erbil was my home for a long time, and I became very fond of the place and the people, so I think I’ll always go back whenever the opportunity arises. There’s certainly no shortage of stories to cover in the country, and I’m particularly interested to follow the progress of rebuilding the city of Mosul, which was heavily bombed during the battle against ISIS.
Q. This is very traumatic work, what do you do to decompress after a trip like this? How do you look after your mental health while working?
I was lucky to have a great support network in Iraq, among other photographers and journalists, the medics I embedded with in Mosul, and also local friends and fixers. My way of decompressing is simply to talk about the situation, which helps me process my own thoughts and feelings, and I was glad that I had a lot of people I could talk to in Iraq.
I think it’s important to be aware of the emotional impact of doing this kind of work, and also to keep in mind that, as outsiders, it’s our choice to be there and we’re extremely lucky to be able to leave the war zone and go back to the safety of our homes at any time.
Of course, being confronted by violence and death is challenging and disturbing, and even more so is seeing people suffering the terror, pain and loss of war. The images that stick in my mind are of mothers crying over the bodies of their children, of soldiers wailing uncontrollably over a fallen comrade, of proud fathers broken by the loss of their loved ones, and the tearless look of shock on the faces of traumatised children. However, I try to focus my thoughts and energy on the incredible strength and resilience of the survivors and the people who helped them survive.
Q. I’m new to photojournalism – self teaching at the moment. How did you get started and did you go through formal means? And how did you get to work in Iraq? Did you pitch to someone as an independent? Would be great to know how it all works.
I’m also self-taught with no formal training in photojournalism. I studied Politics at University, and after I graduated I spent several years travelling and working overseas. During that time, I developed my interest and skills in photography, and eventually started doing some freelance photography work for my local newspaper in Wales. After a few assignments in Wales I travelled to Palestine where I began producing photo essays about life in the occupied West Bank, which I pitched to several mainstream media outlets.
As a freelancer, I really appreciate having the flexibility and freedom to choose which countries I work in and which stories I cover. Of course, that flexibility comes with the necessity for extreme self-motivation, self-discipline and organisation, as well as the financial burden of paying our own expenses in the hope of selling the work afterwards.
My decision to go to Iraq was one I made independently – I wasn’t sent there by any media outlet. Once I arrived in Erbil, I spoke with a lot of other journalists and fixers to better understand the context and get an idea of stories I could cover that weren’t as widely covered as the military operation in Mosul. In the beginning, I captured the content needed for the story I wanted to cover – photos and interviews – and then sent a pitch with a small sample of images to media outlets. Once editors got to know me and my work, I started to get more commissioned assignments, often working alongside a writer.
It took me a long time to understand how the industry works for freelancers. For me, the most difficult part about being a freelance photojournalist is not the photography or journalism work itself but finding ways to get the attention of editors and my work published. I’m still learning myself, and the best advice I can give is to be persistent and determined, and get to know the publications you want to contribute to.
The Photojournalism Nights event on the 29th April in collaboration with Elephant West gallery presented three wonderful photographers: Jillian Edelstein, Roland Ramanan and Valentina Schivardi. Their presentation were outstanding and very compelling. The audience had a lot of questions around their work and practice and we could not answer them all within the constraint of time. We promised that we would publish a follow up article with their questions and answers from Roland, Jillian and Valentina.
Questions to Felipe Paiva, Photojournalism Nights guest speaker
Felipe Paiva is a photojournalist from Brazil currently based in Paris, France. He is a post graduate in cinema and photojournalism and has been working on field covering countries such as France, Brazil, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Russia, including frontline work.
Q. How do you find a not obvious story to document? Any advice to new photojournalists?
To any new person, in any field, I would recommend doing a bit of the obvious. For the sole reason of getting familiar to the operations involved in the work. To find a non-obvious story I would say it is a good thing to get an obvious story and from that, extract something more personal. Maybe a character on that story has something that is not really related to the story but it is super interesting or of human value.
One example is something I did in Ukraine. I went there to do work related to the conflict but I ended up meeting a gymnastic athlete from Donetsk. She took me to their training gym and I could have gone after her persona story. A young girl that dreams of going into the Olympics. Donetsk is known for having good athletes but nowadays is not part of any recognized country. So, its citizens train very hard, with old equipment, in a region that has seen its economy devastated by the ongoing conflict. Unfortunately, I couldn’t because of the short time I had in the whole country.
I hope that helps a bit. Other than that, go and do lots of stories, even if they won’t be published or if they are very local and “small”
From Sabrina Merolla : Well, you say you are not a photojournalist, but you are showing a stunning example of long-form traditional documentary photography. And the method you described, plus the interviews, make me think of serious socio-anthropological research perspectives. Out of curiosity: what do you teach and what kind of formation do you have?
I would certainly say that I am working within the long form documentary tradition with people like Eugene Richards being a big influence. Richards was a social worker and I am a special needs teacher. I started as a primary school teacher and now I work with a local authority advisory service. I think this gives me a certain training to be able to work with people, empathise and present my ideas.
Really powerful stories and you have shown them all as whole human beings without judgement. You obviously gained their trust, how did you establish consent?
I establish consent by showing them honesty and trying to be clear about what I am doing. That was not always easy and I had set backs. A piece about my work in the local newspaper (which I thought was written sensitively) damaged my relationship with some individuals for a long time. I have more or less given up on trying to get formal written consent, I think it establishes more barriers than it removes. I try to show the work as its developing as much as I can practically can. At the start of the project I didn’t really know what my aims were, now I can be much clearer with people what I’m trying to do and that really helps to build trust. That, and just being there; relentlessly!
Roland, how do you feel about the work now and how do you see the work evolving or is it now finished.
Well, its not finished in terms of becoming a book. I have this on good advice from my mentor and others I trust so I need to keep working and thinking about different angles. Sometimes, nothing happens in the work and I get very down and frustrated but it just takes one good picture to lift my spirits. Just being there and hanging out for hours is something I find gets harder but its what I need to do. You need to find new angles to generate different situations. So at the moment , that means going to the foodbank/church and joining there – once it starts up again. That may lead to other things like photographing a baptism which would be amazing – tantalisingly now just out of reach. But I’m in no particular hurry.
Very interesting work but there are some ethical issues for me when photographing vulnerable people. Do you make people aware of the fact the photos are being made public? Do you get model release forms from people?
I did worry a lot, previously about model release but I don’t need it for a documentary/art project. It is non-commercial use. In the end, you simply have to demonstrate your own integrity and question your own motives over and over again. No model release is a substitute for that.
Roland Ramanan http://rolandramanan.com/
Roland Ramanan’s compelling image of Nina from his powerful ‘Gillett Square’ series is featured among other great photographers in Paul Sng’s This Separated Isle photobook, which is currently being crowdfunded on- https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/invisiblebritain/this-separated-isle If you can, please support this photobook of stories and portraits exploring concepts of identity in modern Britain.
Incredible series of images. How did you protect yourself from the trauma of these stories?
I think it was hard for people to see people (mainly men) who had performed unspeakable acts and atrocities, walk free …but the concept of forgiveness espoused by Tutu, Mandela allowed that to happen. It is to be commended and admired. It was a powerful ‘tool’ to call upon, to draw out, to involve many victims of human rights abuse, torture and conflict. The fact that it happened was remarkable. It helped. It may not have healed but it was powerful in the transition process. I don’t think it ever hoped to turn things around overnight. The compromise is that it is human fragility, survival , emotion at stake ; sadly we don’t seem to learn from history.The after effects of Apartheid and it’s ugly legacy will be felt for decades to come.I was lucky enough to be able to ‘come and go’ as I had my work, my family life in the UK, so being able to leave it, feel a certain distance from it and then later revisit the horror of it intermittently was an enormous saving attribute.
Excellent thanks! How long did you document their ceremonies and are you still in touch with the community?
The first ceremony was back in 2009. Yes, we are still in touch – I’m still working on this project.
Just wondered why the men in this community were not featured so much in the photos?
I guess because women are more photogenic. I’m just kidding. Actually, there were more men than women featured in the editing I showed.
Question: is the project ongoing? what’s next?
Yes, it’s an ongoing project. I’d love to make a book next.
When you were working on the project were you thinking about making photographs for them at the same time as making pictures for yourself? Did you take different approach for these?
This is a very interesting question for me. Yes, when I’m working on this project I think about both taking pictures for them as well as for myself, which can be tricky. Luckily, it’s been clear in my head since the beginning: I was able to start this project because I was hired to take photos for them. This allowed me to find a point of entry to their community. When possible, I work with an assistant, to make sure that he/she can cover the event for them, so that I can focus on my own project.
Given that the subjects seemed very keen to pose, did you capture moments where subjects had their guards down?
Oh yes. This is a question I had in my head since the beginning. What makes a photograph a more authentic and honest representation of someone? On one hand, it’s fascinating to see how my subject is very conscious of the camera. There’s something very strong about the way they always seem to know exactly how to pose. On the other hand, I’m also interested in showing how contradictory and much more complex we can be, by trying to capture my subjects off guard.
AN INTERVIEW WITH PETE BOYD, GUEST PHOTOGRAPHER AT THE PHOTOJOURNALISM NIGHT
Pete Boyd is sharing his thoughts, aims and working methodologies with Cinzia D’Ambrosi of the Photojournalism Hub on his powerful work that will be presenting tomorrow at the second edition of the Photojournalism Night at the Elephant West gallery. Pete’s work documents British life, its communities, social groups and subcultures, their codes of behaviour and symbols of belonging.
The event will also have the presentation of selected photojournalists Quetzal Maucci, Sukhy Hullait, Claudia Leisinger, keynotes from Emma Perfect (global heard of Inclusion and Diversity at Soho House), photos donated by guest photographers printed with the support of Genesis Imaging and the media support of Photo Archive News. To learn more: https://elephantwest.art/event/photojournalism-nights/
Q: Can you tell us your journey to photography, and what motivates you
to be a photographer?
My Dad was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and I was given a camera
at an early age. Since then I’ve always taken photographs. As a teenage
trainspotter I would photograph the railwayana disappearing through
modernisation and heavy industrial manufacturing being replaced by
service industry. Photographs helped me to preserve the things that
fascinated me. My Dad and I would develop those photos at home in a
I’ve always been a collector and an organiser of facts. After years of
music, poetry and other writing, I finally got around to taking
photography seriously and since then I’ve felt compelled to make candid
photographs of people in public, close enough to be visceral. I haven’t
formally studied photography but instead, having pursued it on my own
through books, exhibitions and Wikipedia, I’ve become fascinated by its
history and by the work of others.
I’m excited by groups of people in my own society whose language and
customs are unknown to me. I’m drawn to capture their dynamism, the
interpersonal interactions, the emotions, and private intimacies
expressed in public. I enjoy opportunities to be in a realm where not
everything is understood.
I was an outsider as a child, exiled from friendship groups, and that
still hangs heavy in me. That has made me anxious of groups of people in
adulthood, and yet drawn to explore them. A camera gives me enough of a
crutch that I can be amongst groups of strangers unselfconsciously, or
is a passport they welcome me in by.
I’m intrinsically a people watcher. We’re not supposed to look at other
people, it’s sort of taboo to linger too long in public, which is a real
shame. It’s invaluable to me to have photographs of people acting
Q: Your ‘It’s Not About Football’ and your people at night series will
be shown at Photojournalism Nights at Elephant West gallery on the 27th
November. How do you see these projects connect to the themes of the
night: belonging, identity, Britishness and Brexit?
I photograph people coming together. In the different groups, we see how
they display their difference, and how that gives them a sense of belonging.
My photographs at night show a variety of cultures. For some, the space
might be one where it’s safe to express their identity; for others, this
is something they take for granted. By showing these different
situations together in one body of work, I hope the viewer can see
universalities between people.
The nightlife photographs were made in Brighton between 2014 and 2018.
They show how some of what people were doing in the two years leading up
to the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2 years since — a time, we’re
told, of increasing polarisation in society.
Q: What next for the nightlife project?
I will exhibit and publish a book of these photographs. Firstly, they
will be exhibited outside on the streets of Brighton, where I feel they
My photography documents British life, its communities, social groups
and subcultures, their codes of behaviour and symbols of belonging. I’m
interested in struggles for status and identity. I look for private
intimacies expressed in public spaces. My work has so far touched on
social class, youth culture, masculinity, gender, sexuality, and
belonging. I make candid unposed photographs in public places, and
portraits. Based in Brighton, I am available for commissions.
INTERVIEWS WITH THE PHOTOGRAPHERS EXHIBITING IN ‘MARGINAL’ AT RE:CENTRE GALLERY.
The photographers Chiara Ceolin, Claudia Leisinger, Jonathan Goldberg, Mareike Gunsche, Parveen Ali, Wamaitha Ng’ang’a, presenting their work in the upcoming exhibition ‘Marginal’ share their projects’ insights and aims in a series of interviews. Further info on the exhibition is here.
Europe Revisited: Building a Future for the Roma
In “Europe Revisited” I focus on a small number of Serbian Roma families, now taking part in a national (and E.U. membership-driven) initiative to help them to improve their existing substandard houses by themselves. Currently, there are more than 600 settlements, mostly inhabited by Roma, without access to essentials, like water, sewage and electricity. The initiatives innovative structure has a strong emphasis on individual responsibility. From initial application to actual construction, the families are in an active position. It also provides real incentive for Roma families, surrounding communities and municipality to work together. Thus, the hope is that this interaction potentially creates new perspectives and a new understanding of each other’s lives.
These issues of immigration, particularly pronounced here in Serbia, are in fact the same all over Europe.
“How should we distribute our shared but finite resources and services?”
“Who should be entitled to what? “
“How much must minorities conform to established social norms for integration to be successful? “
We all need to urgently discuss these questions to push against the fear-driven isolationist movements that are taking hold in our societies and to ultimately find a more equal way to distribute our finite resources.
Aim of project
One of my aims with this project is to add to the discussion on how we could share our finite resources and services in a more effective and inclusive manner. While staying with these families, I witnessed how longstanding poverty corrodes one option for improvement after another. It slowly seeps into every aspect of life until the person is rendered truly powerless. From the small tooth infection left untreated and which may lead to a disfiguring abscess, to the more mundane but daily invasion of fleas: the experience is often that of a hostile environment. I wonder about the interplay of control and success in our societies and the value we attach to individuals who exert control over their environment. It makes sense, then, that our capability to dominate is a very important factor in determining how well we integrate into the mainstream. But what does that mean – in Serbia and in Western societies alike – for people who either choose not to, or are unable to dominate their environment, and can’t exert the same degree of control over their lives?
In 2007 Claudia completed an MA in Photojournalism at the London College of Communication. Since then she has worked as portrait and documentary photographer and filmmaker for NGOs, think tanks, foundations, magazines, newspapers and commercial clients. Throughout her photographic practice she has worked on self-initiated projects like “Europe Revisited” and the resulting photo essays and multimedia pieces have been published among others in the Guardian and the NZZ and exhibited widely nationally and internationally.
‘Speak Out’ is an ongoing photography project focusing on women – survivors of domestic violence. Domestic abuse is a pattern of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviours used to establish control over another person, including but not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse. This includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Forced Marriage. Domestic abuse still remains a taboo across many cultures. The project highlights and raises awareness of those multiple layers, and it serves to amplify the voices of women who have taken a stand and broken the silence about their personal experiences of domestic abuse and its devastating effects.
Aim of project
The project highlights and raises awareness of multiple layers of domestic abuse, in addition, it serves to amplify the voices of women who have taken a stand and broken the silence about their personal experiences of domestic abuse and its devastating effects – and the journey to move forward, not as victims, but as survivors.
Wamaitha Ng’ang’a is a multimedia photographer based in London, England.She has an interest in women issues and culture and identity.
This project was born to celebrate the dignity of young survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage and amplify their voice. Despite the horrors they have been through and the poverty they are trapped in, the girls still have dreams and hopes. They all are clear that the way to change their society and move forward is to offer more education to children and in particular to girls. Over 200 million girls live worldwide with the physical and psychological consequences of FGM. Each year 12 million girls are married before they are 18 years old. Both traditions are based on gender inequality and fuelled by poverty, lack of education and insecurity. Teenage girls in rural Tanzania face a patriarchal and sexist society that often forces them into child marriage, FGM and sexual violence. Education for the majority of the girls is not an option as they can’t afford the school fees. But there are signs of change. Some girls have founded a group called Sister to Sister to help each other, share their skills and run small businesses with the support of local NGO Children’s Dignity Forum and Forward UK.
Aim of project
Child Mothers in Tanzania is part of a bigger project based on the use of photography as a tool to empower survivors of trauma and to document their stories with different media. I ran a participatory workshop with a group of young FGM and child marriage survivors to teach them some basic photography and explore their emotions using portraiture and group discussion. By the end of the third and last day, the shy and quiet girls had raised their voices, willing to express their opinions and able to create beautiful portraits of each other. Once the workshop had finished, I visited each girl in her home and only then I took portraits and video-interviewed them. I used a Polaroid camera to show them their unique portraits and to allow them to hand-write their dreams, fears and hopes on them.
Chiara Ceolin is a documentary photographer and participatory workshops facilitator. Her background in trauma psychology lead her to explore and tell trauma survivors’ stories both in the UK and internationally. Chiara was commissioned by Thomson Reuters Foundation to document FGM in the UK and to produce a multimedia piece on child marriage in Tanzania. Chiara developed an innovative participatory workshop for domestic abuse survivors in the last two years. She works for several charities that find her work extremely beneficial for survivors. World Photography Organisation interviewed her on this topic recently.
Get Out of My Country
‘Get Out of My Country’ is a personal project about how Islamophobia had a
direct impact on my life. In a series of photos, I share the after effects of being
harassed in my neighbourhood and how it made me feel.
Aim of project
This project aims to bring awareness of Islamophobia within Britain how the rise of the Far Right has increased attacks on women, who look and dress like me.
A British photographer based in London, who covered the refugee crisis and has
campaigned for Humans Rights, Homelessness Social Justice, Poverty, and
Mental Health. Her work has been published in the Evening Standard, HuffPost
and book “After Grenfell”. In March 2019 she gave a speech in the Houses of
Parliament on how Islamophobia affects mental health. Also had an exhibition
“Not A Terrorist” in Parliament.
My series “Positive stories” is a collaborative multimedia portrait series that explores the personal stories of people living with HIV to create visibility and fight stigmatisation. The project focuses on presenting a wide variety of personal stories of people living with HIV. This series is a collaboration: a photographic portrait presents the person and the audio interview captures the personal story of the diagnosis, the ways of accepting it and how living with the virus turned out. By letting the person tell their own story the interview is also an oral history creating an archive of stories for future generations. The people I portray are all open about their status; most of them are great activists fighting the stigma of HIV/Aids. The project will show the amazing progress the community living with HIV made towards greater equality through community engagement, advocacy and legal reform.
Aim of project
I have been working as a professional photographer for almost 20 years. My background is photojournalism and news photography. I was always interested in how photography strengthens and reassures power dynamics, stereotypes and hierarchies and how this could be changed. My passion is using photography as a tool of empowerment and social change, to open the perspective to a variety of personal angles. Therefore, I focus on collaborations and participatory methods. I see this project as a collaboration: the portrayed one is telling their story and I assist and take a portrait in a way the person likes to be presented. Experiencing the pain and struggle of dear friends being diagnosed with HIV I made me interested in the stigmatisation and discrimination related to HIV. As a friend once said “It is not the virus that gives me trouble, it is the reaction of society.” By the end of 2017, 36.9 million people worldwide were living with HIV. Creating space to tell stories of everyday people living with HIV, I hope to stimulate conversation to address prejudices. My wish is that one day taking an HIV test would become as normal as a vaccination. In Germany there are 140,000 people living with the virus without even knowing it and of course not getting any medication. If the stigma of HIV could be erased and people would get tested and treated, this would have a massive positive impact on the infection rate.
I am a London-based photographer and educator focusing on human rights, social change and development. My passion is photography’s ability to empower though imagery. Also I am Senior Lecturer for Photography at the Mongolian State University of Arts and I teach workshops on participatory photography. My projects are either collaborations or participatory, I want to work with people and not tell their story. After working as a press-photographer, I studied photojournalism and documentary photography. I worked extensively for international media and as a stringer for Reuters news agency. I lived in Mongolia for four years and did extensive work in the humanitarian sector working for organisations such as Red Cross, Syria Relief, the German Relief Coalition ADH and the German development bank KFW. My project “Dragkings” was awarded the Canon Award for young Photographers; my series “You Are My Sister” about a Mongolian transgender woman won “The Other Hundred” award. The project, which had the biggest impact was “ Our Voice”, a project that helped to create visibility of domestic violence in Mongolia and contributed to the establishment of a law that recognises domestic violence as a crime. My work has been exhibited in Europe, Asia and the US. More information can be found on my homepage.
The Runway Stops Here | Grow Heatrow
On the site of an abandoned plant nursery in West London there lies a unique living space, where an assortment of people have come together to form an off-grid community. It was first occupied over 7 years ago by environmental protesters angry at proposals to build a third runway. Their intention was to create a hub for local residents to fight a campaign against the demolition of their houses. Today Grow Heathrow has evolved into a complex eco-village, and the threat of airport expansion is as real as it was then. When I first visited the site in 2011 I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a utopia, and was immediately moved to take pictures. But as time passed it became evident that life isn’t always rosy: the threat of eviction is never far away and winters can be cold and bleak.
Aim of project
My intention for visiting Grow Heathrow was to highlight how a community can survive without using fossil fuels, a task which we as a species need to adopt urgently, according to current UN reports. After my initial visits to photograph energy workshops – creating solar panels and wind turbines – I was drawn back by other activities, and by the optimistic spirit of the group. There were foraging workshops, wild swimming adventures and skipping for free-food at market closing time, all of which were about living with a low carbon footprint. Such is the sense of purpose about the place that I felt impelled to make many return visits over a 6 year period, documenting the people and place with the hope of inspiring others.
Jonathan Goldberg is a London-based photographer and filmmaker, whose personal work addresses peoples relationship with the planet. He was recently selected for a 6 month residency with the Canal and River Trust, to start in May 2019. His project The Runway Stops Here highlights the plight of Grow Heathrow, an off-grid community located next to Heathrow Airport. It was a 6 year project that was published in the National Geographic, and exhibited at Oriel Colwyn in Wales. The accompanying short film that Goldberg made was selected for screening at the Portobello Film Festival, and was shortlisted at the Earth Awards (both 2018). A previous short film about a local fruit harvesting group won Best Video at the Environmental Photographer of the Year, 2013. In 2014 Goldberg was commissioned for a photo essay on One Planet Living around Sustainable Transport, which culminated in a high profile exhibition across a large wall at Brighton Train Station (2014).
Ig & Twitter: @mrjongoldberg
STORIES: WHOSE WORDS, WHOSE PICTURES, WHOSE PROPERTY?
My name’s Katie Webb. I live here in Shepherd’s Bush and I work in the field of authors’ rights. That is to say I work with authors to try to ensure that copyright, the system designed to ensure authors can make a living, works for them, to help them make a living from the use of their works. Journalism is a form of authorship – and so I’m going to think about journalists as authors in what I say this evening. I’ve done this work all over the world. My job was to create something called the International Authors Forum (www.internationalauthors.org), which brings together unions of writers and artists in different countries in order to represent the interests that they have in copyright – the legal right which protects their work, which saves it from being taken and used without asking, misattributed, or not attributed to its author (or enables the author to remain anonymous) and stops them from being exploited, so that somebody else makes money from their work when they aren’t given the opportunity to. It gives them a legal and financial framework for their work, so they can make sure that their work, in any medium, be that art, photographs, literature, music, reaches an audience and still enables them to make a living. To get by.
Through the International Authors Forum, we try to connect authors in the world, as well as being a platform for authors. Not all authors can be connected easily with each other, or with their audience, albeit that the tools of communication are the tools of their trade.
In an age where so much information, in particular in the form of words and pictures, gets to us on the internet, we tend not to pay for it as such. We can type in anything into a search engine and get lots of words and pictures for free. For example, these are the pictures I got when I typed ‘Iraq’ into the google image search two days ago.
Who took these pictures? The connection between the author and their work – the work and its origin – is easily broken.
Mouayad, an Iraqi photographer, wants to tell a different story about his home, Iraq, through his photographs. That is a story of a common heritage, of religious pluralism and overlapping identities, a story of history, of the earliest civilisations and languages. His photographs show three elements of Iraq today; historic Babylon; the marshes in the south of the country, home to people of the Sabean Mandean religion who still live according to ancient traditions and rituals; and the Torah houses in Baghdad, once home to the Jewish population who no longer live there.
His photographs are united by the idea that we all need a place to live, somewhere to make our home, something to believe in. These photographs tell that story, making Iraq hospitable, habitable and accessible through photographs in a way that it cannot be physically to foreign visitors or even to people for whom it is home. Like the Jewish population which has not inhabited Iraq since 1948 despite thousands of years of lineage there. Like Mouayad, who lives in Sweden in order to exercise his freedom of expression as an author, as a photographer; his human right.
The unity between the three elements represented in his photography – the marshes, the Torah houses, Babylon – are all at risk of being lost – in some senses already have been. He keeps them alive by sharing his story through photography. He has to do so at risk, in another country that is not home. Yet he still cares.
He wants people to know about his country through his photographs. Maybe if they don’t know much through the pictures alone, then he wants them to become curious.
Vered, an Israeli educational entrepreneur and former journalist, has a social enterprise called Novel Rights (https://novelrights.org/about/novel-rights/) which works with the idea of the power of literature to address human rights issues. She connects the recorded decline in reading beyond that we find on our social media channels and news feeds, with a decline in empathy – our ability to understand the perspectives and feelings of others. We read so much in one sense, through our phones and numerous news sources. Vered believes that through really ‘reading’ though – engaging with novels and writing that seeks to explore the issues we are confronted with more thoughtfully, particularly those related to human rights issues – we can empathise and understand and learn how to help.
Teaching people the skills to participate qualitatively in authorship, as Cinzia is doing through the Photojournalism Hub – to become authors and critics, rather than simply the consumers of information overload – be that through photography, writing, photojournalism, attentive reading – can inspire people to more active participation in the issues that the media brings to our attention: to help others in need. It can help people to view and read what appears on their screens with a more trained eye, to distinguish between when effort and research and imagination have gone into that information, and when something is what might be regarded as ‘fake news’, or just another photograph gone viral, taken out of context – disconnected from its author and their story. These are the qualities, the skills, the work, that copyright is designed to reward. Novel means new. Novel Rights seeks to find new ways to present those qualities in Novels-writing – which generate empathy rather than mere ‘compassion fatigue’ to its readers – in novel ways, using forms (stories on Instagram for example) and business models (social enterprise, which rewards creators by giving them an income from their work and enables them to keep on creating) that fit our technology dominant age, to bring understanding of the lives of others’ whose lives are different from our own.
Copyright and Human Rights
In building the International Authors Forum, it was easy to work in countries where copyright is already set up. Where we have the principle that you can write your ideas down or use them to create photographs and document things – say anything you like – and then, provided that somebody is willing to buy it, you can sell it, claim it as yours, be named as the author, share it with an audience. Make ends meet. Make a living. Although that position is increasingly threatened by the way content is shared so easily and globally online: think how piracy has and models like napster affected music. However, in order to be truly globally inclusive, we needed to learn about parts of the world where we can’t take copyright for granted. Copyright has its basis in human rights. It’s recognised in Article 27(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that: “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.” ‘Moral’, we can take to mean the ability for the author to have a say over the way the work is used, in what context, and what is done to it, in what form it appears, whether it’s changed in the editorial process, and whether the author is happy with those changes. It is the author’s moral right to be named, or not to be named. ‘Material’ interests we can think about as being paid. The currency we all need to be able to buy food, shelter, for ourselves, for our families, to establish a home, to get by.
Another human right is freedom of expression – a pretty important one for the work of artists, of writers, of journalists. It affects their work directly. It affects us all directly. It is what we can use to speak to each other. To tell each other about our lives. To learn about each other. To help understand different situations. So in trying to understand the kind of obstacles that authors face in the Middle East and North Africa Region, I connected with some of them. And it’s their work that I have been able to share with you today, even though, to share it with each other, they have to do so in a country that is not their home, in secret, at risk, anonymised. Without freedom of expression in the first place there is not much to base a copyright system upon, from which to build an industry through which we can share, celebrate and reward authors and what they do for us, the information they bring to us through journalism, through writing, through pictures. Copyright is about rewarding authors for their work and giving them a basis to negotiate the terms on which they grant access to it, as independent creators, allowing them to tell their stories. Giving them the tools to make a living, to make money, where money in our society is so necessary to keep our heads above water, albeit not the only thing we need to survive.
Of course what the International Authors Forum also aims to bring to authors, in addition to the opportunity for an income, is a community. Building communities and quality relationships between people is valuable – not just through our phones, not just through the endless words and pictures on them, by uploading things to social media, but by doing the work it takes to really get to know each other and our fellow human beings and our communities. The Photojournalism Hub, by building these skills, can empower more people to tell more stories, to listen to more stories, and to do them both well.
International Co-director of FUIS, the Writers’ Union of Italy www.fuis.it