Interview with Clare Thomas, Photojournalism Nights guest speaker

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©Claire Thomas – Injured and sick civilians are treated at a makeshift field clinic set up inside an abandoned store on the edge of Mosul’s Old City as the fighting continues to liberate the remaining ISIS-held territory, on July 4, 2017.

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.

Clare Thomas
www.clairethomasphotography.com
https://www.instagram.com/claire_thomas_photography/


Interview with Felipe Paiva, Photojournalism Nights guest speaker

©Felipe Paiva

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”

https://www.felipepaivaimg.com/


Photojournalists answer questions on their work

The third Photojournalism Nights event guests speakers Jillian Edelstein, Roland RamananValentina Schivardi answer questions posed from the audience on their work and practice. Their answer lead us into their journey of resilience and commitment in voicing stories of prejudice, injustice and poverty.

Roland Ramanan


©Roland Ramanan

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.


JILLIAN EDELSTEIN

©Jillian Edelstein

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. 


VALENTINA SCHIVARDI

©Valentina Schivardi

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.

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.

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.

Valentina Schivardi
http://valentinaschivardi.com/