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Q&A: Jan Grarup, author of Shadowland: Online Exclusive Interview

Online Exclusive Interview

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Q&A: Jan Grarup, author of Shadowland

By A S H Smyth

?Shadowland is the testimony of people caught up in events they cannot make sense of.? So says acclaimed Danish photojournalist Jan Grarup, author of this moving commentary on the human spirit. (Click here for more on Shadowland.)

Rather than simply present a ?best of? compilation, Grarup has selected 11 of the stories on which he has worked in the last decade and half ? from the wars of Africa and natural disasters of Asia to the social catastrophes of Europe ? and molded them into an intense portrayal of often-unnecessary suffering. Shadowland is already a multiple award-winner and, despite never having received an international release, copies of the volume are fast running out.

Stop Smiling: Why Shadowland?

Jan Grarup: It was difficult to find a single title to fit all the stories in the book, especially since they are not all war-related ? there are also stories about natural disasters, and about communities and their living conditions. Basically, the idea was to give people here in the West an idea of how many people live in a darker place than we do.

SS: Black-and-white photography is often thought of as the high art form of photojournalism. Why does it seem so appropriate for conflict journalism?

JG: For me, it?s not about high art in any way. Black-and-white photography simplifies topics ? you don?t get distracting colors. In Darfur, for example, you?d see women in beautiful colors and it would confuse the message, especially in intimate situations. Black-and-white removes that kind of background noise. You don?t want people looking at an image from Darfur and thinking of it as a beautiful picture. I once heard someone on CNN refer to this exact scenario as a ?fashion conflict.? I find that really offensive. I mean, yes, it is really beautiful, but you can?t go around saying shit like that. To avoid that, I try to go the other way.

SS: Do you try to counterbalance other people?s work?

JG: No, not as such. If you did that consciously, you?d lose a lot of pictures, a lot of spontaneity. If you?re open-minded, pictures open up in front of you. You wouldn?t get that if you were concentrating on other people?s work.

SS: Do you steer clear of arranging your photographs? The last one in the book ? a child in the desert, his head framed by receding train tracks ? looks like a portrait.

JG: No. There?s no arrangement. Ethically and morally, I?d feel bad asking someone in an awful position to stop and pose for a portrait. That kid just happened to be there. But he knew who I was, and he was okay with being photographed. I?d been working with him for a few days.

SS: Some of the images ? for example, of visiting time in an Iraqi prison ? are very personal. Do you ask permission of your subjects before photographing them?

JG: What I do is try to wear people down, get them used to my presence. It doesn?t take that long before they get used to you, and then their normal, intimate behavior comes out and they don?t feel insecure. That intimacy is one of the key things in my work ? that?s where the people looking at these images get something out of them.

SS: The book is largely concerned with conflict zones, but very rarely do we see any soldiers. Is there a reason for that?

JG: Yes. I always try to keep the focus on civilians, especially children. They?re the true victims. To be a little harsh, I don?t give a shit about the soldiers. They can kill each other ? it?s their job. I don?t see the value of them being in a book about human suffering. If I started concentrating on soldiers it would have to be a separate project. The point about Shadowland is to highlight the suffering and say, ?Soldiers did this.?

SS: Soldiers must be a constant feature of your working environment, though. When you are in a conflict zone, to what extent are you protected?

JG: I?ve never been embedded, not even in Iraq, so I don?t have protection in that sense. I always want to cover both sides of any conflict, as I did with the stories about children in Hebron and Ramallah. These are complicated stories that demonstrate how the kids on each side have the same problems. But it?s impossible to see that if you?re embedded, because they won?t let you cross the lines. Still, as a photographer, you always need to get access ? some kind of permission to go through front lines. But once you?ve got that permission, you just avoid them. You have to bullshit occasionally to get the photos, of course, and sometimes it?s difficult. Soldiers do things they don?t want on record.

SS: For me, the most poignant pictures in the book are those of people trying to live normal lives ? voting, trading, playing, praying, hairdressing ? under the extreme circumstances of war. Is that an intentional theme, or have I invented it?

JG: No, that?s intentional. It?s really important for me to try to show how even people who are totally victimized try to live proudly despite their circumstances. Reopening your barbershop in the rubble after 70,000 people die in an earthquake ? that is very proud. Those pictures get people ? Western people ? to relate to the subjects, because the things they?re doing are close to our way of life.

SS: All of the images in Shadowland are troubling in some sense, but a few are very hard to take in ? the skeletal corpse in Rwanda, for example. How much of your work is too horrific to be published?

JG: A lot. This is an issue that journalists have discussed for a long time. Initially I felt that my pictures didn?t have enough punch, so I became more aggressive. But then people just turned the pages, and the point was lost. Rwanda is the worst and most insane thing I ever tried to cover. And it would be wrong not to show the pictures. But I took out loads. I have pictures from Rwanda that I am barely able to look at myself. But you take the photos anyway, even if you know they won?t make it. I believe that all pictures should be taken, but that?s not to say they should all be shown. The ones that are not shown still stand as proof. No one likes photos from Auschwitz, but it?s documentation, on the record, to counter rightwing extremists like Ahmadinejad.

SS: Your photos of the Roma community differ from the rest of the book in that the Roma are not involved in or victims of a conflict. What led you to cover them?

JG: It was part of a piece for Geo, a German magazine, about the eastward expansion of the European Union and the rights of minority groups within the new member states and in the countries beyond those borders. There were discussions going on about this issue in Slovakia and Romania. Meeting this small community in Romania really threw me. I felt a personal anger toward our entire identity as Europeans ? that we took this country into the EU, despite their appalling treatment of minorities. The Roma were completely abandoned ? no schools, no jobs, no security, nothing. I was astonished that this could be happening in Europe, in 2004.

SS: Which begs an uncomfortable question: Do Western audiences react differently to seeing white people suffering in the modern age?

JG: Yes, it?s true. Around the time of the tsunami, I remember thinking that it was getting a lot more coverage than it might have because the West reacts differently when thousands of white tourists are killed. These were people and places we knew, which makes it more personal. Contrast the Western reaction to the Kashmir earthquake the next winter, when I first heard the phrase ?tsunami fatigue.? I thought, What the fuck is that? I wasn?t planning to cover the Kashmir earthquake, but then I heard this phrase, and heard that the aid agencies, with which I often work closely, couldn?t raise any money from Western donors. So I went. I tried to do the human and intimate stories ? no bodies trapped in the rubble ? to make it accessible to Westerners, to change their reactions. The piece was printed in 22 countries, but I can?t tell you if it made any difference.

SS: So your photos are intended to achieve something? Having a Foreword by the Dalai Lama in Shadowland does rather imply a moral imperative of some kind.

JG: I do believe that photojournalism makes it possible for people to reflect, much more so than live video footage on TV. People can look at these images again and again. It?s a double approach ? it?s about documentation, but also about basic humanity. As the Dalai Lama says in that Foreword, ?If at the beginning and end of our lives we depend on others? kindness, why then in the middle, when we have the opportunity, should we not act kindly towards others??

SS: In both the notes to the book and on the accompanying Shadowland website, you don?t shrink from making remarks about your personal beliefs ? on the Darfur genocide, for example, and the lessons which the international community should have learned from Rwanda. Does this not cross a line of journalistic detachment? Or do you think that is an outdated notion?

JG: Objective photojournalism doesn?t exist. Anyone who tells you that a single frame is ?the truth? is lying. I take 10,000 photos on a trip, but then show 12. I choose where I go, I choose what I shoot, and then what I show. These images are true, but they?re not the whole truth. There is also, I think, a difference between press photography and photojournalism. Press photographs are brutal snaps in time ? like the child running from the napalmed village in Vietnam ? but my work is personally involved. I don?t travel with this feeling of being objective. I go to stories I think are important to tell.

SS: I felt one of the best features of Shadowland was that the images are clearly left to speak for themselves [with brief explanatory notes as an appendix]. But the website takes the opposite approach. Your narration explains the context and content of each shot, and makes it quite clear what you think about each situation. Why the different approaches?

JG: The next step, after admitting my personal anger and motivation, is to tell people what I feel about these stories. I think they have a right to expect that in photojournalism, and that is what the website gives them. No one else does it, either, so that makes this book quite different. The dual approach actually comes out of the unified theme of the book. I didn?t want clutter distracting the eyes and marking each picture out separately. But then afterwards, I was looking through photo books by other photographers, and considering my feelings on them. I thought, I have a book here and I?m pleased with how it looks, but people can expect more of me. The book and the website have their own lives. And the whole project was always supposed to have an international reach ? that?s why it?s in English!


For free downloads (narrated by Grarup) of each of the stories in Shadowland, click here

The book can also be ordered here


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