It has taken me a whole month to finally conclude with part 2 of my impressions of the thought-provoking photography talks that I attended at the Borris House Festival of Writing & Ideas 2013. (Read Part 1 here.) What has finally prompted me to conclude is the arrival of a photobook that I ordered as a result of the talks, and I will discuss that in a separate post at another time. But back to Borris, Co. Carlow, where A___ and I had travelled with the intention of fangurling over Don McCullin.
Booking the second photography-related talk that was on the same afternoon that we had heard McCullin being interviewed by Colm O’Gorman, was a bit of an after-thought. Billed as “candid discussion on war journalism by three of its most admired practitioners”, I had never heard of the other two particpants, Ben Anderson and Giles Duley.
To my shame! There was only sparse info on the Festival website, but the main attraction for booking the event was hearing Don McCullin speak twice. At € 10 a no-brainer, considering that we were over there in Borris, anyway.
The Venue in Borris, Co. Carlow. Incidentally I snapped Duley and Anderson in the foreground of the iPhone image – before I knew who they were…
The talk with McCullin had been great, but in retrospect we had heard nothing that we hadn’t already seen in the eponymous documentary. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly then, the talk with Duley and Anderson turned out to be the highlight of the day. We were in the presence of three impressive, remarkable men. – Duley set the tone of the event right at the beginning. The talk was taking place in the private chapel of Borris House, where the panel sat behind the altar rails at the front. Duley had been setting up a slideshow of photographs at the front, facing the audience as he was clicking on his laptop. Clutching his beer glass, he turned around and took the right-most seat and deposited his pint next to his chair to his left. As the discussion had just started, he suddenly broke out in loud laughter, leaned over to Anderson who was sitting in the middle and whispered something to him. Anderson got up and moved Duley’s beer glass from his left to his right. “I haven’t got a hand on that side!”, Duley cheerfully informed the audience and chuckled again.
As I had not done my homework – again! – and researched the participants prior to the talk, it only occurred to me then that Duley was missing an arm. But from this episode it was already clear that this man was not in any way broken, despite a broken body. Duley duly took the lead in the discussion, launching it by explaining his own path into photography – a path that was actually inspired by discovering McCullin’s work at age 18. He became a photographer and specialised in music and fashion photography. Burnt out after a few years, he completely stopped, not seeing any value in his work. He abandoned his career as a photographer and stopped photographing entirely. Instead, he became a careworker, intensely looking after a single client. Gradually, it occurred to him that he wanted to tell the story of his client through photography. Motivated by compassion, this launched an interest in telling the unheard stories of those without a voice. He started covering the stories of conflict victims and humanitarian issues and shot in places like the Sudan, culminating with a project in Afghanistan where he wanted to show the impact of conflict on all victims of war, including soldiers. While embedded with the US Army in Afghanistan, Duley stepped on a landmine, losing three limbs – and almost his life. He became the story. And he became a victim. But not really a victim – the audience could clearly see his unbroken spirit, positive attitude, courage and will.
Anderson’s track record is equally impressive. An investigative journalist, Anderson has been covering conflict for the last ten years. He has filmed a number of in-depth documentaries in conflict zones such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba. In 2007 he was embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan, later he followed the US Marines on their battle for Marjah which resulted in an insightful documentary of the same name. His most recent work is the deeply disturbing documentary “This is what winning looks like”, which again took him back to Afghanistan, covering the preparations for the take-over of the Afghan security services after the international troops leave the country in 2014. (Urging all readers to watch this film online on Vice.com. The documentary will have you shake your head in disbelief, disgust and horror!)
It was clear from the introductions and the following discussion that neither of these men are in their dangerous business for fame and fortune. They appear to be deeply compassionate people who have an urge to tell stories, to document, to give a voice to the victims of conflict and to speak the truth. They embodied that in the way they appeared on the panel and spoke candidly of their experiences and their work. It was clear that you can and must believe them and trust them.
McCullin stayed at the side-lines in this discussion, allowing the two younger men to explain their perspectives and to talk about the challenges of their work. What shocked me most was that both spoke of their difficulty of getting funding for their work. They are both free-lancers. There is no media corporation in the background to pay and pamper them. Their way of working is the way all free-lancers work: You work first, and get paid later. With an outlay of time and money, they have great difficulty getting their work published. Noone wants to see this??? Where has the world come to? A dumbed-down celebrity culture?
That was McCullin’s description of our contemporary world. When directly asked for advice on the future career paths of Duley and Anderson, McCullin emphatically discouraged them from continuing with conflict coverage. “It is not worth the high price that you pay, personally!” His view is, of course, shaped by his own experiences. It is a retrospective view and an honest answer. Somehow, though, I disapprove of his honesty here. The world needs courageous people like Anderson and Duley, to push our noses in the mess that we have created on this planet. Even if McCullin’s experience tells him otherwise, the public still has to be able to see reality, if we so wish. Not all the world is disinterested. And maybe we, as the public, should make that clear by supporting the work of documentary makers such as Anderson and Duley by buying their books and by pushing for publishing. Buying their work would also help fund their future projects. (See links to books at the bottom of the text.)
Anderson and Duley, thankfully, expressed in clear terms that they will not cease their pursuit of truth. They clearly held their “elder” in respect and awe, but their own convictions clearly shone through their contribution to this panel discussion. Both spoke eloquently and awarely of the challenges and ethical dilemma of their work – documenting the essence of human suffering by shoving a lens into the victims’ faces. They appear to be very conscious of the dangers of their professions (well, obviously) and the exploitative nature of photographic/cinematographic documentation. They are a generation after McCullin whose (provocatively emphasised?) outdated views occasionally drew a hiss from the audience – such as his slightly chauvinist remark, that he could not understand why women would cover conflict as reporters, photographers or filmmakers. – But then again, what do we know? We have seen nothing yet, while he has been there.
The discussion, although light in tone, was one of the most impressive talks I have ever attended. The personalities of the three speakers held everyone in thrall, as they spoke openly and honestly about their experiences, the media, their respective areas of media, their view of their work and the state of conflict zones in general. There was no bravado and no non-chalance in the face of war. All three, McCullin, Anderson, and Duley, came across as honest, deeply humanitarian individuals. Frankly, with people like this in the world, we can rest assured that the stories of the victims will be heard. That does not absolve us from our own responsibilities, and we should be conscious of the fact that they are paying a high personal price for the pursuit of truth. The least we can do, is spread their message by talking about their work and by supporting them through buying their books or pushing locally for opportunities of showing their projects.
Ben Anderson: No Worse Enemy
Giles Duley: Afghanistan 2012
Don McCullin: Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography