Photos and Captions • © William Daniels
Interview for Humanitarian Alternatives by Boris Martin, Editor-in-Chief
Humanitarian Alternatives – Since you started out in photography almost twenty years ago, you have focused on social and humanist, dare I say “humanitarian”, topics. Does this reflect a certain mindset?
William Daniels – I don’t know whether you would call it “engagement” because, back then as now, I’m a little wary of the use of that term in photojournalism. But it is true that when I started photography and began travelling to practise it, I immediately produced images that told human stories. The penny dropped in the Philippines, where I spent two months as a photography teacher in a local association that looked after young girls who had been through the mill and struggled with their own image as a result of the violence they had experienced. The interplay between difficult stories and the power of images seemed obvious to me. And I went down that road, because, quite simply, I like to photograph human stories and meet people. I don’t know if there’s any great philosophy behind it, but what I do know is that I like my pictures to be meaningful.
H. A. – And then, like many photographers, you crossed paths with humanitarian workers. What did you learn from this first encounter and this form of companionship that may have influenced your subsequent career?
W. D. – It was more than just an encounter because it was thanks to humanitarians that I started in the first place! When I knew that I wanted to work on meaningful subjects, I didn’t have a single commission or even the equipment I needed to fulfil my ambitions. Then, after working with the small Filipino association I just mentioned, I turned to Solidarités International. I had become friends with the communications manager who loved photography – and who has since become a photographer. That’s how I ended up going to Darfur for three weeks with this non-governmental organisation (NGO). I then led a huge project about malaria in several countries, which resulted in an exhibition on the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris and my first book . I then went to India, Uganda, the Myanmar-Thailand border and countries like Sierra Leone where NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières – MSF) were of great help to me. In fact, I have always worked very closely with NGOs. When I arrive in a country, my first reflex is often to go and see MSF, Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde – MdM) or Action Against Hunger (Action contre la Faim – ACF). Each time, I ask myself what they are doing there, and I think about how to include what they are doing in my work.
H. A. – Their knowledge of contexts and circumstances must be invaluable for you?
W. D. – Of course, there is a practical dimension that you can’t put a price on. In Central African Republic, for example, where I worked a lot with MSF, I was able to make several trips thanks to their logistical resources: they put me up and helped me travel and, in exchange, I gave them pictures. It’s a win-win: I’m delighted NGOs that I know well and do a great job find my images useful, and they get pictures to illustrate their work. I especially like French NGOs. I find them to be dedicated, progressive, meaningful in the action they do and, on top of that, they love images – and know how to use them. I remember a project with MdM in several countries about “peer educators”, people from affected communities, or what we did with ACF during an all-night art event in 2014: on the banks of the Seine, almost at the foot of Notre-Dame, we pasted a mural measuring 100 metres long by six metres tall made up of photos of Central African Republic. It felt quite daring doing this while tourists watched on from the Bateaux Mouches riverboats! I really like this kind of project, which seems to me to be very typical of French NGOs.
H. A. – One of your photos from the Central African Republic is a very good example of the action they are taking in the field, specially thanks to their local staff…
W. D. – Indeed, and if I were asked to choose an image of humanitarians who have made an impression on me, this photo I took in 2015 of three people on a motorcycle would certainly be up there. The driver worked for a small remote clinic that MSF set up in Amada-Gaza, the worst place in Central African Republic at the time, where the photographer Camille Lepage, who was a close friend, died. We were in a car with MSF workers when we came across this motorcycle with these two men and this woman who was about to give birth. She had complications and they knew that if she stayed there, she might die. So, they decided to take her on a motorcycle to the big city where there was a MSF hospital. The driver of the motorcycle had been riding for two hours on bad roads, with his friend and the woman between them. In the photo, she’s about to faint.
These men are real heroes, the humanitarian faces of today, made up of local staff, very dedicated, even though they all too often have low wages… To finish the story, since we had two cars, one of them took the woman to the MSF hospital. I hope that everything went well for her because, alas, I don’t always get to know what happens to the people I meet. But I also think of this woman, a sex worker, who worked for MdM in Myanmar to do peer education with other sex workers. She was extremely dedicated, going to see girls in the brothels, telling them how to put a condom on, how to convince customers who didn’t want to wear one… I met her at her home, I took a picture. She must have been between twenty-five and thirty years old and had been a sex worker since she was fifteen. On the same mission, I also met a young gay man who was teaching safe sex to other gay men, who were equally dedicated as well as discriminated against. These were people with whom I spent a lot of time, which I rarely did with expat humanitarian workers, perhaps because their dedication spoke more to me.
H. A. – What comes through especially in your work is a desire to be there for the long haul, which is what you did in Bangladesh and the Central African Republic. Do you feel a need to delve into the complexities of things, to immerse yourself in a country, a situation?
W. D. – I try to make news with images, and I think they endure because they tell the story of significant moments. But when I am particularly interested in a subject, I try to go back more than once, sometimes on assignments commissioned by newspapers, sometimes with grants or NGOs, to take the time, go more in-depth and make more contextual, more personal and, at times, more poetic images. The Central African Republic is an excellent example of this approach. For Time, I first went to cover the worst part, the ethnic conflict between Christian and Muslim militias. On 5 December 2013, in just a single day there were almost 1,000 deaths in the capital, Bangui. And so I wanted to go back, to take a different approach. I received grants – one from the World Press, one from Getty – and each time I spent four or five weeks there, visiting the villages, meeting NGOs, like MSF, and I produced images that made you stop and think, provided more context – about access to care, poverty, the history – and calmer images too, to help us better understand how a country can slide so quickly into total chaos.
H. A. – You did that too in Kyrgyzstan, a country not much covered by the press that had its Tulip Revolution in 2005, followed by inter-ethnic clashes…
W. D. – Absolutely. What struck me in this country, as elsewhere, was that it was an external power – Russia – that had decided the future of a people by defining its borders. They called it the Kyrgyz Republic, even though it also included Uzbeks and Tajiks to make sure it wasn’t too uniform. This might have been understandable, except that at the time of the USSR, they each belonged to socialist republics that communicated well with one another. Then, in 1991, they became countries overnight with entities that were not very fluid. In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz people are very powerful since they are the main ethnic group in the country, but in the southwest there are the Uzbeks, in the south the Tajiks. Over the long term, this has caused severe tensions, such as those in 2010 which I documented. Most striking of all was that more or less the same thing happened in the Central African Republic, with Bozizé. Each time, a desperate leader, at the end of his reign, instrumented ethnic differences in a bid to cling to power. It’s a strategy that works really well, although it’s always the populations who pay the price.
H. A. – And sometimes photographers and journalists also pay the price… In 2012, you were in Homs, Syria, when you were caught up in an airstrike carried out by the Assad regime. A French photojournalist, Rémi Ochlik, and an American correspondent, Marie Colvin, were killed. Other journalists, including Édith Bouvier, were injured. You were unharmed, but you then had a long wait ahead of you…
W. D. – … that lasted nine days, yes. I have to say that when we got there, Rémi, Edith and I, we had plans to do important, meaningful things. I don’t know if we’d fully realised how violent this conflict was, because the country had been completely shut off. We entered through a four-kilometre-long sewage tunnel. On the day of the bombing, we were in a place that everyone called the “press office,” an apartment provided by Syrian militants to house journalists when they arrived. There were six of us. We’d later learn that, at that time, the Syrian regime was fully aware that there were foreign journalists in that apartment, so they were deliberately targeting us. Rémi and Marie were killed. Others were seriously injured.
For several hours, I thought I was the only one who had escaped unharmed, because the other journalist, a Spaniard who ended up unscathed like me, had disappeared. Javier Espinoza reappeared later in the afternoon. But until then, I felt a little lost. At one point, I broke down in a corner of the clinic, until a Syrian guy told me that “it’s not the time to cry”. I knew he was right, but there was a point when I didn’t want to do my job any longer. I was angry at this job for having brought me there. The same day, we were moved to a small room, protected from the bombs. We were there, locked up, when someone came to tell me that a child had been injured and that I should take pictures. I felt like a complete idiot right then, boo-hooing about what had happened to us, and that’s what finally snapped me out of it. I grabbed my cases and went to take pictures. Luckily, the kid wasn’t badly injured, he had a massive wound above his eye from a piece of shrapnel, but he was going to be fine. Taking that photo woke me up. Before then, the camera had become taboo. The next day, with Javier, we went to see Rémi and Marie’s bodies. I took some pictures whilst crossing the city: the few that were published date from that day, like the photo where you see a young person in the street with a rubbish bag (p.213). The house where we took refuge was on the right of the picture. Édith and Paul were hidden in a room at the end of a corridor. And that night, we were bombed, intentionally again, no doubt. The only reason we survived was because there were two floors above us and buildings around us.
H. A. – How did you manage to leave the country?
W. D. – We hid in that house for two or three days. Then the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to negotiate a ceasefire for a few hours, and a convoy arrived to evacuate the wounded. The problem was that they were not from the ICRC – they were from the Syrian Red Cross. They offered to take us with them. I hesitated and then someone in the convoy quietly told me not to leave, because without anyone from the ICRC, Assad could target the convoy just to prevent us from leaving. I managed to contact an ICRC employee from one of the vehicle radios, who also advised me not to leave with the convoy. She tried to get permission to come and get us but was refused. So we made the decision to stay, and I think we did the right thing, because I think they would have targeted us or at least arrested us. That same evening, the bombing intensified around our house.
The next day, we tried to reach Lebanon by the same tunnel that we had entered through. But we saw that the tunnel exit had been bombed. The people who had been carrying Édith on a stretcher got scared and left her there, laying a Kalashnikov on her. For ten or fifteen minutes, we were all alone in the tunnel, everyone had gone. I thought, all they have to do now is shoot a missile at us in the tunnel and it’ll all be over. Then we heard a motorcycle coming towards us from the other end of the tunnel, where we had come from. Édith was taped to her stretcher – I taped her in the hope that it would hold her leg in place because she had a fractured femur. We put Édith on the bike as best we could, and when we got back to our starting point, near Homs, we found out that it was the Farouq Brigades, a group of well-known rebels from Homs, quite pro, who had come to help us. We managed to leave the next day by car, to cross areas held by the army, but where it was sometimes possible to get civilians across. For several days, we hid in farms, then other people helped us, more heavily armed, people from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They were the ones who finally enabled us to leave the country.
H. A. – How does one recover from such an ordeal?
W. D. – I needed to take a breather for a while. I didn’t do anything for a month or two and then I thought the best thing to do was to go back to work, obviously without taking the same risks. That was how I got back in touch with the NGOs, especially MdM, and this project on peer education that was a real breath of fresh air, a way to resume my life as a photographer, and on an amazing project as well. Then I followed that by going to the Central African Republic, a tense but less dangerous situation, even though Camille Lepage’s death proves that we are safe from nothing in that country. After that, I went back to war zones, like in Mosul, Iraq, but my mind was never at rest.
I think one of the reasons that I was able to work so well in the Central African Republic for three years was because of this episode in Syria before. I was more than a little annoyed that what went down in Syria became a line in my CV when all I did was have luck on my side. The people who died had faster reflexes: they died because they wanted to get out of the apartment quickly and the missile landed at the entrance – I am alive because I stayed there, wondering for a moment what to do…
I wanted to be remembered for the quality of my work, not for the fact that I got lucky. That spurred me on to try and do a good job, with meaning, in the Central African Republic, something that went beyond a mere eye-witness account. The book that came out of that is perhaps the most important work I have done.
H. A. – Since the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, you have been back on the front lines. What do you make of your latest reports from the country?
W. D. – Latest reports indeed, for Le Monde, but this was my first time in the country. I have very mixed feelings because, although the situation is dramatic in terms of human rights, and particularly for women’s rights, the country has never been so safe in fifteen years since the main threat was… the Taliban. Daesh has become their enemy and is carrying out attacks, but no longer on the same scale as in previous decades. On the other hand, I would like to work more on telling the story of the suffering of the women there, their fear for the future… which isn’t easy to put into pictures.
H. A. – What are your upcoming projects?
W. D. – I’m rather frustrated because I started working on a great project in 2019, funded by the National Geographic Society, on stateless communities. I had already travelled to Lebanon, Ivory Coast, the Dominican Republic and Nepal, visiting these communities that find themselves stateless because of administrative discrimination, because of genuine racism or long ethnic traditions. It is an exciting project that echoes the concept of nationality so systematically manipulated by politicians. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic happened, meaning that economic stories took up more column inches than human rights issues, even though they have always been part of the magazine’s DNA.
I also just received a grant for a project on primary forests. This goes back to the exhibition and book Wilting Point , which already contained lots of images of a primary forest that I photographed in Uganda. It was part of a National Geographic story on vaccines, where I followed scientists researching the wildlife of this primary forest to help them better understand zoonosis – how diseases jump from animals to humans. This time, I am going to talk about primary forests through the lens of three such forests in three countries: Russia, Madagascar and Canada. It occurs to me that, for the first time, I am going to embark on a fully-fledged project that does not directly concern humans.
Although I’m still very much interested in humans! But I must say it’s getting more difficult. First, there is less money to produce reports abroad. Then there’s a growing debate, connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, which questions the position of a white reporter telling the story of what is happening in Africa. In fact, when I posted some violent pictures from the Central African Republic a few months back, I got some strongly worded messages essentially accusing me of making my career on the backs of people who were suffering, like the colonialists who came to strip Africa of its resources. Of course, it’s not personal, and other photographers receive these kinds of comments too. There were three times as many people who defended me on social media as there were people who attacked me, which was reassuring. But it does raise important questions, which I do not dismiss out of hand. Quite the contrary. I think that this profession is changing a lot: the white reporter who goes everywhere, to the other side of the world, will become less of a norm, and for good reason, if only because it is easier to get someone who is already there to work than to send a reporter from overseas. It’s clear that things must change: we cannot have just the Western gaze. And there are fantastic photographers all over the world – in Bangladesh, there is an excellent photography school. It seems that more and more newspapers are thinking twice before sending white photographers to take shots of Africa, for fear of being criticised on social media. Challenging the status quo is always a good thing, but this, combined with financial considerations, makes me very worried about the future of my profession.