We photographers are nothing but a pack of crooks, thieves and voyeurs, We are to be found everywhere we are not wanted; we betray secrets that were never entrusted to us; we spy shamelessly on things that are not our business; And end up the hoarders of a vast quantity of stolen goods.
Photographers live their lives behind the lens of a camera and Sebastian Rich is no exception. Rich is a war photographer. He travels the world going into the places people are fleeing. With his camera, he has covered decades of struggle across continents and seen atrocities and resilience that are hard to comprehend. From places like Northern Ireland, to El Salvador, Bosnia, and throughout the Middle East, Rich captures moments and tells stories with his photographs. He has experienced and captured human rights abuses like, famine, torture, genocide, crimes against women, and with his pictures had shed light on unique lives, cultures, and traditions across civilizations and societies.
He described this picture to me |
"I shot that in South Sudan, and those children were part of the Cobra Faction, which is a paramilitary organization inside South Sudan. They have a long history of abducting young children from villages and raids and turning them into child soldiers. That particular photograph was in a tiny village under a tree. There were 300 child soldiers being handed over in an agreement to UNICEF and United Nations. So after months of the, as you can imagine, sort of backwards and forwards negotiations to get them released.
Now, the hard part after that is reintegrating them back into their communities because they're obviously known to their communities of having been child soldiers and having committed atrocities, so it's a very, very long and complicated procedure to get these children back to being children and recognized as child by their parents, if you like. So if you can imagine that this, say, for instance, that boy was all-powerful when he was a child soldier. He had the power of life and death.
So he is then stripped of his weapon, stripped of his uniform, and put back with his mom and dad. This is a boy who maybe, I'm not saying that boy, but this is a boy that may have killed and raped, and now he's being told off for not eating his dinner or not doing his homework. So you can imagine the conflict that would go on in a family unit there trying to reintegrate that child into a normal life."
Rich got his start as a war photographer when he was sent on assignment in Northern Ireland where he was "baptized by fire" when bombs began going off in Belfast. From there, he continued to travel to war zones around the world capturing the tumultuous environments, at times he endangered his own life. "It has a tremendous buzz. I make no bones about it, to come under fire and get away with it and tell the story in the bar that night is an adrenaline buzz," he said.
"Initially, as a young photographer/cameraman as well in those days, it was very hedonist ... I wasn't doing it for any journalistic white knight or white knight journalism, if you like. I was doing it for me. I was getting a great buzz out of it. I was going around the world snorting a lot of coke, doing some bad things, taking pictures, and having arguably questionable company. But then you go through that as all young men do, and then you suddenly realize that these people aren't there for your amusement, they're not your puppets, and you have a great responsibility to get their story out there."
He has captured children who have had their childhood stolen from them as child soldiers, and children caught up in war who cannot comprehend what is going on around them. "War is the greatest abuse of human rights if you really want to put it in a nutshell, but the greatest casualty is children," Rich said. " At least grown ups, have an inkling of what's going on, who the bad guys are, kind of why the conflict is raging around them. But children have absolutely no fucking idea at all, whatsoever. So I always see that it's that, I don't know, it's that they just don't understand what's going on, why is it going on, why are these loud bangs, why are these awful things happening to my mom and dad, why are these awful things happening to auntie and uncle. It's terrifying to watch or to look into the eyes of children who don't understand."
Often times, Rich says he is shooting the worst moment of people's lives. "I think basically it's in all our nature, all of human nature to be a voyeur. If something happens, we stop and look. It's like a road accident. For some, even though we like to think we don't stop and look, we do. We take a fraction of a second to see what's going on. And war throws that up."
"Brutality and war, it goes club in hand, that's what it's been about," he said. Rich has covered war for over four decades and in that time, he has witnessed the evolution of conflict. "The first time that I really saw what men and women could do each other was in Bosnia in that war in former Yugoslavia where it's stuff I can't even repeat to you... But that was kind of secret. You came across that by accident. But ISIS has turned that kind of brutality into a photo op, like a press conference. They will stage, as you well know, they will stage the most brutal horrors and present them as a photo op for the world to see. So that's kind of bizarre. We don't have to go and look for it now. It's given to us."
A picture I shot 30 years ago of a starving child or a mutilated soldier, a refugee, whatever don't have the impact now because it, unfortunately, it's become the norm.
"You have to find different ways of getting stories of war back that haven't been Disney-fied, that you're not shoving it down people's throat," he said. Rich says that as a photojournalist he does not "go back to the scene of the crime," but through his work with the United Nations wearing his humanitarian hat, he does have the opportunity to see "people's lives turning around for the better."
"This has always been one of my big bitches through my career, is that I have had so many arguments with picture editors and news editors, is that it's easy to photograph and film people firing guns and big guns in the back of trucks going off," he said. "But what we don't seem to get or it's difficult to get is the other end. It's what those guns are firing at and the consequences of those guns being fired."
And at times his work does come full-circle. "I was in Syria some time ago, and I filmed and photographed the effects of a barrel bomb, which is a particularly disgusting piece of weaponry," said Rich. "And just a few weeks ago, I was in Amman in Jordan at a tiny NGO who looks after children who've been badly wounded. There was one little boy I met called Basel who'd lost both his arms and one leg as the result of a barrel bomb. I get the answer to my question when I'm photographing the things going bang- what was that actually doing to a family and what's it doing to its victims, and I get the answer."
Through his work with NGO's and the U.N., taking pictures for branches like United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and United Nation's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Rich is working on changing the way people think about refugees. "I guess my agenda at the moment is to put the human back into refugee status. We have at the moment the perception of refugees, as soon as someone gets the title "refugee," for instance, it automatically in public perception terms that person's a third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-class citizen, and they're suddenly ignorant. They're suddenly stupid. They're suddenly a problem." He continued, explaining that refugees, particularly from cities, are people and professionals who were doctors, lawyers, policeman, "but these people somehow have had their professions, their everything stripped away from them completely just by the mere fact that they've been given the label "refugee." So I, naïvely maybe, I'm trying to put some of their soul, some of their character back to them as I portray them."
Over his career, he has been shot, taken hostage, mock executed, and seen war and unimaginable atrocities. "In the early '80s in the civil war in Beirut, which was a particularly brutal war, none of us had flak jackets. We didn't have armored cars. We had absolutely nothing, and none of us even knew ... The only bit of first aid we knew was how much cocaine to snort the next morning to get rid of a bad hangover. That was the extent of our medical knowledge." He was badly injured in Beirut, so he became a paramedic. "I've come across people who have been wounded, and I take the picture as I'm working towards them or there, and as soon as they're ... A picture's, what, 1/125 of a second. Put it down. Put pressure on the wounds, stop the bleeding, whatever."
When asked about his duty as a photographer versus his humanitarian responsibility, he said, "I don't think there should be a distinction at all. If you're in a position to help someone, and I'm saying it in the ... I still know photographers who just say, 'Sebastian, you're full of shit, we're just here to observe,' and dah dah dah. I say, 'Fuck off, you do what you like.' Because it's small amounts of compassion goes a long, long ... I'm making myself sound like a saint. I'm not in any way a saint, so ... But if you can't pick up a child that's been hurt or do something apart from just take pictures, then go away.”
Rich said that if he could go back in time he would have liked to be a doctor. He said, "I was taught by the military that the human body is just a series of pipes, and you've got to keep that fluid inside, and then there's various tricks of doing it." He has also tried other forms of photography over the years, including ballet. "I photograph ballet when I get the opportunity because it's the antithesis of, I've got the wrong teething for that, the antithesis of war. War is the worst that man can throw up, and ballet dance is the best in my mind that we can do. So I've been lucky enough to have worked now with some of the world's leading ballet companies and their principal dancers, and that's my kind of downtime photography."
Recently, Sebastian has been shooting in Jordan along the Syrian border for UNICEF. He said, "people have asked me in the past, 'Why do you carry on doing what you're doing?' There's been two occasions in my life where my presence in a certain situation has, on one occasion stopped one person being killed, and on another occasion 30 women being executed. So just by me being somewhere at a particular time made a difference, so that is I guess in essence why you carry on because you're always hoping in some rather naïve way that you will make a difference."
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