Maybe I could be a voice, albeit a small one, for the suffering…
How does one represent the suffering of others? This is especially challenging when those others are far away, appear alien, overwhelmed by events we can hardly begin to imagine. Images of suffering, however much they represent a brutal reality, too easily slip into spectacle. Those of us who live in the privilege of relative peace, relative freedom, relative dignity, how can we relate to suffering so far beyond our own experience? How can we feel compassion rather than an oceanic revulsion that sweeps away the sufferer with the obscenity of their suffering? And, when a photograph seems to crystallise a moment that speaks to the vastness of that suffering – Nick Ut’s image of Kim Phúc fleeing a South Vietnamese napalm attack or Nilüfer Demir’s of two-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body on a Mediterranean shore – how quickly does it become an icon, an aesthetic abstraction in the pantheon of imagery rather than a portal to an urgent reality. A reality which, in our globalised world, we are more connected to than we might wish to recognise.
Over the past three decades, this question has been central to the work of Stephen Dupont. His images of conflict avoid the explosive spectacle of war, to explore the lives of individuals caught up in events beyond their control. To bring to the fore their humanity. His series are organic, avoiding the easy essentialism foreign to a world in which much remains ambiguous, bound up in a chaotic complexity beyond the grasp of a single perspective.
Increasingly, his practice has expanded to embrace other media and collaborations with other artists. His preferred form, the book, encourages reflection, suggesting the dynamic nuance of narrative rather than the fixity of an icon. Many of these books are handmade, some unique, carrying the trace of hands, voices, gestures… entangling images with actions, resisting the isolation of the image from those involved in its making. For me, in so doing, his process hints at a way forward. A way past the crystalline screen of spectacle to a moment of recognition, a flash of insight, the caress of authentic connection. Not simply to look at but to feel with. Evoking not pity, nor even sympathy, but compassion and the possibility of change. A change wrought not in the sweeping gesture of a powerful authority that few of us possess and perhaps none of us should have. But in the understanding of our mutual interconnectedness and our own capacity to act.
It is true that the actions of an individual in the face of immense challenges can seem like a drop in a limitless ocean but, to borrow a line from David Michell’s novel ‘Cloud Atlas’, which explores the interconnectedness of lives, “what is an ocean but a multitude of drops”.
What drew you to photography?
My first memory of photography was seeing the Magnum exhibition ‘In Our Time’. I was eighteen and had just got back from a yearlong round-the-world backpacking trip. I had enjoyed the challenge of documenting that trip and the freedom of travelling and exploring, which has never left me. But when I saw the Magnum exhibition, it marked me for life. I wasn’t just looking at pictures on a wall, I was staring into the very soul of humanity. These photographs captured time with such power and emotion, they were beautiful and brutal. Some of the photographers in the show were to become my mentors: Capa, Koudelka, Nachtwey, Salgado, Peres… That day, a gift was passed on to me, the gift to truly see and capture the world we live in. I knew then that I wanted to be a photographer, to be a nomad with a camera.
In 1993, you began a series of self-initiated photographic projects in Afghanistan that were to continue over the next twenty years. How did that begin?
I was based in London at the time and still trying to make a name for myself in photojournalism. Bosnia was the big story, and I was trying to avoid going, mainly because I knew so many great photographers were already working there. I wanted to find my own story, avoid the media circus, and I was interested in Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan.
I read a story in The Independent newspaper about a hundred thousand Tajik refugees fleeing a civil war in Tajikistan and finding salvation in Afghanistan. The absurdity and trauma of fleeing a war only to find themselves in a country also at war. I took a flight to Pakistan and found my way via the UN to the north of Afghanistan. It was winter and the conditions inside the refugee camps were dire. I watched as men, women and children died of exposure, frostbite, and disease. Yet the will to survive brings out superhuman things in people. There was even a wedding.
Even though I was witnessing human misery at a catastrophic level, I kept looking around at this unforgiving yet beautiful landscape of desert plains and rugged snow-capped mountains. The forbidden valleys of the Hindu Kush ranges were luring me in.
Disguised as a doctor, I joined up with a team from Médecins Sans Frontières, driving from Mazār-i-Sharīf to Kabul down the same highway that the Russians had used when they invaded in 1979. What I witnessed there was a forgotten war, a place of blood and destruction. The civil war was in full swing and several mujahideen factions were fighting for control of a city in ruins. That first trip was to begin a lifetime obsession and concern with the country and its people. Back then the world didn’t care about what was happening in Afghanistan. Maybe I could be a voice, albeit a small one, for the suffering…
[Left + Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Mazār-i-Sharīf, 1993’ from the book ‘Generation AK: The Afghanistan wars 1993–2012’
How did your experiences in Afghanistan change over the years?
My primary mission in 1993 was to tell the world what was going on over there. The war and the people and their struggle got into my blood in a big way. I returned regularly over the next twenty years covering different stories from the civil war to the rise of the Taliban, and later the NATO and US-led war on terror. Over the years I saw many changes: girls were allowed and then forbidden to go to school, warlords came and went, cities were reduced to rubble, famine, foreign invaders, Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist havens, new infrastructure, roads, and buildings. But, in the end what did it all mean or do for the people of Afghanistan?
The US-led invasion ended embarrassingly with a sudden withdrawal that left a nation unprepared to resist a return of the Taliban that took the country back to the Dark Ages. The many thousands of Afghan pro-western supporters and workers faced a vengeful new leadership. Now more than ever Afghanistan is divided, in ruins from decades of conflict. The one thing that didn’t change was the suffering of its people. Different wars, different enemies, different invasions, but with the same outcome.
[Left] © Stephen Dupont ‘Bagram, 1998’ from the book ‘Generation AK: The Afghanistan wars 1993–2012’
[Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Gonbaz Village, Kandihar, 2005’ from the book ‘Generation AK: The Afghanistan wars 1993–2012’
What were the principal issues that you sought to bring out in your different series?
My aim was to show the struggles of the Afghan people. Whether through civil war or the war on terrorism, it is the civilians that bear the greatest trauma. I made at least twelve trips and on each I worked on a different issue: Kabul under siege, child labour, famine, the legendary leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the drugs, the war… Because I wasn’t working for the daily press, I needed to come away with feature stories and photographs that were different from those in the mainstream media. For some projects, I collaborated with writers to work on long-term stories. I chose to shoot predominantly in black and white using film and Polaroid. I combined video, photography, and my diaries to produce artist books and films that culminated in major exhibitions.
As I shifted away from the news angles, I made portraits of both the Afghans and the US Marines. More and more I involved my subjects in direct collaboration to create unique bodies of work. In this way I believed could illustrate the issues and suffering caused by the war better than the way it was being covered though mainstream reporting. I think my diary of US Marine portraits – each of was accompanied by their handwritten response to the question “Why am I a Marine?” – said more about the war than all the press images of battle, which people have just become fatigued by. It felt more personal and honest, and certainly for me more creative and original.
[Left] © Stephen Dupont ‘Why I Joined the Marines: Sgt. Ingles, John A.’ from ‘A photographer’s journal and photo album, 2007-2009’ [Library of Congress Collection]
[Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Why I Joined the Marines: Lance Corporal Jon M. Hamilton’ from ‘A photographer’s journal and photo album, 2007-2009’ [Library of Congress Collection, USA]
Back in 2005, the then President, Hamid Karzai, identified “the number one issue in Afghanistan” as “the drug problem, not the war on terror”. How did you find that situation?
In 2006, my good friend the writer Jacques Menasche went to Afghanistan to work on a project around drugs. Afghanistan at that time supplied over ninety per cent of the world’s heroin. Most of the media reported on the global drugs trade and its effect in the west. No one was looking at how the poppy industry was affecting the people in its country of origin where there were over a million addicts. Although Islamic laws forbid the use of drugs, the Taliban still encouraged Afghan farmers to grow poppy. The profits helped the Taliban fund their war effort. In a more sinister slant, I believe the Taliban also enjoyed having the drug trade destroy the lives of addicts around the world, particularly the USA. However, the blow back was causing all sorts of problems for local Afghans who went hungry because farmers grew poppy in preference to food crops. And of course, the escalating nationwide addiction problem inside their country as opium became a way to temporarily escape traumatic memories, pain, and suffering.
How did you go about translating a story like that in a way that would be meaningful outside of Afghanistan?
In order to present the issue in a way that would be felt strongly internationally, Jacques and I focused our story around two brothers in Kabul who were addicted to heroin. It was a very personal account of how drugs destroy individuals and their place in society. How hopelessness and poverty feeds addiction. And, by creating a window onto their tragic world, we hoped to reflect the wider issues of drug addiction across Afghanistan.
One of the more unusual series within this extended Afghan project is ‘Axe Me Biggie’. How did that come about?
In 2006, after a month working on the drug addiction project, I was emotionally drained. I realised I still had a hundred sheets of unused Polaroid 665 positive–negative film and didn’t want to leave Afghanistan without using them. I decided to shoot a portrait series. On my last day in Kabul, Jacques and I went down to the central bus station area with our fixer, Zabi. This was a busy place where many Afghan photographers were set up with their old-fashioned wooden box cameras. I borrowed one of their backdrop curtains and set up a mini outdoor studio. Over an afternoon I photographed one hundred people using the sheets of Polaroid film, just one sheet per sitter.
[Left + Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Anonymous portrait, Kabul, Afghanistan’ from the series ‘Axe Me Biggie’ 2006
Can you describe the Polaroid process you used to make this work?
I use a reconditioned 1960s Land Camera that has a 665 Polaroid back. In those days you could buy this black-and-white Polaroid sheet film that produced a positive print and a very fine-grain negative. I would fix the negative in the field by putting them in a container of sodium sulphate solution I carried with me. This helped to fix the negatives and keep them wet until I could wash them and peg them out to dry in my hotel room at the end of the day. When I returned home, I printed them up in the darkroom. The quality of prints made from these negatives is exquisite. They have a wonderfully soft tonal range that is close to the quality you get from old glass negatives. With their imperfections of grit, scratches, and the emulsion edges, each frame looks somehow timeless, totally unique. It was an incredible film, and it saddens me that now you can’t get it anymore. Polaroid stopped manufacturing it long ago.
[Left + Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Anonymous portrait, Kabul, Afghanistan’ from the series ‘Axe Me Biggie’ 2006
How did that portrait session go in Kabul?
It was chaos. Once people saw me gifting the original Polaroids to my subjects a crowd developed, pushing and shoving to get in front of my camera. What started with me trying to formalise the sessions turned into a kind of mayhem of happenings as I yielded to the craziness and just shot person after person without thinking too much about the results. Looking at the Polaroid positives as they accumulated, I saw that the energy being generated on the street was giving me something very special. Surprising. Each frame captured not only those that knew they were being photographed but also the crowd surrounding the little studio, who didn’t know they were on camera. It worked out really well, with these very spontaneous environmental portraits showing all the madness surrounding the sitter. The images have a real sense of freedom – which was perhaps ironic give that Afghans had totally lost their freedom.
And the title?
‘Axe Me Biggie’ is a phonetic rendering of the words I would hear whenever I walked around Afghanistan taking photographs. Kids would follow me and shout out… “Biggie, biggie, axe me biggie”: Mister, mister. Take my picture, mister.
[Left] © Stephen Dupont ‘Omsy, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’ from the series ‘Raskols’ 2004
[Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Mogii, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’ from the series ‘Raskols’ 2004
You had used that beautiful but somewhat cumbersome Polaroid process two years earlier in Papua New Guinea, in what was an even more volatile context, photographing gang members in Port Moresby.
Yeah, that was a kind of crazy time. It was my first trip to PNG. I went there with my friend Ben Bohane who would write while I made pictures. We wanted to do a story around ‘raskols’ – a Tok Pisin word for criminals – and we knew that most of these raskols were in gangs.
By chance we walked into a full-blown tribal war in a Port Moresby settlement called Kaugere. Here we met Alan Omaro, a Kaugere elder and leader of the infamous Kips Kaboni gang. He thought that Ben and I were so stupidly mad to have walked into the settlement during this war that he took us under his wing and gave us protection. From there we met his gang members and spent time with them all, listening to their stories, chewing betel nut, and drinking beer, all the while building friendship and trust. It wasn’t going to be possible to go out and photograph them on criminal missions, so I asked if I could make a series of portraits of the gang members, and I was given permission.
[Left] © Stephen Dupont ‘Socks, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’ from the series ‘Raskols’ 2004
[Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Koisen, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’ from the series ‘Raskols’ 2004
How did you go about making these portraits?
I had to photograph them at a safehouse, away from the eye of the law. I selected a spot where the light was best and asked them to just be as they are, no direction. I am quite selective about my shooting and how much I shoot. It’s a one-shot moment. So, it was up to me to just wait and be ready for that moment when it happened.
The project started slowly with a trickle of subjects coming by. But as word spread, more and more came until I had photographed over sixty raskols and felt I had enough for maybe a book and exhibition. When I returned to Australia, I made an edit for a handmade artist book that I created with silver gelatin darkroom prints onto which I scratched titles, quotes and maps using a razor blade. These modified prints were then assembled into a concertina book bound with solid stainless-steel covers and a slipcase.
It was an extremely ambitious project and gave me a whole new appreciation of book making and printing. It was through this book that I came to understand the enjoyment, challenge, and importance for me of creating unique, limited-edition artist books. It remains my major focus today. When the book was completed, it gave me the idea to also present it as an exhibition.
So, the book became the inspiration of my first major exhibition of this work at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, which you curated, of course. For this we made life-size digital prints which were exhibited against dimly lit dark grey walls, which enhanced the work’s sinister edge. Do you remember how the walls were specially lined so that I could hack text into them with a chisel? My self-designed books have continued to inspire other exhibitions as well as trade published versions. powerHouse publishers in New York saw the artist book of ‘Raskols’ and pretty much recreated it as a printed book.
One of the things that, for me, makes your practice stand out, is the way in which you combine documentary images and artmaking. What can you achieve in this way that you cannot through a more traditional documentary approach?
It was photo-books that inspired me to become a photographer. So, from the start, I always saw my personal work in terms of extended projects with a book in mind. I knew that there was no money to be made in photo-book publishing and so it was always important to also have my work published in magazines and newspapers… But the important thing for me about books was that I could have my work seen in the way I wanted. I have been fortunate enough to work with some wonderful publishers and editors that have allowed me to design my own books. Having that level of creative control of my photography is incredibly important to me.
Increasingly, I wanted more than just photography in my books. I love collaborating with other artists and writers, and have worked on a number of collaborative projects. I also like mixing technologies: digital and analogue, and even video, sound, and music… There’s no limit. So long as I am pushing myself, challenging myself and creating new things, I’m happy.
[Left] © Stephen Dupont with Jacques Menasche – cover of the artist book ‘Signs & Wonders’ 2019
[Right] © Stephen Dupont with Jacques Menasche – pages from the artist book ‘Signs & Wonders’ 2019
Of which artist’s book are you most proud?
‘Signs & Wonders’ for sure. It’s a collaborative work with Jacques Menasche. A kind of reflective road trip through the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine following the route described by Mark Twain in his travel memoir ‘The Innocents Abroad’, which he published in 1857. Jacques and I had worked together extensively throughout the Second Intifada and wanted to create a new project that was not so political. We used Twain’s journey as a guide to see the country in a fresh way and reflect on the current situations as well as our own past experiences.
We have made five books so far, each in an edition of twelve. The photographs are hand-printed using emulsion and the text typed onto Japanese Kozo paper. Each book includes maps and hand stampings all of which is bound in an elaborately crafted cover and case to create a unique art object.
[Left + Right] © Stephen Dupont ‘Don’t Look Away’ 2017 was presented at MONA, Hobart; Eternity Playhouse and MCA, Sydney; and Federation Square for the Melbourne Writers Festival.
You have also moved into multi-media performance with your solo show ‘Don’t Look Away’.
When I read [Susan] Sontag’s book ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’, I began to understand why I took the kind of photographs I do. Why my gaze was often toward the dead and the suffering. Why it would be a crime to look away… It all made sense to me. I’ve often found myself in situations where I am confronted by such horrors that I feel impelled to document them, whether as history or as evidence of crimes against humanity. I think you honour people in their misery by photographing their suffering, so the world sees it and does not forget. ‘Don’t Look Away’ is a journey into my soul that follows the thread of the things I have witnessed throughout my life. As powerful as photography can be, I feel more and more that combining different artistic approaches – using words, video, dairies, personal revelation – makes for the ultimate form of expression.
What have you learned about yourself in a lifetime of taking photographs?
Photography has taught me that there is much more to life than just photography. It’s taught me to be a human being. To be patient and compassionate. To be kind.
Stephen Dupont was born in Sydney in 1967. He holds a master’s degree in creative arts from the University of Wollongong (2015). His work has been presented in forty-six solo exhibitions in Australia, China, Croatia, Cuba, France, Greece, Netherlands, Turkey, United Kingdom, and USA; and in sixty-six group shows in Asia, Europe, Oceania, and North America. His work is held in many prestigious public and private collections including The British Library; the Getty Collection, Los Angeles; Huai’an International Museum of Photography, China; International Center of Photography, New York; Lianzhou Photography Museum, China; National Gallery of Australia; the National Gallery of Victoria; New York Public Library; Rotterdam Photo Institute; Library of Congress, Washington DC; Tate Britain; and Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg.
He has won numerous awards nationally and internationally including the Walkley Award Best Television Reporting (2006), the United Nations Media Peace Award (2008), the Logie for most outstanding public affairs report (2009), the Australian Photobook of the Year Award (2015) and, between 1996 and 2016, eight awards from Pictures of the Year International. He has published in seven unique, and seventeen limited edition artists books. His retail books include ‘Steam’ [Dewi Lewis Publishing 1999]; ‘Lutte’ [Marval Publishing 2003]: ‘Fight’ [Edition Braus 2003]; ‘Afghanistan: The Perils of Freedom’ [New York Public Library Publishing 2008]; ‘Raskols’ [powerHouse Books 2012]; ‘Generation AK’ [Steidl 2015]. In 2007 Stephen Dupont received the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography and was awarded the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 2010. He lives in Sydney and works worldwide.
Photo: Simon Harsent
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.