Stephen Dupont, acclaimed photojournalist and official war artist, presents a lecture on his artist’s books project, followed by a conversation with Treasures Curator Nat Williams.
Transcript of ‘From Raskols to We Cut Heads’
Speakers: Nat Williams(NW), Stephen Dupont (SD)
Location: National Library of Australia
NW: Good evening, ladies and gentleman. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Nat Williams, the Library’s Treasures Curator. As we begin I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of this land on which we meet, I thank their elders past and present for this land that we now are privileged to call home. We’re also grateful to our supporters for making this evening’s event possible. In particular we thank the Australian Government for supporting the Treasures Curator through Catalyst, the Australian arts and culture fund. We also thank our National Library patrons, supporters of the Treasures Gallery Access Program events.
Tonight’s lecture with acclaimed photographer Stephen Dupont sitting over here is the first of the Library’s Treasures Gallery Access Programs for 2017. There will be more to come this year and I urge you to subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter if you don’t already to find out what’s happening at your National Library. The format tonight is that I will introduce Stephen; Stephen will speak soon about his artist books practice, something which has been an absolute obsession of his for many years. Stephen and I will then do a Q and A up here and take questions from the audience. Well, Stephen, you might want to sit down. This might take slightly longer than you think. Stand or sit as you might like.
One of the greatest pleasures I have in my role as a senior curator here at the Library is to regularly call up items from our boundless collections and then to proceed to view them in the Special Collections Reading Room. Sometimes a surprise is in store, sometimes it’s a new lead in the chase to put something finally in its context after decades or even centuries. The process is never disappointing and it often reveals the unexpected but this process is generally dealing with the voices of the past which is sometimes rather muted in the silence of the Reading Room. While fascinating, trying to piece together stories from the past can be frustrating and in the age of the immediate, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, it can be slow and somewhat opaque work, the results of which may not be seen for some time. So to be able to stand beside an artist and hear them relate the story of their work is both immediate and exciting. It takes one on a privileged journey which is engrossing, entertaining and enlivening. It can also sometimes be terrifying or at the very least alarming. I’ve had the privilege over the past years of standing beside Stephen Dupont in a secure room behind the scenes here and listening to him tell his most recent story as elaborated in an artist’s book. Watching him turn the pages and explain the process which he undertakes in developing his books is engrossing and brings the books and the stories to life.
I’ve been fortunate to share these experiences with my colleague, Erica Ryan, Manager of Printed Australiana who’s here tonight and recently we watched as Stephen explained and turned the pages of his newly finished artist book, Drive by Hagen which is one of the two books here on the table. Mt Hagen is the capital of Papua New Guinea’s western highlands province but this book of landscape format photographs taken mainly from a moving vehicle shows the city and its environs not as a highly developed urban centre but as an unruly predominantly rural place. The roads are nearly all unpaved; the buildings mainly tin sheds and vernacular concrete block constructions with people on the move in every picture.
As Stephen slowly turned the pages and we became more immersed in the imagery and the slowly unfolding narrative and the image particularly caught my eye I asked him about the young men captured through the window of the four wheel drive frozen in time and looking slightly menacingly back at us. They were bearded and looked as though they didn’t want to be seen, let alone photographed. They’re jihadists, said Stephen gravely, and they don’t want to be captured on film. I was stunned. I wasn’t aware that the tentacles of radical Islam had made their way into our northern neighbour and the jihadists and bush mosques existed there, a surprising revelation about a place so near but also so far from many of our imaginations. In essence this moment for me translated the power and value of Stephen’s remarkable documentary art project. Over decades he has ventured into places where I couldn’t or certainly wouldn’t go, taking risks that terrify me to collect stories that are shocking, memorable and effecting. His book on the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh for example is confronting, moving and devastating. His shocking 1993 images of chained patients taken in a mental hospital in Angola are seared into my memory in a not altogether good way.
Whether the people are Raskols in New Guinea or those having their portraits captured on the streets of Kabul or those witnessed struggling in the aftermath of the devastating typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines more than a decade ago, the images exemplify the best aspects of the traditions of photojournalism. However the presentation of these images often augmented and in long, concertinaed narratives or in a variety of formats is new and arresting. Today Stephen will give you his thoughts on how he constructs his artist books and how they’ve evolved over time. I’m pleased to say that we have 13 of his artist books in our collection and also all of his numerous printed volumes. His series of five artist books entitled The Afghanistan Wars, 1993 to 2012 is currently on display in our Treasures Gallery which is the context for this Treasures Gallery Access Program event. The Library also holds a powerful series of black and white photographs of the Narara Native Title claimants taken in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia back in 2003.
Tonight Stephen will cover the broad arc from his book, Raskols, in 2005 to We Cut Heads created only last year, also on the table. Eleven years of producing memorable books which I hope we may show one day in an exhibition here. The endpoint for the talk tonight which is We Cut Heads is thankfully less dramatic than it sounds. Stephen, while showing Erica and me his Drive by Hagen book mentioned casually that he had another book we might like to see. He surprised us by saying that one of his preoccupations over nearly three decades had been to take photographs of hairdressers and barbers when he encountered them around the world. A visually less challenging project spanning decades the book was great, not so nightmarish as some of his other creations. Barbers appear in nearly every small town and may pop up with just a chair, a mirror and a case of tools on street corners, border crossings, refugee camps, mental asylums, private houses, festivals and more. They are generally hospitable, can be children, young, middle-aged or old, all with a single goal to make the customers look good and don’t we all need that?
So to some biographical details on our speaker. Stephen Dupont was born in Sydney in 1967 to Danish social worker parents. A freelance photojournalist of the Robert Frank or the W Eugene Smith School Stephen has covered many of the world’s trouble spots including Angola, Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Somalia, New Guinea and Afghanistan. He’s also documented the shocking results of natural disasters. Stephen is also a filmmaker and won awards for his artist books. He’s exhibited around the world and in 2008 he had some of his Afghanistan works exhibited in the New York Public Library who also represent him in their collection. Stephen’s produced a remarkable body of visual work including hauntingly beautiful photographs of fragile cultures and marginalised peoples. He captures the human dignity of his subjects with great intimacy and often in some of the world’s most dangerous places. His images have received international acclaim for their artistic integrity and valuable insights into the people, culture and communities that may have existed for hundreds of years yet are fast disappearing from our world.
In 1994 he was chosen as one of the 10 most promising young international documentary photographers for a world press masterclass. His work has earned him photography’s most prestigious prizes including a Robert Capa Gold Medal citation from the Overseas Press Club of America, a Bayer War Correspondence prize and first places in the World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International and Australian Walkleys and a Leica CC Documentary Award. In 2007 he was awarded the Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography for his ongoing project on Afghanistan, a place he has visited 20 times over nearly 25 years. Stephen has also worked on assignment for various magazines including The New Yorker, La Figaro and French and German Geo magazines. He lives on the south coast of New South Wales in Wollongong with his wife and young daughter. A constant in Stephen’s life is travel. He’s described himself as a nomad with a Leica. He’s always on the go. In fact I would say he’s probably the best travelled person I’ve ever met with possibly the only exception being Tony and Maureen Wheeler who are Library supporters and they started Lonely Planet.
His wife, Elizabeth, must be a remarkably forbearing and resilient person. Tonight Stephen is fitting us in just after his sell-out performances at MONA in Hobart as part of the MOFO Weekend Festival. These multimedia performances entitled rather challengingly Don’t Look Away will tour Australia and I urge you to try to catch them. In August this year Stephen will be a visiting fellow at the ANU School of Art where he will make more artist books with the Inkjet Research Facility and the print media Studios. It will be good to have him ‘round camp for a more extended period. So without further ado I introduce Stephen Dupont. Thank you.
SD: Thank you, Nat. Thank you. It’s quite an introduction. I’m speechless. Thank you, Erica, Nat and thank you, National Library of Australia and thank you all for coming to my presentation. So without further ado let’s get into it. So Raskols. This is actually the first artist book I ever made and the first book that was acquired by the National Library. It still holds a – it holds me very deeply, I mean I’m – it’s still one of my favourite books, actually and maybe cause it was the first one but it’s also one that probably took a lot longer to make than any of the other books. It’s essentially a concertina book of silver gelatine prints that I hand-bound glued together and with metal front and back covers. The pages which are also gelatine silver pages have all been hand-scratched with razor blade so all the text panels are done by hand into the photographic paper so these are some of the installation shots of the actual book. The book is as I said in the Library collection if you’d like to see it one day, the original book.
So this is an edition book so I’ve made four so far, four books. Now Raskols for those who don’t know is pidgin for criminal or criminals in Papua New Guinea. These are gang members that I photographed back in 2004. They’re in a gang called Kips Kaboni. I met them while I was going to New Guinea for the first time back then and with the project in mind to make a story about Raskols to – which originally was for a magazine story so I went with a mate of mine, Ben Bohane, and we met these guys and were fortunate to be invited to spend time with them and tell their story and for me to be able to photograph them in a safe house. I’ve actually kept in touch with a lot of them and become quite close to the community which is a settlement in Moresby called Kaugere.
I went back 10 years later and I tracked down half of the Raskols and in fact most of them are no longer in the gang and no longer criminals, lot of them have grown up, of course and it’s interesting, a lot of them have become security guards for various people, gardeners, all sorts of jobs or still unemployed. Sadly some have died, have passed away and some were in prison at the time that I went back to make the photographs. So the texts have taken out of quotes from the Bible that was actually in the safe house. I chose to scratch into the paper because I wanted to keep it raw and I wanted to reflect the violence of actually what these guys were about and so I chose to use a blade to really hack into the paper, I thought it was creatively an interesting approach to show – well to talk about them and to you know take you into their world.
My books are always research for exhibitions so whenever I do a book some of them are – a lot of them are edition books. I now edition very small numbers, I only do five and some of them are unique books and some of them are one-offs and whenever I’m doing these books I usually have these exhibition ideas in mind so the books often become my research and template for exhibition ideas. And so in this case I took the Raskols book to the Gallery and this is some installation shots from the Australian Centre of Photography in Paddington and as you can see I’ve taken the whole razor blade thing onto the wall so in fact I’ve hacked into the walls. They had gyprock walls that they painted and I actually hacked into the walls just like the book itself to give that sort of impact. So these are some of the installation shots from that exhibition of the photographs that have been blown up, printed quite large. Some of them you know bigger than life size.
I got into photography because I love photo books, that’s why I’m a photographer and I felt that I suppose about 15 years ago I – so I started in journalism so my background is in photojournalism and covering stories around the world, war and catastrophe and political stories, social stories and I felt about 15 years ago a change needed to come within me and I could see a change happening in the media and I wasn’t really happy where things were going and it was almost sort of around the time of the whole digital revolution and so forth and I – as you can see these are on traditional media, it’s coming from a Polaroid film. And I wanted to keep exploring traditional photography and also I wanted to start to design and create my own books so essentially that’s how it all began although I do have many books that are published in [trade] 16:36 versions but at the you know back then I was really interested in exploring the whole concept, the whole philosophy around handmade books so that really sort of spurred me on to really kind of bring in my projects and make them into these books.
So this Axe Me Biggie which is phonetic in Farsi or Persian for Mr, Take My Picture and this is one of the books that’s on display I think at the Treasures Gallery and what’s interesting about this project is I shot the entire body of work in about three hours - three, four hours, I think so in a sense it’s a book that took three hours to shoot which is pretty weird. It was never my intention – I was in Kabul and I’d been working on a project around heroin addicts for many weeks and it was quite a heavy, disturbing project that I felt I needed some enlightenment before I left the country. And I’d never explored portraiture like this in Afghanistan yet I’d been going to Afghanistan for years and years and years and I’d taken a hundred sheets of Polaroid and I didn’t want to leave the country without shooting them and I had one day left and I went on the streets of Kabul at a bus station and essentially borrowed a backdrop. These are stills from a video by the way that – but it shows you the kind of chaos and I wanted to photograph people randomly that I could choose or people that came to me and I created this you know chaotic scene with many people around and started to make these photographs.
Originally I wanted a very clear photograph of my sitter with a backdrop and no one else in the frame but I had no control of the crowd and in fact when I started to [peel] 18:38 the Polaroids and I saw the crowd peeking through it completely just blew me away, I was like these are the photographs, this is it, don’t touch, don’t direct, don’t get involved, let the crowd be as they are. And it ended up being this really - quite a remarkable body of work which you know I was incredibly happy with and when I decided to make a book I decided to use every single frame that I took – I had.
In fact it inspired me, this is – so 2006 – this inspired me to go on and do another body of work which I’d been photographing for many years now called the white sheet series which is actually on exhibition at the moment at Stills Gallery in Sydney and the white sheet series would never have happened without this. And so if you ever – if you’ve seen that work you’ll see how I’ve used my backdrop and how I’ve allowed the crowd to come in and I’ve had people hold up the sheet and so forth so it’s really quite an interesting progression.
So Generation AK, this is looking at my Afghanistan books which again are part of the box set that exists in the Library. These are just some installation shots of binding the book so it’s a stitch – bound book, just to give you an idea of how it all came together. And that’s the box set that’s on display in the Treasures Gallery. And that’s it, five volumes. I could have done one book but it would have been really big so I sort of broke it up into chapters. In fact I have a published book called Generation AK by Steidl which came out last year essentially using a lot of the work that are in these five volumes. Oh lost it. Oh. I can keep talking while we – it’s on here, it’s just on there. Oh there it is, there we go. Magic.
But the diaries are not in the Steidl book nor is Why Am I A Marine? I kept them out. Just because they’re a very different style of book. Oh we’ll talk about the marine book a bit later, I’m going to show you some of that. So the lining of the box is official US Marine Corps camouflage so I actually imported that from America and had my binder bind all the boxes with that fabric. And in fact I spent quite a lot of time with the marines in Afghanistan so I wanted to use that as my cloth covering. And so again you know this is another exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography and this was the major exhibition I had on Afghanistan there and you’ll start to see my concept and ideas of my book dummies and how they reflect when they’re being exhibited on the wall using all sorts of objects and ephemera and other books and ideas in boxes. And there's three – well actually two books laid out, Why Am I A Marine? On the right side and the left side is Stoned in Kabul so I’ve taken the entire book, laid them out like wallpaper so when you’re walking into the space you’re kind of immersed in the book or the books which was the idea I wanted to create. Again just various angles of that exhibition using the book as a – in a visual force within the Gallery. That is me. That was done by an Afghan photographer and they hand-paint the portraits like they you know they did like at the last century or so, traditional.
So Baghdad Diary so this is a unique book, this is an actual diary that I have not you know copied or made editions of or anything like that and this is in my collection. So some of the shots from that diary when I was in Iraq. So this is a mix of using silver gelatine photographic paper, gaffer tape, collage, burning pages, postcards and of course written – actual written diary entries as well. So this is Weapons Platoon or Why Am I A Marine? This is the actual moleskin diary I took to Afghanistan and so it’s a small moleskin, if you’re familiar with those and I was embedded with the marines in 2009, I was covering them down in Helmand province way down south towards the Pakistan border in a place called Khanesian. And I’d had – I brought my Polaroid camera and my Polaroid film and I wanted to do another portrait series but I didn’t want to do it like I did Axe Me Biggie, I wanted to do something different so I chose this one platoon and managed to get them all to participate and I photographed them over time as I was living down there with them and I came up with an idea to put a question to them and so I would actually photograph them, keep the page blank and then I had this question, why am I a marine? On every page.
So when I finished the photo shoot I left my diary with the guys in their tent for three or four days in the hope that they might all write something and they – except for one they all wrote something and so there’s these really interesting testimonies – I’m not sure if you can read them or not but there’s some pretty interesting stuff and I was really you know blown away by their participation and collaboration and for me this was a – this was a really deep thing to say something about the war in Afghanistan without just doing the usual coverage you know of showing these guys fighting or breaking down doors or interrogating or whatever they’re doing out there, I wanted to – through portraiture and through their own handwritten testimonies really say something about the war in Afghanistan at that time.
And in fact the project went – ended up being seen by the Library of Congress in Washington and they acquired this actual moleskin diary so they have this in their collection, they own it and then the US Marine Corps saw it and invited me to go to their national museum in Quantico to exhibit the work and do a workshop with their combat cameramen and photographers and journalists. So it’s really had an interesting lifespan and the Library of Congress wrote about the book and included it into a beautiful book they made about the history of photo journals and photo artist book of the last century or so from their collection. So it’s a simple practice but I think quite effective and it really kind of opened my eyes to just another way of showing my photography and another way of telling the story of Afghanistan and through these actual testimonies of these young men. This is part of the box set collection as well that’s in the Treasures Gallery.
So my practice really lies heavily in diaries, I mean I love diaries, I always write in them, always take diaries with me when I’m travelling and so I often like to use them as well as ideas for book designs and things like that. So this is me photographing them with my old Polaroid camera. This is my dark room and also where I slept so we’d just – the marines had taken over this old ancient castle when they kicked the Taliban out who were there before them and they moved in and so I was staying in this place and this is trying to dry the negatives which was really challenging ‘cause they all got caked in dust, there was just so much dust as you can imagine. So in fact I had to wash them all when I came back to Sydney ‘cause they were just absolutely caked in dust. Back at the exhibition so that’s the Why Am I Marine? Book on the right-hand side, using that as an installation.
So this is a new project which I don’t think Nat or Erica or anyone’s really seen before. This is a unique book and this is a collaboration I did with a really talented artist called Marshall Webber from New York and so Marshall and I collaborated. He took my photographs and he went around to different memorials and started to do rubbings over my photographs so he called it Prisoners of War. This is the book that we worked on together which has been sold to a collector. And we’ve since collaborated on three books using this technique with my photos and his rubbings. You see if you look closely you’ll notice that most of them are Australian rubbings. I think he did a lot of them in Melbourne and other places but while he was in Australia.
Panoramas I think may have even been the second book that was acquired by the National Library, it was one of my really early books and it’s a concertina, it’s full-framed panoramic images, really just a kind of a collection of my favourite works at the time that I’d shot in panorama. It’s pictures from all over the world set up against each other in a sort of a very I guess personal chaotic kind of way, I mean there’s no real kind of format to it except that I wanted to lay it out in a visual way that I thought would have an interesting impact and also story to tell so you know you have Gaza on the left and you’ve got Kashmir on the right and occasionally a blank page with a photograph from the Comilla in India, this is Gaza so it was a lot of fun, just sort of putting all these images together. Indonesia on the left, New Guinea on the right, finding a balance and – to the photographs. And at the end of the book there’s all the small images with the captions of all the places so I didn’t want to have any text in the book at all, I wanted people just to look at it without knowing necessarily where they were looking at and then of course you can find out at the back of the book. And that’s me actually making the book so making – so they’re in long sheets, you got to cut them up and then fold them by hand and then glue the covers on. So essentially the book is – I think it is only two joins in the entire book.
This one’s an ultra-rare book, I’ve only made three of them. It’s called Sing-Sing, it’s again a very early book. It’s very sort of basic and raw and it’s all made with silver gelatine prints, it’s a very small book. And these are actually just images from that book, not the actual book itself. I took these photographs at the same time I photographed the Raskols in 2004 and I made the book around the same time. I made a – well I didn’t make it but I hired some locals to build me a studio so at the Sing-Sing in Mt Hagen which is where all these photographs were taken I had a kind of a grass hut built as my outdoor studio and I made these photographs over days while the festival was going on, the Mt Hagen Show, I invited people to come and pose and it was great ‘cause it had a back – it had two walls, there were one back wall and one roof and then the sides were all open so the light could come in to give me that luminosity that I needed.
And again it’s all taken on a wonderful film called Polaroid 665 which doesn’t exist anymore, sadly, gives you a beautiful negative that you can print from and then a Polaroid. I gave Polaroids to all my subjects or as much as I could as a gift. And I kept the negatives and kept some of the Polaroids as well. I did the same with Axe me Biggie, they all got the Polaroids so I don’t have any of those Polaroids anymore, the originals from that shoot, I’ve just got the negatives.
Comilla. So this is taken from my actual diary again and you know going back to this sort of idea where I start to experiment in my books and my dairies about what I might do in terms of an exhibition. The white sheet series which is on show at the moment has some of the works that you see in here and in that exhibition I made silver gelatine prints and used these Indian fabric stamps actually on the prints themselves but I started in the diary to experiment. This is the result so this is a print where I’ve now gone and stamped with ink around the – yeah so these are the prints so this is what’s on exhibition but you can see where the idea’s come from, from actually going into my diary and playing around and things like that, experimenting.
I love the challenge of using different mediums, I love print and this for me was wonderful because I could go and make silver gelatine prints and then I could then you know add something and in this case using these beautiful fabric stamps from India felt like it was the best thing to do because it really sort of you know I think added this kind of – well one, added a whole new kind of dimension in terms of the display and the look of it but there’s a whole texture in here too and just a balance between the clothing that people are wearing and the religious significance of Hinduism and so forth so the colours are also chosen for that reason too, I chose this sort of burnt orange and then these you know kind of red ochre colours that represented Hinduism. And the white sheet, of course so –
And for me you know the imperfections of all of it is you know so beautiful when I’m making these prints. You know sort of matches the imperfections of the Polaroid and the emulsion spill and so forth as well. And often – because this film is so old and you see that a lot of the emulsion’s starting to deteriorate and things as well and I like the balance of that with you know with the images – with the prints. So that’s it. Thank you.
SD: Maybe I should actually – maybe I should put something up so we got the screen I guess to – you don’t just have to look at a computer screen. I don’t know if that’s – okay. But lastly – so there’s a couple of books here. I don’t have a visual reference on my computer but these are my most recent books, one is Drive by Hagen that Nat talked about and We Cut Heads so – but these are my most recent acquisitions here. The Drive by Hagen if you get a chance to see it sometime or both of them, please you know try and have a look while you’re at the Library and the interesting thing about Drive by Hagen is that I was doing this film with Bob Connolly, the – who’s a great filmmaker friend of mine, we were up there making a film about revisiting Black Harvest 25 years later and so I was shooting the documentary with him but we were spending so much time driving back and forwards from Kilima where Joe Layers was the subject of these films to Mt Hagen that I decided to do this photo project on the side and so it ended up being this result where it’s all kind of shot from the perspective of the passenger.
And in fact you see it’s a mixture of candid caught moments of people by surprise and then people who are reacting either to me or more to Bob, actually who they recognised from that time ago which was quite interesting, this incredible excitement coming from people in the street and stuff and like that. And then you know We Cut Heads is a life of barber shops and looking at hair and so forth so yeah, I encourage you all to – at some point to look at these and also my other books. You know I feel very fortunate, actually, I have to say just to end this before we chat that the Library’s been such an incredible supporter of mine, I mean in fact you – this library has I think most of my artist books and edition books and it’s – I can’t you know think of a better place so it’s wonderful that you know they’ve been such a greater supporter of mine, yeah so thank you.
NW: Right, I might pose a –
SD: Are your ears hurting? Kind of weird.
NW: Not yet.
SD: No, oh okay, alright, I’m alright.
NW: Are you okay?
SD: I just have to cough, actually.
NW: Have water. I might pose a couple of questions to Stephen to kick this off and then we might open the floor to hear any queries you might have. Obviously Stephen’s artist book project – program, really is core of his business and it’s why we’re here, because the books are in our collection. I’ve as I said earlier been privileged to stand with Stephen, look at the books together but I’ve also had the privilege occasionally of calling them up and looking through them but I have to say they’re not books – some of them are not books that you want to look at more than –
NW: - once. And that takes me to my first observation and question which I guess is that 20 years ago I was at the Art Gallery of South Australia where I worked and I was in the bookshop and they were having a promotion thing in the bookshop and I picked up this book by Gilles Peress called –
SD: Telex: Iran?
SD: Was it Telex: Iran?
NW: No, The Silence.
SD: Oh The Silence, the Bosnia one.
NW: The – no, Rwanda.
SD: Oh Rwanda.
NW: And anyway I didn’t know this guy – the very stylishly produced little black and white book and I thought oh this’d be interesting and I picked it up and it was completely – and it’s the horrors of the Rwandan –
SD: Yes, the little one that is just –
NW: Yeah and they’re all black edges –
SD: - genocide.
NW: - sort of rather funereal-looking sort of I’m – well funereal image but –
NW: - presentation and it was sort of deeply shocking to me and I bought the book, I found myself buying it with a number of other books during the sale they were having and I realised not long ago, I saw it on my bookshelf that I probably hadn’t – I’d picked it up like once in 20 years to look at it again because it’s that sort of troubling, I guess in a way. And that book was – in a way I didn’t know you then, I didn’t know your work then but that work - that book in a way captures the same level in a way of disturbing imagery that we’re capable of inflicting on one another as humans. And so you know in your books we have images of murder, drowning, displacement, madness, homelessness, bodies ripped apart by bombs, drug addiction, poverty and menace and they’re quite hard to take. I’m not saying that’s all the books –
SD: They’re not all like that.
NW: They’re not all like that but there are images like that and you say – and you’ve said and I – humanity’s responsibility is to not look away and your most recent incursion into the performance field is called –
SD: Don’t Look Away.
NW: Don’t Look Away. And I agree with you about that but I guess my question to you in a way, given that you’ve produced this extraordinary body of work which is very affecting, I have to say nightmarish in some respects, is how do you manage to document the undocumentable and stay sane? As you have. Abundantly clearly.
SD: Yeah. Well it is documentable, I mean obviously - I mean I guess it’s – for me it’s how do you capture humanity when there’s no humanity left? I mean that’s certainly something that crosses my mind often, you go into a place like the tsunami, to ground zero, to Banda Aceh when everything’s just wiped out and you do ask yourselves, how am I going to do this justice? How am I going to come out of this and produce a body of work that is powerful and has you know some great meaning, some great historical meaning as well? But how do I sort of get on you know how do I cope? I mean that’s – it’s like the million dollar question, I think that’s sort of often asked. I mean I think I cope by sharing my pictures and doing stuff like this. You know? Yeah so just being able to talk about it, to show the work. I’m a realist when it comes to what I document and what I mean by that is that nothing is as bad as it is for the people that I’m photographing so you know when you put things into perspective in your cap – you know you’re photographing the suffering of others, I you know I don’t feel that pain and I don’t feel that trauma because they’re the ones going through all the horror and the trauma, not me. I’m there to look at it and I’m there to photograph it and I think it’s something that I condition myself to do, to be able to you know go in and go out and feel relatively sane about it. It doesn’t mean I’m not disturbed by it or you know that I – but I guess I’ve found my way of being able to manage that and get by through the horrors, you know.
NW: You say in your oral history that we hold here, or a version of your oral history that we have here, that you’re drawn to the dark side of life and that’s something that’s been with you for a long time and that you describe yourself to some extent as being morbid and that's a conversation we started earlier today when we were recording video to go up on our website. And I wonder if you could reflect on that, I mean what – yes, I accept that that’s the case but why? Why do you think you’re like –
SD: Well I think it’s come kind of almost naturally. I mean I don’t think I really seeked out the dark side from the beginning, I think it came to me. I was sort of rewind to you know before I was really a photographer I was – I came across the work of Don McCullin who was my original inspiration and mentor, I suppose and when I saw McCullin’s work I – something shifted in me and I wanted to really make those kind of photographs or at least the photographs that had what I felt really captured humanity and inhumanity but really captured it in a raw and brutal honest way and so for me photography was an outlet that I could actually somehow go and capture something which had such an impact that it would move people you know would make people feel something . And so with that in mind I started to venture out into the world and make photographs and cover stories. I was drawn to that kind of subject matter and I think over time it was just there you know that was the dark side and that was what I became interested in. And in fact it sort of got to a point where I felt like at one point recently I mean in fact my mother died not that long ago and she you know while I was looking down at her body I started to think that God you know I’ve been looking at the dead all my life and here’s my mum and then I sort of thought you know well maybe you know death’s been following me and I sort of started to have this real kind of connection directly with death and realisation. And then in fact I decided that I - my new - the project I’m doing now is actually on death so I’m actually now seeking out death for my new work which is quite interesting whereas before it was just there, I wasn't actually going out looking for it. Does that answer your question? Probably not.
NW: No, no, it does, it does and I think one of the things that I thought when you brought your books in from time to time and showed them to Erica and myself is there’s a blackness about them which is physical which is that they are so dark, I mean physically dark, you’ve printed them so beautifully in these dark, dark colours, it’s sort of symbolic I guess of the subject matter you know it’s an incredible thing, when you see these books and you handle them you realise my god, how do you actually get something that’s – almost looks like light’s been sucked into the page in front of you. Going back to Don McCullin, Eugene Smith, Salgado who you’ve cited as another, Robert Frank who we were talking about recently today and Josef Koudelka, Cartier-Bresson, all those great photographers that you’ve cited as sort of inspiring you in your career as a photojournalist, is there somebody that’s inspired you particularly when it’s come to the production of books or is that more you?
SD: Yeah, that’s a really good question that no-one’s ever asked me but I think it’s inherently me, I think it’s something that comes from within me because I design my own books so even the books that are published have all come from my own designs, I can’t think of a book that I haven’t not designed. Which is wonderful you know publishers take the books and they use your design and I think it’s – so I feel that I am - as the author of the work I’m also the best judge of how the work should be laid out and seen and designed and all that kind of thing and so that’s been a really strong connection with the books and my photography. I mean of course I’m inspired by other photographers within my photography, there’s no question about that and you mentioned some of them and I think Koudelka especially has been a – I was just – I posted something recently on Instagram that I – I had Gypsies which is this great book by Koudelka which I think is you know best – greatest photography book ever you know and – in my opinion, ever, ever shot, ever made, ever designed, it’s an incredible book.
But in terms of inspiration for my books I think that comes from artists and writers and you know I’ve always been drawn to great art you know I love Otto Dix and I love Francis Bacon, I love Picasso and there are some pretty dark artists out there that I’ve been really kind of interested in and – over the years and then seeing their artist books and their des – you know the way they put their work together you know in artist – ‘cause traditionally artist books have come from artists, not from photographers so they’ve been a big influence. And I think there’s a lot of things, I think music influences me, when I make my books I’m listening to Led Zeppelin or I’m listening to Floyd or you know I’m using a lot of things. My daughter is a huge inspiration you know so you know bringing all these elements in are the results of the books and I don’t know what they’re going to look like until I kind of start to kind of play with them and you know –
NW: We have a great small book in our collection which is called Waiting for Gerhard.
SD: Yeah, yeah.
NW: And it shows – it says a lot about Stephen, it’s only a very small book and it’s basically Stephen – well you tell the story about what it is.
SD: Yeah, yeah, I forgot you had that book, yeah. Yeah, that’s a rare one. I – when I was printing my Steidl book of Generation AK, the Afghanistan work, I – well I’ve made three trips to Steidlville in Germany where he’s based in Güttingen and on the third trip we were printing the book so I went there to meet him for the first time, it was just a meeting. Took a week to meet him but I met him. And then the second trip we did proofs of the book after he decided he wanted to do my book. The third trip we printed the book so it’s quite a long production for that book to come out. And while I was printing the book I had a lot of downtime in his library, he’s got a fabulous library as you can imagine, the Steidl library and the book takes many, many days of printing so I got to oversee every single page so I’m up and down the stairs to the printing press to tick off all the proofs of the pages and make sure they look good and discuss with Steidl and all that kind of stuff.
So I’m up in his library and I’m – they’re chucking out so much – there’s so much wastage in book printing, sadly and there are - all these pages from my book are just going in the bin and I’m – so I’m pulling them out of the bin and taking them upstairs and I decided that I would reconstruct the whole book into another book. So I ripped out all the pages from these pages and I sort of glued them into a little moleskin concertina that I’d picked up in Berlin and created this collage book with all the ripped pages which then I decided to call Waiting for Gerhard because I made it while I was waiting for him. It took days and days to make and on the back of the book I wrote a kind of a statement about Waiting for Gerhard and having this you know book done, yeah.
NW: Never one to let the grass grow under your feet –
SD: I’m not going to waste my time sitting in his library just you know I’d been sitting in his library for like two trips before that as well. I love his library but I thought I’ve got to do something kind of creative here and I thought I’m going to make a book and I don’t know – I don’t think any other photographer or any other artist has made a book inside his library.
NW: No, probably not.
SD: And there was stuff everywhere. He came up, he was shocked, there were ripped pages, the whole floor was covered in mess, glue, I mean was like what are you doing? I’m like oh man, I’m making a book, you know, this is you know this is Steidl, I got to make a book.
NW: That’s right.
[End of Recording]