Jason P. Howe
Interview by Jason P. Howe
Self-taught photographer Jason P. Howe was born in Ipswich, England in 1971. His passion for photography began at school and survived 10 years working in photographic retail.
Jason began his photographic work with visits to Central America and has had the opportunity to work in 18 countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean.
In late 2001, he started on his first long term project, and now best known work, about the conflict in Colombia at this time and continued working on the theme until 2005. His book Colombia: Between the Lines was published in 2008.
In late 2002 he joined World Picture News as one of their original contract photographers. Between 2003 and 2005, Jason spent over 13 months in Iraq covering the worsening insurgency and growing chaos there, as well as general daily news and features throughout the country for World Picture News clients.
He documented the war in Lebanon in 2006 and was based in Afghanistan from early 2007 until late 2011, during which time he extensively documented the British Forces operating in Helmand province as well as covering stories in 14 other provinces on subjects related to both the conflict and cultural issues.
Jason's work has appeared extensively in every major newspaper in Europe and the United State and in dozens of well know magazines. He has been exhibited at Visa Pour L'Image and the 'City of Gilion' annual Festival of Photojournalism and in group shows in New York City, Washington DC, L.A and elsewhere in the US and in solo shows in the Boka Gallery, Bangkok, the Foreign Corespondents Club, Hong Kong and War Photo Ltd in Dubrovnik.
SB. Why did you decide to become a conflict photographer?
JPH. I had been a travel photographer for a several years, working throughout Latin America, and no longer found it very challenging. I had the feeling that almost anyone could be making those types of images.
I gradually became fascinated with photojournalism in general and then quite quickly distilled that down to what I thought would be the most difficult type of photojournalism.
I wanted to do something much more extreme. I wasn't interested in just becoming a general news photographer. I wanted to pick and choose what stories I covered. I wanted to witness things that very few people in the world get to experience and to test myself, to discover what I could endure seeing, what kinds of craziness I could survive and still be able to record images and pass them on.
It was a lifestyle choice as opposed to a profession or thinking of it as work.
I think I was fully cognizant from the outset that it was going to be a life style that could definitely kill me and, at the very least, drive me insane. Most of the great, war photographers who had inspired me were either dead or mad. There didn't seem to be many happy, healthy, old retired ones around.
To begin with, being able to sustain myself from this type of work was just a fantasy really. All of my time in Colombia was funded by other types of casual work. It wasn't until I went to Iraq in 2003, which was my first major international story, and began working for many of the worlds leading publications on a regular basis that I realized I could make an exceptionally good living.
SB. Was going to places like Colombia, Iraq and Afghanistan just an adventure for you or an attempt to change the world, like many young people?
JPH. I have never thought about trying to change the world. I liked the idea that my images may make people think about situations and incidents that they would otherwise not get to experience or know about.
Colombia was the place I went to with, I think, the purest and most honest of reasons: to learn, to see, to experience and then to share something later that few others had documented in quite so much detail.
Going to all these places was always an adventure for me. When I went to Iraq in 2003, although I had been documenting the conflict in Colombia for a couple of years I had never had a single assignment in my life. I only had a digital camera for 2 weeks and I had $500 hidden in each boot and that was it. I was taking a gamble to see if I had what it took to work next to the big boys on the biggest story of the time. I managed to get 209 assignments over the next year. As more folks got either bored with the story or decided it was too dangerous to work there, the assignments just kept increasing.
Iraq and later Afghanistan were definitely much more about work. When you are surrounded by dozens of other photographers and hundreds of other media it certainly feels to me like work and a job.
I have often looked around and asked myself why I am there in that situation, what value am I adding? Tomorrow the world will be able to look at hundreds of photos of this incident by all these photographers, all from slightly different angles, so why do I need to be there? The story is being told. My 'need' to be there, to witness it, to compete with other photographers is not strong enough to, as I have witnessed many times, distress the people in front of the camera further because I have to have my images come what may. Photographers working alone rarely do that but the behavior I have seen when there is a pack can be quite disgusting and really embarrassing to watch.
SB. In a recent publication of one of your stories you mentioned that, for the first time in this 10 year campaign in Afghanistan you managed to get images of a wounded British soldier still on the battlefield in a newspaper and in front of the public. Why was it so difficult to publish what you actually saw and photographed?
JPH. From the outset, the newspaper told me that they wanted to publish the images. The difficulty was getting access to the wounded soldier to get his permission. The only way to do that officially was via the Ministry of Defense (MOD). I was working on a parallel plan in case they totally blocked me but it made sense that, if they were willing to allow the access, I work with them.
The reason that the images were of such concern to the MOD and of so much value to the newspaper is that, after hundreds of embeds by dozens of news organizations over the last 10 years, these are the first photographs of a British soldier in the immediate aftermath of an IED strike. It is a reality that has not been available to the British newspaper reading public.
Once I did get to visit the soldier, after a wait of nearly five months, he gave me his full consent to publish the images as I saw fit. The MOD however then began to raise new issues. From the outset, they claimed that their top priority was the injured soldiers welfare and that nothing should be published that may cause him or his family any further suffering. Once they heard that I had full clearance from him, a whole new set of concerns were rolled out. The MOD told me that no images of wounded soldiers had been cleared for publication since the Falklands War 30 years ago. This statement alone helped me to understand how important the set of pictures was.
By this time the editors had made the decision to publish the images, since we had the soldiers full consent, with or without any further approval from the MOD, since it was fairly clear they would do all possible to dissuade us from using the images. We negotiated to a point whereby we got to publish the images we wanted and the MOD got to register their disapproval but not actually halt the publication. Within the MOD itself there were mixed feelings and disagreement over the issue, with some parties feeling that the public should see this reality and cost of war and others feeling it inappropriate.
Sadly, the Governments and the Military forces we have to work alongside do get to make the rules and, if you agree to work with them, you agree to the rules. I have found that most of the rules are to protect Operational Secrecy (OPSEC) and have never found the need to break or bend those rules and potentially put someone at risk. However, in the case of these images I felt everything and anything had to be done to get them in front of the public. This was an occasion when I felt as though I really did know why I was there that day, sharing the same risks as the soldiers. I was able to do my job as a photographer. I was also able to help carry the wounded soldier to safety and finally to get images that no other photographer had gotten before the public eye. That for me is what I had always dreamed photojournalism to be about.
SB. Does that mean that what we see published as an account of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq is distorted?
JPH. I think, for the most part, in the case of Afghanistan we generally only get to see one side of the story. If it were possible to cover the other sides of the story, someone would be doing it and very occasionally someone is able to give us a glimpse. Since the armed forces that photographers have to embed with do impose rules (as do most groups involved in conflict whether Government or rebel) the account must be somewhat distorted. What normally balances up the coverage from one side of a story is the coverage of another perspective. Without that, the story can only be unbalanced and therefore distorted.
The choice, though, often seems to be one side or nothing. Personally, I think something is better than nothing but that can depend a lot on what you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to tell people that what you are showing them is the full story then that is misleading. If you can make it clear that what you have done is recorded just one element of a much larger story, part of the jigsaw puzzle, then I see no problem with that.
I would always prefer to know something about a situation rather than nothing at all but I do think it is important to be clear about how much of the story you are telling and even to make it clear if there are reporting restrictions in place.
SB. Did you ever encounter outright censorship?
JPH. Censorship comes in many forms. The most common form I have experienced is restricted access. By not letting me get in position to witness something and make images, I have been censored. I am thinking particularly of the British MOD's refusal to allow any photographer, in recent years, to embed with a MEDEVAC team. They simply do not want the scale and horror of the injuries being sustained by British troops to be widely reported.
Whilst they do report deaths, the casualty figures are much harder to find and rarely is there much detail. Therefore the stories of hundreds of soldiers who have suffered life changing injuries go completely unreported and therefore largely unacknowledged. Their injuries will have affected many more than just them as individuals. Their families, the soldiers who went through the incident alongside them, and the medics and surgeons who saved them will all have been affected.
The argument used is that they are doing everything possible to protect the welfare of the wounded soldier. It seems rather too convenient that this also allows them to keep images that show the full impact of the conflict away from the tax paying public in whose name they are fighting in the first place.
The MOD have a whole team of photographers working for the military PR department whose work is entirely censored and controlled. Every image is completely 'on message'. As independent observers we need to balance out this type of coverage.
I think if your agenda is too narrow then it will really show in the images. The pictures by MOD photographers seem somehow unreal to those of us who work in the same conditions alongside the same soldiers. Everything looks a bit too clean, safe and fun. War is dirty, dangerous and rarely fits the normal definition of fun. But they are not journalists and therefore do not have the same ethic or responsibility as I do.
Of course, if ones only agenda is to shoot the action then that becomes almost as bad, I suppose. Perhaps we are all just adding our pieces to the jigsaw. Some photographers are very skilled at capturing the quieter moments and the subtleties of daily life and actually have no desire to be in the middle of insane incidents trying to make photos. Others thrive on the intensity and risk. Whatever we do, we are at least adding to the overall picture.
SB. In September 1943, Life magazine published a full page that showed three American servicemen sprawled on Buna Beach in New Guinea. Life's editors said they had been fighting since February to get a picture past government censors at the Office of War Information. "The reason we print it now" said the editor, "is that, last week, President Roosevelt and the War Department decided that the American people ought to be able to see their own boys as they fall in battle; to come directly and without words into the presence of their own dead." Sixty-seven years later we are faced with the same questions. What is your opinion? Should the population of countries involved in conflicts be protected from seeing the human consequences of the hostilities?
JPH. On this issue I take my lead somewhat from how the soldiers themselves feel about the subject, since they are the ones risking and losing life and limb and becoming the subjects of the photographs. How they view the images and the public’s right to see the truth is far more important to me than the way that the Government or the military as a whole view them. I have found over and over again that soldiers do not find that the public has much understanding of what they go through on the front line. The censored, sanitized version of war that gets served up as news is often a very poor representation of what they have suffered and endured. One doesn't have to agree with what the soldiers are doing or why they are there or with the powers that sent them to still be able to document their lives accurately.
It is very rare to have anyone take objection to me being on the front line and working alongside them. Soldiers, of course, have a deep loathing for 'civilians' and, as part of the media, we are the worst type of 'civilians'. But once you start sleeping in the same mud as them, eating the same bad food, getting shot at by the same enemy and taking all the same risks as they do, a sort of mutual respect forms. This is hugely important if you want to be able to record the most intimate moments of their lives, including the tragic incidents should they occur.
I have always hated ambulance chasing and ambulance chasers. I now try and avoid both the activity and the type like the plague. It is a very personal thing but in the instances of several of what I think of as my most important images, such as the IED strike in Helmand recently and the bus bomb in Colombia for instance, I was experiencing the incident from the inside.
In both cases I was only seconds or meters away from being killed or badly injured by the explosions. In Helmand, I had stepped on the same IED moments before but it had simply not triggered. I was alongside the soldiers doing my job as they did theirs. No one tried to stop me from working. I was a survivor as much as the other living and uninjured were. The feeling is very different compared to when one responds to an incident and arrives way after the fact and then intrudes into a situation that they have decided they have a right to be at.
Watching a pack of photographers chasing an injured civilian down the street, pushing their cameras in their face, is a horrible experience but it is, sadly, the way many of the images that reach us are made. If you try doing that to a wounded soldier with his mates all around, who are armed and full of rage at what has just happened, the likelihood is that it will end badly for you and your camera.
SB. Is what you see in newspapers and magazines that cover war zones the same as what you experienced, actually being the one that tells the story?
JPH. Well, what I see on the page is always a moment of reality. There are so many amazing writers and photographers out there working non-stop to bring as much of the truth home as possible. Once you put all their different perspectives and agendas and specialties together I think you have an incredibly diverse and thorough view of the reality of war. Collectively the stories are being told very well.
There are, of course, a few individual photographers who have single-handedly documented wars and conflicts from more angles than some of us can even imagine and then there are hundreds who contribute their own little bit to the overall understanding. In past conflicts, it was often just a tiny group of photographers or sometimes even just a single photographer who brought the story to eyes of the world but that is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Now, from the more popular and newsworthy conflicts, where access is not too difficult, we can see dozens of different photographers takes on the same scene or event. People have different ways of working and are comfortable or uncomfortable with different things. I don't think there is a right or wrong way, just a personal approach that feels right. Maybe all the approaches are needed to get the full story.
I have on a few occasions had to work within the media circus and it felt like paparazzi for the dead. I have vowed to avoid being in that situation ever again if at all possible. This has meant that I have missed out on photographing some incredible moments over the years because I haven't wanted to trample all over someone’s feelings and privacy just because all the other photographers were doing so but I can live with that. If I am the only photographer present or with access to witness an incident, I will then do all I possibly can to do a good and thorough job. That may mean being somewhat intrusive but, alone, I can find more justification for that and decide exactly when to pull back. If on the other hand, I have to compete with a mob all trying to make tomorrows front page and get a day rate, who are all petrified that the photographers around them will get something they miss, I would rather be elsewhere and not get the picture.
SB. Are there any stories that remain untold and why?
JPH. There are still untold stories out there or at least stories that have not been fully explored. There are several reasons that this is the case. One can be that they are simply too dangerous to cover. More common is that there is no widespread interest and no outlet for the images and, therefore, no one to cover the costs involved in putting the real time needed into telling a story properly.
One of the things I love about VISA Pour L'Image is seeing work by new photographers who have found ways to fund their projects themselves and are therefore able to tell the important but untrendy stories without relying on anyone else to tell them what the public is or isn't interested in seeing and therefore what they are willing to pay for. Quite often these self-funded projects end up getting published very widely even though no one was willing to commission them in the first place.
SB. Can documentary photography change injustice or it is most likely to remain just a record for the history?
JPH. I sometimes think that I may have deliberately lowered my expectations of the impact that images might have so as to save myself from severe disillusionment in later life. Amongst the photographers I admire most are those that still firmly believe in the power of the image to change things for the better and those that feel that their life's work has changed nothing at all. I was well aware of all this before I started, in the same way that I was aware of the physical and emotional impact this kind of work has on the photographers themselves. We all come out of this line of work scarred and damaged, probably for life. My theory is that if I accept that as the price of recording history, I will never feel short changed. If, however, I was really expecting much more I will almost inevitably one day feel that I gave too much for too little real 'result'.
SB. Do you have images that will never be published that you think are important to be seen?
JPH. So far, I have been lucky that I have always found an outlet and way to get the work I value the most published. Sometimes, such as in the case of the recently wounded soldier, it takes a long time and causes many sleepless nights but it is incredibly satisfying when, finally, I can add another little bit that I feel is important and am proud to have witnessed into the overall record of history. It is what keeps me going and believing in the value of what I do.
SB. What do you do now and what your plans are for future projects?
JPH. I turned 40 last December and had just reached the end of a decade on the road, without a home or any kind of permanent base. After 10 years of army bases, rebel camps, spare rooms, sofas, hotels or temporary accommodation I decided I really needws to create a home for myself. I decided to rent a finca in the mountains of Andalusia in southern Spain and spend some time rehabilitating myself mentally, emotionally and physically as much as possible. I have surrounded myself with beautiful books, antique carpets and souvenirs from my travels. Wverywhere I look there is a reminder of some adventure.
I think, by choosing to spend such long periods of time in the places I have been documenting, I have actually done myself a disservice and my photography has suffered. After four and a half years in Afghanistan, I realized that I no longer saw all sorts of things in daily life that other people noticed, found extraordinary and made amazing pictures of. I had just become too accustomed and blasé about it all and, one day, I will regret not having those images to look back on.
So I am making a conscious effort to look for beautiful subjects to photograph, whether they be people or places. One of my favorite images from Afghanistan, of the boy doing the handstand, has nothing directly to do with war. I find it quite hard, though, because part of me thinks of it as meaningless, as though the only images that have value are of violence and it's aftermath but I am hoping that shooting these types of images will help in time to balance up the years of seeing and photographing these horrific subjects.
I have chosen now to live in a beautiful, peaceful and safe place. Gradually I am beginning to relax and really appreciate the feeling of security but it takes some getting used to. The skills and drills that have kept me alive this long have become such a part of who I am that I find it almost impossible to switch off from planning for the worst all the time, it can be very draining.
I do intend to keep making images related to conflict but my goal really is to get back to working in the way I did in Colombia many years ago. Self-motivated, self-funded and using the tools and medium I enjoy working with most, not having that dictated to me due to commercial pressures.
Since certain elements of 'working' as a photojournalist had really begun to get me down and damage the quality of my work I decided to explore other options. In the last couple of years I have undertaken several commercial projects in Afghanistan. It has been important to choose the right kind of jobs that allow me to shoot in a reportage style rather than anything too constructed although some shoots have required that kind of photography. There is always something to be learned from these types of assignments and I hope the new skills I have been picking up will be useful elsewhere in my photography too.
I now want to use my down time to really start organizing my archive properly and then come June I will be back in Helmand Province on the ground again continuing to document the British Army's involvement in Afghanistan.
Ultimately the key for me is to pick and choose what I photograph and when I take risks and only do it for things I really do care about and to have somewhere to relax and enjoy life in between assignments.
If I can get the balance right I will be able to keep my enthusiasm up and may still have some decent work in me yet.
A young boy entertains a group of girls by performing a head stand. The Wakhan Corridor is one of the most remote regions of Afghanistan. Much of it is only reachable on foot or by horse or yak and is largely inhabited by nomads living in yurts. Sarhad de Broghil, Badakshan, Afghanistan, August 2009.