Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Narciso Contreras is an award winning documentary photographer born in Mexico City in 1975. Since 2010 he has been covering a variety of issues and topics in Southern Asia and the Middle East, leading him to focus his work on the humanitarian cost of conflicts, economics and wars. His work intends to contribute building our visual memory of the world he testifies.
His studies in philosophy, photography and visual anthropology led him to live and study in a monastery in India while photographing religious communities. Since then, Narciso has photographed under reported issues like the ethnic war in Myanmar and the forgotten war in Yemen (for which he was selected as finalist for this FotoEvidence book award) and some of the major current events, like the political upheavals in Istanbul, the conflict in Gaza, the military coup in Egypt, the war in Syria and the tribal conflict in Libya.
Narciso’s work in Syria was awarded with one of the Pulitzer Prizes in 2013, and got recognition in Pictures of the Year International. He has contributed to magazines and media outlets around the globe like TIME magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, Paris Match, RT TV, MSNBC News, AP Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, Der Spiegel, Newsweek, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, National Geographic, The Sunday Times magazine, The Telegraph, The Washington Post, CNN, Wall Street Journal, L’Espresso, Expressen, Knack, dS Standaard, Wirtschafts Woche, among others. He also has contributed for non-governmental organizations like MSF.
SB.Your work “Yemen: The Forgotten War” was selected as a finalist of the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award. We are happy to include it in the FotoEvidence exhibit to bring more light on this conflict that has been largely ignored by the media. How long did you work in Yemen and what is the message in your photographs?
NC. I’m very grateful that “Yemen: The forgotten war” was selected in the FotoEvidence Book Award as finalist. I intended to give a second chance to the story to be seen by a large audience since this conflict has been virtually ignored by the international media.
It took two months of logistics to get everything set up for this coverage. I worked over three weeks documenting on the field.
As much as I was allowed to photograph I tried to grab all elements around to tell this story. I perfectly know this is part of a vast and more complex situation, but I defined the target of the coverage by the boundaries of the working conditions. I entered into the region under control of the Houthi Insurgency, and I didn't intend to make up a propaganda coverage alike, but to describe the situation that the civil population was going through, and to give a glance over the insurgency that removed the former government from power. I cannot say “this is Yemen today”, but this is part of Yemen’s most recent history living under the fierce campaign of bombardments carried out by the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
The edit was shaped with the purpose to show to the public a piece of this tragedy: a country that is struggling to survive not just poverty, but also a new brutal war of an international scale.
The complete region is on fire. The Middle East is burning again after the failure of the uprisings known as the “Arab Spring”. A new chapter is being written by war and internal instability in most of the countries that toppled the previous governments during this period. This is so important to document.
Thus, the message is simple: Yemen should not be forgotten, but considered carefully within the context of regional instability, where the civil population is the most affected.
SB. You studied photography and philosophy in Mexico. Has your study of philosophy helped influenced your work as a photojournalist?
NC. Definitely. Philosophy is the beginning of my educational path, Photography is a continuation, but not the final stage. Photography is also a path of learning, a tool of understanding, solidarity and human commitment. As photojournalists we tell stories, but we learn from them as human beings (at least this is a purpose). Thus, as a natural result of the learning process, we share it with others. This meaning of photography was beautifully described by Cartier Bresson in his book “The decisive moment”.
SB.You view your photography work as a “spiritual encounter.” What are the encounters that have shaped your life so far?
NC. Every single moment in terms of photography is a moment that revels our internal being in front of the world we are looking at. Who we are? What are our motivations? What do we know? What matters for us? How and why is the situation or subject we are photographing related to us? All these are questions implicated in the moment when photography occurs, just previous to the decisive moment, to grasp the nature of our subject.
When you enter photographically in the life and circumstances of other people your own life is affected in many ways. Thus, your own being revels itself in front of the world you are witnessing. This is why ethics is the framework of any respectful photographic work, but I’m talking about ethics in the most profound meaning of our sense of humanity, not in the corporative way.
Since I’m aware of this process every single photographic moment has a meaning for me and shapes my commitment as a person and as a witness. But I’m just a witness, a story builder that contributes to build our visual memory. What really matters is the continuity of the story we are telling, the permanency of the story.
SB. In another interview you said that every moment in your career is a “new step to educate yourself.” What is the most important lesson you learned for the past four years while covering conflicts?
NC. This is a very interesting question. The education has been taken as a training process to teach us how to become a specialist worker, to obey and to produce, but the deep meaning of education is directed to answer our profound questions about who we are and what we do. Thus any tool we may use to achieve education should take us to a level of understanding, not just to become a competitive and corporative worker. I’m really concerned about how what I’m doing is affecting me or affecting others and in which way. A career is just a formality to describe a working process, but in fact the important questions remain along of our life, and that is the target of education. Our educational process never stops. We still educating ourselves at the different stages of life by what we see, what we hear, what we share, what we talk and what we do. For this reason, we should be aware and selective about the environment and resources around us to build a health society. Then, our temporary occupations are not just a “job”, they connect us to the world around, and it requires an ethical commitment. For me, photographing is my way to compile and scrutinize my own experience of different worlds, and to share with others this learning process.
There are many important lessons to consider from the past four years in my life, but as a photographer covering conflicts I realized it’s fundamental to look carefully to the narrative we are building through our stories. We are linking elements together to tell a story of the world around us, we are providing a narrative to read the world around us. In spite photography is not a knowledge by itself, but a tool of understanding, we as story tellers are part of this platform of understanding, we are providing elements for this process. So, a human ethical commitment is essential. It is mandatory to keep a sense of humbleness and respect as the most important values on this field to achieve a quality of education. Education is the essence of all human commitments, is a stage of learning and sharing. Photography is a process of learning and sharing. Thus, when we do photographs we are being part of the educational process. This is why ethics is fundamental.
SB.Just few years ago your career as a photographer was on a strong trajectory. Then the altered image story broke. How has this affected your professional path?
NC. As I mentioned since the beginning of that incident, I’m the same person that I was before started collaborating with the AP agency and I’m still the same person I was before the altered image story. This means that in spite of all the circumstances I still believe in the person who I am and the work I am doing. Its simple, no mistakes define the person we are, mistakes are just part of the good or bad decisions we take.
This is my professional stand and it has not been affected. I’ve continued working professionally, but it has been different after the incident.
As a “story seller” my work has not the same popular profile as it used to have among editors. I think some of them still hesitate about picking up my images or to commission me for assignments. They are cautious of taking my work. Its understandable, there are rules within the industry and I broke one of them. But it does not mean that I have to stop working as a photojournalist. This job is not about fame or recognition, it's about our commitment as witnesses, as story tellers. If the opposite is stated, then something is wrong.
I see photojournalism as a learning process, not as a goal. My work as photojournalist is not defined by how many stories I sell to the mainstream media by month or by year. But of course it is important to keep your work on the desk of photo editors, this is a business industry. There is a balance in between the two points. It happened that the scale tipped to one of the sides for sometime.
SB. Looking back, what went wrong?
NC. Summarizing, there is an insane search for perfection while you are shooting. This drives you far away from your simple presence of observing and documenting. It means you have lost the simplicity of the moment, therefore you lack of humbleness and respect. At this point you are ready for mistakes. It just happened to me.
SB. You were punished by the whole photojournalism community. How did you survive the situation? Were there colleagues who stood with you through the experience?
NC. Photojournalism is a learning process. It is not a conclusive entity. Photojournalism is a tool to read and to tell stories. By saying that the whole community punished me is like saying that the whole photojournalistic production in the world is awarded each year. Probably some of the most influential characters in the industry reacted negatively in front of what happened. For now, I’m letting the balance to be restored.
To be honest I was surprised by the reactions from all sides when this happened. I didn’t expect neither the dimension of this nor the debate that followed. People were polarized about the issue. People and colleagues wielded their arguments to explain what had happened. Some in favor, some against.
Personally I took it as it was. It was a mistake. If you think about when a child is playing in the yard and then falls, and from the fall he harms himself, the child does not stop. He looks around, gets up and goes back to play. He just committed a mistake when playing. Maybe he gets an injure, but he doesn’t stop playing. The child does not think about what is going to happen by end of the day, he does not want to think about it, he just wants to keep playing, maybe until sunset. He does not think about any goal by the end of the day. He just enjoys playing.
What is important to me is to keep playing and to enjoy what I’m doing. Photojournalism is not a goal for me, but a process of learning that I enjoy doing a lot. I did a mistake, but it does not mean that I’ll stop doing what I enjoy doing. What is amazing on this field is that the experience of sharing is immense. Therefore, I’m not alone in this process.
SB.Was it difficult to rebuild professional trust? How long did it take you find work after AP let you go? Who first approached you for an assignment? Who are you working with now?
NC.I was aware of the impact of this incident after time, because I did not stop working as a photojournalist. From the beginning I knew some of the most influential media would deny working with me, but it happened mostly in the USA. I’m freelance since I started professionally on this field. I have never worked as staff for anyone, but collaborating with many. Most of the editors in USA stopped working with me, but I was still collaborating with editors in other regions like Europe, South America, Middle East, Asia.
I noticed the larger impact of the incident was in the USA than anywhere else, but I noticed it after time. Fortunately, I have not stopped working, but I have stopped collaborating with the most influential media in the USA.
Since the incident happened I got commissioned and published by Der Spiegel, Paris Match, Knack Magazine, Al Jazeera, NBC News, ds Standard, Medecins Sans Frontieres, WirtschaftsWoche, among others.
As I mentioned above, I’m a freelance since the beginning of my professional work as photojournalist. So, substantially nothing has changed for me in terms of figuring out the way to get my work published internationally, but I stopped publishing my work in some of the most influential media, mostly in the USA.
SB. What are you working on now? Any long term projects? The situation in Yemen has gotten worse since you did “the Forgotten War.” Do you have an interest in going back again?
NC. I’m working on different projects at the moment:
I’m shooting a documentary book project right now. Some other projects are under preparation or in the research phase.
For Yemen I’m still in touch with my contacts and colleagues. I’ve been following the unfolding events. As you mentioned, the situation is deteriorating and I do believe it is important to go back and to still documenting the ongoing conflict. For many reasons Yemen is a difficult destination to work in, but I do like to go into different layers of the subject to get a better understanding of it. So, always is worth to come back as much as possible. So, I’m planning to go back to Yemen after I have finished my current project, not because other reasons, but because I have a deadline.