So much is emphasized in romanticizing reality in photography. Giles Clarke’s images, however, offer the human side of the ugliness that cannot be disguised in war. His lens shows us the human toll, in the power of a still-frame.
As a recipient of numerous awards, Giles’ work is powerful and relevant, deeply moving the viewer, “… [a photo] that leaps off the page and hits you in an instant.”
Tell us more about the story behind your winning IPA entry, Yemen 2017, from the inception to the final touches.
The Yemen story was assigned to me by the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in April 2017. My brief was to document the growing and now catastrophic humanitarian crisis. It took a few months to prepare the logistics and the visa and then almost another month on the ground shooting. During the time on the ground, we had to sometimes wait for days to secure safe access from relevant security parties, which could allow only minutes in often-remote locations. My time spent in hospitals and the settlements for displaced people left the deepest impressions —the deep humanitarian scars of this lingering war were so apparent, desperate and hopeless. Showing some of those scars and covering the deep ongoing crisis was and is my objective and primary intention.
Did you have any memorable personal experiences in Yemen?
Meeting local people always moves me and often defines the story in hand.
What are your packing essentials on assignment?
My usual Sony A7r camera bodies and lens package, good walking boots, and an open mind. Also an iPhone with a notepad and translation app.
Is there anything else that you feel is important to emphasize?
Smile and be friendly with your subject at all times. Often, they feel uncomfortable having you photograph their desperate situation so be kind, show respect and move gently!
Take us back to the time you first held a camera and the moment you realized your passion for photography.
My passion for photography blossomed at around the age of 19 years old when I moved to West Berlin in the mid-1980’s. I remember visiting a very powerful Robert Capa exhibit on the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima in 1945. Those pictures inspired something in me and move me still today. A few months later I bought a black and white darkroom enlarger and all the bits needed to develop film. That started almost 15 years in the darkroom with 10 of those as a professional black and white printer. My interest in covering social injustices is increasing on an almost daily basis. It is that which drives me on and, hopefully, for many more years to come!
Tell us about the pivotal moment that launched your photography career.
I don’t know about this —I feel I still have so much more to do. Keeping the stories relevant and continuing is all that matters to me.
What is it like to be on the scene — providing statistics with faces and names —while bearing witness to take photographs?
When shooting, I try to be fully in the moment and aware of all the details needed to verify and complete the story. Sometimes there just isn’t the time to stop and interview the subject … or the image captured was a fleeting glimpse. I often look back on a day and ask myself, ‘what more could I have done today?’ then try to use that next day!
It has been said that constantly taking photos of violent events has a numbing effect. Do you agree?
I suppose I have become a little numb to it all. Having seen so many scenes of extreme suffering, one does become hardened to the horror. I have to have that shield or otherwise it can engulf me–which it does at times, anyway. I think we do suffer having seen so much, but I try really hard not to take that home. Sort of like a coat of horror that I try to take off as soon as I get back home after jobs for the sake of my family and my own sanity!
How do you earn your subjects’ trust to be photographed despite their mourning? Do you ever feel you have to ‘bend the rules’ ethically to capture images?
In general, I try to shoot my story having been generally cleared to do so, but it depends on the subject, location and assignment. If the picture works, then I try to capture it unless there’s a very good reason not to. Ethically, I work hard to be open and always honest. But, should I put my camera down if the scene appears to sensitive to some? I can’t say that I am perfect to all in every scenario. It’s very subjective and criticism can be expected. Maybe that frame or moment is the exact emotion needed to tell the story? I try to respect all elements but I also have a job to do. It is that balance that needs to be weighed … and often in an instant!
What is your motivation in documenting these humanitarian and conflict issues?
My motivation is telling personal stories in places where we might not always look or focus on. I’ve worked in many commercial areas of film and photography over the years, but found my work in regions that are suffering by far the most rewarding personally. Hopefully I am telling a story to a new and interested audience —maybe a person or place that gets little coverage generally. The other motivation is the fact that I’m now really bored with the rat race in general. I don’t care what car you have or how big your house is or what you do at work. I care about the underdog — the downtrodden, the ignored, the forgotten and the lost souls.
What processes do you undergo when you create your photos? How important is post-processing in your work?
I do basic tonal re-touching when needed. I often use contrast and minor color correction to balance an often multi-location story, if it’s a color story. With a black and white story, I work in grey tonal ranges and contrast as needed to highlight the mood of the story rather like how I worked in the darkroom for all those years in the film days!
How do you feel about winning IPA Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year?
Winning the award at Carnegie Hall was such an honor and especially with some of my family present. I will always be very grateful and honored to have been picked by the judges for this particular body of work that has struggled for media coverage over the past two years.
What’s your advice to emerging photographers?
My advice is to start by wanting to tell stories and be prepared to take plenty of calculated risks every day! Understand how far one most go and always do more than you think you need to on the research front. Begin studying stories by the past ‘masters of photography’ through books, magazines and exhibitions. Immerse yourself in the story and be prepared to switch gears as you go. Let stories develop and fight to make the message intended have strength.
You can find out more about Giles Clarke’s work here.