Humanity amongst the ruins of constant conflict: Q&A with photojournalist Eduardo Martins

Eduardo Martins is a documentary photographer from Sao Paolo, Brazil and humanitarian at the UN Refugee Agency. You may have seen his work in Vice, Le Point, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The Telegraph. Captivated by the depth of his work, he shared what the work conveys about Martins’ perspective and experiences in the field.

img_03445
Palestinian masked after clash against Israeli forces, near the border in east Gaza.
It seems like you’ve been privy to some pretty frightening situations. How do you balance your role as an objective observer/photojournalist and wanting to help the people you are photographing?

During my work, there are many moments in which I spend time beyond the camera and end up getting involved with the people I’m photographing. Once in Iraq shooting a conflict, I stopped shooting to help a boy who was hit by a molotov, dropped the camera and helped get him out of the conflict area. In scenes like this, which are common in my work, I stop being a photographer and become a human being. I can not be impartial in these moments.

4547c0e44ea71f9a1a9775a9302a3b9c-large
Palestinian in his car in the ruins of Beit Lahiya, north of Gaza Strip.
There’s a strong sense of humanity in your photos. I think particularly of the photo in Gaza with the man in the damaged Audi and also of the barely-visible eyes of one of your female fighters. Do you talk to people before you take their photos or do you prefer to be candid with your photography? Why?

I always try to talk to people, to be able to shoot properly. Sometimes, in certain types of situations, I have to act immediately, so we can not have this kind of communication. But when I can talk and try to know the story of each one, it changes my perception of how I set the scene and shoot.

01d531490b702b68a51bb97041272f33-large
Funeral ceremony of a Palestinian child, victim of Israeli Airstrike.
Which area out of all that you’ve photographed did you find most difficult to be in and why?

The most difficult and dangerous place that I’ve photographed was Syria, because it is a place that is constantly in this very serious civil war. It is very hard to work there; the risk of life is imminent. Once, in a conflict between the Free Syrian Army and the opposition forces of the Bashar government, I took a glancing shot. I believe, without a shadow of doubt, the most dangerous place to be right now is Syria.

img_0032
Ruins from the city of Aleppo, Syria.
What initially inspired you to take up photography?

I always liked to photograph, then I had a serious illness, so I was unable to work for years. When I was healed, I decided to invest in my humanitarian and photographer side and moved to Paris and started working in the NGO Children’s Safe Drinking Water. From that moment on, I started to travel to places with social problems where I started shooting this reality. I joined the humanitarian work with photography, which ended up working very well.

img_0041
Free Syrian Army member with anti-aircraft weapon on the front line in Azaz, Syria.
What is your favourite photo you’ve ever taken? Why is that?

It is difficult to highlight a favorite picture. I have several, but they are the ones that took the most out of me while shooting. Not only the final result, but what I went through to be able to transform the scene into a photograph that conveys something to the viewer. I like a lot of my work in the Gaza Strip, have a great identification with the Palestinian people, and because of that I do my best to do a good job.

7989764
In the month of Ramadan, a Palestinian reads the Quran in the Omari Mosque, in the center of Gaza City.
img_4455
Palestinian boy screaming after the clash against Israeli forces, east Gaza.
What is your definition of what constitutes a good photo?

What makes a good photo to me is the power it has to touch the viewer, I believe it’s crucial to bring the feeling in photography, and I try to portray faithfully to the public what I see and feel by clicking a situation.

img_0050
The streets of a city in ruins, Aleppo, Syria.
What are your thoughts on photoshop and editing programs that so many photographers currently use? Do you think that these programs contradict the purpose and mission of photojournalism?

I think that nowadays the photographer has many tools at his disposition to help in their work. I personally do not use any program like photoshop; I believe that a good real photographer does not need to edit the image, he does a good job even without these tools. I respect those who use the program, but I don’t see it as part of the development of my job.

_mg_8311
Iraqi refugee boy refreshing with a tank of water, helped by Iraqi Forces.
What made you become involved in the UN Agency Refugee program and why?

At CSDW, we worked at the UN refugee camps most of the time. I worked a lot in the Middle East and met many people who were part of the UN, which turned out to be very positive to open doors and start working with the UN. This year I was invited to work as a humanitarian in the agency. It was a great honor and I immediately accepted their invitation.

img_8401
Iraqi refugee in Dohuk refugee camp, Iraq.
What is your mission when you travel to a new place to photograph? What are you searching for or hoping to document when beginning new projects?

I will always photograph places with social problems; I always look for this type of subject. I want to show the public the reality of these places, telling the story through my work, something that can impact and bring a willingness to change to the next. My favorite subjects are definitely conflicts and social problems around the world, so when I have an assignment I always look for places facing these humanitarian issues. My favorite places are in the Middle East and Africa.

img_8393
Yazidi refugees in Dohuk refugee camp, Iraq.
If you were to have a personal motto, what would you say it would be and why?

My motto is always where there is chaos there is also beauty, which is what I try to show in my work and in places that have such a difficult reality to be faced. I try to show the good side of each place, people, and situation. Basically, my motto is to awaken compassion within the viewer, touch the heart of each one deeply so that they are moved to make a difference in the places they live through charity and compassion to the next.

img_1043
Palestinian children in a car destroyed in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip.
Which photographs(s) of yours has/have generated the most reaction from the public and/or the journalism community?

My work in Syria and Iraq have more prominence in the journalistic media, after all it is more photojournalistic than documentary. But the general public appreciates a lot of my work in Gaza because of the human side that I picture. Finally, I just hope all my work can touch every person in a way, whichever that is.

img_1673
Palestinian children selling balloons in the streets of Gaza City.

Follow Eduardo Martins on Instagram to keep up with his captures and travels.

 

img_0067
Syrian man who had his leg amputated up the stairs of his home in Aleppo.

Sign up for updates on refugee issues, displaced peoples, and the efforts to help them from the UN Refugee Agency.

 

 

This written Q&A was edited.

On the outside looking back: Göran Hugo Olsson documents global history of racial violence

Swedish documentary filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson explores the visceral, long-standing history of violent treatment of the black community and black bodies through two snapshots, supplemented by the essential components of storytelling. His works feel like collages, in which his voice cannot be detected. Still, from that conscious distance, he presents perspective on the deep roots of racial violence have formed through the observations of the time.

Olsson delves into that process in 2014’s Concerning Violence, presenting through even more vivid, simple elements: Lauryn Hill’s clear, textured voice, archival footage for each chapter, and text from Frantz Fanon’s 1961 analysis of the psychological effects of colonization, The Wretched of the Earthemblazoned across the screen.

His demeanor is disarming, for someone so keen to explore violence, but defiant when he describes his role behind the scenes. Olsson considers himself an illustrator rather than a thinker; if the subject matter were different, one may accuse him of hiding behind that distinction. In this sphere, however, where power, violence, and race collide, the contemporary understanding of how it most certainly went down, is too-often dominated by the pictures history’s victors imagine. As a result, it’s not atypical of us to flounder in articulating change in the face of these narratives. Olsson’s aim is to position the history to speak for itself – presented directly, without interpretation, to the audience. Let’s look into 2011’s, The Black Power Mixtape.

I suggest treating The Black Power Mixtape as you would any other mixtape; it is a period piece with a unique message, a revisiting of an impassioned time through sound and image. It allows you to place today’s issues aside momentarily to take in an account of where we’ve been.

The Black Power Mixtape is presented in 9 chapters, each powerful on its own and moving in sequence. Its greatest value, I found, is in the commentary in response to institutionalized violence, the palatability of the movement for civil and human rights – and the faces of it, as well as the real effects of oppression and violence on the human psyche. I always wonder, is there an answer? A set of instructions? A way of ordering the words? This documentary does not claim that there is, but tells us the role of power dynamics in what America made black people experience, and how black people responsed with resilience.

Olsson’s approach is ideal for providing more context on racial dynamics in the United States of America from 1967-1975: post-Vietnam, during the civil rights movement, in the years following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. A raw, global perspective, picking up where Dr. King left off, from the perspective of Swedish filmmakers. Swedish-American media relations were strained by Swedish criticisms of US actions in the Vietnam War. The filmmakers, indicative of Olsson himself, state from the beginning, “We wanted to understand and portray America – through sound and image – as it really is. However, there are about as many opinions on that as there are Americans.”

In fact, black Americans were among the most vocal of those critical about the Vietnam War (see Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon, “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”). The documentary primarily features footage from black communities throughout the years, balancing detachment with immersion, depicting firsthand accounts of the Black Power Movement. Each depiction is a track in the compilation featuring voice-overs and interviews, with contemporary commentary from Erykah Badu, Questlove, and Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, and Harry Belafonte.

From the start, you see the way that the violent deaths of the era’s iconic black leaders and their white allies – shake the youth. They claim “there is no future.” Then, along a spectrum of approaches, looked for something of substance in the wake of those losses, something to counter the violent racism enacted upon them to provide an example of the society they envisioned: one where there was security, accessible schooling and healthcare, community.

The Black Power Mixtape provides a view of where America truly started with a candid eye to the violence and power dynamics that once defined us, and may continue to define us. I found it distinguished the Black Lives Matter movement as altogether its own; it brings texture to contemporary discussions of US race relations, the criminal justice system, and poverty.

Individual chapters of The Black Power Mixtape can be found on Youtube, and the complete film can be found on Netflix.

 

Forty to fifty years ago, when the footage was taken, times were more overtly violent – that is, admittedly, more commentary on what I perceive of civil society then and now, than fact. The 1960s and 70s were closer in proximity to violent norms, slavery, lynching; that is to say, the practices and tensions that manifested in the years between the legal designation of black people as property, and the social and economic integration we are still in the midst of.

For the past three years, with technology and social media broadening the ability to reach out into communities, police brutality has been at the forefront of US discourse and the world is again watching as the violence wreaked by our financially incentivized, structurally racist criminal justice system plays out. That people are watching says we have come a good way; Democratic presidential candidates have spoken openly about criminal justice and drug policy reform. Senator Bernie Sanders explicitly called for community policing, mental health reform, and an end to the prison industrial complex. Grassroots movements around the U.S. nurture community-level reforms and responses to the remnants of the subjugation of  black people, towards institutional police accountability for excessive use of force and discriminatory practices.

We have the opportunity to address the issues of 1967-1975 and well before, but can people handle what the times are telling us even now?