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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In the month of Ramadan, a Palestinian reads the Quran in the Omari Mosque, in the center of Gaza City.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Palestinian children selling balloons in the streets of Gaza City.

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

 

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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.

Syrian refugees: a matter of fact and photograph

All photos and captions are from Magnus Wennman’s series Where the Children Sleep in which he documents the experience of Syrians seeking refuge across the Middle East and Europe. 

Check him out on Instagram.

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Maram, 8, in Amman, Jordan
Eight-year-old Maram had just come home from school when the rocket hit her house. A piece of the roof landed right on top of her. Her mother took her to a field hospital, and from there she was airlifted across the border to Jordan. Head trauma caused a brain hemorrhage. For the first 11 days, Maram was in a coma. She is now conscious, but has a broken jaw and can’t speak.

 

In 1979 and 1980 alone, the United States allowed entry to over 300,000 Vietnamese refugees. Many saw this as the United States paying reparations for a bloody civil war we made far worse by arming and fighting with the faction whose ideology we agreed with while ignoring the geopolitical complexities of the situation. Sound familiar? Many of these refugees were not Christian, could not speak English, and have since successfully assimilated into the tapestry of the U. S. Obama’s current plan calls for the allowance of 65,000 Syrian immigrants over 2015 and 2016 – just over 20% the amount of Vietnamese offered refuge then. The population of the US in 1980 was 226.5 million. The most recent estimate of our population? 318.9 million. The differences here are staggering – yet we’re afraid these Syrians won’t assimilate? You can learn more about where refugees come from in this Pew Research Center study.

So let’s turn to how Muslim nations view the acts of Daesh (ISIS) and other extremists. Well, roughly 60% of all people polled strongly condemn ANY violence in the name of Islam. That number seems low, right? Especially since that takes into account that the phrasing of the question includes violence done in defense of the religion. Pretty shocking, don’t you think? Would 60% of Christians be willing to say “Even if I am under attack, I will not use violence to protect myself”? Heck, would 60% of anybody say that? Furthermore, when asked if they support suicide bombing or other acts of extremism, the percentage of condemnation jumps to over 85% in most cases. Finally, most Muslims view extremist groups like Hamas, Al Queda, etc. extremely unfavorably – the number is also around 60%. When interpreting these statistics, it is important to note that these groups, while having a militant wing, are also political parties in many countries that end up providing a lot of public services for the Muslim populace. But what about their view of ONLY militant groups, like Boko Haram? Only 2% of Muslims polled (hyperlink) have a favorable view of this organization. You can read more about the overwhelming condemnation of extremism preached by foreign Muslims here.
People would like to see these numbers closer to 100%. I get that. However, it is important to remember the complex socio-political pressures in these countries, just as in any country. We cannot overlook the ways these groups are entwined in some Muslim societies.

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Abdullah, 5, in Blegrade, Serbia
Abdullah has a blood disease. For the last two days he has been sleeping outside of the central station in Belgrade. He saw the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. He is still in shock and has nightmares every night, says his mother. Abdullah is tired and is not healthy, but his mother does not have any money to buy medicine for him.

 

To further tease this apart, how often do Muslims commit acts of terrorism? Very, very rarely. In fact, less than 2% of all terrorist acts committed in the EU in the past five years have been committed by Muslims. Do you remember when two French police stations were attacked in a coordinated effort by men armed with assault weapons and ROCKET LAUNCHERS? That did happen, and in 2013 no less. at the hands of domestic terrorists, who carry out an overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks. Still, we disproportionately attribute terrorism to Muslim extremists.

 

If actions taken by Muslim extremists are so rare, how can we be constantly inundated with violence? Well, there’s presentation: the ever-breaking news cycle and sensational reporting has a lot to do with it. Violence in various forms is common in the United States and while we spend trillions of dollars on the “War on Terror”, we do surprisingly little against more statistically serious threats. In the 14 years since 9/11, roughly 7,000 American soldiers have died in the “War on Terror” and around 40 have been killed in acts of domestic terrorism committed by Muslim extremists. In that same timespan, well over 300,000 Americans have died due to gun violence. Various studies indicate that common-sense gun control legislation could potentially halve these trends. We have here a threat that takes over 4200% the amount of lives of the soldiers lost in Afghanistan and Iraq and over 7,500 times the amount of lives lost by victims of domestic terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists. And we’re doing nothing.

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Abdul Karim, 17, in Athens, Greece
Abdul Karim Addo has no money left. He bought a ferry ticket to Athens with his last euros. Now he spends the night in Omonoia Square, where hundreds of refugees are arriving every day. Here smugglers are making big money arranging false passports as well as bus and plane tickets to people in flight — but Abdul Karin is not going anywhere. He is able to borrow a telephone and call home to his mother in Syria, but he is not able to tell her how bad things are. “She cries and is scared for my sake and I don’t want to worry her more,” he says. He unfolds his blanket in the middle of the square and curls up in the fetal position. “I dream of two things: to sleep in a bed again and to hug my younger sister.”

 

Some of you might say, “still, 40 lives is too much.” You’re right. So let’s refocus and look at the acts of domestic terrorism committed by refugees… except there aren’t any. Since 9/11, the US has admitted over 750,000 Middle Eastern refugees. None have committed any acts of domestic terrorism in the name of Islam.  In fact, only 2 were found to have any connection to any Muslim extremist groups. They were sending aid to Al Queda operatives in Iraq – not planning attacks here. In fact, applying for refugee status is just about the last thing a potential terrorist would do. Its a long process that places candidates under far more scrutiny than other methods of entering this country – both legally or illegally. If you want to stop the gaps in our immigration security, look to visas, asylum seekers, and the borders – but do not shut the door to the refugees who need our help the most.

We’ve established that terrorists disguising themselves as Syrian refugees and attempting to sneak into this country to commit acts of violence is statistically highly unlikely, historically inaccurate, and misrepresentative of the facts. There may still remain one big nagging question, however: the cost. This is the good news. Studies indicate that taking in refugees, while a short-term expense, actually provides a boon to economies. At the end of the day, host nations receive more population which means more demand and more workers. Syrians are actually the best-suited Middle Eastern refugees for assimilation into the US culture and economy. Prior to the civil war, a large majority of the populace was in a middle-class analogous to our own. These people went to college, got a job, worked 40 hours a week and came home to their families. Furthermore, the Syrian nation stood out as a secularly-governed country in a predominantly theocratic Middle East; all of these are notions that would point to smooth assimilation. Syrians are largely skilled, educated persons that would be valuable assets to our society and want nothing more than to have a chance to provide for their families, yet we turn them away?

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Sham, 1, in Horgos, Serbia
In the very front, just alongside the border between Serbia and Hungary by the 4-meter-high iron gate, Sham is laying in his mother’s arms. Just a few decimeters behind them is the Europe they so desperately are trying to reach. Only one day before the last refugees were allowed through and taken by train to Austria. But Sham and his mother arrived too late, along with thousands of other refugees who now wait outside the closed Hungarian border.

 

A multitude of articles – see former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright‘s comments – videos, and posts going around lead to the same conclusion: We should not be closing our doors to refugees when we are beyond the capability to provide for even more than the 65,000 we have committed to taking in. In times like these, it’s natural to feel afraid; these numbers are not meant to dissolve that fear. I do hope what I have shown you helps you to be brave, do your research, and think rationally about this very, very complex topic.