Writing on photography

Interview: Anders Birger

A new feature on the blog this year will be occasional interviews with photographers and people working with photography. The first of these is with Anders Birger, a Danish documentary photographer based in London. A graduate of the documentary photography master’s program at London College of Communication, his degree project This Damn Weather examined the state of paranoia in Damascus in the early days of the Syria uprising. Since then he has returned to Syria several times to explore the conflict further and in different ways, looking for example at the experience of refugees in Life on the Syrian Border and making a series of more meditative photographs in Places of Conflict.

LB – For me it’s interesting to look back at This Damn Weather because when you made the work the conflict in Syria was just getting started. It wasn’t at anything like the level of violence or destruction it is now, it really reminds you how far things have degenerated over the last two years. How do you feel looking back at that work?

AB – I feel its probably still the most important work I’ve done, even though the war is so much more escalated now especially in Damascus. I saw some work by a photographer who has been photographing in Damascus a month or two ago and it was actually the same pictures, shot in a more traditional style maybe but you know it was a hotel guy putting up an umbrella by the pool and so on. I think this idea that life goes on in a war zone is important. We tend to forget the reality of living in a situation like that, not that I know, I have no idea really. But it almost seems like when we go to photograph or when we go to write, we always focus on what we know, we always re-report all the facts that we know about how it looks in a war or how it looks in a refugee camp, how things are playing out. It’s the same stories, the characters are different, the names are different, the skin colour is different, but it’s the same stories.

LB – We’ve talked in the past about this idea of photographing the ‘quiet’ side of conflicts, focusing in on small details, looking at the apparently uneventful moments rather than the big dramatic ones, was this part of the same thinking?

AB – People will hate me for saying this, but if you go and do war photography in the old style, as we’ve been taught to do war photography, you have to ask why? What’s the actual point of it? what life will you change by doing that? If we want to change something we need to understand it better, and we don’t understand things better by looking at the same photographs again and again. I find people who work with photography as a way to explore something for themselves really interesting, it’s like if I can understand something I can make other people understand it and that seems much more important.

LB – We hear a lot about the dangers facing journalists working in Syria, perhaps as much or more than we hear about the dangers facing Syrians. You were working with an armed group and they obviously had a different agenda to you, you were there as a guest almost, what was your experience of that like?

AB – I experienced a lot of boredom to be honest, because suddenly when you’re in a situation like that a lot of the time nothing is going on and you can’t just go off and do something because you’re not in control of your life any more. Sometimes it was really dangerous and you could always hear the bombs in the background, that was just the sound tapestry, and sometimes there would be a big battle a few kilometers away, so it was definitely dangerous, but it wasn’t more or less dangerous for me as a journalist than it was for the people I was with. We were in the same danger zone.

LB – You didn’t feel at any point they might be a danger to you?

AB – Not those individuals but I had one experience which was very interesting. One night we were sitting in a safe house out in the middle of the countryside, an old farmhouse that was turned into a small base for a group of fighters we spent a lot of time with. There were probably 18 or 20 of them and I think the oldest was probably 21 and down to 14 or 15 years old. And so we were sitting there it was January so it was very cold and pitch black, and suddenly we heard a car pull up and people became very quiet and the door opens and in comes this tiny figure in a big parka coat with a hood up so I couldn’t see his face and he comes in with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder and a grenade in his hand. And it turned out he was a priest or cleric from Saudi Arabia, sent there to teach these young people how to fight, what to do, how to act in certain situations.

They had a lot of respect for him, he sat down and I kind of huddled back thinking ‘I’m the only white guy’ so I was feeling very self-conscious. And so he started praying with these people, talking about Islam reading from the Quran, he had a very beautiful voice and many of these young kids started crying, it was very emotional. And he finished and he looked down at me and said ‘who’s that guy?’ and suddenly I started to feel nervous. Here I was in no man’s land, no one knew where I was, with all these people surrounding me with a lot of weapons, being a westerner, a Dane even what with the Muhammad drawings. So I was called up and I sat down with him and we started talking and he started trying to convince me of why Islam was better than Christianity. I’m not a Christian, I’m a cultural Christian, but I’m not religious in any way and I explained this but he wouldn’t give up because he had this big audience.

So we started talking and had this long discussion back and forth and it was going quite well, I could fend for myself and we had some good discussions, and I could ask him some questions about things. And everyone came up close to listen in, and my friend was sitting translating for me suddenly my friend looks at me and said ‘Anders how can it be that everyone in the west thinks we are terrorists?’ and I said, ‘it’s a very good question but it might not be so hard to answer when you’re sitting with a hand grenade’, because while he had been translating he had picked up and started playing with the cleric’s hand grenade! And so he translated this for everyone and they all started laughing. I promised the cleric to spend five minutes a day kneeling looking towards mecca and to have a good think about Islam, we embraced and he left. It was an amazing experience and it really showed me that our fears are often really just preconceptions.

LB – One thing we’ve discussed before is that the Syrian conflict is in many ways a media conflict, the groups involved are very concious of this, and in many cases are using media to publicise their activities in ways that maybe make foreign journalists of less use to them. How do you think this effects your position as a professional journalist?

AB –My main argument against us going as traditional photographers is that all those pictures we can take, there’s not much need for them because the photographs are already being taken by people there. The pictures we see in newspapers, the videos we see on al Jazeera or the BBC, they’re mostly being made by rebel groups and sometimes by Assad’s forces. This is the true democratisation of photography and journalism, because the people involved in the events are recording them. And of course these photographs are coloured one way or another…

LB – but at least we know they are coloured, that they have a bias.

AB – Exactly, at least we have an idea that we can’t trust them as independent journalism. Anyway there isn’t really such a thing as independent journalism when we go into these situations. I can’t move around as I want to, so how can I say my work is more independent than what they are taking. So I think there is less reason for us to go and make these news images. So I see our role more as going in to interpret what others see, try and understand it and try to convey a story much more than trying to convey news.

LB – This leads quite nicely to your new work, a series of polaroid photographs taken in Syria. In each case you’ve not opened the polaroid, instead you’ve asked a bystander to write something on it, for example describing what was happening at the time. For me this work says interesting things about our reliance on journalists to interpret events for us, to translate almost.

AB – It was funny because when I started doing this work I had one idea but as often happens it really expanded as I was shooting. Now it’s also about how we conceive and consume photography in the west especially, it’s playing into the idea of us using photography to understand things, but also it’s about looking at photography in a way that judges one photo as good and one as bad. I think there’s a tendency to look at photographs not in terms of what is in the picture but in terms of things like the framing, the capabilities of the photographer in other words. Equally this debate around photo manipulation, it’s the wrong focus. Is this photograph beautiful enough to win a prize? It should be a focus on the content. Studying my MA I realised there are no rules, you set the rules. With photojournalism there is a sense that there are all these man made rules about what you can and cannot do. For me it limits my ability to convey what I’m trying to say, and that’s what I find so liberating about documentary photography, it should be about how do you convey a story or open people’s eyes, or understand whatever it is you’re trying to understand.

LB – At the same time a lot of rather more traditional photographers criticise this approach as being too abstract, too much about medium, not enough about the subject. What’s the response been to your work?

AB – It hasn’t been out there that long but so far mostly positive response. I’m sure if it had a larger audience there would be people that would be out to get me for it, which I completely understand because it was difficult for me to take the step to making this work. Sometimes I feel a little ashamed about putting it out there because it’s so far removed from what I’ve always been taught, but not from what I’ve been feeling. Every time I talk to people about it, it seems they are thinking more about Syria looking at my work than at a more traditional piece of photo-journalistic work. I’m not saying my work is better I’m just saying it makes people think about it in different ways, and I think this must be the most important thing, not how we tell the story but telling it in a way that makes people interested and interact with it. People aren’t interested in these 5-8 picture stories because we see them all the time.

I think we’re maybe only just realising that photography has to evolve, it has to go out in all these different directions, and some of these will die out, but others will continue to evolve. If people don’t like it fine, do whatever you like to do, but if I think it’s reasonable to do something like this about something as serious as Syria and I still want to put it out there for people to see then it must be because I believe in it. I’m not doing this for fun, I’m not doing it to provoke, because this is much too serious for any of these things.

LB – What are you working on now?

AB – I’ve started looking into the history of Syria and found that in 1767 an expedition was sent out by the Danish king to go to Arabia which in Danish was called ‘Arabia Felix’ which translates as ‘Happy Arabia’. They were sent to Yemen with this list of questions, some serious, some quite ridiculous, basically with the aim of finding out why it was happy. And they brought scientists and cartographers with them. That for me is extremely interesting, now we look the Middle East and ask the opposite question ‘why are they so unhappy’. Two hundred and fifty years later it’s the same story, we’re just as dumb.

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About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography