Carsten in Haiti
Agent Orange - To Du Hospital Saigon
The Karen land - Burma
Telling the stories that need to be told
Lisa Jenkins talks to Carsten Stormer – a photo journalist who has captured the harrowing stories that need to be told from Haiti to Sudan to Palestine
LJ: When and why did you first pick up a camera?
CS: I always loved photography but I never thought of making a living through journalism – writing and taking pictures. I always travelled with a camera and at one point I realised that I could enhance the bad freelance salary by selling pictures.
LJ: Tell me about the background to your work.
CS: Hmm, my background. I guess I want to use journalism to tell people what’s happening in the world through my eyes. I was always interested in conflict and what it does to a society. I believe that we all have a responsibility to help create a better world, especially journalists. Knowledge is an important tool to create awareness. I chose writing and photography.
LJ: Tell me some of the most inspirational subjects you have photographed.
CS: Every story I do is unique and inspirational. It’s new, opens my mind, I meet new people and spend time in various places. It’s always challenging, never boring, often dangerous. One of my favourite stories this year was about young surfers in Gaza. A story which showed a different angle on the conflict in the Middle East. I was the writer and travelled with an Italian photographer.
LJ: Your photos are extremely thought provoking, and somewhat harrowing at times, has there ever been a subject you could not bring yourself to photograph?
CS: Hmm, not really. But I try to restrain taking pictures of blood and guts. Not too many dead people – if it’s not a vital part of the story. Sometimes you need to show the brutal reality – but often not. But it’s important to me to leave some dignity to the people I photograph. I often don’t even pick up my camera – even if I miss a great photo. I have to be true to myself and don’t care too much what editors want.
LJ: Do you think there is a fine line between ‘reporting’ a situation, and delving too deep into people’s grief? I remember seeing photos from the Indonesian Tsunami, and a woman was literally being photographed in her darkest hour holding the body of her dead child. Is that going too far?
CS: There is always a fine line, no doubt. But it’s up to the photographer where he or she will cross it. Surprisingly, from my experience, most people don’t mind too much being photographed – especially in the most difficult of situations. I was asked to take pictures of a murdered child during a funeral in Congo. People showed me relatives who were killed. They know that their story needs to be told. People often shook my hand and welcomed me to their misery. It’s sort of collaboration, give and take. I am the means to reach people to tell their story. Many people thanked me that I went to situations most people want to leave – to report (best case scenario), giving a voice to people. Sometimes, however, people go too far – when they exploit grief for their own benefit. To make a career, for example. If you don’t care what’s going on around you, you better get another job.
LJ: How do you keep yourself emotionally distant from the more distressing subjects you have photographed?
CS: You can’t keep yourself emotionally distant. I often take it personally. Starving children, killed civilians, indiscriminate bombings, disappearances, extrajudicial killings. You have to suck it up because your pain is a fraction of the pain of the people you spend time with. But it gets to you, changes your mind and personality. Things become less important, your own problems for example. They become irrelevant because you know that other people have real problems, like surviving another day, finding food to keep a child alive, hiding from bombs, etc. I often take sides.
LJ: Of all the places you have travelled, tell me some of your favourites.
CS: Burma, Cambodia, Mongolia, Colombia – and especially Vietnam. I love the country, the food, the history, the landscape. And I admire the Vietnamese.
LS: What is your concept of true beauty?
CS: There is no thing as true beauty. It’s in the eye of the beholder. True beauty form is if you place the needs of others before your own.
LS: You have your first book coming out in November – very exciting! Tell me about it.
CS: I am very excited too. It’s the story of a young clueless man seeking for a purpose in life, stumbles into journalism, travels through conflict zones most of the times – and how his experiences and encounters change and shape himself, his personality, his life....
LS: If you could photograph anything or anyone, what or who would that be?
CS: One week in the life of Nelson Mandela. My fiancée in her wedding dress.
LS: What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the coming year?
CS: I just came back from an exhausting trip to Africa. I’ve spent a few weeks illegally in Sudan to report about war crimes committed in the Nuba mountains. I will be off to India in October and Afghanistan in November. Then I will take a break. I have no plans made yet for next year, except getting married. And that would be my biggest and most beautiful adventure.
- Carsten’s book Das Leben ist ein wildes Tier is out in Germany now.