Adam Ferguson, photojournalist, World Press Photo
I believe I have something valuable to say and contribute. If I am going to have a sensibility that allows an audience to care, I need to do so also ...
The first person to say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ was bang on – the power of images cannot be understated. A moment in time can be all that’s needed to communicate emotion and context, which is why photojournalism has remained a crucial part of reporting since the camera was invented. Adam Ferguson is an Australian-born photojournalist that has shot the width and breadth of human emotion, from conflict to peace and everything in between. Adam’s photo ‘Boko Haram Strapped Suicide Bomb’ is an example of the kind of immediately affecting and profound imagery that can shape dialogue surrounding world affairs, and as a result it was nominated for World Press Photo of the Year. Brisbane Powerhouse is exhibiting several of the World Press Photo nominees from Saturday June 30 to Sunday July 22, including Adam’s moving work. We caught up with Adam to talk about his career to date, his thoughts on conflict and the role of photojournalists in the digital age.
To start, can you tell us what first drew you to the world of photography and photojournalism?
It was the long-form work of documentary photographers – images of war from Vietnam, Central America and Balkans. I was curious about the world and somewhat unsettled about my position in it. Photography seemed to be a way for me to go off and reconcile my own position within the global narrative.
What was the first photograph that you can remember having a profound impact on you?
It was an image by Sebastião Selgado of a family who had fled drought in Ethiopia and were in a camp for the displaced. It was during the drought in West Africa in the mid-80s. I had just really discovered photography and it was the first time I considered the photographs ability to transcend something recordist into something both metaphorical and metaphysical – into a visual poem.
To fund the early days of your career you crewed on sailboats around the Caribbean and Mediterranean. What impact did these early travels have on your formative creative period?
I learnt to work hard, but more importantly I travelled into worlds that I would not have had access to otherwise. I served the rich of the rich and within that I seemed to garner a bit more insight into people. Regardless of class, demographic or religion, we are fundamentally the same.
Did you start your career with any key areas of interest that you wanted to explore?
I knew I wanted to cover conflict. Growing up I had a relationship with war that encapsulated both contempt and fascination. I was anti-war and protested on the streets of Brisbane when Australia sent troops to Iraq. But war has defined every nation on the planet, it’s used to justify foreign policy and the economic decisions of states. It was important for me to go to war and understand it, to feel like I was contributing to a dialogue around it, a dialogue that I believe is fundamental.
What realisations did you unearth about these conflicts that you hadn’t considered before undertaking the work?
I think terrorism is misunderstood. Existing in the western world, we tend to gaze at the Islamic world as the ‘other’ and once insurgent movements take hold – like the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and the plethora of other militias or anti-government forces – we see them as crazy-eyed radicals. We easily forget the nuanced histories of the world and the economic and political marginalisation that has given birth to extremist groups. I do believe the diplomacy through forces and violence doesn’t work, and countries that are economically dominant need to be more inclusive to countries that are not.
Your exhibited World Press Photo image, ‘Boko Haram Strapped Suicide Bomb’, is deeply moving. Can you give us some insight into how this photo came to be?
I discovered this story while in Nigeria working on another piece, and it felt both extraordinary and important. Most of the suicide bombings in northern Nigeria are carried out by women on behalf of Boko Haram. I engaged a local journalist to see how many of these young women were out there and we discovered there was a lot, so I returned to Nigeria and photographed 18 women with similar plights. They had all been kidnapped by Boko Haram, sent on a suicide bombing mission, but had the resilience and bravery to find help instead of detonating. They were such courageous young women.
Digital media gives audiences unprecedented, instantaneous exposure to a plethora of images from around the world. What role do you see photojournalists filling in the coming years?
Photojournalists will continue to serve a role in the media landscape. The proliferation of digital media has actually made photojournalism more relevant than it ever has been before. The irony is the industry around it struggles because so much digital media is now free and the advertising models of prints haven’t been reconciled on most digital platforms for photography. Although in another 2o years we probably wont have a person with a camera, the ‘photojournalist’ will be an editor sitting in a room plucking images from high-resolution 360-degree camera technology embedded everywhere.
Beyond conflict, you’ve photographed a plethora of subjects. What’s your process behind capturing these moments and imbuing the image with a bit of your own voice?
I have to feel like I have something to say or contribute. It’s important for me to care if I am going to have a sensibility that enable an audience to. I don’t believe photography to be an objective rendering. It’s very subjective and biased despite capturing the ‘real’ world. Editing is a large part of it. The chosen moment and how a photographer frames it is everything. And I try not to think too hard about my ‘voice’ – I just hope that it comes through.
What are you finding inspiring about the world around you?
People always inspire, especially the conviction people have to keep going. And art – when I feel creatively flat I hop on a train to Central Park and go for a wander through The Metropolitain Museum of Art and I am uninspired no more.