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PERSPECTIVES: STEPHEN DUPONT | by Phillip Simpson

Photographer Stephen Dupont works outside the conventions of the traditional news oriented 'war photographer', producing long term book and exhibition projects using a wide variety of camera formats. He has been quoted as saying that "no photograph is worth dying for" but this has not stopped him from shooting in some of the hairiest spots on the planet for over two decades. The humbling breadth of his work has earned him numerous prestigious awards and accolades, including the W. Eugene Smith grant for humanistic photography.














 

Phillip Simpson: You have made numerous visits to Afghanistan during your career. What is it about that country that has particularly fascinated you?

Stephen Dupont: It's a place I've found incredibly exciting. It's culturally and historically really interesting. There has always been this kind of mystique about the Afghans themselves, you know their history and their warrior background.

The Mujahadeen were the ultimate rebels, particularly when they were fighting the Russians. That's something I grew up with as a teenager. I had some connection to that rebel with a cause thing. So from that time I had an urge to go there and see the place. Once I stepped into Afghanistan for the first time in '93 I was just blown away.

 

 

How has the experience of photographing there changed over time?

In the beginning you could move around fairly easily and safely from place to place and between different factions that were fighting each other during the civil war and you were able to cover what was going on a lot easier than you can now. When the Taliban came into power it made it a lot more difficult to do that because you either had to be with the Taliban or with the other side.


So were you forced to be embedded at some point?

When the Americans entered the war it became very much an embedding process. Now it's quite easy to cover it from Nato and the American side, but it's not easy to go and cover it from the Taliban side. It's not impossible and it's been done, but it's incredibly risky and you know I just think too risky. Unless you know who you trust. But in a place like Afghanistan it's hard to know who to trust.


 

Does it make it harder to retain a sense of objectivity and control over your work when you spend more time with one side than another in a conflict zone?

It's hard to be objective when you are only covering one side of the story. And yes there is censorship and control going on, but... I don't think it is too much of an issue particularly when you are with the Americans. Some other countries like Australia and Britain are a little bit more difficult, but America is quite open to freedom of the press.

It comes down to the relationships you build with people. If you build a good rapport with people you can generally see what's going on.

 

Your images of U.S. soldiers burning the bodies of Taliban soldiers prompted international outrage. How were you able to take and publish those images?

I was embedded with this particular unit and no-one said no. I don't think they thought they were doing anything wrong. It's hard to know if the guys on the ground were doing this to aid the psychological operations people in taunting the enemy or if they simply wanted to get rid of the bodies.

Initially it inflamed the islamic community around the world and sent a strong message to the local people, which was not a good message. It was against the Geneva convention and was very insensitive. Some of the soldiers involved were given disciplinary action. As a result all psychological ops were cancelled while the situation was being looked at. They began issuing cultural awareness booklets to all the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.


 

How did it feel to know that your images resulted in a re-think of military policy?

The fact that soldiers are being educated in cultural practices is a good thing. It should have been something that was done anyway, so of course I feel good about that. I don't feel good that the guys were charged because I believe that they were doing their job regardless of the insensitivities. So there is a double edged sword there.

Despite the impact it had it was one of many pieces of journalism that came out. There is stuff like that happening all the time.


Did you experience any backlash in terms of restriction of your access?

No not directly. I knew I would not be invited to go back with the Americans so I did not even bother applying until 2009 and I was allowed under the new Obama government. Things blow over, policy changes, governments change, so it was just a matter of biding my time really.

 

How do you balance the short term consumption of your images via news media with the objective of creating a historical document?

I started out as a working photo-journalist covering news, events and also larger stories. Now I very much concentrate on long term projects. I'm not really interested in daily news as such. Because I'm shooting film often, I'm not even in a position to offer them to news outlets. My interest and my focus is to concentrate on these projects and try and make something more in depth and something that has a bit of longevity to it.





In saying that, if I've got a digital camera and I have something that is newsworthy then yes I'd be on the phone to Time magazine or Newsweek to say "look I've got this and I'll send it over". The news photographer is always in me. It will never leave. But I'm much more interested in projects that are worthwhile and take time and producing work that stands out from everything else you see. We are so visually saturated and it's a matter of trying to be a little bit original.

 


Your series of portraits of American marines entitled 'Weapons Platoon' are accompanied by very revealing written testimonies about their experience of being part of the Marine Corps. What prompted you take this approach?

I usually don't know what I am going to do until I am in the field and I'm meeting people. In this case I was attached to this particular weapons platoon, ‘The death dealers' down in Helmand province. I spent about a month embedded with them. I earned their trust and explained that I wanted to do a photo series of each person in the platoon.

When I started to photograph them I wanted to put the pictures in my diary and have their names there as a reference and then I thought, why don't I get them to write something next to their photo? I kept it to the simple question; "Why am I a marine?"

It took a week. At the end of the project I would leave the book around for a few days so they could take their time to write something. The end result was a sort of objective history. A journal that not only had my own writing in it, but also a series of portraits that had the testimonies of each member of that platoon.

The reason I chose that approach was to go beyond portraiture and make it more intimate, more personal and more powerful. I wanted to say this is what it's like to be a marine in Afghanistan. And it's true because they are telling me. It's coming from the marines themselves.

It also conjures up images of soldiers in WW1 that wrote in their diaries, wrote postcards or wrote poetry. It was a way that they could deal with the trauma. I find those early correspondences from soldiers very powerful.


 

What role does video play in your story telling and in promoting your work?

I'm really still playing around with it. Film is a very powerful medium. I love still photography but depending on the project I'm doing I'm looking for other ways of showing my work in the context of projection or the internet. Having that element of sound and moving images really makes for strong presentations.

For the new breed of photographers who are making these multi-media films, it's no longer about just a photograph on a page, it's much more about interaction and using the internet. The technology is out there to keep challenging and keep the interest of the audience up. I think the audience are expecting much more out of us. They want to be entertained (laughs). Maybe ‘info-tainment' is the key to journalism now!


You are obviously embracing the medium.

Embracing is too strong a word. I'm using it. But in a way a lot of my work is going backwards. I'm more interested in hand printing my work and making hand made books and the old school of photography than I am in using the new technologies.


Looking at the video of the suicide bombing you witnessed in 2008 I get the sense that you instinctively knew that video was the right medium for telling that particular story in that particular moment though.

Absolutely. It depends on the project. Certain thing are just much more powerful in that medium.


By contrast your hand-made books are highly crafted and provide a tactile experience for the viewer.

I love books, so my favourite way of looking at photography is looking at books and having the time to really look at pictures as opposed to having them flashed up on a screen for a couple of seconds.

But then, if you are doing a multimedia film you are looking at something as a whole not as a single image, you are looking at using photography in a different kind of way that is appealing to different senses. I'm interested in the whole lot. Whatever it takes to make my photography stand out and the story get told.




You shoot on a variety of different formats, from panoramic to medium format and Polaroid which must be logistically challenging at times. Are many of your contemporaries working in this way?

Hmm, no, I don't think they are. There are a few photographers out there that I really admire like Jim Goldberg or Danny Lyon and I relate to their kind of photography, their message and also the way they present their work. I personally like to shoot on different formats. It gives me more scope for my own design, because I design my own layouts.

It all comes down to again what I'm in the mood for. Sometimes I just want to chuck it all away and just go with a Leica.

 

Your work is distributed by Contact Press Images, but you are also represented by commercial photography agency The Kitchen. Is it common for advertising agencies (for example) to come to you when they are looking for a reportage style on a campaign, or is it something that happens only rarely?

Ad agencies might come to me if they have a particular job that requires my style of photography, or an art director likes my work and wants to work with me, which happens. When something comes my way they are usually quite good jobs and things that I would like to do, you know. They are usually quite intensive and grand in scale. They're very rare but they are usually really good. I don't go looking for commercial work because generally it is work that I really don't want to do. Other people could do it better than me. They would actually get more out of it. I'd rather do my best work and produce something that I'd be really happy with and ultimately the clients would too.



When you are working on a long term project how do you fund the whole machine?

It's a mixture of applying for grants and fellowships and selling my books and prints. I deal mostly in the art world and collecting world. So I sell to collectors and I sell to institutions.

 

Are there any issues with balancing the different agendas of the two agencies and the dealer art galleries which also represent your work, or are their concerns quite separate from each other?

Yeah they're all separate. And things are changing all the time. I just have agents that work for me for different reasons and (who have) different roles to play. Most of my work and relationships are actually out of the agencies and are direct with people I know. Which is how I like to work.

 

Your portraits of Port Moresby gang members (entitled 'Raskols') incorporate a fantastic combination of dirt, grime and the chemical smears of the Polaroid process, all of which adds to the authenticity of the final images. How do you view the heavily retouched approach that is so prevalent in contemporary photography, particularly in the commercial arena?

I'm not inspired by it that's for sure. I'd much rather pick up a book on my shelf and look at William Klein or Josef Koudelka, or go back and look at the old masters.

I actually like the mistakes. I think people try too hard to make things look so perfect and in the end I think that is a mistake. Of course in the context of advertising and fashion and beauty it's a different matter, but I personally don't get much out of that. When it comes to art or journalism then the rawer the better you know. Often the great pieces of art are the ones that have the accidents in them, which is quite interesting.


 

One of my favourites from the Raskols series is the boy pointing the gun at the camera with chemical marks running through the negative.

Yeah, the one frame I thought I fucked up ended up becoming one of the better frames in the whole series! That's actually going to be the back cover of my book on the Raskols.

 
You've mentioned Klein and Koudelka and it is easy to see their influence in your work. Is it those guys rather than the famous 'war photographers' that have provided the greatest inspiration to you?

A bit of both. Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Robert Capa these were war photographers that were very inspiring and certainly had as important an impact as the others, but in a different way. I would look at Klein more than I would look at Capa. I can see some more longevity there. I guess I'm looking for pictures that are really poetic and magical and stand out. And there are these photographers that constantly do that.


It's interesting that Klein made images in a peace time environment that are every bit as confrontational and edgy as those taken by some of the war photographers you mention.

Yeah. You've got to remember that making great pictures in war, I'm not going to say it's easy because it's not, but you have the ability to capture things that could become very powerful pictures than if you're looking for quiet moments on the streets of Sydney or whatever. It's much more challenging to go and find those kinds of pictures than it is to have a historical disaster unfolding in front of your eyes.


You seem quite upbeat. As a witness to the business of killing do you bear any deep mental scars?

No I feel okay. I still feel inspired to go back and photograph war, but I'm also inspired by much more out there.


What are you working on at the moment?

I'm still working on my Afghanistan work and putting that together in different projects. The latest body of work is on Papua New Guinea which is for the Peabody Museum and that's a book and exhibition project. My main goal at the moment is to finish that. And I'm looking for something new next year. I might start to look at a project in China.

 

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