Thomas Dworzak on photographing war and the privilege of 'playing with reality'

  • 30/05/2015

For more than 20 years photographer Thomas Dworzak has travelled the world capturing history with his camera.

A full member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency since 2004, Dworzak has documented wars such as Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq, and been published everywhere from TIME magazine to National Geographic.

He is in New Zealand as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography and spoke to 3 News about playing with reality, that moment when everything falls into place and why photography shouldn't be like taxidermy.

The interview has been edited for brevity.

You've been taking photos since you were a teenager and a member of the Magnum photography agency since 2004. How and why did you choose to get into photography?

"I think it was simple – I grew up in a very small town in Germany so it was curiosity, somewhere between boredom and curiosity. I wasn't interested in the artistic aspect of photography; photography was the only thing I could come up with to get out of the village.

"I started travelling, and it took me a couple of years, whenever I had time – when I had holidays I travelled and after school I studied in the Czech Republic – so I always used any opportunity to get away. It was photography and I wanted to go to conflicts, so it was both […] It was the opposite of what I grew up with in a very peaceful small town. I wanted to see the other side.

What drew you to Magnum? How did you get into the agency?

"It's not like I was drawn to it. I mean, I knew about it, but I wasn't very connected to the photo world because at that time information was very rare unless you lived in a big city. It wasn't like now where everybody knows about everybody's doings and everything. I knew about Magnum of course but I was very surprised when I was approached to see if I wanted to join. I thought it was for old men and that you had to have studied photography, so it was totally out of the blue."

© Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

You are currently in the country giving workshops as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography. Can photography be taught easily? How do you teach aspiring photographers?

"I hope it's going to give someone inspiration. I don't think I can totally change someone's life. I wish I could, but I think you've got to want to do it, you've got to want to […] In three days you can't make someone a good photographer, but I think for a lot of people that's not the question; it's not the technical things. They know how to take decent pictures, but they just need to be pushed a little bit, channelled into something more focused, and [see] things they don't think about because maybe it's too close or they're too much in their own corner."

Is it more important for photographers to have the ability to see photos in their mind, or to take photos?

"I think it's dangerous to have a visual conception of something in my kind of photography. Yeah of course we all have the pictures in our head, but you want to be free as well; you want to go out there and come across something. It's like hunting; it's not like blowing up taxidermist animals."

What ingredients make a great photo?

"Great, I don't know. At this point I'm less focused on the great picture, this sort of iconic [picture]. It's more like the storytelling, the concept, how something is put together. There's a lot of good pictures. I think that 'great' has lost a bit of its meaning. It's not this one thing that tells it all. In general it should all come together – the meaning, the confusion. I like pictures that intrigue me. The clear and in-your-face pictures aren't that interesting.

So you're more interested in the process than the end result?

"For me I enjoy the process. I mean I shouldn't neglect the end result, but I think it's an incredible privilege to be allowed to play with reality, to use it and put it into a frame. Of course you want to be able to put it into a frame afterwards, [but] it's also very frightening. I don't want to influence. Of course there's always a danger that I could influence something; I could interfere in reality, but the thing is really to get that moment when it all falls together. So if I was making it up in my head, if was being creative about it – I'm not creative enough – so I don't want to do it. It's like cheating."

People are obsessed with gear these days.  What's your philosophy on equipment?

"As little as possible. As natural as possible. I really don't want to think about it. I'm bored beyond recognition about cameras. I don't want to change cameras because I'm bored. I don't want to read another manual. Just leave me alone, give me a decent, good camera, and that's fine."

© Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

You've taken photos in numerous wars, from the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan and Iraq. How has reporting from war zones changed in your time? Are places like Syria more dangerous now than other wars have been in the past?

 "Syria's very bad. It's also we know more about [war], we're more aware of it .When I started it was really nothing glamorous; it was like you're a freak if you wanted to go, like you're a borderline suspect. It was not right. Now it's like everybody goes there for a little bit [and] you do a little bit of a standup with a flak jacket. It has become more accessible, more people are doing it, but it's become more of an obligation for younger people as sort of a career move.

"I don't know if it's really changed. Of course the world has become more connected, so people know more, people are more suspicious and they are checking on you more, what you actually do, whereas before in general you were the outsider.

"I remember the first war in Chechnya, it was like, 'You're a foreigner. You're a foreign correspondent.' That's enough. People were generally okay. There were always the exceptions – people who had bad luck – but in general they were always very welcoming. Now it's more like, 'What are you doing? Why?' There's more questioning from that side, so I find it more difficult."

Is there a danger of romanticing war, of making it look aesthetically pleasing through photography?

"I think the public likes to see the sanitised version [of war]. What are you going to do, take crap pictures of a crap situation? The picture has to be okay. If you want to get all voyeuristic you have a problem […] but the discussion shouldn't be about whether war should be made aesthetic; it should be about how you can make an awareness. And however satisfied and blasé the public are now, if it needs certain aesthetic tricks – I don't think it needs it, and from my side I wouldn't do it for X, Y, Z reasons – but the question is not really the integrity of the photographer. We all more or less believe in the idea we should show this to the world and if the world doesn't want to see it because the pictures are such crap then we have also failed."

Do you believe photos can make a difference?

"I hope so. I don't know. I don't think they do much bad. I think it's an honourable attempt. If it wasn't, it would be bad. I think people would feel very uncivilised."

Thomas Dworzak will be holding a public talk at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design on June 1.

source: newshub archive