Photography of Politics and People – Interview with Nick Danziger
By Sarah E L Stricker, on 6 March 2016
IPPR President Alexandra Heaven interviews Nick Danziger. Nick Danziger is one of Europe’s finest photojournalists having spent a life documenting what he sees in best-selling books, and in award-winning documentaries and photography. His most recent books have included: Mana, a unique behind-the-scenes look at New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team and Onze Femmes, tracing the lives of 11 women from countries in conflict over the last 10 years. His photographic work is held in museum collections worldwide. His ‘mirror’ image of Tony Blair and George W. Bush shot during a 30-day, ground-breaking study of a Prime Minister at war won the World Press Photo Award.
AH – My first question is about working with politicians. They are notoriously good at putting on a face. They have had so much media training, they know exactly how to hold their faces, they know what to say, yet for us as the public the human face is so important for our perception of politicians. So I want to ask you about the challenges you face in representing politicians?
ND – First of all, it is very difficult to get access, especially the kind of access that I want, which is not on a long lens. I shoot on wide angle lenses so I actually have to be pretty close to the politicians that I photograph. And there is no doubt that it has taken almost 30 years to work out the way that you work to get that, not only the access, but the trust. It takes time. I don’t want to have a relationship with the politician because I want to keep that independence. I don’t want to be drawn into becoming a friend. But hopefully the types of pictures that I take are both very intimate but equally very dispassionate in the sense that I am documenting what they are doing. They are doing a job, and I’m not looking to take cheap pictures or funny moments, and I think they understand that. Obviously, what I do, that cannot be achieved in an hour or two hours, so the idea is really always to spend days, if not at least a week or 10 days with the person that I’m profiling because that’s when – you know, they have other things to get on with – they can’t show the public persona that they might like to portray, it just can’t happen for them. You become you part of the scenery and they’ve got to get on with their work. Hopefully I’m with people who have pretty busy schedules and they can’t worry about this photographer, they might initially, but then it’s up to me to take over and blend into the background.
AH – So a lot of it is waiting and looking and watching what they are doing…
ND – Absolutely, also to know when to push to get the access and when to withdraw. Even if I had the access there are moments I realise, right, there is no point me sticking around now because I could ruin the access later on. So it’s a very fine line, it’s a balancing act of having to get the picture and having some kind of strategic plan in your head as to what might be more important later on down the line, so this is not the moment to push.
AH – Are there particular events in that stretch of time that are better (for photographing)? Is it one on one meetings or the big meetings?
ND – Exactly, that’s what I want to do, it’s interesting you say that, I want a variety, of different elements. It might look as if it’s shot in a day, but that’s what you want, the private moments, the one-on-one with a minister, you might want it with the whole cabinet and times at home, so you do get that kind of behind the scenes. It’s not the politician, it’s; who is he? He’s also a human being, man or woman. So yes it is very much trying to build up a picture of the rounded aspects of work and downtime, or family time.
AH- Does that help you choose the end picture, you get so many shots of them at many different times, does that help you choose one where you can say you feel this represents the whole person?
ND – It’s actually very difficult. That’s what I have discovered. And in fact words have become important too, because I don’t think that one image can represent the many aspects and facets, I mean if I say to you pick one picture of yourself, what would you choose as that one defining picture?
AH – Yeah that’s too hard! So that leads onto my next question, as consumers of photojournalism in many different spheres, what would you consider important for consumers to understand about what they are looking at?
ND – I think integrity and authenticity of what I am doing is really important. I’m getting on with the work, I’m not particularly thinking this is the message I want to convey, other than when I might be going to a very difficult part of the world, and probably focusing on individual lives, in circumstances that shouldn’t exist. So (in that case) probably I’m getting people to think about the people I’m photographing and trying in a sense to imagine what it would be like if they had to live under that set of circumstances. That’s why I say that the words also become important as well, because with words you can round the story out, inform you, they bring you additional information.
AH – Given you work with some of the most powerful people in the world and some of the most disempowered people in the world, what personally do you find the most fascinating situations to shoot?
ND – You know, I would rather be with the people who are disempowered, as you wanted to use that word, so, the marginalised. Because I think the others have plenty of opportunity to speak, convey messages etc. I’m trying to look at corners of the world that don’t have that kind of access.
AH – In what way do you think that journalism should be a watchdog of international organisations as well as states? Do you think there is an important role for following up global development programs?
ND – Absolutely. I think that journalism is one of those pillars that keeps people and society and companies in check. You know we have laws, but also we have what used to be called investigative journalism. I say what used to be called, unfortunately, there are less and less media outlets that do investigative journalism or indeed can finance investigative journalism. I think it’s a really strong and important part of journalism, not just to report but indeed, to really dig deep to find out what are the real issues. What is really happening? And a bit like in development it’s not just about rolling out programs, but are those programs effective? What impact do they have? So I think that’s really, really important.
AH – We were talking about this today in a Global Ethics class actually, about representation – who gets to represent who?
ND – It’s really, really important. And you know, it’s difficult because journalists also have to be responsible. So equally, to what extent, at times, can you reveal what is happening? Because you have to think of that bigger picture. You as a journalist can have a big impact, but equally, stories are very complex, multi-faceted, and I’ve often maybe wanted to accuse, or point the finger, when in fact you know, more resources and more investigation needed to take place because there is that point when you ask yourself whether you tell the story or not because it can have a big impact and a negative impact on the program or people.
AH – How do you feel about citizens journalism? I know it is connected to the lack of finance for some investigations.
ND – I think there is a place for everything. The problem is today that people from every walk of life are looking to spend the least amount and you get what you pay for. It’s not that media outlets are not wanting to do investigative journalism, but it’s extremely expensive. So there is a place for citizen journalism. Say you were going after a PM because we have talked about heads of state. It is phenomenally expensive! If you wanted to uncover something you would need lawyers and so on, so everything has its place. The sadness for me today is that someone who isn’t wise and hasn’t got experience might take that image that you think is very indicative or true of a situation, when in fact you might be causing greater harm because you haven’t spent the time and investigated and you’ve been tripped up.
AH – How do you deal with representing people who are such a world away from your world? How do you deal with your own personal bias in that situation?
ND – Well you know for a start I’ve been photographing vulnerable people and however I explain it to people, it’s very hard for them to understand, what the impact of their image could be because they don’t have the accesses that we have. So I try to explain as much as I can what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, the uses of the picture etc., but If I’m totally honest, however much you explain, how can someone who doesn’t have access to electricity fully understand the implications of an image on the internet.
I didn’t train as a journalist, and often they start by saying “oh you’ve got to be objective”. But now in what I do, I’m not trying to be objective, if it’s wrong, its wrong and you know that’s the way that it is. I’m not a politician and I’d love things to change but it would be very patronising to think that little me could change anything in this world. So one has to be very careful about overestimating what you do. It’s a personal quest. I see things and I’m drawn back to them because I think that situations could change for the better, but sometimes we need to know about it if we want it to change, you can’t change something that you don’t know needs fixing.
AH – You see this with journalists often, they try to be objective and they’re not.
ND – Yeah well you see this with American journalism, you read American newspapers, they say “one observer noted” well that one observer is you, the bloody writer! You know, just come out with it! It’s insane.
AH – Perhaps, sometimes it is important to say “actually this is where I’m coming from and this is what I think”.
ND – Yes and that’s where I hope a lot of what I do speaks for itself, I don’t think you’ll hear me saying “this should be done” “we need to…” you know? So I’m hoping that people will come to their own conclusions and if they are not conclusions, then I think even just being informed is important.
You can check out more of Nick’s work at: www.nickdanziger.com
And support his current project Another Life, at this link: https://unbound.co.uk/books/another-life