Marcin Konkel

"Portray them honestly but respectfully" - an interview with Michał Huniewicz (part 2)

For the second part of the interview (see also part one) I've met with Michał in Warsaw. Well, to be honest, it wasn't an interview per say as we had a really interesting talk while walking down the streets on a Sunday afternoon. The conversations were about different things related to traveling, photography but also building relationships with people and art. The outcome of it was something that I wanted Michał to share as well in our official talk here. Below you can read the outcome. Enjoy!

JORDAN / Treasury from above. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.

MARCIN KONKEL: These were some fascinating stories! I've noticed that among the things you've seen and captured on photographs, one of the main subjects is a human being. You have a gift of conveying stories of people to an extent that fascinates the reader and makes him / her think. How do you make contact with your subjects or start a conversation - especially in those not-so-safe situations?

MICHAŁ HUNIEWICZ: My modus operandi has evolved a great deal over the years. From completely improvised see-what-happens trips to everything-carefully-planned-and-booked trips to something in the middle. Now I believe you can make the best decisions on site. I have come to depend quite a bit on local fixers - people who know about the place more than I do, and who are native speakers. I believe that doing research before going on a trip is necessary, but one should not do *all* research before going. Some of it should be done after the trip, after you have actually experienced it and can relate the information to your own fresh memories.

For years, I'd either shoot people without them knowing, in candid situations, or ask them to pose and then snap. The former is great, but raises ethical questions of exposing people's lives without their consent. The latter, in my experience, often leads to portraits of people startled, insecure, terrified of being photographed. I've taken loads of photos like that, and the fear of the person is the only thing it communicates, even if the photo is technically perfect.

Last year in Mexico, I did something different, in the sense that I visited the place, stayed for the night, allowed people to get used to me, didn't pull out my camera to soon. People knew about me and my goals, they agreed to pose, so there were no ethical issues. The actual portraits were taken last, once people knew me to some extent, and felt comfortable in my presence.

Richard Avedon took photos with his soundless camera while talking to his subjects, who were unaware of the exact moment Avedon pressed the shutter remote. I tried doing something like that as well, but it's hard with a DSLR hanging off your neck, and DSLRs are quite loud, too.

Ideally, I'd say, you'd visit a community, tell them about your plans, get their consent, and spend a lot of time with them, hear their stories, and make sure you portray them honestly but respectfully. I'd go as far as to say you should make the effort of learning their language to some degree. That will show you're serious, and that you care about them, even if for the actual interviews you still depend on the fixer or translator.

I think you might be surprised by how often people say yes when you ask them to be photographed, and if they say no, it's fine, that will always happen, nothing wrong with that. You don't ask, you don't get.

Again, not trying to sound like an authority, but in my experience: If you think it's easy to affect the world with your photographs, it's probably harder than you think. But if you think it's hard to affect the world with your photographs, it's probably easier than you think. What's more, it's easier to affect the world in a negative way, in my experience. I never expected them to, but some of my photos have done real harm.

It was so fun and nice to run a website that almost no one visited, and I felt I could get away with anything. Well you never know when your work will go viral, and I think we, photographers, should keep in mind it could go viral and the impact it will have on us and, primarily, on those we photographed. We have to accept some responsibility.

MEXICO / The Shaman of the Monkey Island. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.Casting spells in a pre-Colombian town in the jungle.

Is there something one can do to mitigate or eliminate the risk of harm being done? We surely can't figure out all scenarios or situations when this may happen. Still, there might be things that, as photographers, we should take into consideration apart of the mentioned respect and honesty. What is your view on this?

There was a London street photographers exhibition couple of years ago, and quite a few of them mentioned that female photographers generally get away with more, as they are perceived as less threatening than their male counterparts. One said a visible bump of pregnancy was the best time to safely snap without being harassed by the police or guards. But that's London - if you're a woman visiting some backwards countries, that useful air of being non-threatening brings its own challenges.

I recommend using a fixer who will understand how the situation is unfolding before you're able to, and get you out. Steve McCurry got into a situation where he got beaten up by an angry mob, and his film camera was seriously damaged, including the film. That was a religious ceremony, and he must have crossed some line.

You'll find people willing to help you either on site, or prior to going, online. They may be aspiring journalists who will help you out for free. That also helps to find focus for your project or assignment, as the fixer will have to be aware of your goals.

Myself, I try to diffuse situations by not covering my face, and I rarely wear sunglasses - I want my face to be seen, avoiding the impression that there's something I'm hiding, or that I wish to remain anonymous. In more polluted countries, people may wear scarves or masks for health reasons, so it's a trade-off.

Still, in Cairo, women would hit me daily - it was never a punch in the face, but it was not some symbolic slap either: it was always a fairly strong hit aimed at my upper body. Not life-threatening, but still unpleasant. Often it was someone I did not even have a chance to make eye contact with and receive a warning. It was always women, every single case, as if they felt confident I would not escalate the violence, which I didn't. I have no clue what that was all about, but I suspect it was the camera.

This is just something that will happen, and I think we just have to accept it, sadly. The ability and willingness to go in and take risks might be what eventually distinguishes your photos from everyone else's photos.

UKRAINE / Kiev. A tram driver's cabin. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.

Michał, you said that it's easier to affect the world in a negative way with photographs. Probably all of us have seen reportages from war zones or some documentaries that were stepping on a thin line between being a observer that's sharing the story and a human that's witnessing cruelty or injustice in some way. Where do you draw the line when it comes to being present in such situations?

One remembers Kevin Carter and his photo of a potentially dying child, with a vulture behind her, and the fact that he most likely did little or nothing to help her, perhaps wishing to stay neutral. He later committed suicide. Peter Arnett has done a photograph of a burning monk. He didn't help as he did not want it to look like supporting the regime. Nick Ut helped a girl burned by napalm.

On the other hand, in some cases it's easy to imagine that photographers (and media in general) getting involved in a military conflict will inevitably lead to them not being allowed anywhere near the conflict next time around, which in turn means the belligerents are free to do as they please, since no one is looking. 

The Israeli military has become very efficient at minimising civilian damage, potentially thanks to incredible media attention - estimates vary, but it's usually statistically less than 1 civilian per 1 combatant death caused by the IDF, and in some years apparently even only one civilian death for 30 combatant deaths. World War 2 was worse, with the ratio being 3 civilians for every 2 combatant deaths, or even 2:1; some recent NATO operations being 3 or 4 civilians death for every combatant death. 

Every time someone demands photographers taking sides in a military conflict and taking action, they need to consider the implications of the media not being there as a result of not remaining neutral, and photographers being targeted for having been involved. 

Linda Polman describes those dilemmas better than I can in her We Did Nothing book on the UN, based on her personal experiences. And in her case it's not just her (representing the media) but also actual medical personnel that have to refuse to offer help to people in need, just because they are aware of the flood of people in need that would cause to arrive. It's horrible, but sometimes you can just stand and watch.

NORTHERN IRELAND / In the Titanic dock. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.

When embarking on a reportage, what do you want to show to people through your lens? When you travel, can the goal change or it accompanies you through the whole journey?

These days I usually have a predefined goal, but once I publish my galleries (which are usually quite generic in character), I sometimes notice interest in something which I didn't devote a lot of room for, and that becomes a story of its own, an article published elsewhere, or a video even. 

I went to Mauritania to ride the cargo train, but managed to take some shots in those Saharan libraries - and later they became the main focus and the main story, which wasn't something I expected. Otherwise, I would have spent more time around the libraries as opposed to what probably was 2 hours! 

In my opinion, you need to be flexible with caution. In Mexico, I almost cancelled all my plans after a local girl told me about a tribe that digs up their recently deceased to cook them. It was the Day of the Dead, I'm into morbid stuff, seemed kind of legit, the Mayans... But in the end I didn't chance it, and I was right, because apparently someone had told her a lie. There is no body cooking going on, after all. 

It's always a battle between my OCD that says everything has to go according to plan, and every objective must be accomplished - and the stuff that pops up, and seems to have some potential. 

There are things which I learnt about but didn't get a chance to shoot, and might one day. Dervishes in Bosnia, a pole dancer I met in Mexico, the Muslim community in China, the whole of India is full of stories to tell...

UZBEKISTAN / We didn't get the tickets for the super-fast Afrosiyob, so we had to board a regular train that takes ages! Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.Today, Uzbekistan is a democracy only in theory. In practice, they have had the same president since the fall of the USSR, but he is supported both by the West and by Russia, as he manages to keep Muslim extremists in check. Central Asian leadership decided to try to follow the secular nationalist model of Kemal Atatürk, with a varying degree of success. Uzbekistan left the GUUAM organisation after two of its members, Georgia and Ukraine, had peaceful revolutions that democratised the governments...

When talking about your work, photographs, you mentioned earlier that you yourself are your own worst critic in the positive sense of the word. You also said that there are services that let one get a professional opinion about his or her shots. Did you use such a service? How did it influence you and / or how you photograph?

Last year I went to a Magnum workshop. It was a two day event - day one was lectures by four different people (a Magnum editor, an important photography magazine editor, a publisher, an NGO worker), day two was photo critique. It wasn't cheap, but I must say I got more out of the photo critique than out of all the photography books I have read in the recent years (well, except for Photojournalists on War). 

It's so important to have your photos reviewed by people who don't care about your feelings and who are professionals but not photographers. They think in a different way, and they notice different aspects, they search for something else in your photos. 

There was a professional photographer getting his photos reviewed. I saw them earlier, I thought they were OK. But the editor immediately told the man "I can see from your portraits that you are intimidated with the camera. You don't establish a relationship with your subject, and your portraits don't convey any message". The man nodded with a solemn facial expression. I looked at his photos and thought about his lenses and processing technique, but the editor went way past that and hit the bullseye. That's what you need.

MEXICO / Day of the Dead. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.

Building your skill-set and own ways of conveying a message takes time and hard work. What are you up to next? What do you want to see or experience in the near and not-so-near future?

I'd like to go to Iran and be well prepared. Really well prepared. I even intend to learn some Farsi. I do have some knowledge about the Middle East, Islamic civilisations, the culture. Not sure what I will document yet, but I'm hoping there will be a story to tell, and not just pretty holiday shots. 

In the not-so-near future, I don't know. I'm running out of places on my bucket list. The goal for now is to process the photos and stories I have left, and learn from that, and then decide where to go, once I have learnt more.

INDIA / Manikarnika Ghat. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz."Powerful death, unexpectedly, like a serpent, approaches him stricken with bodily and mental pain, yet anxiously hoping to live." This is Manikarnika Ghat, the primary cremation ghat in Varanasi (another, smaller one exists as well). Before entering, tourists are asked to show respect, including not listening to music - I was told to put my earphones in my backpack. Ghat is a Southern Asian term, and it refers to a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river. There are plenty of all sorts of ghats in Varanasi. Burning ghats exist not only in Varanasi - there are more in India, and there is also one in Kathmandu, Nepal. Notice the piles of wood for burning, relaxed cows and goats, family members and spectators observing the cremations, and a couple of boats with tourists.

Looking forward to your reportage from Iran! Is there anything I didn't ask you that you would like the readers to know?

I've got an exhibition coming up in June, so if you're in Poland, please visit Torun and have a look! Otherwise, please keep an eye on my social media - my new story on women helping out illegal migrants in Mexico is nearly done, and it should be fairly controversial, as I got personally involved. I've been trying to respond to everyone who got in touch with me, so please do get in touch if you have any questions about my work, suggestions, and complains are OK as well. Thanks!

Michał, thank you very much for your time and shedding some more light the on your journeys and the way you approach photography. Best of luck in your future endeavours! 

More on Michał:

-> An interview with Michał on the Chernobyl accident 30 years later,

-> Exhibition in Toruń - Nicolaus Copernicus University Library in June - keep an eye out on social-media,

-> Michał's social-media: FacebookInstagramTwitter and official web-page.