The fine balance between representing conflict and preserving a sense of humanity – Francesca Recchia in conversation with Lorenzo Tugnoli

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In Your Face is a podcast series where each episode will feature a conversation with an author, artist, activist whose research focuses on under-represented or misrepresented conflicts. We investigate the roots of the struggles, examine research methods and bring out voices that are rarely heard.

For this episode, Francesca Recchia sat down with Lorenzo Tugnoli, to discuss the war in Yemen. They talk about the complex geo-political reasons behind the war in Yemen as well as the ethics of covering an area of conflict as a photojournalist.

Francesca Recchia: Welcome to a new episode of the Polis Project podcast. This is Francesca Recchia and I’m here in Kabul with Lorenzo Tugnoli. Lorenzo Tugnoli is a photographer based in Beirut who has been recently nominated for the 2019 World Press Photo Story of the Year. Lorenzo, Welcome.

Lorenzo Tugnoli: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here with you.

FR: Lorenzo, can you tell us a bit about yourself before we get into the depth of our conversation?

LT: Well, I have been working in photojournalism and in photography for many years now. I worked a lot in Afghanistan. One of the most important experiences there was working on The Little Book of Kabul with you. I spent more than four years living in Afghanistan and that was the beginning of my professional career as a photojournalist. It was around 2010 and there were lot of opportunities for photographers. I started working with international newspapers and NGOs; so yes, I did a lot of work here. And then I moved to the Middle East and now, as you said, I’m based in Beirut and have been covering the Middle East. One of the legacies of Afghanistan was my collaboration with The Washington Post. I was in Yemen last year and I’ve been covering Syria, Libya and, of course, Lebanon, for them.

FR: Well, you just mentioned Yemen which will be the main topic of our conversation. It is also the subject of the story that was nominated for the World Press Photo. Now, Yemen is a very complex and pretty unknown conflict. Would you be able to help us a little to understand what is going on there?

LT: Yes, it’s true, it is a conflict not known too many. Many people in the West didn’t even know where Yemen was before the revolution, especially before the Saudis decided to intervene in the war. So, what’s happening now is a war between the Northern rebels, who are known as Houthis, who basically control a part of the northwestern part of the country and a coalition of different Arab states controlling the southern part of the country. The coalition is headed by Saudi Arabia and UAE. The interesting point in this war is that there is Saudi Arabia and the United States and some European states that are not fighting the war together as such, but let’s say that the Saudis have received indirect support in terms of arms and expertise. So there is some kind of help from the West. On the other side, are the Houthis, who many people say are being supported by Iran. So, the war is important because, in a way, it’s reflecting what’s happening in many places in the Middle East, including Lebanon and Iraq, where you see this polarisation of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So Yemen is kind of a proxy war between these important powers in the Middle East.

FR: So, it seems that the conflict is mostly between Shias and Sunnis. Is that a communal division that has been exploited?

LT: Yes, you can say that. Even if the Houthis practice a different version of Shiitism than you have in Iran. There is a faction that supports Sunnis and is obviously centred around Saudi Arabia while there is another part that is influenced heavily by Iran. I mean, it’s more complicated than that but yeah, we can say that in a way what is happening in Iraq is similar, where they have been fighting ISIS that is Sunni and you have on the other side a strong influence upon the Iraqi state by Iran.

Also listen to: “Episode 1 | In Your Face featuring Inshah Malik”

FR: One last follow-up question on this: assuming that there is anything like winning a war, which is questionable, what is there to win in Yemen?

LT: I think it would be a good question for the Saudis and for Mohammed Bin Salman. I think the problem is that the Houthis just want to survive and keep the territory that they already control. They control Sana’a, that is the capital; they control the port of Hodeidah, which is an important port for the import of most of the goods that come into the country. The Houthis control a part of the country that is relatively small. So, in terms of territory, the coalition headed by Saudi Arabia controls a larger part of Yemen, but Houthis control a part that is more densely inhabited. So there is a kind of imbalance. The Houthis obviously want to keep the control over what they have, and the Saudis have a lot of problems for having this Shia-oriented militias, or terrorists as they call it, on their borders. I mean, the Houthis have shot missiles towards Riyadh that actually reached the city. A super-power of the region like Saudi Arabia cannot afford to have such an enemy on their southern border.

FR: So, in such a complicated and, for many reasons, of obscure conflict, what is it that we’re not told?

LT: I was travelling in Yemen last year, the year in which Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi embassy in Turkey. He was a Saudi journalist who was working for The Washington Post, the same newspaper I was working with and it’s really interesting how this particular killing triggered such an interest on the war in Yemen. If you look at the coverage of the war in Yemen before, it’s much less mainstream. There were some reports of what was going there, but the real coverage of the war started when this happened. So, it’s really interesting. While in Yemen we were having a conversation with a nurse who was working in the province of Hajjah, one of the worse affected by the famine. And she pointed out: “Because of Khashoggi, you guys are now covering this, but people have been dying here for the past two years.” So, what I’m trying to say is that there is a polarised interest from the media. There are some media houses in the US, including The Washington Post,that have been fighting a media war against President Trump for many reasons and obviously when one of their journalists was killed by a close ally of the President – I’m talking about Mohammed Bin Salman, who is one of the strong men in Saudi Arabia – it was important for them and for many other journalists to show what Saudi Arabia is really doing in Yemen. There is a lot of interest for the international media to push to have a good coverage of the war, especially covering what is happening to civilians, in terms of victims of airstrikes and famine. But we have to remember that the famine and the poverty are not natural disasters in Yemen. What’s happening in Yemen is a manmade famine, because part of the country was blockaded and the currency plunged. Poverty and famine have been used by both sides as a tool of war.

FR: We’ve been talking about the conflict from a political and geopolitical perspective. Now, let’s look at it from the perspective of a photographer. That’s how you went to Yemen. What is there in the conflict that we do not see?

LT: Well, that’s the problem of covering this particular conflict: when you say: ‘what we don’t see’, it’s because I’m not able to photograph it. Yemen is an extremely difficult conflict to cover because of the kind of access that you can have. As I said, the country is divided in two parts. So first of all, you need to be able to access both sides of the conflict by travelling through, or being smuggled through, what is the de facto frontline to go on the other side. Also, when you are on either side, you have to navigate the really complicated bureaucracy that these two systems of governance have put in place. Also both are trying to manipulate your message in order to make you a part of their propaganda. So sometimes they want to show you something because they know that’s going hurt the enemy. Sometimes, obviously they don’t. For example, there was some coverage on the famine because it’s prevalent on the Houthi-controlled side and the Houthis are interested to show you what’s the blockade and the sanctions are doing to the civilian population. So, basically, they want to show you how much the policies of Saudi Arabia are hurting the civilians instead of hurting the warring factions. But, of course, if you ask me what you cannot see is probably all the people who have been arrested and tortured by both sides. In both parts of the country lots of people have been arrested; lots of people have disappeared; lots of people have been tortured. So obviously, this is something that we never see. We cannot see the jails. For example, we cannot even talk to the people, who have been incarcerated and let free by the Houthis in Sana’a, because they are too scared to talk about what happened to them.

FR: In a situation that is so sensitive, how do you choose what to photograph?

LT: Well, I’m talking about wars, but here in specific I’m talking about my work in hospitals, malnutrition centres, refugee camps, mostly situations in which you see people suffering, in which you see children suffering. You need to decide when it’s enough and it’s not easy because, as I told you, you work for months to get to that place and you know that you are going to spend a few hours in that place. So it’s difficult. It’s important to show certain things because it’s important that people know. But I always try to have a kind of sweetness in it – or magic in it. Instead of trying to go for an image that is iconic, I would like to go for the image that is poetic. It’s not easy. I think it’s important to work with other people with that. I’m lucky enough that I’m working with a person who I really admire. Olivier Laurent, who is the foreign photo editor of The Washington Post, is the one I’m working with for these stories and I really appreciate the fact that he was not trying to go for the goriest image possible, but instead trying to balance these things and have a narrative that can also respect the people. I mean, think about it: would you like to have your mum or your son on the cover page of The Washington Postin that kind of situation? It is not easy if it were my son or my mum there. But I think I would still understand that it is important to have that image because of what it is showing. If you look at it that way, probably it’s easier to approach it.

FR: That brings out an important question about going for the image that catches people’s attention, but also what is the ethical questions that you have to ask yourself in order to protect the dignity of the subjects of your photographs?

LT: Yes. For example, if you’re talking about American kids, there are things that you would never publish. But I think if they are Yemeni kids, sometimes kind of easier for the publishers to go for it. If you were in a hospital in New York, getting the rights to publish the picture is something that you would be doing. But obviously in Yemen you’re not doing that, since you’re in a position of power when you’re working in place like that, because you are the white man with the money and you can travel, and you can leave and you can decide to publish the picture or not. But it’s a decision that you have to take, and you have to take it with the people you are working with, because images have a longer life. Images are not only what you take; images will be published and some of them will win awards and so they have their own life. So your ability to control this process is as important as capturing an image.

FR: We’ll get back to this in a minute. I just want to refer to something you mentioned earlier. You said the one thing you try and instil in your photographs is poetry, as a way to approach the narrative of conflict in a different way. Can you expand on this?

LT: I know you don’t like that. Do you like that? Can I ask you a question?

FR: No, you’re the one who’s interviewed here, so go ahead.

LT:[…] I have been interested in the idea of looking at images and understanding the context and how images can be mysterious because they are out of context all the time. So, obviously here we are talking about journalism, so I shouldn’t be talking about stuff that is not completely document. But the fact that you can imagine something in an image is still interesting. Even in an image of journalism. I’m thinking for example about one of the images that was nominated for the first prize this year at the World Press Photo. That is this image of a child walking in front of a wall full of drawings of bombs. Obviously, it’s clear what is happening, but it still makes you think of this child and where he lives; or about the war in a way that is more playful than not having children with a gun in their hand.

FR: I guess one of the things I really appreciate about your work is the fact that there is a very high degree of humanity and there is space to imagine what is not in the picture. Your images are not literal, and I think that is one of the greatest gifts that your pictures give us. To conclude, can you please tell us about a story of an image that you’ve taken in Yemen that has triggered questions and doubts or, you know, something that stayed with you?

LT: I want to talk about an image that was on the cover of The Washington Post.I particularly like this picture because of what’s happening around it. It’s a picture of a woman who is seen from the back. In the picture, you just see this woman who’s in this really bare building. She’s near the door and you can see what’s outside the door; it’s kind of a wasteland in front of it and in a bit of the frame on the right corner you see that there’s no roof in the house and there is a bit of tarpaulin that barely covering the room. I like this image because I think I’ve succeeded in showing that she’s living in this place with no roof and that she’s living in a place that is really difficult and she was also pregnant. We’d been in that particular household twice. So, we went back to see how they were doing after it rained. We were in several refugee camps and the pictures that everybody takes in the refugee camps are with the kids, and the difficult condition, and the sick people. But I was really happy with that image because it is clean, and it tells you some of the elements that you need to know to understand that it’s a refugee camp, but it can still hold some mystery of what’s really going on or maybe you’re thinking: “What’s she thinking? What’s she looking at?” So, I like that.

FR: Thank you so much. I hope we’ll get to see more images from Yemen soon. Thanks so much for being with us and thank you all for listening.

LT: Thank you.

Lorenzo is a photojournalist based in Beirut. He has worked extensively in the Middle East, covering the conflict in Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Yemen. He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post. His work has been published by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine, to name a few. His work in Yemen earned him the 1st prize at the World Press Photo General News Story as well as a nomination for the 2019 World Press Photo Story of the Year. He is also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Photography.

Francesca is a researcher and writer based in Kabul where she is the Acting Director of the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture at the Turquoise Mountain.

In August 2014, Lorenzo and Francesca self-published The Little Book of Kabul. Made of short stories and black and white photos, the book is a portrait of the city of Kabul through the daily activities of a number of artists that we followed for more than a year. Using an evocative visual and narrative language, The Little Book of Kabul takes the reader in a personal journey through the strive for artistic expression and the small, ordinary moments of life that escape the media representation of three decades of conflict in Afghanistan.

Podcast and transcription edited by Zoor Barooah.

The Polis Project is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) collective. If you like what we do, please support us here or through Patreon.

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