Freelance photographer Bryan Denton has spent most of his career photographing news in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Now a mid-career photojournalist, he is one of the few who makes a living on assignments. Blink’s Laurence Cornet chats with him about the evolution of journalism in the region, the current challenges for young photographers on the field and his future plans.
Laurence: Do you want to start with a few words about your latest story?
Bryan: My latest assignment was in Southern Turkey, outside of Gaziantep, for the The New York Times. Chris Chivers and I went to see a family that had been struck by what they later discovered was mustard gas fired by forces from the Islamic State. The family’s newborn child ended up dying from the exposure and the story unravels the introduction of this terrifying weapon on the battlefield along with this family tragedy.
Laurence: You are working on a lot of stories that put both you and your subjects at risk. How do you cope with that?
Bryan: I am not so much worried about myself, but I am worried about respecting the concerns of my subjects. My job consists of illustrating a story as best I can with limited access to people’s identities because they are afraid for their lives. In this case, it was challenging because I couldn’t show the father’s face completely.
He had been exposed to mustard gas, which is a blistering agent that burns your skin as well as your esophagus airway and lungs. He was about six weeks into his recovery when I photographed him, but he still had this terrible cough, which is a trademark of the gas. Every time he coughed, he would put a tissue up to his mouth to cover it. He was also very sensitive to light because the gas burns the surface of your eyes so he was wearing very large sunglasses indoors during the day. All you could really see in terms of his features were the bridge of his nose and his forehead so I thought that taking a portrait at that very moment would describe his condition, and at the same time protect his identity.
Laurence: I am curious about your level of involvement in the investigative aspect of a story when you are working with a writer. Do you have an example of a highly collaborative story?
Bryan: Some of the stories that I did in Libya for Chris Chivers were very collaborative. In Libya, during the siege of Misurata for instance, Chris knew that I had been spending a huge part of each day in the triage tent that served as a refuge for people who had been wounded while fighting in the city. Chris would see me edit the pictures every night and he decided to write long captions for the photographs. He felt that the war was pretty known at that point and, while the story of the hospital wasn’t something he was interested in writing up as a big feature himself, he knew that the photographs should be seen. That was one case where photography dictated writing.
Often times, just by nature of how magazines and newspapers work, I spend a lot of my time illustrating other people’s words. I like it, actually. I’ve always thought that good visual journalism and good writing can amplify each other in a way that makes both better. And I actually enjoy working with a writer to bounce ideas off of one another. It’s a great part of the process of reporting in the field.
Laurence: You work on a lot of assignments but you also work on personal projects. Can you talk about your Hezbollah story and the way you work on your own?
Bryan: The Hezbollah story initially started as an assignment for the Times and I continued for about two years afterwards based on the access that I had had on the first assignment. Early on, I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan doing personal work, which ended up becoming a big part of my assignment work in 2012/2013, and a lot of 2009-2011. Before then I was embedded in Afghanistan, but without any real assignments. It’s a daunting way of working but at the same time it’s also a way to afford yourself time to explore a subject and build your story.
At some point in everybody’s career, you have take that scary step and embark on something really personal and long-term without necessarily knowing if you are going to get paid for it. These days, I think you are very rarely sent on a long-term story on a subject that you haven’t already spent time covering before.
Laurence: You moved to Beirut in 2006. Can you reflect on the evolution of the situation in the past 10 years from a journalistic perspective?
Bryan: Evolution, or devolution? When I came here in July 2006, I was on assignment to cover the war – my first big assignment for the Times. They sent in Tyler Hicks and Joao Silva later on, but I was the closest to Beirut at the time so they sent me before we knew how big the war was going to be.
I arrived and it quickly became clear that it was going to be a huge story.
They kept me here on assignment for 40 days but I was mainly doing smaller features in Beirut while Tyler was down South covering the impact of air strikes. That was my first really big news story and, maybe I’m misremembering it, but what I remembered is that you would show up at these scenes and it would be an absolute bedlam in the number of photographers that were there. There were a lot of mid-career photojournalists, photographers distributed through agencies along with some who had a guarantee from a magazine. There was enough money in circulation to warrant this entire section of the industry that no longer exists on big news stories like this one. I think that was about the last time I really saw that.
It’s sad, especially in terms of conflict photography, because those slightly older freelancers were the ones who kept the younger ones like myself alive a lot of times.
Laurence: Maybe now you are the mid-career journalist who protects and advises…
Bryan: That’s true, and I do try, but I don’t think there are enough people at that mid-career stage anymore, while wars today are incredibly more dangerous in terms risk.
I don’t work in Syria anymore because of the risk of abduction, and I don’t know of a single reputable outlet that’s really sending people into rebel areas at this point. But, I still get a lot of requests from freelancers who are trying to plan trips – young people starting out mostly. There’s nowhere to go to school for that type of work, you have to learn through experience, and one of the ways that we all learn is through older people.
Unfortunately, that institutional knowledge and experience is getting less and less common as time goes on because the older you are, the less likely you are to work without institutional backing from a media outlet. You want to know that you’re covered for medical expenses if something happens to you.
Laurence: For that matter you are lucky enough to work mainly for The New York Times. Is there something else?
Bryan: What have I done this year? It has been a little funny with my wife’s pregnancy and the baby. I took three months off, which was a terrifying experience. But yes, I’ve done work for other editorial clients and in terms of income I’m starting to do a lot of print sales, which I haven’t done in the past. This involves being organized about your editions, printing, retouching, keeping track of everything and also pricing. That’s been the interesting new field of my business!
Laurence: Now that you’re a father, do you feel that you want to step back and work on other types of stories?
Bryan: It’s really a pivotal time in this region’s history, more so than at any other point in the few years I’ve been here. The process will probably redefine itself and there’s still a lot to be decided. I am interested in commenting on the direction that this region is taking.
Iconic photographs from the 20th century stand alone as individual pictures, but I think we have now entered the age of iconic bodies of work. The emphasis is less on single images, and more on storytelling narratives that bridge photojournalism and fine art. So, I am refocusing and thinking about ways to tell stories that would enable me to be home without sacrificing the quality of my work. That probably involves doing more personal work sometime in the very near future and branching out a little bit if I want to be keep myself interesting.