Image as Voice — An Interview with Photographer/Founder of "Witness CHANGE" Robin Hammond by Photographer/Activist Scott Roller

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


Note to reader/listener: This interview was conducted via SKYPE on November 13, 2015, at 10 a.m. EST (4 p.m. in Paris) just hours before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant attacks on Paris, where Robin was residing. The audio is much more "freestyle/raw," opening ad hoc and containing many more of the natural conjunctives, pauses (not to mention Robin's charming New Zealand accent), than the transcribed interview, but is lovely to listen to. HEArt Online  thanks interviewer and HEArt supporter Scott Roller and HEArt partner Robin Hammond for allowing us to publish this interview. A minimal contribution was made to Robin's Witness CHANGE for the privilege. Scott's work is entirely voluntary.

Scott D. Roller (SDR): Good evening, Robin.  Greetings from Pittsburgh.  

Robin Hammond (RH): Hello from Paris, and good day to you, Scott. 

SDR: Let’s start with your beginning. Or, at least, the first point you knew images were your thing. Do you remember the first time you realized that someone was moved by a photo of yours, or when you were first moved by an image someone else took?

RH: I wish I had an amazing “first knew I was a photographer” story. I’ve read interviews where the photographer says “Yeah, my dad got me a box of Brownies (classic box cameras) when I was seven, I was hooked and knew that was what I wanted to do.” I really had no idea about photography, and had no idea that I wanted to be a photographer until I was in my early 20s — 23 or 24 I believe. Wait, there is a childhood story. Since I was nine years old, I was really involved in karate. I’m from New Zealand, and we play rugby, and my brother was an amazing rugby player, and I could barely keep up, so I had to do something different. So I decided I’d dress in white and flatten people, and became active in Japanese martial arts. So I did that from when I was nine years old, and became really involved, and moved to Japan to fight and compete and train. And by the time I was 24, after 15 years of doing it, my body was sort of wrecked.  

I decided I needed to do something else with my life. I mean, my priority had been my sport, and I hadn’t really excelled at school. I thought photography sounded kind of romantic — this idea of traveling the world and seeing places. So I thought “what hell, I’ll study that.” So really it was an … well, it wasn’t an accident. It was something that I thought was interesting. But I really discovered photography when I decided to go to photography school. It was an amazing two years that I studied, and it completely changed my outlook on the world, literally. I saw everything anew. And it didn’t teach me how to take pictures, but it did expose me to amazing photography, and to some bodies of work by some great photojournalists. In particular W. Eugene Smith ….

SDR: Oh yes. Absolutely.

RH: I remember very clearly looking at a Eugene Smith book in the library in my school and knowing that’s what I wanted to do with my work, sort of campaigning with photojournalism.  So I left photo school with a very clear vision of what I wanted to do, but at the same time, very naïve about what the photography industry was really about. It’s taken a lot of time to get to the point where I feel like I’m doing the kind of work that I want to be doing.

SDR: Was there a point where the human rights element came into focus for you? For myself, it was in college, and someone use the word “torture” in a lecture. Having grown up on a farm in Ohio, I had no concept of what that meant. I went to the library, looked up a book on torture, and sat cross-legged on the floor, leafing through and seeing stuff that was astounding that people had constructed to use on other people. That was the moment I kind of shifted and knew it was going to be a focus in my life. Was there a moment like that for you?  

RH: Yeah, I think there was a moment. And it’s connected to what we just talked about: W. Eugene Smith’s work. I always wanted to try to find work that was meaningful. And also the work of James Nachtwey and Eugene Richards had a huge effect on me. They just made me care about stuff that I would never had encountered any other way in my lifetime, about places I would never go, people I would never meet. I just didn’t know that photography could communicate that way. So I was very much introduced to the idea of human rights through photography. And, you know, it just became obvious that it was the way I would pursue my activism.  

SDR: Let’s talk for a bit about your style of photography. I notice as I go through your work — beyond the fun of realizing I’d seen many of your images but hadn’t connected them to you as the photographer — is that many of your images have an audible quality to them. By that I mean as you look at them, you can hear what was happening at that moment, whether it’s the clank of a chain or the roar of a crowd.  


Yeah, I think if you are there yourself, fully open and feeling what’s in front of you, then that’s the thing that makes the image come alive, to feel fully dimensional. That, and a bit of luck, of course, always helps. And really, the hope is that the subject’s being, their voice, is what shows, and not my own. Their voice is what I’d like to be heard, as much as possible.


RH: Well, that’s not intentional, but thank you. I suppose that’s every photographer’s hope, to make that moment feel alive, not just a static two-dimensional thing. Yeah, I think if you are there yourself, fully open and feeling what’s in front of you, then that’s the thing that makes the image come alive, to feel fully dimensional. That, and a bit of luck, of course, always helps. And really, the hope is that the subject’s being, their voice, is what shows, and not my own. Their voice is what I’d like to be heard, as much as possible.

SDR: You have an eye for intimate portraits and sweeping landscapes, both of which are highly emotional. Is there one you prefer or enjoy more? 

RH: They both have their place. Sometimes it’s just the moment, the situation, and there’s no choice. And sometimes the landscape or sky just makes itself part of … a being, I suppose, of the work, and it informs as much as the subject. Sometimes the contrast is the thing, the massive blue sky, very open, no limits and then the people in the shot have such overwhelming limits placed on them. There’s something moving in the contrast.

SDR: How do you describe your work’s focus to someone you meet for the first time?  

RH: My work focuses on human rights issues, and development issues that haven’t had much coverage, that have been underrepresented in the media. The people I work with, those I document, have often been hidden, and oppressed, and shut out of the world. And I try to bring them to light. I want to bring a window to them, to their situations, and hope that’s a step to change and help. If our hope is for understanding, and eventually action, then the first step is that window. My hope for my work is that it is that window.

SDR: You’ve been honored with four Amnesty International Human Rights in Journalism awards. Your photographs include images that are beautiful in their raw humanness while often depicting some of the more deplorable capabilities of our nature. How do you keep the combined weight of the images and stories behind them from crippling your psyche?  

RH: Indeed, the world is an unfair place, brutally so. And what you’re asking, it can be difficult. That sense of moral outrage at unfairness has driven much of my work. I see those who see my photographs as a potential audience that has the power to see, and feel, and stand up and make change happen. That’s what we hope our work does. It’s what any artist or writer who works on these subjects always dream can happen. That’s the hopeful part, and that keeps me going.


And that never, ever gets easier. But probably at the expense of all the other parts of my life, knowing that my photographs can give these people a voice, it makes me get up, it drives me to do it again, every day. The photographs are their voice.


There are times when it does become too much. In South Sudan, where I spent a good deal of time photographing the mentally ill, who have been placed in prison, behind bars, chained to tables or walls, just relentless, that’s an example of having to step away. But it happens every time, that knowing. Knowing that the little kid I photographed living on the street, the mentally ill man chained to the floor in that prison, the victims of sexual violence I photograph who are still in danger, they are still there while I can walk away.  <pause>  And they’re still there. And that never, ever gets easier. But probably at the expense of all the other parts of my life, knowing that my photographs can give these people a voice, it makes me get up, it drives me to do it again, every day. The photographs are their voice.

SDR: What you’re saying is very much the hope of HEArt’s contributors and readers. The energy that happens at the intersection of art and activism is a powerful thing.  

RH: Yeah, that intersection is where the power is, that moment of seeing, reading, and then, after that moment, we have the choice to act in some way or to be complicit. And we’re all complicit to some degree. We all have our challenges and our daily struggles, and sometimes taking on someone else’s is just too overwhelming. But there are lots of ways to act. Sometimes just telling someone else about what’s happening, sometimes that's the most we can do. But after we see, after we know, the power is on us to do something.

SDR: And you are doing something. You’ve launched Witness Change, where you and other photographers, journalists and supporters produce highly visual storytelling on seldom-addressed human rights issues.


Art is the entry, and hopefully action follows.


RH: Yeah, it was born out of that desire to tell stories, and a belief in the power of images and words to change minds. We use photography and research and journalism to tell those stories, and we help connect those on-the-ground organizations that work on issues we support with what they need to meet their goals, whether that’s funding or whatever it is they need. And we connect those who want to help with volunteer opportunities, and ask that everyone read the stories, and share — whether it’s word of mouth or through social media — to spread the word.

SDR: The statistics that "Witness Change’s Condemned: Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis" project reveals are staggering. In some of the countries the project has covered, 98% of those who are mentally ill receive no treatment.  

RH: Yes, and often their situation is even more dire because of poverty, and social stigma. And both of Witness Change’s current projects — the Condemned Project, and "Where Love Is Illegal" — aim to use striking images and words to be the entry point for understanding. Art is the entry, and hopefully action follows.
 
SDR: Perfect segue. "Where Love Is Illegal" — a web project that gathers stories and images of those around the world who have been persecuted because of their sexuality or gender identity, and helps raise funds for grassroots groups who work on these issues in their communities — has grown into a dynamic piece of art activism. Over 130,000 instagram followers, a website that adds new stories regularly, and exhibitions of the images around the world. What is your vision for "Where Love Is Illegal"

Robin Hammond holds his images of Buje from Nigeria (viewer’s left) and Milli from South Africa (viewer’s right), both part of his Where Love is Illegal portfolio.

Robin Hammond holds his images of Buje from Nigeria (viewer’s left) and Milli from South Africa (viewer’s right), both part of his Where Love is Illegal portfolio.

RH: "Where Love Is Illegal" grew out of a collective experience with a number of the countries I‘ve worked in — finding that in many of these countries, those who are LGBT have no rights. Again, it’s the belief that my camera can be a voice, especially for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Several years ago, I met five young men in northern Nigeria who had been arrested, tortured, and when they were released because their case was dismissed, they were ostracized by their community, threatened with stoning, and rejected by their families. All because they were gay. And that stuck with me. I knew this happened all around the world, but it wasn’t real for me until I met these survivors and heard their stories.

And in many of these countries, there are conservative and religious elements, and I understand that, I understand how deeply that goes, but the hope is that through exposure, they see that there are different people, different ways of life. And hoping that through exposure, through seeing individuals and knowing the stories, they’ll see that this is not a threat. So that’s what "Where Love Is Illegal" grew from — the hope that people, knowing and spreading the stories, will make it real for people, and that they will take action.

SDR: The images you’ve taken of LGBT folks that are part of the "Where Love Is Illegal" portfolio and campaign are striking in their directness. The level of trust you have with them must be palpable for them to look so directly into your camera. But several have the subject obscuring their face, which can be even more powerful.

Robin Hammond holds his images of Jessie from Lebanon (viewer’s left), and Simon from Uganda viewer’s right), both part of his Where Love is Illegal portfolio.

Robin Hammond holds his images of Jessie from Lebanon (viewer’s left), and Simon from Uganda viewer’s right), both part of his Where Love is Illegal portfolio.


RH: Yeah, there are some who would be putting themselves in life-threatening situations, in real danger if they showed their face, and the sadness of that fact is very powerful. They can’t even show themselves, can’t reveal their identity. But the reason I’ve taken their photographs, the reason they’ve allowed themselves to be photographed is that they want their stories to be told. Their communities, their government, their families don’t want these individuals’ stories to be known. And the subjects were quite involved with their photographs. They chose their clothes, the pose, how much of their face or identity that we see was down to them. So those images are collaborative to an enormous degree, and that brings a power to the finished piece. The testimony, the story that accompanies each photograph was written by each individual. And for some of them, that was the first time they’d had a voice, that anyone had heard their story.


The greatest impact I think I can have, that photographers and artists and writers can have, is to share work that creates a window for feeling, and that window is the opening for action. That’s the magic.


SDR: And the hope is that once we’ve seen or heard their stories …

RH: The hope is that once we see the authentic self, know the real story, that then our empathy kicks in. And once we have empathy, we can begin to understand, and that window opens. The window to understanding is first, and then the window to act. Bigotry exists where those who are persecuted are silenced. And "Where Love Is Illegal" breaks that silence, and allows those who are persecuted to have their narrative heard. I don’t know that it’s me who can make a difference, but the media can.

SDR: Traditional media or social media?

RH: Traditional media, or social media, any way that the photographs or stories can be shared, that’s where the power is.  

SDR: So the power of art isn’t necessarily just in the art itself, but in the interaction with the viewer or reader.

RH: Yes, exactly. That interaction, and hopefully the action that follows, is the key. The greatest impact I think I can have, that photographers and artists and writers can have, is to share work that creates a window for feeling, and that window is the opening for action. That’s the magic.

To learn more about the work of Robin Hammond, please visit WitnessChange.org.


###


Robin Hammond holds his images of D and O from Russia (viewer’s left), and Tiwonge from Malawi (viewer’s right) both part of his "Where Love is Illegal" portfolio.

Robin Hammond holds his images of D and O from Russia (viewer’s left), and Tiwonge from Malawi (viewer’s right) both part of his "Where Love is Illegal" portfolio.

Robin Hammond was born in New Zealand, has made his home in Japan, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and France, and has the well-traveled trajectory expected of an award-winning freelance photographer. He is the recipient of four Amnesty International Human Rights in Journalism awards, the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, and a World Press Photo Prize. Perhaps the sweetest of all, in 2013 he received the award for Humanistic Photography from the W. Eugene Smith fund, so named to honor the photographer that has most inspired his own work.

More important than his geographical experience and prestigious awards, however, is that he has the steady, empathetic soul of someone who has found his purpose. Recent exhibitions and their accompanying books include "Condemned: Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis, and Zimbabwe — Your Wounds Will Be Named Silence."  Hammond’s work has expanded to include photography and the journalism activism site Witness Change, and its featured project "Where Love Is Illegal" that focuses on the images and stories of LGBT individuals around the world. Hammond is engaging, humble, and certain of the power of photography to move us to action on the most important human rights issues of our time.


Scott Roller is a photographer, writer, and communications specialist who lives and works in the Pittsburgh region. He has taken photographs in nearly 40 countries, and his work, including "South: Images from the Freedom Riders Civil Bus Ride Routes," may be found at www.scottroller.com. We also encourage you to view his Freedom Ride portfolio here at HEArt Online.