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Culture

The best photos are accidents, says photojournalist Bangert

Photojournalists cannot control everything that goes on in their pictures, and that's the best part of the job, says Christoph Bangert, who has documented events in some of the world's toughest crisis regions.

Christoph Bangert

Christoph Bangert says he has a moral responsibility to document what he sees

Christoph Bangert has worked in the Palestinian territories, Japan, Chad/Darfur, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, the United States, Lebanon, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. From 2005 to 2006, he spent nine months in Iraq on assignment for the New York Times. His work from that period was published in two books.

Bangert has exhibited his photographs in Germany, New York and Switzerland and has been honored with numerous prizes for his work. Born in 1978 in a small town in western Germany, he now makes his home in Zurich. Bangert recently returned from a 14-month journey with his Land Rover across Africa. Deutsche Welle spoke with him at a recent conference in Bonn.

For a look at more of Christoph Bangert's photos, click on the link to his website below.

Deutsche Welle: How has the profession of photojournalism changed over the past decade with the increasing use of digital technology?

Christoph Bangert: There have been several revolutions in the photography world in recent years. One has been the digital revolution. The other was a change for the worse - the downfall of print publications. So as photographers, we are struggling very much right now to earn money because our clients - the print publications - are sturggling to survive.

In the long term, does this mean that a lot of non-professional material is being used on websites? Has the level of photography been lowered by the fact that all sorts of people can take photos and publish them on the internet?

Not really. Everybody thinks that that's a huge issue. That's not really a problem for us. What we do - and I don't want to sound arrogant now - but what we do is just better than what a hobby photographer does and puts on Flickr. The quality of images taken by a professional photographer will always be better. It's more of a problem that the publications have run out of money - not that they're using free pictures, but that they're using fewer pictures.

It seems surprising when there are more images available in this day and age.

There have never been as many good images around as today. The demand for pictures is still very high. But, compared to a few years ago, the print publications are in trouble. The online publications are having a great time. They're doing very, very well. The problem is, no one has figured out yet how to earn money on the web.

How does a photojournalist differ from other journalists? What are the qualities that are important for a photo to carry the messages that another journalist might communicate in 1,000 words, or a 15-minute program?

Photographs are perceived, first of all, emotionally. That means that the viewer looks at the picture and in a split second has an emotional reaction - or no emotional reaction; it depends on the image. Secondly, people have an intellectual reaction. They think about what's in the picture, what does it show, who is that person and what is going on. But the first reaction is always emotional, which is quite different from text.

A photograph by Christoph Bangert showing a covered woman walking across a street in Iraq

Bangert captured this scene during his nine-month stay in Iraq

When you're sorting thr ough your pictures, do you use your emotional side to know that it's a good picture, or is your technical side at work to help you choose?

I show them to my wife. She usually hasn't been where I have been, which makes it much easier for her to decide if a picture works for her or not. Sometimes it's for the photographer to choose the pictures because you were there; you're emotionally attached to the event and the people you met.

You were in Iraq for 9 months in 2005 and 2006. What were the extra difficulties that you faced as a photographer in a country that was in such a distraught state?

It was probably the most difficult assignment in the world in 2005, 2006 and early 2007 because access was so limited. Iraqis were so afraid to meet with you as a Westerner because they were afraid of getting killed. The overall security situation was so difficult that we were not allowed to walk in the streets, as Westerners. We were very concerned about kidnappings, but also car bombs. It was limiting in every way imaginable. But we still tried to do something, and I think to a certain extent we succeeded.

When there's been a terrible disaster and lives have been lost and people are hysterical, is it a difficult moral question for you to pull out a camera at that moment?

On a personal level, it is sometimes very difficult. You just want to run away, it's so horrific. The last thing you want to do is take pictures. At the same time, I'm not there for my own personal gain; I'm there because I'm a professional journalist. I'm there to document what's going on and bring this document - my pictures - back to the society where I come from.

Not to take pictures would be completely wrong - it would be morally wrong as well. That would mean I would go there without coming back with something. So I have to take pictures. If I don't do that, I have no right to be there.

You are also a photographer who has exhibited a great deal. When is a photo a work of art?

I think one thing I learned over the years is that categorizing doesn't help very much. If you think it's art, it's art. If you think it's crap, it's crap. It really depends on the viewer - if the viewer calls it this or that. For me, it doesn't matter. I take pictures; I'm a photographer, and that's about it.

Can you spot it quickly when a photograph has been manipulated, with Photoshop or another program?

What we do with Photoshop is very similar to what we do in a conventional darkroom. We correct the color and things like that. As soon as the content is altered, then there's a line that's been crossed and I cannot call it a photograph any more. Then it's an illustration.

Have you ever been surprised by photos that you haven't thought were your strongest but which received a very strong reaction?

All the time. A lot of times, the pictures that are accidents are the best pictures, because something is happening in the picture that you did not anticipate. And that is the great advantage of being a documentary photographer or a photojournalist. Things happen that you cannot control. If you are in a studio and you're a studio photographer or fashion photographer, you control almost everything and that is exactly the problem because you're limited to your own imagination. I don't want to be limited to my imagination, I want something to happen that I cannot control - something that is beyond me.

Interview: Breandain O'Shea (kjb)

Editor: Louisa Schaefer

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