Feeling the pull of war: Andy Spyra | Arts | DW | 03.01.2017
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Feeling the pull of war: Andy Spyra

He is one of Germany's best photographers, and his main theme is war. Andy Spyra told DW about the hurdles and limits of high-risk photography - and why it fascinates him.

DW: Mr. Spyra, you work as a photographer in war regions but don't like to be called a war photographer. Why not?

Andy Spyra: War photographers I know usually go to the front to watch what's happening there, they're interested in the war as such. But I'm not interested in the war as such. Instead, I'm interested in the repercussions of war. War has a strong pull. And also a sinister bang effect. These photographers and journalists are drawn by those things like moths are drawn by light. But I do think it's possible to distance oneself from that. The stories that interest me take place around the war, behind the front.

But aren't those stories taking place away from the actual fighting also part of the war?

Yes. But what I'm trying to say is that what interests me primarily is not the actual fighting. I'm interested in what's happening around wars, the legacy and the aftermath of wars. In some long-time projects, I also work on wars that ended a hundred years ago, like for example the genocide of the Armenians.

During your trip to Turkey, where you did research for your report "100 Years Since the Genocide of the Armenians," you were arrested and sent back to Germany. Have you experienced such restrictions elsewhere as well?

No. I must add, however, that in some countries, it's becoming increasingly difficult to work as a journalist. Press freedom is being increasingly curtailed, it's becoming more and more difficult to obtain visas, to work without restrictions, it's risky just to say that you're a journalist. It's always a difficult game with the authorities, and you're better off if you avoid attracting attention. People think journalists would enjoy some kind of special protection, but the conditions that prevailed in the 70s and 80s are definitely over for my generation. We have ceased being just observers, we have become targets ourselves. Nowadays, journalists don't buy white bullet-proof vests. Whoever does that must be crazy, and could become an easy target for snipers and kidnappers.

Why then do you continue to expose yourself to these dangers, what is it in war that fascinates you so much?

War annihilates our comfortable life. Civilization is wiped out, an archaic world creeps in. A lot of horrible things, but at the same time, also some good things. I recently visited a refugee camp where people had to endure miserable conditions. And yet, I bumped into people with whom I had a lot of fun. I came to realize that humanity doesn't disappear. Under such conditions, people become more discernible, much more than other people who are hiding behind walls and their comfortable life. In my view, war has an immense momentum that draws everything surrounding it into its pull - entire societies, people and landscapes. And I'm very much attracted by that transforming power of war.

Afghanistan in Masar e Sharif - Exhibition Conflict (A. Spyra)

A school class in Masar-i Sharif, a base of Germany's Bundeswehr in Afghanistan - the kind of place that Spyra tends to photograph

You take pictures of people who are terribly suffering, who are stigmatized by what happened to them. How do you manage to get close enough with your camera while maintaining your respect for them?

I think that has something to do with one's own attitude towards these people, that - as simple as that may sound - one perceives them as people, and meets them on equal footing rather than through a camera. I've noticed that some of my colleagues don't look into their eyes but only see an object through their camera. I couldn't work like that. I need human contact with these people in front of my camera. And that contact needs to be established first. I make an effort to not have my camera permanently in front of my eyes but also to talk to these people. Only then do they open up.

How do you define a good picture?

Good pictures are those which touch me emotionally, in which I perceive a statement, in which I also perceive the photographer. A picture is worthless if it looks like a news ticker, if it only shows that something is actually there, that something actually happened. I want to know what happened where, but I also want to know how it feels like. 

In the context of one of your long-time projects, you portrayed approximately 80 women and girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram. Did you succeed in capturing their feelings with your pictures?

No, I think I failed at this point. Although I've been in Nigeria numerous times, these women have remained strangers to me. What these women have gone through - rape, forced marriage, beatings - are horrror stories, leaving many of them highly traumatized. I tried to capture their trauma and also their immense inner strength in my pictures. But I believe that here I reached my own limits as a photographer. Because there still is so much more that I didn't manage to capture.

A Christian woman who fled from Boko Haram - Exhibition Conflict (A. Spyra)

Portrait of a woman kidnapped by Boko Haram. Spyra prefers black-and-white photography

Comparing today's media with those of fifty years ago during the Vietman War, I get the impression that wars are shown less explicitly nowadays than they were back then. Has war photography become less important in the German media?

Media access to actual fighting scenes was more direct during the 70s, 80s and 90s. But here, one also needs to distinguish between the German-speaking and the Anglophone media. The German media are very conservative when it comes to reporting about crisis and conflicts. It's a topic that's often neglected. Quite often, they say "No, that doesn't concern us," or "No, that's not relevant enough," or "No, nobody wants to see that." And then, preference is given to reports about a fashion show instead of reports about Mosul. It's often hard to sell topics on suffering people when they appear next to advertisements. If such topics are accepted, I often feel that it's due to some journalistic duty rather than a true and deep interest. The way German media deal with the topic also has to do with our historically conditioned perception of war. The difference is clear if you compare the access to war scenes in Afghanistan and Iraq you get in the company of Americans, with that you get accompanied by German soldiers. With the Bundeswehr, you're only permitted to drive around for half a day and can't get out of the car. All you can do is look out the windows. For British and American soldiers, war isn't such a taboo..

No matter how difficult it may be to sell war topics, you are nevertheless successful in what you are doing. Your pictures were printed by the Times, the German daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung" and the German weeklies "Die Zeit" and "Der Spiegel." What do you seek to express with your pictures from crisis-hit regions?

Well, the cliché: a window into another world. These are worlds that would otherwise remain closed forever to people living in Germany who cannot and don't want to travel there. But I think we cannot and we should not close our eyes to what's happening in these regions. We do have a responsibility, partly a historical one. Many of these problems, like for example the refugee crisis, are homegrown, they originate here in Europe. I want to make these topics that interest me more accessible to the mainstream.

Andy Spyra was born in the German city of Hagen in 1984. After finishing high school, he traveled around Central America and Southeast Asia where he discovered his passion for photography. From 2007 to 2009, he studied photo journalism and documentary photography at an academy in Hanover. Spyra currently works in Dortmund as a freelance photographer. He travels a lot to war regions, photographing in black-and-white, and prefers working on long-time projects. His pictures have been printed in a number of renowned newspapers and magazines.

Some of his photographs will be shown in the exhibition "Conflict - Young Photographers Witness" in Berlin that beginning in February 2017. DW will report on the exhibition.

Interview: Bettina Baumann.

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