Interviewer — Joanne Callahan, radio host
Interviewee — Mathew Wallas, photographer
Q. Okay, we all have seen photographic reports where all kinds of suffering and social injustice are depicted. These photos win various awards, but what is the price that photographers pay for fame? I mean, they can’t observe and act simultaneously. When they witness crimes, tortures, or any other injustice, how do they make their choice whether to help, as anyone else would do, or to stay a dispassionate observer and take a good photo?
A. Now that is a really complicated question. We all know the story behind that famous photograph of a Sudan girl dying of hunger, and a vulture getting closer to her.
Q. By Kevin Carter, right?
A. Yes. He waited for about 15 minutes to make a good picture, and won a Pulitzer prize for that shot. Later he committed suicide. I had a moment of choice, as I call it, when I worked as a press photographer in Afghanistan in 2005. I saw an Afghan child lying on the ground after gunfire had erupted in the vicinity. He had severe wounds and was bleeding heavily—he looked like he was injured by a grenade—but he was still alive. I pointed my camera at him, it was almost a mechanical movement—all I was thinking about was the scene and the expression of his fading eyes. I could have made a really good shot depicting the war there.
Q. So what did you do?
A. Suddenly, I kind of saw myself from a distance, and it gave me chills. I saw a coldblooded man watching a child die; moreover, this man would wait for a good moment to get a perfect picture. And then I just couldn’t push the button. I knew God would never forgive me. I put the camera aside and ran to the kid. Fortunately, I had a medical kit with me, so I bandaged his wounds as well as I could. I’m no doctor, but at least his bleeding stopped. In a couple of minutes, some locals ran to us; they took the kid to the hospital. I don’t know whether he survived, but I am glad that I never made that shot.
Q. Are you still working as a press photographer in hot spots?
A. No, I quit almost immediately after I returned from Afghanistan. That incident changed my life. I imagined how much violence and suffering I’d have to witness, and the perspective of turning into a photographing machine chasing sensations horrified me. So I came to the chief editor of the publishing house that I was working with, and told him that “I quit.” He didn’t try to convince me. I guess I was not the first one who resigned after visiting a hot spot. Or maybe I was just a bad reporter (laughs).
Q. Now you are famous as a portraitist, your black and white photos of people of the world are exhibited in many countries. What made you choose the portrait genre? Why not landscapes, or, say, abstractions? Was there any specific reason?
A. This is a good question, though the answer is almost the same. The reason why I chose portraits was that Afghan kid. I had been thinking a lot about that case, and still am. People here and there are willing to see death and destruction. They say “How horrible!” but only google for more pictures, more sensations. Take a look at modern media—in most cases, you will see gore and violence. They shape our outlook and our image of other countries by showing how bad their economies are, how bad people live there. What I want to show with my portraits is that peace and joy can be found anywhere. I want to show that no matter where you live or what you do, you can still be happy, wise, and loving. One of my favorite works is a laughing old man from Somali. We’ve all heard what is going on in Somali. Personally, his life was full of misery. But you know what he said to me in his extremely poor English? He said: “When you fall, you can either get up or stay on the ground. Both is your choice. The same is with happiness. When you are down, when your life is a total disaster, just get up and laugh no matter what.”
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