A conversation with David Butow

Last month, Open Show teamed up with the Japan Society of Northern California to turn our 26th Bay Area event into a benefit for the survivors of tsunami and nuclear incident in Japan earlier this year. Photojournalist David Butow presented photos taken during the aftermath of the disaster, and he agreed to chat with us about his experiences in photography, and in Japan:

Why did you initially pick up a camera? What was your first memorable photographic experience?

When I was about 10 or 11 my dad handed me his good 35mm to take some pictures during a family vacation in France. There were these guys playing boules, lawn bowling, and I took a few shots. When I got the pictures back I saw I’d clicked just as a guy released the ball, capturing it in mid-air. I thought it was so cool that you could freeze a moment like that. I think I was hooked from that point on.

You photographed Japan after much of the initial wave of destruction and panic had passed. Do your images differ from those taken immediately following the quake and tsunami?

Immediately after an event like that there are often moments of high drama as people react to the suddenness and the severity of what’s happened. In the days following they may lack adequate shelter or food and water. By the time I got to the earthquake and tsunami areas a couple of weeks later, much of the shock had worn off and the survivors were relatively safe. So then the challenge is to show how they’re dealing with the next step, logistically, psychologically and culturally. It requires slowing down a bit and not scrambling from place to place. The Japanese tend to be very organized and not prone to wild displays of emotion so I wanted my pictures to reflect this particular aspect of the Japanese culture, and to somehow put that sense of order and dignity into the aesthetic of the shots. But my coverage was not nearly as comprehensive as I would have liked. It’s a lot of ground to cover and the logistics were difficult.

Have you been in similar situations? Was this disaster different?

I have covered some other disasters, both natural and man-made. The tsunami in Indonesia in 2005 and the earthquake in China in ’08 are the closest things I’ve seen to the wide-spread destruction in Japan. Most of the disasters I’ve been to have been in developing countries rather than in modern ones, so the Japanese were better prepared and equipped comparatively, and they’re so organized to begin with. The other thing that made this different is that the danger from radiation affected the populace even away from the areas that had suffered physical damage, and is still continuing months after the event.

Is it difficult to contain your personal emotional reaction and photograph when there is suffering and pain occurring in front of you?

Yes, it can be. As a photographer or journalist you have to find a balance between of being aware, sensitive and empathetic on the one hand and other the other hand, being professional and not letting your feelings keep you from doing your job. In fact, your feelings should help you do your job well. That usually comes with some experience.

Does being empathetic ever involve putting down the camera and helping those in need rather than continuing to shoot, or is that inappropriate? Photographers seem to get some flak for ‘callously’ shooting certain situations like the Fabienne Cherisma incident.

I don’t think it’s ever inappropriate for a photographer to put down the camera and help if they’re the only person in position to do so. I’ve seen photographers do it, and most act humanely if there is someone in immediate distress. Sometimes there are medical personnel or someone trained and more qualified to help. If that’s the case, then there’s nothing wrong with the photographer continuing to do their work and take pictures.

In a conflict situation where people are armed and violent, there is little a photographer can do to protect someone, and in fact, photographers have risked their lives taking pictures of things that the perpetrators of violence don’t want others to see. Ron Haviv, for example, has spoken eloquently about this when he described discreetly photographing the murder of civilians in Bosnia. [video]

The case of Fabienne Cherisma is terribly sad, but if a photographer is covering a disaster, and injury, death or grieving is part of it, the reality of those events needs to be shown.

What inspires you at the moment?

Lately there’s been a blurring of the lines of photojournalism, documentary photography and fine art. I think a lot of the new work in traditional areas of photojournalism is very interesting, more personal, and in a way, more honest. Institutions like the Associated Press, or Time magazine or CNN or whatever, don’t take pictures; in each case it’s a single person holding that camera and deciding what to do. Journalistic standards should still be upheld in news coverage but making the work more personal and a bit more interpretive I think is a good trend. I’ve spent a lot of my career, particularly in the last decade, covering geo-politics, some conflict and other tragic events so I’m trying to balance that out by photographing things that are a bit more serene.

Do you have any advice for photojournalists working today, especially for
young people trying to establish themselves?

It’s more important than ever for photojournalists to follow their own interests and voice. There are still full-time jobs at newspapers and wire services but those spots are limited and highly competitive. So, most photojournalists will find themselves as freelancers, doing projects that are their own ideas, and having to find ways to fund them.

Magazines, the traditional forum for freelance photographers are under very tight budgets these days, but but there are artistic and journalistic grants as well as newer organizations like Kickstarter which can help. In this business environment, the work has to be distinctive and strong, and photographers should make every effort to hone their ideas and individual photographic style.

David Butow is a photojournalist who has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories. His work has won awards the World Press Organization, Communication Arts and Photo District News. To read about his experiences in Japan, visit his blog at davidbutow.blogspot.com.

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