At 23, Philip Blenkinsop sold his old car, bought a new camera and left his job as a press photographer in Australia for an uncharted journey into the conflict cores of Southeast Asia. Photographing the lives of guerilla groups in Laos, Cambodia, East Timor as well as Nepal, his work since then has been synonymous with forgotten conflicts.
Described as one of the most essential photographers of his generation, Blenkinsop has been honored with numerous accolades, including Amnesty International’s Photojournalism Prize for Excellence in Human Rights journalism.
Still using simple old fashioned photography techniques with films, manual focus and no zooming lenses, his works show the face of realities, though harsh and dangerous, from up close.
Having captured some of the historic moments of Nepal, including the events after the Royal Massacre, the Maoist guerillas during the “People’s War” and anti-monarchy protests, Blenkinsop says he feels a sense of responsibility towards the people of Nepal.
The Week met the photographer extraordinaire for an interview while he is currently doing a workshop with photo.circle in Kathmandu.
How did you first get into photography and what led you to Asia where you’ve been based for more than two decades now?
I had an early interest in art and photography. After school, I also joined a photography course but stopped after a few weeks because the lecturers there were too defeatist.
After a year, I worked as an apprentice in a newspaper which was quite tough as I’d be doing everything, including making coffee. Later, I started working for a paper, moved to Sydney to work for The Australian, one of the two national daily broadsheets. But I didn’t enjoy working for a paper as there was no culture of photojournalism. All you saw in the papers was the same photograph being taken over and over again.
The subjects were different but the format was the same.
I luckily realized that all that was quite ridiculous. So I started shooting differently. But the papers didn’t like it. Then I sold my car, bought a Leica camera, some lenses and boarded a flight to Bangkok. I knew there was a civil war in Cambodia and there were many refugees on the borders of Thailand. Similar refugee cases were also there in Burma with the civil war going on. There were also the aftermaths of Vietnam War. All these were things that interested me as stories. But you couldn’t stay in Vietnam or Burma. So I chose Thailand. Though I didn’t know much about it, it was a good and affordable place to go to.
You’re mostly well known for conflict photography. How was it being out there in those dangerous circumstances? How did you handle it emotionally when taking many of those heartbreaking pictures?
Fortunately, there’ve been very few times I’ve been caught up in conflict where my life has been in grave danger. The most dangerous time is actually going from the city to meet with the guerrilla or insurgency groups and then trying to get back. Coming back obviously is a lot scarier. Firstly, because you could lose all of your films and your investment of time and the risks you’ve taken.
But worse is if you’re caught and the film is taken by the army and they can identify all of the people you’ve been photographing. It’s a really frightening idea that that could happen. Regardless how people perceive them, for me, it’s been a most wonderful experience to be with those people. Initially it’s a little intimidating but once they realize you’re there to tell their stories, they soon empathize with you. There were times that after some days they would even risk their lives for me.
And yes, it can be quite emotional sometimes. But I try not to cry in front of the people I’m photographing. When I was in Laos photographing the Hmong guerillas, these old men and women broke down in my arms and my shirt was wet with their tears. Thousands of these Hmong soldiers and their family members were killed and met terrible deaths.
In the darkroom though, I’ve shed many tears, as I can almost hear their cries in my ears when working with the photographs.
But just before coming to Nepal, I was in touch with some people and we were talking about how things have started to change for the rest 12 to 15 thousand Hmong people and they are being relocated now. For the first time in my life, I was heartened knowing that my photographs and stories had been a catalyst for that change.
Tell us something about your relationship with Nepal.
I had first come to Nepal in 2001 to capture the Maoist movement which at that time hadn’t really been discussed outside a few socialist groups and almost nothing about them was out in the press. After some three weeks of planning, I was led to Surkhet and I spent a week in the mountains photographing the Maoist guerillas.
But the day after I came back to Kathmandu, the Royal Massacre took place.
The following days were full of most incredible events and experiences. During the funeral procession of the slain king, his family members and then the crown prince, and a few days after that, I scurried through the streets photographing for kilometers. To think about it now, there were some unbelievable scenes along the way.
Then, as soon as I left Nepal after those few weeks here, I knew it was a start of a relationship. What I photographed at the time, I realize, are of great historical importance, though sad, of course. Ever since, I feel like I have a kind of responsibility towards the people here and that it’s important to make those scenes, thoughts and events accessible to the future generation.
What has driven you and still drives towards photography?
There are always lots of stories to tell. But, I suppose I’m driven in different ways now. I don’t feel like I need to run out and be doing things like conflicts anymore. I’m more interested to look back at things I’ve done and explore them. I don’t want to be somebody who does one story after another and another all the time. There’s something shallow about that.
For me, it’s very important to be able to go back, revisit places, and see how people’s lives have changed, to understand their lives and make sense of them. What have they been able to achieve? Were their sacrifices necessary? What has it brought them? In case of East Timor, for instance, how has their lives changed from fighting in the jungle after their independence? The struggle never finishes. When you think you’ve won the war, then you have all these internal conflict and politics.
So what I’m driven about is if I could find a way to use the stories I’ve done and my experiences with the people I’ve photographed to help younger people in the future understand a bit more to unravel that mystery of why do we always have these conflicts. Maybe it can be a start of something that can change things for better. I realize it might not happen in my lifetime or a hundred and two hundred years to come, but I think you have to believe it’s possible and we start by trying to understand.
You’ve been doing a lot of workshops with new photographers for quite some time now. What do you think are some important things that a photographer should have or know?
Firstly, it’s important to know who you are, your motivation and your heart. You have to realize that the subjects of your pictures are important, not you. Another thing is to concentrate on the visual literacy – how you look at things, structures, images and how you bring different elements in. And there are bad habits that photographers have, like the tendency to have a static camera position that has to be stubbed out early on to take more intelligent pictures.
There’s also very little awareness of light these days. With digital cameras, the machine does everything for the person. A photographer needs to understand light. But if a camera is dictating the terms and making decisions for the photographer – choosing the speed, aperture, focus – the picture will be a disaster. Many photographers nowadays don’t focus manually. That way the pictures will never be great. It’ll always be simple. I mean, if you have a machine with no brains telling you what to do, what does that make you?
What are you focused on currently? Are there any future projects you’re working on?
Currently, I’m focused on the 14 people in the room (for the workshop). For the future, well, I’m going to be a father soon. So I’m working kind of relaxed at the moment. But for the past year, my partner Yonala and I have been working on a space with my good old-fashioned darkroom, a place where I can work with my pictures along with a permanent room where I can show and explore them outside the magazine format.
I’ve also been experimenting with different treatments, using blood and ink and encasing images in glass that are not just simple frames but something that can elevate the images to something almost sacred and revered.
Besides that, we’re also working on a space where we’re going to be inviting people for exhibitions for sorts of cross pollination of ideas, arts and cultures. It’s not a for-profit though; actually, it might be a loss organization as we still haven’t figured out how to make this financially viable. But I think if you start things and plan them, based on how you’re going to make money, maybe you don’t take the most creative choices. Often a creative road might cripple you, bankrupt you and put you in your grave; but it’s probably the best route to walk.
photo.circle will be hosting an exclusive showcase of Philip’s work on Saturday, February 11, 2012 at the Summit Hotel, Kupondole Heights from 4:30 pm onwards. The event is free and open to the public.