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In this installment of Douglas Kirkland On Photography, Douglas Kirkland talks with his friend and colleague, Gerd Ludwig. A photojournalist best known for his work in National Geographic magazine, Gerd Ludwig has taken a special interest in Russia and the former Soviet Union—in particular, the people and stories surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
As the installment begins, Gerd is packing for this third major trip to Chernobyl. Gerd shares his techniques for choosing and packing gear for a photojournalism expedition.
Next, Douglas and Gerd sit down for a wide-ranging conversation. They discuss the changing business landscape of photography and Gerd’s approach to photojournalism. Gerd also describes how and why he works in Chernobyl and details how he financed his latest trip through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com.
After Gerd returns from Chernobyl, he and Douglas meet again to review some of the photographs and video that Gerd shot during his latest trip. They talk about Chernobyl today, about how video is impacting photojournalism, and about the future of Gerd’s "Long Shadow of Chernobyl" project.
Douglas > Your passion for pursuing the special subjects like Chernobyl, where you're going tomorrow, that is major because you were there the moment that the terrible tragedy of Chernobyl happened and photographed the people. You've got close to the people and the torment of it and the torture of it. The disfigured children and so much more. You care about it and you worked through your Russian colleagues, an assistant and an interpreter. How did you connect with the people through an interpreter? That is much harder than most people realize.
How to be nice to a child, if you're just talking to an interpreter or persuasive to somebody who's not so prepared they help you? Gerd > Well, when I have an interpreter it's not just any interpreter, specifically in Russian or the Former Soviet Union. I've worked with the same person for 20 years now, for more than 20 years. And we developed an understanding. He doesn't even say in his transformation anymore, "he says." No, he just speaks-- Douglas > The way in your voice.
Gerd > In my voice, the way I'm speaking , and he is very crucial to my success in that in that part of the world. And second of all, I work with a fixer, stringer, or researcher, whatever you want to name him, in the field because it's still very hard in Russia to get or in the Former Soviet Union to get anything done without long preplanning.
And so he physically goes and takes a magazine or takes a work that I've been doing before. It's a better business card than a National Geographic card. Photographs-- I tell every young photographer, your business card is all the pictures that you've taken before, to convince people to get access to allow them into their lives. Douglas > And when you ask a subject to allow you to photograph them, especially if you're doing it in a thorough way like you like to, and allow them to open their doors of your home or in the case of Chernoby-- Gerd > They're hard in and they're so-- Douglas > And in Chernobyl, it's so much-- It is opening, sometimes showing things, parts of their life that are painful.
Gerd > Yeah, yeah. Douglas > And you say, can I do this? And as you want to show the world through your persuasion, you get those things. Gerd > One of the advantages I have working either for National Geographic or in personal long-term projects is that I don't need to walk in shooting right away. This is the worst thing. And I can only advise younger people, anybody, don't do it. Just come near-- Douglas > Don't do what? Excuse me. Gerd > Don't walk in just like a person that has a camera instead of a head.
Douglas > What if you have only one hour? Gerd > In my situation, I'd rather take the first minutes even if I only had only an hour. Thankfully I'm not in a situation where I usually only have an hour. But I take the first time to feel the person and to allow them to feel me, that there is a communication. A photograph is a collaboration between the person that you photograph, if it is a person, and the photographer. In its ideal sense.
Douglas > But somebody like you Gerd has to, I repeat myself, always deliver. You go through a lot. You're going through your 23, 24 plus hours to get there. Then you have to fall on your feet, find your way around there, and something I've found when I do those major jet lag changes is-- And I don't know if you have experienced and I want to ask you. Sometimes I feel at that moment when I get there with the world sort of on my shoulders, somewhat depressed. So now having experienced that through the years, I just say, oh! It's just thing. And you lift your head up, you get going, and move on.
Have you experienced that depression at first? Gerd > No, no. Douglas > You haven't? Gerd > No, I haven't had the depression. It's more of a feeling of fear. "Oh my god, there is such a big job in front of you." And I always think that fear is necessary for me to do my best work. Douglas > What - how you deal with it? Gerd > Whenever I go into the job "oh piece of cake", chances are that you don't give your best.
That fear really produces the energy to overcome obstacles. Douglas > How do you cope with that fear, maybe marginal panic, how do you cope with it? I'm saying the word panic. That may not be accurate. Is it? Gerd > Not panic, not panic, but a good portion of fear. Will I be able to deliver in the given time? More that I make a mental concept of what I'm doing.
I think we all do this on behalf of otherwise voiceless victims. When I go to Chernobyl, these people have no voice other than through me and it goes back to convincing the people to allow themselves to open up to the camera and show their suffering. And especially the people in Chernobyl.
They know that this is not going to change their lives anymore. But they simply do it in the hopes that catastrophes like Chernobyl will be prevented in the future and therein lies a huge responsibility for me as a photographer to give my best, to give my most honest, and to really make images that are emotional.
I think that a great photograph touches the soul and broadens the mind.
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