Unless you’ve taken up residence under a rock as of late, you have no doubt seen the extensive media coverage of all the riots and protests in the Middle East. I know for me it is so easy to quickly grow calloused to the coverage and forget that the freedom and lives of real people are at stake.
This point was driven home for me again today as I chatted with a good friend living and working in Bahrain. As a photographer and visual peacemaker, he has had some wonderful opportunities to capture images of the peaceful protests. But he also said it has been very hard to know what to do and how to help as the protests have turned violent. We chatted back and forth about how it is world events like this that reaffirm to us and so many others the need for visual peacemakers.
Click here to check out some of his images of the protests in Bahrain.
Now for what I really set out to write about! Over the last couple of weeks I have been posting different interviews of photographers who are committed to be visual peacemakers. I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed reading what these different photographers have had to say about their journey as a visual peacemaker.
Today, I am posting an interview with Photographer Nicole Gibson. She is an internationally-recognized, award-winning photographer, and her desire is to see visual media used to break down barriers and stereotypes, and to promote peace. Nicole is also a founding member of the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers. Find out more about Nicole at www.nicolegibsonphotography.com.
When and how did you get your start in photography?
I took my first photography class about 11 years ago, when I was in high school, and I always knew it would someday become a more significant part of my life. But I didn’t really start calling myself a photographer until about 3 years ago. I went on the very first Lumen Dei trip with Matt Brandon and David duChemin to Kashmir, India, and it was then that I really began to do photography seriously.
2.When and how did you first become involved in using your photography to advocate on behalf of humanitarian issues, peoples and cultures?
I think a major turning point for me was when I was in India visiting an Islamic shrine one time. I sat down amongst the crowd, and I soon had a group of Indian women and children around me, wondering what was the deal with this foreigner. Of course they didn’t speak a word of my language, and I didn’t speak a word of theirs, but we communicated pretty well just the same. And as I laughed with these women and played with their kids, I found myself surprised that they were so much like me. They were just people, and we really weren’t that different after all.
And as I asked myself why I was so surprised by this big revelation, I realized that I had somehow expected them to be distant and far off, strange beings, people that I’d have nothing in common with, people that I wouldn’t be able to connect with at all. Somehow I had not expected them to just be people. And then I was shocked not at them, but at myself. How could I have thought that way? I realized that I had had these ugly – and just plan wrong – ideas and hadn’t even known it until that moment. Where had these ideas come from? As I thought about it and realized that media had been a major factor – movies, news, etc. – I looked down at the camera in my hand and knew that I, as a creator of visual media, had to use my own work to say something different than what I had heard and seen so many times. If I was going to travel and make images of people, I wanted to make images about people like the ones right in front of me.
3.What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?
If I’ve adopted any issue or cause, what we call “visual peacemaking” would definitely be it, because of the very story I mentioned above and because I feel strongly about the power that visual media has to influence the way we see the world and those around us. I want my work to help break down stereotypes and help people see one another as fellow human beings. I want my work to break down barriers between people instead of reinforcing them.
4.How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?
Well, like I said, I’ve really only been at this for the last three years, so I’m still fairly new to photography. I can’t say that because of my work, a whole village in Africa has come out of poverty or something. But I think my work has brought change in a different way. I think that real change happens when individual people begin to see the world and those around them differently. One of the most rewarding things about what I do is hearing people tell me how my work has moved them, how it’s helped them as Westerners see Muslims in a more positive light, or how it’s encouraged them to work toward peacemaking themselves. That, to me, is real change and something that makes me thrilled to get to do what I do.
To be honest, I really don’t know what’s up next for me. I’d love to say I have the whole next year planned out, but I don’t. Right now I’m taking one day at a time and looking forward to seeing what the future holds.
6.What is the most challenging part of using your photography to tell visual stories about humanitarian issues around the world?
Well, I actually wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “humanitarian” photographer. My work takes many forms, some of which may fit the “humanitarian” mold and some of which may not. But whether I’m doing a more conceptual fine art project or traveling to another culture, my work touches on themes of humanity and the human condition.
That said, I think a challenge for me right now is learning how to develop work that effectively communicates what’s in my head. Thinking things out instead of just shooting from the hip, so to speak. Creating images that form a cohesive body of work that will together tell a story or make a statement.
We’re talking about “telling visual stories,” which requires putting some forethought into things and really developing an idea – and that’s an entirely different thing than just looking at a scene and making a nice-looking image.
7.How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?
I guess a short answer here since I kind of already mentioned this. But like I said before, I think this comes in the form of chipping away at those unknown assumptions that a lot of viewers have about certain peoples and cultures, especially Muslims.
8.In your opinion what are the most important skills and equipment one needs to be effective in advocating on behalf of peoples and cultures?
I think that doing this kind of work is more about our heart for what we’re photographing and what we have to say than it is about any kind of equipment. I personally shoot with gear that most photographers would laugh at. You don’t have to have great gear to make great photographs. Whatever equipment you have, use it! Push it to its limits. You can do more than you might think.
Another thing that I would say is extremely important is time. The “skill” of patience. We photographers have a tendency to get somewhere and want to start grabbing images the very first second. But to really be effective in communicating about an issue or a culture or a group of people, we have to be willing to spend some time. The more the better. We have to get involved in the issue or culture or place and get to know it. BEFORE we start photographing. If we do that, our images will have a depth and a perspective that will make them more powerful than any piece of equipment ever could.
9.What is that drives you personally to use photography to advocate on behalf of others?
Today’s world is united by media. Particularly visual media. Unfortunately, much of it serves to propagate stereotypes and demonize those who come from different cultures or faiths. But we all have common ground as fellow human beings, and I want more of the world’s media to say that. So as a visual artist, my goal is to use my work in a positive way. To promote unity between people instead of division, understanding instead of hatred and fear.
10. What advice would you give to others who want to begin to visually advocate on behalf of the peoples and cultures of the world?
Honestly, I don’t feel qualified to be giving advice, being so new to this myself. But I’d say a good place to start is to focus on learning as much as possible about the people or culture you’re interested in. Spend time in the culture. Spend time with the people. Immerse yourself and gain as much perspective as you can.
Don’t be afraid to practice and get experience. Start wherever you are, doing local projects, telling local stories. But most importantly, my advice is this: Be respectful! Wherever you are, make an extra effort to treat people like people. I’ve seen way too many photographers travel and treat the people around them like animals in a zoo. Please, I beg of you, don’t be like that. People are human beings, with intelligence and feelings, no matter what they look like or what language they speak. Remember that they have their own lives and that you are coming into their space. They are not there just for you to get pictures of. A practical tip that may help: If you’re traveling, think of how you would treat the person in front of you if he/she were in your own country or if you didn’t have a camera in your hand, and keep that in mind as you interact and make photographs.