Sergey Ponomarev is best known for his photojournalism work depicting Russian daily life and culture as well as news images from wars and conflicts in the Middle East including Syria, Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. Sergey has won many international and domestic photography awards. Most recently, he won first place in the General News category at the World Press Photo contest for his work on the European refugee crisis and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. From 2003 until 2012 Sergey, was a staff photographer at The Associated Press. He is now a freelance photographer and works frequently for The New York Times.
Caterina Clerici: How did you get started in your career as a photojournalist?
Sergey Ponomarev: I was always interested in journalism, that’s my family tradition. My father was a journalist, he was a foreign correspondent for a Soviet news agency. Somehow later I discovered I’d rather use visual language than the narrative text language. First, I could express myself better with images and when I started working with international media, I found that they could be understood by anyone in the world. Visual storytelling could be understood internationally without any translation.
CC: You started working with AP in Russia in 2003 and then you went freelance in 2012. How was the transition between getting assignments from a wire to pitching stories as a freelance journalist?
SP: That was one of the reasons why I quit the wire agency. I’m not interested in fashion or event photography, because I feel like I am sent there and I just press the button, I don’t even edit the images. There is no challenge.
Going freelance was a tough decision. In the modern world it’s very hard to compete and find your way. Also freelancers have to take care of their equipment and computers, whereas agency photographers are provided with everything. After eight years, trying to find my own way to become a freelance journalist was a big challenge for me. In some ways it’s kind of like having a business, it’s not a job. You have to find ideas, you have to find those who will be interested and you have to sell your own product.
CC: How did you carve your niche in the market? Is it geographical (Russia and Ukraine) or thematic, according to your topics of interest such as conflict photography and migration? How did your past experience at AP shape your brand as an independent photojournalist?
SP: There are several options to develop oneself as a freelance photographer. You can be based in a region. So for example, I’m a Russian photographer and I will mainly shoot stories out of Russia, Ukraine and neighboring countries. But I was always interested in the Middle East. If you work in the Middle East you face more conflict. If you work in Africa you face more human rights violations. So this is why I had to develop my conflict expertise, because in the Middle East there are always clashes and war.
When I started my career, I proposed some stories out of Russia, some environmental stories, and some political, but my career really kicked off more successfully after I went to Syria. I came with a unique story on how the closed regime of Assad lived and the effects of war on ordinary people. And this was something very fresh. Editors at The New York Times became interested and now I work a lot with this newspaper. I proposed a story about Assad’s Syria to the Visa pour l’image festival in Perpignan, and I had a very fresh and unique perspective.
CC: How did your previous experiences covering conflict shape the way you approached Ukraine?
SP: Ukraine is a pain in the ass for me. I would say it like that. For a photographer and a journalist it’s very important to stay independent from the context. Even if you’re going to cover the ‘wrong’ side of the conflict, you’re still going to judge what people do and what people claim independently, or at least you’re pretending to do that. With Ukraine, which is a neighboring or brother country [to Russia], it was really hard to stay independent. By judging it independently, and by being in and out of some areas, I’ve been losing friends and I’ve been losing my understanding of what’s going on because both sides of the conflict were just overwhelmed with propaganda. The lie was from both sides, even at the beginning of this conflict. The main fights and the main battles were happening around the TV towers, so those who control the TV towers control the region. Speaking on the ground with the people about the annexation of Crimea as a reunion with Russia could be difficult because people would think differently, and their thoughts were shaped by TV propaganda.
CC: You tend to go for very dramatic moments but you mange to depict human tragedy with a lot of dignity. How do you approach that — and is there a difference between working in a more familiar place like Ukraine versus a country that you don’t know?
SP: I come from an understanding that photographs right now cannot stop war. Imagine Nick Ut’s image of the girl running from napalm — the one that won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m sure that nowadays this image on the majority of news sites would be shown with a warning at first, that you’re about to see graphic content and that you should be aware of that. So that image in 2016 will not shock people as it shocked them in the 1960s. And that shock made them protest against war and force decision makers to stop it. And when I’m on the ground and I see human flesh or something graphic I feel like I’d better turn around and photograph live people who are seeing that, rather than photographing dead bodies. And the emotions of those who are still alive, in my opinion, will be more powerful.
CC: You’re talking about graphic content warnings and yet how to still surprise readers in a time where we seem to have become accustomed to images of war. What were your thoughts on the photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy whose image shocked the entire world and stands pretty much at the other end of the spectrum from how you have documented the refugee crisis?
SP: First of all, I haven’t seen any drowned bodies in those five months that I documented the refugee crisis. I was asked about that when there was a discussion in the French media and I was at Perpignan. Most newspapers published this photo on the front pages or inside, except the French media, who decided not to show it to their audiences. I was against that, because I understand that modern rules don’t allow photography to be shocking, advertisers don’t want to see their ads next to shocking pictures. We’re just overwhelmed with visual information and TV screens and advertising screens all around us. But the medium of photojournalism is not just a regular digital information tool. It’s not that photojournalists are like vultures. They’re trying to find the most shocking, the ugliest stories happening in our world and this is not a bad habit or some pathological problem with them — they’re just trying to show that the world is not that perfect. I think French editors at some point just started following the demands of society and consumerism. That we just need a new shampoo and a new iPhone, and we don’t want to know anything about what is happening in the world.
CC: There seems to be a growing ‘poverty and war photography fatigue’ and, as you’ve said yourself, you’re also trying to shift your lens to the reactions of people rather than the gruesome. Maybe it’s time to reinvent how we are portraying tragedies?
SP: That is a question for an editor more than a photographer, because a photographer’s job is to document. From my point of view we have to deal with what we have. I think this is why we cannot come to an exact solution, because if I were there I would probably make a different choice for what the magazine has to put on the front page. If I were there, if I could shoot this boy [Alan Kurdi] as a document of what happened, possibly I would try to do it in a different way. There were two images of that boy, one of him alone lying on the beach and one of him carried by the coastguard out of the sea. Some of them decided to use one, some the other, and it’s a very different message.
CC: You were covering the refugee crisis for five months, traveling in and out of different countries to document this overwhelming human experience from all sides. Do you agree with the term that has been used to described it, a ‘crisis’?
SP: At first I see that this crisis happened as a common epidemic. Some people — the refugees — decided that they can go to Germany and find a better life there. Facebook and the social networks exaggerated those ideas. They were constantly distributing stories about those who safely reached Germany or how they were in the process of getting there. The first time that I started working on that story, I followed a family to Serbia, then I had to leave and another photographer followed them to Sweden and, you know, they just opened me to a different world. There is an Arabic Facebook that is just overwhelmed with stories and groups about how they reached Germany or Sweden or other places, with advertisements of smugglers who offer their help to go through the Balkan countries. So everybody thought they could go, and they came to the idea that they must go. Once they started they had to reach their final destination. All the countries on the road weren’t ready for this influx of migrants and even the neighboring countries have problems and they started building fences. At the end they all decided their own country was not the destination for migrants, so they just had to provide safe passage for them — they get in, they get out, and that’s it.
The suffering of the people was just huge. They all had to deal with either riot police or the army. The police were treating them like they would treat hooligans, it was mostly migrant families or single men or those who were momentarily alone who faced riot police. That was one of the biggest human rights violations from my point of view. They were being treated very badly. Sometimes they were beating them or forcing them to stay out in the rain or the open skies for the night. They were made to march for several miles to the next registration point. And those people just lost track of where they were. Every time I met people, the first question they were asking me was which country we were in and how many countries remain until Germany.
CC: Was the general feeling among the refugees despair or hope?
SP: They were desperate to reach safety. At the beginning I was facing mostly Syrians who were trying to get to Germany, but they wanted to stay just a year or two and then go back to Syria. But at the end I found that most of the people turned out to be economic migrants from Iran, Pakistan and Morocco who just thought that social benefits and European values in Germany or in Sweden are better than home. And they were all feeling that this gate was going to be shut at some point. So they were just in a rush to get as far as they could. And that is why they were always feeling that they must go. People didn’t want to stay in a place for a day or two to rest. As soon as they reached some border they were eager to go further again.
CC: How do you see this unfolding, if people keep coming and we refuse to take them or to take adequate support measures?
SP: I just came back from Idomeni. The gate is shut right now. No more people will be able to come through this known Balkan route and Greece itself will take the main burden of migrants. Maybe some will be deported or sent back to their country. But I think that right now the European governments will have tough decisions about migrants. And this is why I really worked with those who are stuck, those who are stranded in Idomeni, in horrible conditions. They have their tents with kids or travelers and their newborn babies that are living in puddles and it’s cold,. Idomeni is the most depressing place I’ve ever seen. Because people feel that they are at a dead end. They feel trapped there and they have no place to go.
CC: Is there a particular take-away you got from the migrant story, or something that struck you in particular?
SP: It’s hard because it’s all mixed and I can’t single out one family or a story, out of hundreds that I met who had to cross the sea and then had to stay in miserable conditions. But with my Russian literature background, I was always reminded of the Nicolaj Gogol novel about the little men. It’s a very simple story but very classic about a little man who was oppressed by injustice and he opposes himself to the huge and unjust system. And this man dies in the end, trying to resist. And his enemy, or the person that in the novel oppresses him, is a government officer whose intention is to pursue justice but who was actually following their own interest. And the little man has no rights and is not able to protect himself from the injustice and he dies. At the end, thinking about that I just realized that these sufferings sometimes are making people stronger. I feel an energy from people who have their moral right to protect their civil rights. And I try to build some small stories with my images that also together tell a big story that is happening in front of our eyes.
copyright © 2016 Social Documentary Network
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with more than 1,500 photographers from around around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,000 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Spring 2016 Vol. 2/No. 1
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Copy Editor: John Rak
Intern: Emma Brown
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
Management Sciences for Health
Kristen Bernard, Salem, MA
Marketing Web Director
EBSCO Information Services
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Steve Horn, Lopez Island, WA
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Contact Press Images
Steve Walker, New York, NY
Consultant and educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
Jamie Wellford, Brooklyn, NY
Photo Editor, Curator
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2016
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibted on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Cover photo by Daro Sulakauri. Georgia. Leila fell in love with a boy that she met online. She escaped from her home and crossed the border from an occupied territory of Georgia to marry.