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Panpa Bulletin : August 2011
www.panpa.org.au Stephen Dupont works with a range of cameras, including Hasselblad XPan, Rolleiflex, Leica and Polaroid Land Camera models PHoToGRAPHER PRofilE WINTER in war-torn Afghanistan is a long way from Austinmer, the lazy coastal town on the south coast of New South Wales that photographer Stephen Dupont calls home. When he first entered the country in 1993 civil war was raging. “It was an incredibly dangerous and volatile situation with a hell of a lot of civilian casualties, a massive refugee crisis and a lot of Afghans had fled the country,” he remembers. Yet it took a hold of him. The photojournalist and filmmaker has since visited the country on an almost yearly basis, documenting post-Soviet infighting and the rise of the Taliban, the arrival of American and NATO forces as the so-called war on terror began, and now the struggle to rebuild. His work in Afghanistan and around the world has been run in publications ranging from the New York Times, The Guardian and La Liberation to Time, The Austral- ian Financial Review Magazine and Vanity Fair. It has also earned him some of photojournalism’s top honours: Australian Walkley Awards, World Press Photo recognition, and the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography. These prizes are won through a combination of hard work, skill – Du- pont’s work is at times shocking, often haunting and always beautiful – and no small amount of personal risk. Having taken fire from Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka and witnessed genocide in Rwanda, the 44-year-old is under no illusions about the protec- tion a foreign press badge can afford him. “I felt strange wearing protective gear when no one else around me was. I felt uncomfortable about it. So I chose not to, and you take the risks as they come,” he says. He favours a shalwar kameez and pakool hat over a vest and helmet. “Any war is dangerous for journal- ists and photographers, and Afghani- stan was no different to many of the other conflicts I’ve experienced. “I would say in some ways I felt quite safe with the people that I was with. Once you’re aligned with the leader, or the group that you’re with, they generally look after you. “You’re a guest, and Afghans are in- credibly hospitable people and quite honest, and so I never felt betrayed in that kind of way,” he says. Some of the photographs he is most proud of, including several of the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, were taken while he was travelling as a guest of the warlord. “Those boundaries changed over the years, of course, particularly when the Taliban came into power in 1996. “They were very anti-press, anti- photographs – anti-just-about-every- thing, basically.” On Dupont’s last trip to Afghani- stan, in 2009, he was embedded with the US Marines – an experience he describes as “totally surreal”. “The whole embedding process is unusual because you’re only getting one side of the story, but in a situa- tion where Afghanistan is today, it’s better to get one side than no side,” he says. “I’d love to spend time with the Taliban because my interest lies in covering every angle to really ex- pose what’s going on in a place like Afghanistan with as much truth as I could possibly muster up.” Dupont is that rare breed of pho- tographer who is as comfortable in the gallery as on the road; where oth- ers shy away from labels such as ‘art- ist’ or ‘journalist’, Dupont embraces both. “I would say my motives are locked in with both shining a light on what’s going on, and producing strong pho- tographs,” he says. “I am very much swayed toward quite a factual sense, where I’m interested in exposing things that are going on, but I could be swayed towards artistic activism as well – in terms of creating work that I think is creatively strong, but geared towards a political motive. “It’s really, I guess, being the con- cerned photographer. Just keeping your eyes open and trying to con- stantly document history and what’s going on around you, so that’s always been my focus. “It’s not just snaps, it’s not just making news, it’s going beyond the news.” One photograph, which captured American soldiers burning Taliban leaders’ corpses allegedly for hygiene reasons, created an international stir when it was published in the New York Times in 2005. “It questioned many things, particular cultural insensitivities of Americans burning bodies in the field, which is against Islamic rites and against the Geneva Convention. It brought into question the practice of burning bodies and not burning bodies, and the story broke the news and really upset a lot of people. But in the end it changed US military policy,” Dupont remembers. The incident came hot on the heels of allegations of prisoner abuse committed at Abu Ghraib prison, in Baghdad. “America was having a tough time with a lot of these sorts of issues through the war, and this was just another headache for them. I think this sort of instigated the fact that they would reach out to their soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and let them know there were rules: there were rules of engagement, and rules of war, and one of the rules was not to burn the enemy. So it was quite an interesting and powerful message that motivated some sort of change. If Dupont is pushing an agenda, it is one aimed at ordinary readers more than authorities and military leaders. “I want people to know about Af- ghanistan, I want people to know. I don’t spend half my life on a project that I don’t feel strongly about. “It comes down to committing myself to producing such a large scale of work that people, I hope, cannot ignore it.” 1. An Afghan woman at the Shamsatoo refugee camp, in Pakistan; 2. In this 1998 photograph, a Northern Alliance soldier with prosthetic arms poses with an AK-47 assault rifle . . . ‘he was a de-miner and he lost both his arms in the fields of Afghanistan. When he got his prosthetic arms, he taught himself how to shoot. I think he was so angry with what had happened that he joined the Massoud forces’ Sophie Tarr NPA See more photos and listen to the interview with Stephen Dupont by scanning the code with your mobile 1 | AUGUST 2011 | The PANPA Bulletin The artistic activist Former Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud stands with his men after a post-picnic prayer session. . . ‘he was really the one leader who was not defeated and was the thorn in the Taliban’s resistance’ 1. 2.