Patrick Brown the Australian photographer was a nominee in the 2017 World Press Photo competition. It was his harrowing images of dead children in Rohingya which earned him the nomination. For some maybe the images were too difficult to view and for some, such images over-step the mark. They are too visceral. But as we recently covered with the photographer Carlos Villalon images deemed too graphic or challenging are not only important, but they are needed. Far from a glorification or an unsettling voyeuristic relish in the brutality of the human condition these images remind those of us in more privileged parts of the globe that we are infinitely ‘lucky’.
How did your formative years pave your interest in photography?
Your formative years in any area will define who you will become to some degree. For me my parents were moving around a lot through Middle East, Africa and Canada. They finally settled in Australia. This I expect made me want to carry on experiencing and discovering new things.
Is it too simplistic to say that the opportunity to travel with photography helped that desire for photography?
I can’t say that I wanted to have a career in photography because it allowed me to travel. It was more just this desire to take images. Then through life it is like this hour glass idea or metaphor where eventually the sands are reduced to one or two grains of sand which is who ‘you’ are.
How did your initial foray into photographing dancers help towards your photo-journalism career then?
You are right, I did start off as a contemporary dance photographer. I think working in that discipline formed the foundation to photo-journalism. Although the two disciplines of dance photography and photo journalism seem worlds apart, for me in many ways they are not. The orbit is almost identical from what I can see.
Explain those similarities more.
Well we as humans communicate through roughly ninety 90 percent body language. You have a dancer who is informed by their body and as a photographer all you have to do is read the dancer and anticipate the dancer’s move to capture a shot. It taught me body language in order to anticipate. You can transfer that to photo journalism because that is what you are doing. There is no understanding of the language. You are not in a conversation you are in a body language conversation with the environment.
Your images are visually powerful. How emotionally connected to them are you?
I do have an emotional attachment to them but ironically it is not when I am taking the image it’s all about the discovery later. When I am working I try and take out all the clutter of life from my mind so the process is pure. But it is when you come back later that you discover these little gems. It is then the emotional connection to that image takes place. It takes you back to that moment when you captured the image.
Can you name an image or project which solidified your ambitions to be a photo-journalist?
It was a project where I documented a surgeon who saved my life. The project came about when I was working at a multi-story car park putting myself through art school. At the time I had read an article about the Australian surgeon Robert Weedon. He was the only surgeon in Malawi for some two and half million people. So, I sold my car, sold my surf board, sold my wet suit and I went to Africa for 6 weeks with 25 rolls of colour and 26 rolls of black and white and I documented my experiences while in Malawi.
So, it was only when you got back that the “gems” became apparent?
Exactly. I thought that I had some regular progressive travel images. It was only when I showed my mentors the images that I realised that I had captured something special. That project made me realise that images can move people, engage people, start conversation and make things change. I realised my skill set is all about people and the stories of these people.
We saw an anomaly of work in your collection-Darker Of The Day explain that.
Darker Of The Day is a work where I re-found myself as a photographer. It was a period in my life where I did not like photography-I was close to packing it all in. It was a time where I was finding the business of photography challenging and I really disliked the industry. I was getting work but it was just very formulaic. In this project to be truthful it is clear I was not happy.
In the West we have to be happy all the time. Feeling down however is just as important as being euphoric.
How did you come out of that rather dark period?
In that dark period, I stumbled across a photographer called John Hornbeck who developed a camera app to draw traffic to his website. I downloaded it I think is was about 4 in the afternoon and I gave myself a challenge that if I did not take an image by sunset that I was happy with then I was literally going to give up photography on that day.
So I started to play with this very basic app. I took an image and I thought that works for me. I challenged myself to take only images in my apartment for one week, then my apartment block and so on. Basically I was widening my horizons once again and explore like I used to as a youngster.
And that body of work came from that?
Darker In The Day formed when I woke up about two in the morning having had a nightmare. I looked at myself in the mirror and there is a song by Nick Cave called Darker With The Day (2001) and as soon as I saw myself in the mirror that song popped into my head and that is how that self-portrait came about and how eventually the body of work came about. It was strange, my creativity had slowly disappeared over a period of 18 months but it was literally a flick of the switch for me to find my passion again. Once I found it I realised I needed to nurture it.
Creativity was spawned by your darkness.
Turner was one of my favourite painters and he treasured his blue periods. In the West we have to be happy all the time. Feeling down however is just as important as being euphoric. I think you have to sometimes accept it and that is what I did. I accepted my mood and used it creatively.
Your work on the illegal animal trade created our initial interest in you. Can you talk about that project more?
To be frank nobody had a clue about the illegal animal trade in Asia in the late 90’s. Many people thought it was just a bunch of young lads going out and doing a little bit of hunting and selling a few bits here and there. It was totally unknown. People obviously knew about Africa and its well-documented problems but in Asia and especially South East Asia it was not well-known.
Only when I was there about a year into the project that I began to connect all the dots and realised all this was related. It was then I emotionally engaged in the project full speed. I’m not (I hasten to add) some animal activist. I am merely a photographer of sub-cultures so in the images there are very few images of the animals. The images are all about the destruction and the people who are part of that sub-culture.
People need to know what is happening to innocent people and I think that I achieved that in a respectful way.
We have to talk about your images in Rohingya, some people will find them difficult viewing. When is an image too challenging?
Of course some people might perceive certain images as over-stepping the line. I certainly found it very challenging. I was being given an accolade for photographing dead children but the fact is that I did not kill those children. People need to know what is happening to innocent people and I think that I achieved that in a respectful way. Where an image steps over the line is ultimately set by the individual.
Do people need to be shocked in some way?
I do not set out to shock people. If you shock people you will likely turn them away. I want them to stop, reflect and be intrigued to the point that they ask questions and take action. But people should not get angry with the photographer-the photographer is merely charting the reality of a situation. The death of people or someone is not carried out by the photographer.
And how difficult was it for you?
It was the most challenging project I have done in my life. What I saw was incredibly sobering. I have been in some difficult times but nothing prepared me for what I was going to experience and what I will continue to experience. That is their reality. How I deal with it is by saying to myself that I am only visiting this reality. I will go back to my wife and my home and there will be drinking water flowing out of a tap.
And lastly you will be there again what do you expect?
Yes, I will be going back to Bangladesh for the rest of the year spending three months documenting the Rohingya. The Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh so that is one chapter in that story. Of course there is the next chapter in that story in Cox’s Bazar. It will be in the wet season so that is going to be a really difficult time. It is going to be intense. The Bay of Bengal is one of the most turbulent oceans in the wet season. It is going to get really difficult for those people.
All images courtesy of Panos Pictures