Adam Ferguson explains how he uses individuals on an assignment to turn a story from the abstract to the personal while on the front line of international photojournalism. He talks to David Clark.
ADAM Ferguson is one of the brightest talents among a new generation of photojournalists. A regular contributor to Time magazine, National Geographic and The New York Times, he has won awards in the World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International competitions. His work has included stories on the conflict in Afghanistan, elections in Burma (Myanmar) and Iraq’s recovery after two major wars.
Yet two years ago a near-death experience made him re-evaluate his life and the kind of work he was doing. He was embedded with US Infantry in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, and it was the eve of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center ‘I went on patrol with: he military and we were ambushed’ says Adam. ‘One of the soldiers, who was just five metres from me, was shot and killed, which was horrific.’ Adam photographed the aftermath of the ambush, but the pictures have never been published. The Pentagon and military public affairs put pressure on Time magazine not to run them, and the soldier’s next of kin, who I was never able to talk to, wouldn’t sign the necessary releases,’ he says. This traumatic event was a defining moment in Adam’s career ‘It made me question my intent as a photographer and how I justified what I was doing,’ he says.
‘It’s exciting to work for some of the world’s most important publications. They contribute to some essential discussion about wars like Afghanistan, but sometimes they contribute to a narrative that supports what our governments are trying to do, rather than challenge or dispute it. That’s one of the things I’ve had to reconcile over the past few years, especially when I’m taking personal risks to make that kind of work.’
MOTIVATION AND APPROACH
Like many committed photojournalists, Adam is driven to discover for himself what is going on in the world and to communicate that knowledge to others. Central to his investigation is the understanding of war and the way it is represented by governments and in the media. In particular Adam has engaged with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — two of the major international stories of the past ten years.
‘For me, it was about getting out into the world and seeing those events at face value,’ he says. ‘I felt uncomfortable accepting these notions of heroism and glory that get ted up with war and are fed to us. I very much wanted to understand war for myself.
‘When I decided to go out and cover Afghanistan, it was very much in the pursuit of that understanding. While I think war is sometimes necessary and often unnecessary, I think it’s sometimes misrepresented in mainstream media and popular culture, and I think it’s important that independent storytellers go out and explore it.’
When in the field, trying to convey a story about a particular issue or event, Adam uses individuals to focus an assignment and turn it from the abstract to the personal. 1 think my pictures are very much people-driven and tell the story of individuals caught within a larger structure,’ he continues.
‘I try to find a character that is symbolic of the story and follow them and see what happens. I see what they do in their day, what activities they’re involved in, and try to be there for that moment when something they do, or something that happens around them, reveals an aspect of the wider story.’
Adam’s photographs involve us in the lives of the people he’s photographing and they do it in a visually striking way, being sometimes hard-hitting, sometimes subtle and tender. He disagrees with those who argue that it’s inappropriate to create art from the suffering of others.
‘You have to aestheticise what’s in front of your camera,’ he says. ‘We all acknowledge that a photograph isn’t the truth. It’s a lie in many ways. You go into a situation and choose a lens and a post-production technique, and you pick one fraction of a second and one frame out of a sequence. What that means to an audience is very tar from the truth that existed for the people you photographed.
‘What’s fundamental to a photographer is that you go in and make your own honest interpretation of events with as much integrity as possible and every photographer decides their own parameters. You make an abstraction of that scene, which is interpreted by an audience so inevitably you’ve aestheticised it. What’s important is to do it in a way that you’re comfortable with.’
Adam’s work covers important issues of our time and he’s keenly aware of the kind of images he shoots and how, from a historical perspective, they may be regarded in the future. ‘I am constantly evaluating what my pictures will mean as a tody of work, how they communicate to each other in a set, and what the groups of photos I leave behind will mean to a future audience,’ he says.
The relevance in what I do is not in the single pictures or front pages,it’s in the collections of work around given subjects. These accounts, these longer-term statements, pose questions and contest the predominant journalistic coverage that we see on TV.’
Adam’s work as a photographer has always been driven by a strong social conscience, a curiosity about the world and a love of travel. Born in New South Wales, Australia, in 1978, he first became interested in photography as a career after meeting an advertising photographer ‘I became quite enthralled by the whole notion of being a photographer’ he says. ‘I was desperately looking for a way out of my home town and photography seemed to be the ticket.’
Initially contemplating a career as a sports photographer, Adam began a degree course in photography at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. During the course, one of his lecturers encouraged him in the direction of documentary photography, and suggested he go to the university library and take out books by Sebastiao Salgado, Don McCullin, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Trent Parke, as well as the World Press Photo yearbook. The effect on Adam was electrifying.
‘I sat at home with these books and flicked through them until the early hours of the morning, and just said to myself, «This is it.» I had a very clear moment of realisation of what I wanted to do with a camera. And I’ve never looked back’.
Jobs in photojournalism were not easy to find in Australia, so Adam worked as a deck hand on a yacht in the Caribbean for a year and used the funds to buy a digital camera and a laptop. After another spell as a sailor in the Mediterranean, he used the money he saved to fund his living expenses while he worked as an intern at the prestigious VII photo agency in Pars.
This experience was an important turning-point in his career and after the internship was over he decided to move to India. ‘At that time, India epitomised everything that was good and bad about the human race’ he says. There were internal conflicts, extreme poverty and incredible economic growth. It seemed like a fascinating region to start my career. I moved to Dehli with $1,500 [around £900] and stayed for four years.’
By the time he left in 2011, Adam’s work on a range of stories focusing on social and political issues had earned him a growing reputation and membership of VII.
Adam has been based in south-east Asia for almost three years, first in Laos and now in Bangkok, Thailand. He says it’s a great location to cover Asia as it’s ‘central, well connected and a good place to get my cameras fixed’.
However, having travelled widely during the past nine years, Adam says he is now looking for a change in direction. ‘I feel a strong pull to go back to Australia,’ he says.
‘I feel I’ve taken off into the world to explore everyone else’s stories, but haven’t actually explored my own sufficiently.’
He wants to do a personal project documenting remote communities in Australia. He says he won’t approach it in a journalistic way. ‘In many ways I will try to disregard a lot of what I’ve learned as a photojournalism he says. ‘I want to turn back the clock a bit and approach it in a much slower, more contemplative way’.
‘I’ve become less interested in producing a narrative that fits the agenda that a newspaper or magazine wants to present.
I feel much more passionate about going out and making pictures that are less about current affairs and more focused on the long-term narrative of what I want to say’.