I was lucky enough to have Yuri Kozyrev as one of the teachers at the International Summer School of Photography this year. My interview with the photojournalist appeared on IdeasMag website last week. Below is a slightly extended version of the long inspiring conversation we had:
How did you get into photography and what was your rout to the frontline?
Like any boy born in the Soviet Union, I enjoyed photography as a hobby.
Both my mother and older brother were journalists, so I applied to study journalism at the Moscow University because I thought finding a job would be easy and found it to be a good excuse to get some higher education. In the early 80’s, I got in trouble for refusing to join the army because of the conflict in Afghanistan and got kicked out of the university.
Concerned about my future, my brother introduced me to a group of underground photographers – real, honest journalists, who refused to work for Soviet publications and chose to tell their own stories about the country instead. This was incredibly important for learning the craft and understanding photography as a profession; they helped me to find my way.
I was never interested in news, but it was all around me, so it was only natural to go to my first conflict in Pridnestrovie. Since 2001, I have been on the road non-stop, covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other places. There is a very small circle of people working on those stories – they call us the photographers of dust because all those countries are pretty dusty.
What is the role of this community for your work in conflict zones?
It’s the only way I could survive and cover those stories. The modern conflicts are a completely new environment, so you need more knowledge and better preparation and it’s better to have someone more experienced by your side. In those communities, we share everything – knowledge, experience, contacts and we don’t care about exclusivity. Working with the likeminded people is a real pleasure.
What are the main challenges of working in a conflict zone?
It’s a sudden shift in attitude toward journalists and photographers: media became targeted from every side – the rabbles, civilians and the local army. In many Arab countries, they really don’t like us, don’t understand our mission and treat us like spies.
What are the personal skills essential for being a photojournalist?
It’s about being a good human being, always honest and never cynical.
If I see that my involvement is needed, it’s never a problem to put the camera down and help. We are always missing something, and a picture is never worth someone’s life.
Personal censorship is equally important: there are some things that should never be photographed. We should respect death and find another way to tell the story.
Working in a chaotic environment of a conflict zone, how and when do you create narratives with your pictures?
I take a very traditional approach, recording what I see in front of my camera. I try to stay on the ground for as long as possible, experiencing what the locals are going through.
I often present my reportage in chronological order, not trying to make it more dramatic, but showing how the story develops naturally.
What are your thoughts on post-production and the beautification of tragedy?
There is a lot of discussions about it at NOOR, and I believe we should be very careful. High competition means professional photographers really need to create strong images that grab the viewers’ attention and make them think. To achieve this, we need to exaggerate a little.
I use a printing lab 10b, co-owned by another NOOR member photojournalist Francesco Zizola. Their retouching style is very recognisable, and I don’t mind it. I often send images to the lab, who then forwards them to the magazine, and I trust that they understand how I want to present my work.
In Focus: Reportage
Most of all, photojournalists need to be curious about every small detail of the story.
Working in the highly competitive market, we need to be more creative in finding new approaches to storytelling. The traditional model is long gone, and photojournalism is becoming increasingly conceptual – a mixture of journalism and art.
Photographers are often assigned to show their personal view and artistic vision. It sometimes goes too far, when the photographer himself becomes the subject of the story, which, in my opinion, is wrong. We need to find our own way to tell the stories, a new language that is broader and deeper.
People living in the war zones for decades are still trying to lead normal lives. They fall in love, get married and have children and all of those stories remain largely unnoticed by the media.
Nowadays, reporters often have helpers on the ground – fixers, drivers, local people you trust. It’s very important to find the right person, who is just as passionate about the story as you are.
Working in a foreign country, it’s important to do your research and learn about its culture and traditions beforehand. If you show respect and a positive attitude, you will receive the same in return; people will open their doors to you.