William Daniels photographer who works in social issues and humanitarian concerns, mostly focused on isolated or weakened areas because it is in those places that his photography can shed a light on their unseen realities. Daniels started his career in 2004, when he took pictures of street children in the Philippines. In 2007, William covered various humanitarian crisis all over Africa and Asia, where malaria and tuberculosis affected the population in a very hard way. He also covered some “democratic” revolutions, starting in 2007 with Kyrgyzstan revolution, called Faded Tulips, and covering Gadafi’s fall in Lybia in 2011. Getting into the stories in a way that makes him almost invisible, Daniels covered the Central African Republic chaos, a work for which he received the Second Prize in the General News category from World Press Photo 2014 Contest, and which has been published in TIME, Al Jazeera America and in The New York Times. With that humanitarian and curious point of view, Daniels moved from Africa and went to a new story: Train for the Forgotten. This work, which has been shown at Visa Pour l’Image 2014, talks about the BAM line, the Baikal-Amur Mainline, the railway that crosses Eastern Russia, running for more than 4000 kilometres, passing through remote villages with no amenities and certainly no healthcare facilities. If you want to find out how all these people live, and how William Daniels can make their stories even more unique, you must go and visit his exhibition from DOCfield>15, which ends on the 24th of July.
By Paula Ericsson
You’re invisible in your pictures.
A good photographer is the one who becomes invisible. A good photographer is the one who becmomes invisible. But it’s so difficult, I actually don’t think that I’m doing it well, I wish I could do it better. In this story, on the BAM line, I wanted to go more inside the stories, more into the life scene, but we just stayed there one month. What I want is to get more into this kind of images, to be there to catch those very human moments, where the people forget about the photographer, sitting in the corner of a room.
You’ve been to different places to cover and tho explain the people who suffer Malaria, you’ve been to India and Thailand, but your bigger work was in Africa. Why this choice?
In the first place, because Malaria is much bigger in Africa than in Thailand, India, or even Latin America, because Africa lives in poverty conditions and because the type of malaria is much stronger in Africa, it’s a type of malaria that kills people very quickly. In Asia the most popular type kills less people, but stays in the body for a very long time. The idea was to make a very global project, to go to many different places, and to show that malaria also affects so many people in Asia, and it also creates a very large economic impact. I wish I could also go to Latin America but for funding reasons it was easier to get in Asia and Africa than in Latin America.
Working with the NGO’s can be conditional to your work?
It depends on the situation. If you go to cover what you want to cover I don’t think it’s a problem. When we are journalists or reporters we always need the help of local people or organizations. Maybe what people say is when you work for the NGO’s as a communication assignment. The NGO’s need pictures that communicate what they do. This is not a problem if we make the difference between the two kinds of jobs, but it’s true that some NGO’s want you to work for them so you can take pictures of the volunteers giving food to the little poor african kids, because this is the way that they will touch people. I don’t want to do that, but I understand why they do it, it’s how they get funding from the public.
A man distributing bed nets throws his hands to his head in frustration as women wait to receive free bed nets in Kano state, Nigeria. The distribution became increasingly fraught as beneficiaries worried that there would not be enough nets for everybody – William Daniels
Why do you think that there’s so many deaths of Malaria in Africa?
One of the reasons that dies so much people from malaria is that there’s no knowledge about it. They don’t’ have magazines, newspapers or TV, many kids don’t go to school, so it’s really difficult to send a message. In Burkina Faso, there was people who had a wrong knowledge about malaria, and they thought that when they got this sickness they had to see whicthdoctor. I also met some man that thought that they could treat malaria doing some kind or treatment with herbs. In Sierra Leone I saw a boy dying at the hospital because when he had the first symptoms of malaria his parents took him to a “witchdoctor”, and he gave him herbs to eat, and he died being suffocated by the herbs.
Some say that James Natchwey pictures are too tough, and that Salgado’s picture are too soft. What do you think about that?
I wouldn’t say that James Natchwey pictures are tough, I would say real. I remember shooting some patients AIDS and tuberculosis, similar to the projects that Natchwey did, and when you see that people you can’t find anything in their bodies, they only have their bones and their skin, they were starving really. So James Natchwey pictures goes just straight to the point, maybe that’s why his projects are polemical, but I’ve heard more polemic about Sebastiao Salgado, specially on his last works. The principal critic to his projects is the post-production, which I agree, because for me he abuses quite a bit of that, but I’m still a big fan of Salgado. When I was 20 I saw Salvado work and it really touched me, and he became one of the reasons why I choose to be a photographer.
In a World Press Photo interview you said that it was easy to set up an army in CAR.
Yes, maybe not to set up a real army, but you can easily have some fighters with you. This country is so poor, people has nothing, so if you join a rebel group at least you’re someone: you have function, you have a mission, maybe if you’re liked you’ll have a gun, a little bit of money. If you don’t do that you will stay in your village and just do nothing, so that’s why it’s so easy to make that kind of groups begin.
Antibalakas march in the bush between Bossangoa and Bossembelé – William Daniels
At first it was easier to cover this conflict, but was it that easy when the french army get into the conflict?
Yes, I don’t know if it was exactly because the french arm, but at the start the Anti- Balaka (christian militias) they were just protecting their party. But it changed, and it become in a real bad situation, they started to kill people, specially muslims. So since then any army wanted to have a journalist to get access or to photograph. There are some reporters who are still working there, but I prefer to wait a bit, I worked a lot last year.
You’ve covered Arab Spring revolutions, those called “revolutions for democracy”.
It’s really not that simple, the western media sell to us that they’re fighting for democracy, but its not that simple. In Kyrgyzstan I’m not sure that most of the people want the real democracy, only a few people who want to stop the corruption, some others just wanted to be the new benefiters of the corruption, and other just want another leader to follow. And in Libya I’m not sure that the majority of Libyans what they want now is real democracy: they wanted to stop Gaddafi’s, some wanted to be less poor, some others wanted real democracy, other wanted to have a better leader.
A rebel fighter in Homs under siege, Syria – William Daniels
You say it’s not that simple, but mass media show all of those revolutions are revolutions for democracy.
I wouldn’t say mass media or the Western world, because maybe the Western world wants to show that simple point of view: “Look at them, they’re following our steps, they’re fighting for democracy, they’re doing it right!”. When I started my project in Kyrgyzstan, during the Faded Tulips revolution in 2005 some media said “democracy is coming to central Asia”. Of course some part of the population wanted democracy, but I remember in Kyrgyzstan when I asked about democracy to villagers they answered: “Democracy? We don’t care about democracy, we want food and jobs first”.
Many people from the Western World think that democracy is the best system we can have and maybe we want the same things for the “undeveloped” countries. But how can you talk about democracy if nobody has food, if they don’t trust any leaders?. For me the most important thing is to eradicate corruption, everywhere, but specially in poor countries, because a country that nowadays could be devolved is actually poor, and nobody trusts their leaders, people take arms easily… it’s because of corruption that we have crisis. If we want undeveloped countries to change, the process to do is to fight corruption, not only by assistance.
How did you found out about the Train for the Forgotten?
I read a paper form a Russian magazine, Russian (Russki) Reporter. I knew about the LINE and it was quite curious because it’s been a long time since I wanted to travel around BAM line, I was attracted by that place, and I wanted to go there. But when you work for a magazine you always have a way to tell a story about your travel, you have to take a good angle, tell them: “Hey, I discovered this medical train, which travels around poor villages around the BAM line, and it’s a good way to know their lifes and their stories”. Actually I’m working in a new project about the BAM line that I started two months ago not with the medical train.
Liza Bazhanova, eight, waits for test results from a general checkup. Even this first grader complains about the lack of decent health care in her village – William Daniels
The BAM line just goes to those villages two times per year. Is this enough for the population?
It would be difficult to go there every month because we’re talking about a really big trip, and I’m not sure that people would use it more than that, because this train is not treating patients, it gives diagnosis. So when they give you your diagnosis you can then go to the hospital, or buy some pills and rest at home. If you don’t know the diagnosis you don’t know where to go, and maybe you will travel, you will spend a lot of hours, and maybe you didn’t need to go to the hospital, paying a lot of money for that. I also think that it would be such a difficult thing to organize a train which treats people, needs so much bigger organization, more money, more employees…
And how was to meet their patients?
The people were quite impressed to see a French foreigner, it’s more typical to find a Chinese one, or a North Korean one. They were quite happy to appear in my pictures, they wanted to be photographed, but when I told them “I don’t want to take one photograph of you, I want to stay with you the whole day, and I want you to not care about me” they got quite surprised. So you have to become their friend, come back, take some presents, have a beer some time… and after this I could see that the people of this place where quite open-minded. Also there’s some people who are a bit worried about what you’re doing “You’re giving a bad image of my country, you’re covering the problems of my country”, and I think that comes from the years and years of propaganda of the Soviet Regime and still a little nowadays with Putin. Some of those people are scared about their name or their face being linked to a complaint about their country.
What do the forgotten feel like? Do they plan to stay on those isolated places, or to leave them?
People are leaving, but so many people like the nature, and some others just can’t leave their houses. If someone wants to sell his or her house, nobody will buy it. One of the women I talked with- her husband was in his last days of cancer- and she had two daughters that moved a long time ago, and before he died, she told me that she was quite worried about all the things she had, because nobody would buy it. Some teenagers want to leave to the cities, they dream about having a big social life, buy clothes, have a normal teenager life.
The staff takes an after-hours break. They’ll swig vodka, eat barbecue, and burn a straw effigy to mark the folk holiday before Russian Orthodox Lent – William Daniels