VICE Loves Magnum: Thomas Dworzak Takes Photos of Sad Marines and Taliban Poseurs

Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.

Thomas Dworzak joined Magnum in 2000. His books often deal with war. His first, Taliban, was a found photo project which freaked out a lot of Americans who didn’t want to see what the Taliban looked like when they were fooling about. M*A*S*H IRAQ examined the daily lives of US Medevac teams in Iraq, and his latest book,Kavkuz, explored the impact years of brutal war had on the Caucasus region. Oddly enough, in spite of shooting in some of the most hellish conditions imaginable, he thinks Paris is the hardest place to work in.

VICE: You are often described as a “war photographer.” How do you feel about that?
Thomas Dworzak:
 It’s a label. What are you going to do about it? I’m not going to say I am not one, because I do go, and I used to go very often, to these conflict areas. But there are definitely people out there who are more into combat than me. There is a scale of how much involvement in war one has. And I’m not all the way up there.

How did working in Chechnya during the war there differ from your time in Iraq?
I think in Chechnya, I was more “on the ground.” I was hitchhiking around, trekking alone. You would talk to the fighters, you would spend time with them, and then if there was an attack you would arrive with them. It was all done in a very disorganized, one to one, personal way. I think Chechnya was very extreme as a war, compared to anything that I have seen since.

Extreme in what way?
Just the sheer amount of stuff I saw flying around. It was an atrocious war. Bosnia was very brutal of course, but there was not so much physical destruction, it was more killing and revenge on a very personal and human level, between neighbors or whatever. Chechnya was brutal in every way. The destruction of Grozny reached a level I had not seen until then, and haven’t seen since. I guess you might come across something like it now in Aleppo, for example. There was no accreditation when I was working there, no paperwork. I learned Russian so I could talk to the fighters. They were welcoming, so I spent time with them. Whereas in Iraq and Afghanistan I was embedded. You get your piece of paper and the military has to take care of you.

In what way did that affect your work? What’s your view on the embed format, do you think it worked well?
I think there is a strange kind of freedom in the structure of an embed. A lot of people have been bitching about it, going on about the embed being “the end of press freedom” and all that, but I don’t really think that’s true. I don’t know anything about Iraq really; I haven’t seen Iraq outside of the American point of view for so long now. But if I choose to cover the American angle, then an embed is not a bad way to do it. Because it is so institutionalized, you can actually move around and do a lot. You don’t have to beg, you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s a bit duller in that sense. You just have to follow the guys in front of you. And there are not that many decisions to be made. I find embeds pretty relaxing in that way.

Was your M•A•S•H• IRAQ project concluded over one single embed?
It was almost all embed work. I don’t want to over-emphasize the fact that some photos—just a few—weren’t taken in embeds as it’s meant to be an embed book. I don’t know, maybe it was two years or three years, something like that. The core of the work was done over a year, I did maybe five or six embeds with the medical units over that time.

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