By Jim Colton
“If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart…that's a good picture.” - Eddie Adams
After forty some odd years in the business, I’m happy to report that I am not jaded enough to where a photo can’t still bring a tear to my eye. Eddie said it best and I’ve paraphrased his sentiments often by saying, “For a picture to be effective, it has to be affective!” It has to cause a visceral reaction to the viewer...it makes you mad, it makes you happy, as long as it makes you something…then it’s done its job.
The tear that I speak of made itself apparent upon viewing the image above for the first time. Looking into the eyes of the young boy as he is carried away like a piece of trash found on the side of the road. Discovering he only had hours to live and the last visions he will have of this earth are of what must appear to him to be aliens in yellow suits…and not the caressing hands of his own father who could not be with him in his time of greatest need. A symbolic "X" drips on the wall bringing closure to the scene. It was all too much to bear.
But that is the power of photography; capturing moments; telling stories that need to be told. And doing so with a bold and effective voice; affecting people with compelling photojournalism. And I was not the only one who was moved by this image. The members of the Pulitzer Prize committee chose this image and others from the story, as the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. The award went to "Daniel Berehulak, freelance photographer, for The New York Times, for his gripping, courageous photographs of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa."
Berehulak is no stranger to awards. He has won three World Press Photo awards, two Photographer of the Year awards from Pictures of the Year International and the prestigious John Faber award from the Overseas Press Club just to name a few. He has visited over 50 countries covering events including the Iraq War, child labor in India, elections in Afghanistan and the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan as well as documenting the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan and the Chernobyl disaster.
Born to immigrant parents, Berehulak grew up in Sydney and had early forays into sports photography prompted by his travels while on the collegiate volleyball team before diving head first into photojournalism and documentary photography. He is affiliated with Getty Reportage and is a regular contributor to the New York Times, and TIME magazine.
I recently met him for the first time at the Eddie Adams Workshop last month where he graciously donated his time as a team leader and presenter to 100 students. This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the immensely talented, humble and courageous, Daniel Berehulak.
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about your early years. I understand you grew up on a farm in Australia. How did you transition from farm life to photojournalism?
Daniel Berehulak: I grew up on a farm which was about an hour out of Sydney. It was a great upbringing. I was the youngest of three with an older brother and an older sister. Dad and mum were refugees from the Second World War from Ukraine, coming to Australia where they met. Dad wound up buying a farm and since he came from the Ukraine where he himself grew up on a farm…he wanted to get back to the land. I wound up doing chores…it was a hobby farm and my dad would grow anything that would take seed in that climate from oranges, apples, plums, pears and a robust vegetable garden. We also had about 25 head of cattle. I’d help him plant seeds, cut grass, weeds, pick oranges, and milk cows.
So I moved into town, went to school and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I ended up getting a history degree, which was always something that fascinated me. I read a lot as a kid about other cultures around the world and conversations around the dinner table were stories like how we got to Australia and the hardships back in the Ukraine as well. We always kept in touch with family, so I was always innately curious about the world and wanted to discover more. My parents would have liked for me to be a doctor or a dentist or something like that….something respectable….but my grades insured that those dreams would never be realized.
So I started taking photographs around the farm…there was an old plastic square format camera that was always around the house and it was a way of capturing moments and memories. And I remember looking back at them and how weird they were. I shot all of them diagonally …so at that time…photography was never a profession.
My dad read newspapers daily and I kind of took for granted where all these images came from. It was only later on when I got to travel to Europe and the Middle East and Asia as a volleyball player for college, that I discovered my love for photography. One day, I came across a World Press Photo exhibit in Vienna and I remember walking in and being absolutely blown away by the photographs of war and the photographs of hardships…even the sports photos moved me as well.
And I remember seeing an Australian photographer named Craig Golding and was very proud that a fellow Australian was recognized. After looking at all of those photographs I came away with so many questions like, “How the Hell did they do that?” How did they capture those incredible precise moments and emotions that photojournalism conveys. I came away from that thinking that’s what I would love to do. At the time, I was working in retail…and didn’t know what to do…so I took photo courses at night…and convinced myself that this was something I wanted to do…this was something that really fascinated me and would allow me to explore and discover the world.
JC: Some of your early work was covering sports, a bit of a departure from what you are doing now. Did you like shooting sporting events? Do you miss it?
DB: It’s not often that I do miss it. Sometimes I miss the preparation that’s involved in a big event. What I loved about sports was learning about motion and movement. I learned photography by shooting sports. I was able to learn so many things; not only the technical aspects…as there is no room for errors…but by learning from my mistakes. But at the world’s largest sporting events like the Olympic Games and Rugby World Cups, it’s all about the moment. What I loved as well was learning about the tradition and the culture of the sport…learning about the particular athlete and the science behind the sport. Everyone is different, so their techniques are different so in order to get a certain photograph, you need to understand their movement and motion...so the science behind that fascinated me and I suppose that when we go out for any assignments now, the preparation that’s involved is very similar. We need to learn as much about the subject as possible, the issues, and who we’re photographing. I miss that excitement about not knowing what you’re going to get on that day. That’s the beauty and magic of it…you go in expecting one thing and you observe…and by making mistakes, you find something even more incredible than what you ever hoped to achieve.
And I was blessed. I ended up learning off of Craig (Golding) and Steve Christo and Tim Clayton…running the sidelines with those guys…and Adam Pretty was getting into his stride in those days. And they saw sports photography as photojournalism...they were huge on ethics…nothing was being set up…and they were capturing life and they were being journalists in their own sense…and having integrity and ethics was so important in achieving that and being the best. I feel so lucky and privileged to have learned from those guys….like when Trent Park was evolving from sports and going into his documentary style as well.
JC: Who or what were some of your early influences in photography? Whose work did you admire then...and whose work do you admire today?
DB: That’s something that always evolves and changes and I remember when I was studying sports, I was looking at the legendary Allsport photographers like Bob Martin and the other Sports Illustrated guys as well. I was fortunate enough to have access to photographers on a weekly basis like Craig and Tim, so I kind of idolized and admired them. It was like witchcraft. It was like magic. You would go to the same events and sit right beside them and yet they would come away with something so incredible and unique…and I remember saying to myself, “Aw man, I have got such a long way to go!”
Sport was like learning the craft for me…but after a while I felt unfulfilled with sport, and with reading and my innate curiosity for the world, I was drawn to photojournalism. So the work I was drawn to was from people like James Nachtwey and Sabastiao Salgado. I would read about Magnum and look at all of their photographs. It was all of those folks and Trent Park at the time as well. I was trying to consume as much as possible.
Now for me, the people that inspire me the most are my colleagues. People that keep doing incredible work whether it’s for the wire or long term projects…people like David Guttenfelder has been an inspiration for years because he is someone that is there always. He’s always working; he’s innovative. And there’s a photographer named Kevin Frayer who worked for the AP who has an incredible eye and such a hard work ethic. Adrees Latif helped me prepare for my first assignment in Iraq. In terms of preparation, there’s so much more involved than just taking the frame. And there are photographers that continually work hard…like John Moore, Emilio Morenatti, Tomas Munita, Rodrigo Abd…I could go on…all great people and incredible photographers. I get inspired by looking at their work…and then you have guys like Ruddy Roye as well…who is creating his own voice and audience and tackling important issues.
JC: You have been the recipient of far too many photographic awards to list here, including this year's Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for your coverage of the Ebola crisis. In your opinion, how important are photography awards in the evolution of a photographer?
DB: I can only speak from my own experience…I was lucky eight years ago to have won a World Press Photo award…a single image from Pakistan…and I was working with Getty Images as a staff photographer at the time. Winning that award certainly helped my career as far as putting you on the map and getting you in the spotlight and getting people curious and looking at your work. Then it’s up to us to keep on going. It is an affirmation that we are on the right track…that we are doing the right thing. What I am worried about though is that there seems to be a lot of awards now in the industry and there seems to be a lot of back patting. But at the end of the day we are story tellers and we need to remember that. And to remember that it’s about the people in our photographs and not about us. That’s what I worry about because our industry sometimes is quite inward looking…and rather than looking at ways of getting the message out, we are looking at celebrating our own successes. Awards certainly do help you get recognition…to get in front of editors and sit down and show work and to continue dialogue and discussions and to be able to continue our work. So in that respect, awards do play a part….but I certainly have trepidations as it moves the issue away from the people in our photographs and shifts the focus to us.
JC: I used to tell people that contests are like gravy…..every once in a while, it’s nice to have gravy on your potatoes…but you still have to have the potatoes!
DB: “It’s all about the potatoes man!”
JC: What was it like covering the Ebola crisis? How long did you commit to it and how many trips did you take?
DB: I initially went out there for what I thought was going to be a week and a half or two weeks. I was waiting for my visa for North Korea to come through. I did not expect at all to wind up staying 103 days…over a total of four trips!
The last one being in February of this year to go back and see how the Liberians were and how people were coping with what was hopefully the end of Ebola. After I was there for a few days…I actually hoped that my North Korean visa didn’t come through…luckily it didn’t.
Sometimes you get to a story and you feel like you need to stay…and this was one of those times where I was amazed at how few people there were covering the story. News organizations didn’t commit to this story as they would have on stories of a similar scale. I think they were afraid and worried with liability and editors sending freelancers out. And agencies weren’t sending as many staffers out. There were certain people covering it….like John Moore of Getty Images…who was there at a very critical time. I think we overlapped for about a week or so and it really showed the world how bad it was. And after a few days, I said to myself, “I’ve got to stay….this is fucking bad!”
JC: What preparations and precautions did you have to take to insure your own personal safety?
DB: You start Googling! I mean the first thing I did was I emailed John…saying, “Hey man, I’m heading out there Bro, help! How are you, it looks awful. Are you keeping safe? I’m heading out. What do you recommend, what do you suggest?” John sent me an email saying, “Brother, don’t worry about it…it’s possible to cover this. I’m safe. Terrible what’s going on here, but there is a safe way of covering it…we need to be careful…and here’s a list of precautions that I took.” And he sent me a list of the safety equipment he ordered. So I came in with 300 pairs of gloves; 20 to 30 full size head-to-toe suits; 4 pairs of goggles; tape; a couple hundred face masks; and rubber boots which I wore out completely as I was wearing them every day and had to buy another pair. And then, I picked up chlorine and tablets to put into water as well.
We actually brought a jet pack that we had in the back of the car…with sprays like you have in your garden…filled with chlorine. And I would buddy up with another journalist…and we would spray each other down before getting back into the car including spraying the bottom of our boots. And you had to quickly change your behavior…with things like touching your face or your eyes or scratching. You had to be conscious of that…and of where you were sitting and whether you were in a crowd; that you weren’t standing too close to someone. You had to be conscious of the wind and what direction it was blowing because saliva might travel in that way. So you had to learn very quickly new behaviors in order to insure your safety. A lot of them were in the form of disinfecting and using those sprays on a daily basis including spraying down our equipment and our clothes and boots. And we wound up getting massive stains on our clothes from constantly being sprayed down.
JC: What was the hardest thing you had to deal with on this story, both on a technical and a personal level?
DB: On the technical side of things, it’s something you have to learn…and it’s the same thing as any assignment that requires preparation. The most difficult thing for me was the fact that the virus was the most lethal before the time of death, around the time of death, and right afterwards. And knowing that people were removed from their loved ones in a time where they would be getting consoled. You want to die in the arms of someone that you loved…and this virus preyed on our humanity. It almost knew that this is how we existed…and watching a father not to be able to console his son in his last moments of life…was one of the most hardest things to witness…and people dying…alone…in small cubicles surrounded by people in alien suits!
JC: Is there a way to "remove" yourself from the subject matter so it does not affect you adversely? Some photographers I have spoken with tell me that the camera acts as a "shield." Do you believe a camera has the ability to do this?
DB: At times the camera does act as a shield…but every time is different. When you have that camera at your face, you’re looking at not only what is in front of you but you are also looking at the dials and the exposure…to make sure you are going to be able to do what you need to do on a technical level. It’s kind of a distraction…so it does act like a shield. Sometimes it allows you to disconnect from what is happening in front of you….but at some point we do have to put that camera down. And sometimes it’s instantaneous and it catches you completely off guard. And then there are times when it could be six months or three months or a week or a day afterwards. It has never been the same for me. It’s been different every single time.
JC: Advances in technology and the sheer volume of images on social media have made it more difficult to filter through all the "noise" in search of valued content. How do you stay focused? What are some of the criteria you use before committing to a story?
DB: I think it comes down to how we differentiate ourselves from the “clutter” and how we differentiate our content. Because we ARE journalists…that we use due diligence…check our information and our sources when we are producing it…and when we are consuming it we have to be wary. There are so many different feeds available now…that we can tailor that. If you’re doing research on a certain story…you can “harness” all of this information and use it to our advantage. There is always going to be clutter…but the most exciting thing is that we are now living in a generation that is so much more visually intelligent than it ever was…so it’s up to us…as we are consuming so much more imagery these days. I want to see that as an opportunity on how we can harness these audiences…and harness our own work and to get our voices across to the right people.
JC: With a dwindling editorial market and fewer "analog" publications, what are your thoughts on the state of today’s publishing world? Are you optimistic that there will still be avenues for publishing meaningful stories?
DB: Absolutely, absolutely more optimistic! There are so many more opportunities now to get your work seen. You don’t have to wait for an editor to assign you….you can start your own blog, you can start your own feed….and start a conversation about important issues. Ruddy Roye, Matt Black…these are people who have harnessed their digital feeds to get the conversation rolling; to get people engaged and thinking in a different way. Instagram is only one thing…there are so many other things that we don’t even know about yet that are right around the corner. And it’s important for us to be reactive…entrepreneurial…and be creative in how we get our stories across. That is an extremely optimistic challenge to have for the future.
JC: What’s on the horizon for Daniel Berehulak? Are there any projects that you are working on that you are at liberty to talk about at this time?
DB: At the moment I’m finishing up some assignments here in Mexico. And seeing as my parents were refugees who walked across Europe fleeing a war, I feel very connected to that story that is unraveling now in Europe. And I would like to see if there is something meaningful I can add to that story that hasn’t been told and dedicate and devote some time in sharing those stories and the hardships that those people are enduring. For so many people to abandon their homes for reasons of safety or political differences is a huge deal; to pick up and march hundreds and thousands of kilometers to find a better life for their family and their children and their children’s children. So that’s something I’m working on that I would like to tackle in the future.
JC: Lastly, what advice can you offer or any final thoughts you'd like to share with young photojournalists who may wish to follow in your footsteps?
DB: I think if I could give myself the advice when I started my career…I would implore that people do work that moves them…that they are connected to and to find something that is close to their heart. Have a story to tell…to communicate…because we all have to learn our craft and what better way to do it than with something you are connected to and passionate about. Whenever you are doing anything, you are going to get so much more energy and dedication and thought and commitment to it…whatever the final product is. It may be one of many things we wind up doing in our careers…so you might as well do something that is close to your heart. Be tenacious; research whatever you are working on in order to understand and more effectively be able to communicate what’s going on. Get inspiration from books and photography….from music, from whatever moves and inspires you. It’s also important to have integrity and to be true to yourself. Be creative. Make many mistakes and learn from them.
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Daniel Berehulak Website: http://www.danielberehulak.com/
2015 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography: http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2015-Feature-Photography
Getty Images Website: http://www.gettyimages.com/
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM