An interview with photojournalist Robin Hammond

by The Listener / 22 July, 2014
Robin Hammond is the first New Zealander to be a finalist in the World Press Photo Exhibition since 2002.
Robin Hammond.
Robin Hammond.


Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues around the world through photographic projects. In 2013, he was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Grant in Humanistic Photography. He is the first New Zealander to be a finalist in the World Press Photo Exhibition since 2002. The images below are from his long-term project on mental health in Africa, Condemned.

Photo/Robin Hammond.
Photo/Robin Hammond.


How often are you away on assignments?

I am going to Nigeria tomorrow. I am away for maybe four or five days and then I go to Moscow to give a talk and then I am straight back to Lagos, Nigeria for another four weeks.

Last year I was home maybe three months. I was away nine months of the year when you add it all up. I usually spend about six or seven months of the year away, but this year is going to be really busy. I have spent more time in Nigeria this year already than I have in France.

Paris is a base but I never actually shoot here. I spend a lot more time in Africa than I do anywhere else.

Photo/Robin Hammond.
Photo/Robin Hammond.


Is it quite a solitary existence?

It can be hard to form good solid relationships. Even if you are somewhere for four week, you form very solid relationships very quickly because often you will be with someone for 24 hours a day for several weeks. But then you leave. Unless it is somewhere you keep going back to. I wouldn’t say it was solitary, because I am always with people. There are not a lot of relationships that last a really long time. The work that I do is really about trying to uncover issues that are in the media. Often I am the only photographer there. Sometimes a journalist will join me but usually not. It’s not like I am ever lonely. I like that. One difference between doing what I do and, say, a film crew, is that I have a great privilege to make sure my point of view can come through, as opposed to deciding the way a story should be told by committee.

I am not just a photographer, I am a storyteller. The taking of the picture, the pushing of the button, the time I have the camera in my hand is so small compared to all the other stuff like the researching, the travelling there, and finding out what is going on. Even sharing meals with people and trying to understand the context of the situation I am in. Taking the picture is at the very end of a big process. But it is all about getting to that bit.

Photo/Robin Hammond.
Photo/Robin Hammond.


Do you remember a photo or a moment or a job you were on when you decided that human rights was where you wanted to go?

When I was studying at Massey I picked up a book by W Eugene Smith called Minamata. That was a book about a small coastal Japanese village that had suffered from mercury poisoning as a result of a factory that polluted the waterways and poisoned the fish. It ended up with kids with terrible birth defects. Minamata was the name of the town. When I picked up that book in the library, it was like one of those light-bulb moments where I never realized that photography had such a power to connect me to faraway places and things that I would never know about. That had a really big impact on me. I put down that book and knew what I wanted to do with my photography: work that had meaning. And this idea that photography can make the world a better place is something that really attracted me to focus on human rights issues.

Photo/Robin Hammond.
Photo/Robin Hammond.


How do you cope with what you see? You capture it, you experience it and then you move on to the next thing?

You never really leave it behind. You carry that with you all the time. Different places and circumstances affect me differently. I thought that I would be good at managing the harsh stuff I saw. I find that the more I do it, the harder it gets. Part of that could be that I spend longer and longer with my subjects and get to know them even more. When you are confronted with these issues it can be shocking at first. But I am aware I have to do the best job I can journalistically to tell the story in a strong way so it impacts other people. In my mind I quickly switch to, “How do I tell this story in a strong way?” There are a lot of technical considerations and creative decisions to think about. Sometimes it is not until weeks later when I am going through the editing and see these pictures over and over again that it can really hit home, the gravity of what I am seeing. Some are easier to deal with because the work I am doing is trying to make that situation better. I tell myself that I am part of raising awareness and making this an issue and something positive can come out of it. The whole basis of this work is I am not 100% sure that the work I do can make a change. I believe that ignorance should not be an alibi for inaction. Our job is to, one, create awareness and, two, try to make a connection between the audience and the people we are documenting. Hopefully that connection will become action, positive action. Between each of those steps are fatal flaws – all those dots don’t always join up together. But I have this fundamental belief that the art and the media world have had a big impact on the way we see the world, and that has a big impact on the way we interact with that. Photography and my role as a photographer is just a small cog in that wheel.

It is really hard to say one photo can change the world, but I do think that myself and the WPP and that exhibition are all part of how we see the world. I do really believe how we see it influences how we interact with it.

The 2014 World Press Photo Exhibition is open in Auckland from Saturday 5th July until Sunday 27th July. Click the link for more information.

Click here to visit Robin's website, featuring his portfolio.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

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