The Beauty and the Darkness

Boys on horses at Thai/Burma border

Boys on horses at Thai/Burma border 1

Jack Picone and Steven Dupont are photographers who share a friendship developed over two decades.  It’s a friendship forged in the brutality and surreality of war, through shared experiences of bloody conflicts on numerous continents – a dusty, bullet strewn firsthand experience at the coalface. But it’s their mutual passion for imagery, storytelling and respect for each other’s talent with a camera in hand that has bound them together for so long.

Picone, based in Bangkok and Dupont, based out of Sydney, are two of Australia’s most accomplished and experienced documentary photographers – story tellers employing images to tell the tales they’ve witnessed.  Over a period of more than 20 years they have endured scenes of violence, witnessed acts of terrorism and the resulting carnage, coming close to death many times in the process.  “Not that you dwell on it,” says Picone, “but I should have been dead at least 6 times.”  Despite all of this, they see a beauty in the darkness of it all.  This is in part why these multi-award winning masters of the medium have teamed up to offer courses on documentary photography.

Just How Dangerous is This Gig?

Tim Page provides context during a slideshow of his iconic images

Tim Page provides context during a slideshow of his iconic images

Journalists and photographers in conflict zones are commonly portrayed in popular culture as hard-living danger hounds.  In fact, one of the tutors at the most recent Documentary Photography course run by Picone and Dupont in Sydney was the legendary photojournalist Tim Page.  He cut his teeth in Vietnam as a 20 year old and is reported to have inspired the photojournalist character in Apocalypse Now.  The danger of the craft is graphically conveyed by Page’s story of dying on the battlefield after encountering an exploding mine. “I lost this much of my brain”, said Page holding up his clenched fist to illustrate the quantum. He was resuscitated three times in the evacuation chopper on his way to hospital. Page also openly talked about the drug use which became synonymous with the Vietnam War culture, as a way of deadening the daily horror.

Asked whether the situation had changed much in the past 30 years, Dupont, whose first photojournalism assignment was to cover the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989 said, “I think it has gotten a lot more dangerous than it has ever been.”  Wars are more high tech now and “you’re no longer dealing with just land mines and snipers, you’re dealing with land mines, snipers, suicide bombers, car bombers, kidnapping – it’s huge”.  Picone agreed, adding “It’s almost an extension of the danger – it’s always been dangerous, (but) with suicide bombings and the number of them – the size and frequency.”

Afghan Special Forces on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2005

Afghan Special Forces on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2005

Dupont explained that, traditionally, photographers held a neutral status on the battle field which permitted them to cross lines and report all sides of the story in relative safety.  But now, and mainly as a result of embedding, Dupont says that “photographers and journalists…(are considered)…legitimate targets.”  It has become a case of us and them with Dupont adding that “we’re (considered to be) on the side of the Americans, we are the enemy and so we are a target.”

And he should know.  In 2008 he was lucky to have walked away from a suicide bombing attack during a trip to Afghanistan.  As he told ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program soon after, he was sitting in a Humvee in the small village of Khogyani, just outside of Jalalabad.  He was talking to the Sydney-based journalist, Paul Raffaele, who was working with him to document the Afghan government’s efforts to stem the poppy trade when a suicide bomber set off their deadly payload.  As it turned out Raffaele acted as a shield to Dupont, taking most of the flying shrapnel, pieces embedding in his head and brain.  As the dust settled and the fire fight with the Taliban sparked up, Dupont was able to capture some incredibly powerful and compelling still images and video, including a piece to camera, which he was holding, describing his feelings, injuries and what had happened.  Fortunately, both Dupont and Raffaele have now essentially recovered from their physical injuries.  But for Dupont, with a young daughter and partner in his life now, there’s a sense that this increasing level of danger within conflict zones is something he is less and less willing to risk.

Bodies outside church in Rwanda

Bodies outside church in Rwanda 2

In talking about the highs and lows of his chosen career, Picone recounts the toll on his life – the relationship breakdowns and the numerous times that he thought he was going to die.  “No question about it,” he says talking of the near misses, “anything from a gun being pointed to my temple and cocked, to being stuck in a trough in Armenia during the civil war and a sniper really trying to kill me with bullets going everywhere.”  He still has small pieces of shrapnel in his back and head.

And it is not just the risk to personal safety that plagues photojournalists in modern warzones. “There’s a lot more censorship then there’s ever been – a lot more governments that just won’t let you go in and see what’s going on,” Dupont said.

 Regardless, asked whether in hindsight they’d line up again today if they were starting out and the answer was an emphatic “yep” from both of them, albeit with a laugh from Picone, recognising how it must sound.

Picone talks poetically about his experiences, describing his life as amazing and rich, allowing him to escape from the “middle-class banality” of his childhood. He talks about the highs of his life being able to author photographs, tell stories and travel.  It’s a life which has allowed him to “shake the shackles and live 20 lives in one.”

His love for photography and image making is evident,it’s not about the risks and the danger, it’s comes back to photography – the story telling, the beauty of being able to capture life – it’s such a powerful; beautiful medium.

Picone calls the conflict of death and life inherent before his lens “the beauty and the darkness”.  Talking about the death and unspeakable horror as only someone who has had such intimate experience of it could, Picone said that “even in those situations, there is a poetry and pathos…in death and dying.  It sounds like an odd thing to say but there is a strange beauty as well.”

Boy having leg amputated

Boy having leg amputated 3

But there’s something else, something bigger which drives Picone and Dupont and many who went before them.  In true journalistic tradition, these guys are about shining a light into some very dark places.  Picone recalls a discussion during the Sydney workshop about the increasing diminution of photojournalistic budgets, opportunities and paid assignments. The question was asked, what would it mean if there were no opportunities in the future to do what you’ve done?  Picone recalls, “my first thought was that this would be a tragedy of enormous proportions.”  He continues, “it’s not until you go to these really dangerous places – you go to conflict zones and you see people caught in the crossfire or in between two warring or more factions, you just know that they have to have a voice.  It’s the last thing that they have left.  They have been stripped bare of everything else, they’ve been raped, they’ve had family members who have been killed, lost limbs, all sorts of cataclysmic things have happened and the only thing that they have left is to tell their story.”

Both Picone and Dupont have worked conflict zones throughout their careers, following rebel groups and soldiers, documenting what they see – “we’ve done the bing bang”, says Picone, “but we’ve also done the people who are caught up in that or left behind.“

Soldiers shooting young Angolan man

Soldiers shoot Angolan man 4

  He talks about the old men too old to fight, the women who’ve been raped and the children who’ve been maimed or orphaned. “If they don’t have a voice anymore, then they have nothing…(it’s like)…locking them in a dark room with no windows and leaving them,” Picone lamented.

Dupont joins the discussion, noting that often nothing comes of their work, in terms of identifying the urgency of a gathering humanitarian crisis.  But sometimes their efforts do spark a reaction and it’s then, says Dupont, “you feel that you have a very important and responsible role in this world.”  They both agree that it’s often the photographers, cameramen and journalists who are first on the scene, even before aid workers.  In this context, Dupont describes the heavy burden and responsibility for those covering world politics, grief and famine.  His advice to those who might aspire to such a role is, “to be honest and to make sure what they’re showing is accurate – they have the potential to make things happen and change events.”

It was in 2005 while embedded with US troops that images and video shot by Dupont of soldiers “desecrating” dead Taliban fighters by burning their bodies, contrary to the tenants of Islam, shocked the world.  Subsequent to this, a US Psychological Operations Unit taunted Taliban who they suspected were being harboured in a nearby village by broadcasting details of the event.  This only added to the outcry, which eventually led to a change in US policy.  To quote Dupont talking about the responsibility of being in these situations with a camera in your hand, “the world relies on that kind of news and coverage.”

Inspirations and beginnings

For Picone and Dupont, the photographers who helped spark their passion for the medium as they were starting out were similar; Josef Koudelka, Robert Capa, Robert Frank and W Eugene Smith.  And, they were both seduced by the idea of travelling, seeing the world through the lens of a camera and the freedom that comes from that.

Omsy from the "Raskols Series", Port Moresby, PNG, 2004

Omsy from the 'Raskols Series', Port Moresby, PNG, 2004

But it’s the confluence of three events in Picone’s life which prove seminal in his choice to pursue photography as a career.  And, together they make a great yarn.  The first was an afternoon he spent in his mate’s dark room under his parents’ rambling Sydney home where he learnt to develop film and saw his first print come alive in the developer solution.  Picone says, “It sounds like a cliché, but it’s that magic of seeing the print come up in the developer – it just felt like some kind of magic had happened.”  After that epiphany he went out and bought a couple of Nikormat cameras.  The second piece of the puzzle involved another friend of Picone’s who came back from the “old hippy trail across Asia” with wondrous stories of his travels.  Picone says, it struck such a chord because, “In my early twenties I was already bored of being in Sydney.”  He longed for something other than his middle-class suburban Sydney existence.  And the final puzzle piece came along by sheer accident.  Picone was in a library doing “this…boring economics thing”, while studying for a general business diploma at the New South Wales Institute of Technology, later the University of Technology.  While he had been passing his exams, he recalls fast forwarding to his future life and wondering whether he would “die of boredom”.  He ended up in the wrong section of the library while looking for a book on macroeconomics, pulling out a book of Henri Cartier-Bresson images by mistake.  He started flicking through it and in his words, “(I) just sort of like fell on the floor and just sat there and was just so sweep away and moved by his images and the whole reportage thing.” Piqued by boredom and fear of pin striped suits, Picone reached a tipping point and spent the best part of the next year travelling overland between Australia and London, “It was 1984…George Orwell’s 1984,” Picone smiles.

On his return Picone had to fight the expectations of conformity, but he resolved, “there was nothing else, there were no ifs or buts – I just had to be a photographer.”  At first he did commercial work, moving into photojournalism after about three and a half years, working his way up to, what was something of a pinnacle at that time, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine.  In fact Dupont identifies Picone as one of his early local inspirations, during the time that Picone was on staff at the Good Weekend when, according to Dupont, “the absolute recognition in this country was to work for the Good Weekend.”  Then Dupont smiles wryly and says of Picone, “but I got over him quickly,” bringing on a barrage of mock insults from Picone.  But even so, Dupont determined early on that freelancing was the path he wished to follow.  And soon Picone realised that he wanted something more – something bigger as well.

Bucharest, 2001

Bucharest, 2001

Dupont says that he realised through the photography of people like Koudelka, Capa, Frank and Smith, just how incredibly poetic and powerful photographs could be. “Some of…(their)…photographs I never forgot, they kept coming back to me, particularly pictures of conflict, in a social documentary sense – hard hitting social documentaries – images of life and death and humanity and inhumanity…(they)…had a huge impact on me.”

And so it was that the pair ended up in London often working together, but for different magazines and clients.  They covered the former Yugoslavia, the breakup of Russia and civil wars in Africa, including Angola, Somalia and the Rwandan massacre. “I tried to live the dream of being a reportage photographer, hopefully taking lyrical and poetic pictures and communicating people’s stories,” says Picone.  “I’ve always seen myself as being a story teller as much as being a photographer,” he adds, “ I love telling stories – just…with a camera.”

Dupont comments that he’s becoming more selective with what he shoots.  “It actually becomes more important to me that the photographs that I’m taking have some meaning in history,” says Dupont. “I want to leave something behind…a legacy of photography that will hopefully be picked up in an academic sense or museum sense,” he says.  “I’ve always been a project-based person,” says Dupont, “a book person, not a one-picture person – I don’t go for that outstanding ‘page one’ picture – I go for a body of work…it’s more enjoyable.”  He finishes by saying that, “if photography wasn’t enjoyable, if I wasn’t enjoying what I was experiencing and seeing I just wouldn’t do it – I’d do something else.”

Awards

Sing-Sing Tryptych #01, PNG, 2004.

Sing-Sing Tryptych #01, PNG, 2004.

With serious photographers, talk of awards can be a little prickly.  In Australian culture we’re encouraged to downplay our achievements.  And when you’ve “made it” like Picone and Dupont, awards almost seem to conjure embarrassment.

Dupont starts by telling me that he doesn’t shoot for awards, although he admits to entering more than Picone.  And he admits prize money and recognition do have value.

Regardless of the hesitancy, between them they have won some of the most prestigious awards available to photographers.  Picone’s awards include World Press Photo (Amsterdam), Photographer of the Year (USA) and the Fifty Crows Award for documentary photography.  While Dupont has a Robert Capa Gold Medal citation from the Overseas Press Club of America, a Bayeux War Correspondent’s Prize and first places in the World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International and the Australian Walkleys and Leica/CCP Documentary Award.   In 2007 Dupont was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography for his ongoing project on Afghanistan.  “Because of who this man was and how he inspired me,” Dupont says that this was his proudest achievement in photography. “Within our circle it’s considered to be one of the best grants in the world,” says Dupont

Workshops

Picone reviewing Michelle Dupont's images

Picone reviewing Michelle Dupont's images

Picone started running photographic courses almost a decade ago, providing training to industry, foundations, NGOs & independent aspiring photographers, partly in response to the changing media landscape and reduced paying assignments. The November workshop in Sydney was the first he had staged outside of Asia and the first run jointly with Dupont.

Asked why they decided to follow this path, Dupont said, “We didn’t have anything like this when we were starting out.”  They both went on to detail the number of aspiring photographers and institutions who have contacted them over the years asking for mentoring or critiquing of work.  “People should come to the course because they want to be inspired and they want to get better at photography,” he said.  But the courses are not intended only for aspiring photojournalists, “even if it’s just a hobby or passion, or if you’re just starting out and you want to learn from the masters – it’s about learning…we never stop learning,” Dupont said.

Dupont critiques the work of attendee, Kate Baker, at the Sydney Workshop

Dupont critiques attendee, Kate Baker

Picone said the courses have a great sense of community “once you bring…people together…there’s a cross fertilisation amongst the students themselves and the tutors and there’s a community of like-minded people who are passionate and love photography.”  Often, according to Picone, people strike up friendships as a result of the courses, keeping in contact online.  He also described the pleasure of hearing from students down the track saying, “Occasionally they drop me e-mails when they have won awards or…they’ve got an exhibition or a book…it’s really nice to give something back.” And he adds “the students inspire us as well.”

Sydney Workshop – November 2009

I attended Picone and Dupont’s first Australian Workshop in Sydney, and found it an intensive and inspiring six days. Attendees were challenged to produce a photo essay on the theme of ‘hope’, to be shown on the final day.

Throughout the course Picone and Dupont helped attendees brainstorm and fine tune ideas before critiquing their work in an honest and supportive way.  There were also daily presentations by working

Fairfax photojournalist & Oculi founder, Dean Sewell presents his images at the Sydney Workshop

Fairfax photojournalist & Oculi founder, Dean Sewell presents his images at the Sydney Workshop

photographers, offering varied insights and inspiration. Starting with Picone and Dupont, we were privileged to experience a small sample of their compelling and emotive portfolios, which sit easily in the company of the ‘masters’ who first inspired them.  Others included Michael Amendolia, best known for his iconic images of Dr Fred Hollows; Dean Sewell from Fairfax and Ed Giles, whose multimedia documentary on Iraqi refugees in Jordan, “Far from Freedom”, was recently launched by ABC Online. For the last three days the legendary Tim Page was also on hand to assist and inspire with his own iconic portfolio.  Also, there was a presentation from Warren Macris, of High Res Digital, considered by Picone and Dupont as probably the pre-eminent printer in Australia.  He demonstrated how he works and what he needs to produce high quality photographic prints. Finally, for those interested in using film, Chris Reid from Blanco Negro talked about his services and the products he offers.

Upcoming courses with Jack Picone and Stephen Dupont in 2010:

  • June 25-30 CAMBODIA: Angkor and Siem Reap
  • December 6-11 NEPAL: Kathmandu

All courses are restricted to 16 participants.  For further details contact jack@jackpicone.com or visit www.jackpicone.com and The Jack Picone Photography Workshops.

Extra Info

  • An edited version of “The Beauty and the Darkness” was first published in Prophoto magazine in June 2010.
  • Promotional Video by Stephen Dupont based on the Sydney Course 2010
  • Jack Picone’s website
  • Stephen Dupont’s website
  • 1 Novice monks bathe their horses in a mountain stream, high in the mountains on the Thai-Burma Border. Golden Horse Monastery where the boys practice their Buddhist beliefs is the only monastery in Thailand that monks are on horseback. The boys with their horses are all orphans either from Burma as a direct byproduct of the current governments brutal regime or from Thailand because they have lost their parents to the growing methamphetamine problem.
  • 2 Nearly a million people were slaughtered and butchered during the Rwandan Genocide. Myself and photographer Stephen Dupont were two of only a hand full of journalists in the country as the genocide was still actually taking place. We travelled with the RPF Army from one side of the country as they engaged and fought the Hutus in bloody combat until they finally wrestled control of the country back. It was unbelievably dangerous and the genocide that Stephen and I documented redefines the definition of ‘dark’. It still haunts and disturbs me today.
  • 3 It was 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the tiny operating theatre as one of the medics complained about the saw being old and blunt as they amputated this young man’s leg infested with gangrene. He is Burmese and had stepped on a mine planted by the Burmese Army on the Thai-Burma border. The operation was performed without anaesthetic (they had no anaesthetic) the boy moaned during the amputation but he did not scream.
  • 4 The man in this picture was being shot for resisting forceful conscription by the Angolan Government Army. When the series of images of this young man being shot were published extensively in Europe the practice of forceful conscription by the Angolan Army received a raft of international condemnation.
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