From The Balkans To Belfast: Behind The Lens Of A Conflict Photographer

From fast cars to Balkan wars, miners strikes to Israel, Justin Leighton has had an exciting and diverse career as a photographer. Here we find out what he loves and hates about his art form...
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From fast cars to Balkan wars, miners strikes to Israel, Justin Leighton has had an exciting and diverse career as a photographer. Here we find out what he loves and hates about his art form...

Photojournalistic work or the photojournalist, these days, rarely receives the kind of platform or interest on a mainstream level to discuss the wealth of knowledge and experience (let alone awarded) they appease it all in their minds long after their visceral documentations lose the zeitgeist appeal – instead they are placed neatly within bourgeois spaces and intellectualised over for hours discussing the divided disciplines of their photographic work. Yet, the past 20 years, or more crisply the previous 10 years have seen Political and Cultural alterations that demand a direct, open and refreshed approach as taken by United Photo Industries when viewing or reviewing our world today.

It is just over 16 years since witnessing, albeit what should have been a  celebratory and intriguing  day of reportage  in Arras France, a day that has imprinted itself on the mind of former photojournalist Justin Leighton; however this isn’t the only weighty experience he can now, thankfully, talk about at length, for Leighton is someone whose photographic documentation of several of the worlds key altering conflicts over the past 20 years have taken him from: the First Gulf War, the Balkan Conflict, Northern Ireland Conflict, the U.K Miners Strike to Israel. A career that can only be respectfully defined as being one whole le moment decisif – Today, Leighton leads a very different life of  photography, gladly  shooting beautiful machinery that of fast cars, at Top Gear.

During my continuous travels, we met twice, the first time just over a year ago, I asked if he would talk to me about his time as a photojournalist; he curiously refused. A year later, we talk again, and this time he wanted to discuss it all.

MK: You documented several significantly contrasting conflicts; tell me about your experience of the Balkan Conflict.

JL: It was the first real conflict. I was mentally unprepared for what I was going into; I’d never been shot at. Never seen what proper armies can do to towns and people.

MK: In what way were you mentally unprepared? I’m surprised that you were.

JL: I think we are all unprepared for someone shooting at you. You see it in the movies. You see it on TV. The first time when I felt that someone was not just shooting in my general direction, but shooting at me, was a shock. I took some cover behind a car door. The guy who was with me grabbed me and told me to hide behind the engine block;a bullet slammed through the door; It wasn’t like the movies, car doors don’t stop bullets. Walls don’t stop them. Trees seemed to be ok !

MK: Why did you go back to cover further conflicts?

JL: Part of me wanted to go to tell the story. Bring back news of what is going on. I had a bit of a naive belief that it was going to make a difference. My grandmother was a bit a commie; she said that people need to be able to have a voice; the poor and the oppressed.

MK: Tell me more about your experience in Northern Ireland, how did it contrast with your documentation of the Balkan Conflict?

JL: My first time in NI was 1987; It was two communities that were at war in every way with each other socially and culturally.NI was in the UK on my door step. I’d grown up with a few bomb attacks in London and the siege of Balcon Street. So the troubles were part of the news being brought around to my life. I had a few tricky times there but on the whole, I loved it. The Balkans was different. It was a bigger conflict. I covered the Croatian bit of it more than the Bosnia conflict; two communities at war on a social and cultural level.

I had a bit of a naive belief that it was going to make a difference. My grandmother was a bit a commie; she said that people need to be able to have a voice; the poor and the oppressed.

MK: If you were covering Northern Ireland today do you think you’d be able to do what you did, will the financing be there for you to spend that time there?

JL: Not as much. I was lucky to have no family or responsibilities, only to myself. If I got a four day assignment I could live off that for a month. But as newspaper/magazine rates have not gone up in 20 years ; it is more of a problem to fund stories. Photographers have to be as creative with funding and with the work itself; but if I was starting out again; I think I would try the TV route. I just hope that photographers from all walks of life and from not so privileged backgrounds can still contribute to news photography. It would be a shame if that voice was priced out of the market

MK: The moving image basically...

JL: Yes, I tell my assistant s that I have now, to get runners jobs, become a DOP, become a director anything but be a photojournalist. (smiles)

MK: Oh really?

JL: Yes earn your money doing all that can pay for your photography a bit like Vim Venders or Moby. (smiles)

MK: Let’s talk about the two general camps within photojournalism: The first, approaching it through the evolving nature of change and the different aspects of aesthetics – The second, stating that the process of delivering the photograph must always remain as a traditional piece of journalistic work minus a discussion about aesthetic.
What are your thoughts?

JL: Photography evolves Photojournalism changes; the lines blur. As long as it is more about the subject rather than the photographer then it’s a piece of journalism. We still need a paper or photography of record. It sounds very old fashioned maybe. But I still think that esp. news need a less ‘me’ approach and a more ‘us’ approach. But other forms need the photographer to really stamp an approach and an argument. Photojournalism as all Photography has broad churches. But most are not objective. I feel that all photography is just a different shade of subjective thought.

Photography evolves Photojournalism changes; the lines blur. As long as it is more about the subject rather than the photographer then it’s a piece of journalism. We still need a paper or photography of record

MK: Where do you stand in terms of photojournalism progressing /evolving with technology verses photojournalism focusing on the traditional journalistic aspects?

JL: It’s great, I don’t really care what it’s shot on, iphone, Leica or a Lego camera; as long as there is a moral ethical rigour. As long as the photographer is not lying about what it is s’he is seeing. What tools they use is down to them. A camera is just a tool.

MK: Tell me about your time during the 1st Gulf War, did you shoot in phases?

JL: It was an assignment but a pretty loose one, we were just told to go out there and just come back with something.

MK: It seems as though your focus was on the casualties

JL: I would say it was the casualties of the policies, that’s what I was interested in, not so much the glorious advance of Kuwait, the kicking out of Iraqi’s from Kuwait. I was more interested in what was going on behind that, the people, not the politics.

MK: That was a very specific approach you took, how was that approach directed by the newspaper you were reporting for?

JL: No, I’ve never worked towards what was necessarily wanted; I’d work on my own or with a picture editor and we’d work together, try together, newspapers and magazines aren’t set in stone. There are conflicts and fault lines running through it, and there are agendas inside that, and you’ll get the journalist, a writer, that shares the same opinion and together you would form your own guerrilla war fare; so, it’s not like the newspaper will have an agenda and you have to fit that, but it’s definitely changed now, over the past 10 years, The news journalism is now part of the entertainment industry, foreign news is foreign celebrity news.

MK: Do you think that’s affected photojournalism?

JL: Yes it has, Some of the images coming out of Libya were amazing, I don’t know what they tell me about the story, what they tell about the story of Libya, but they were amazing images. You can tell someone waited hours to take a picture of that missile and they say ‘oh it looks beautiful’ but what is that telling me about anything, about Libya, it isn’t, you’re fooling yourself. There is some great photography to come out of the Arab spring. Shame there just is not the outlets for it; apart from TV.

Some of the images coming out of Libya were amazing, I don’t know what they tell me about the story, what they tell about the story of Libya, but they were amazing images. You can tell someone waited hours to take a picture of that missile and they say ‘oh it looks beautiful’ but what is that telling me about anything

MK: I see what you mean; the point now is that photojournalism is focusing even more upon the glossy aesthetics within the picture.

JL: Yes, and people will not look at a magazine and look at the photojournalism pages it’s not visually arresting for them. For me, the book on war is: Philip Jones Griffith Vietnam Inc. He looks at the management of war, where war comes from, the effects of war; to me real war is not made on the front lines, it’s in the corridors of power, the suffering originates in offices by people signing off bits of paper.

MK: So with the digitisation of cameras & ease & the speed of documenting events, how do you think the emphasis on ethics in terms of censorship has increased/altered for photojournalists?

JL: Censorship has increased massively since the embed of journalists; I’ve never been embedded it was after I stopped doing news.

MK: How do you think it has affected the reporting of those that have been covering the 2011 Middle East uprisings and right across the past 8 years of the war/conflicts we’ve seen?

JL: I don’t think on the whole, it’s been a good thing for journalism. Because you become almost a captive of the state system; to me, that’s a whole of bunch of self censoring photographers and journalists right there; and that’s the news we’re getting now and it’s not the whole picture.I hope we get to a situation where embeds are not the main sources of news journalism.

MK: Do you feel it’s all been quite a straight forward job?

JL: Sometimes it’s a job, and it is, and you don’t go back and there is lots of guilt there, lots of photographers walk around with a niggling conscience.... (Note; Justin for the first time slows his words, pausing in silence and looks pained)

MK: Am I seeing your guilt on your face now...?

JL: No not me, I’m very good at forgetting, a selective memory. I remember I was in Israel, and I was standing there, and it was one bunch of idiots and I thought ‘what is this all about’ I just didn’t get it anymore.

MK: My question to you now, is that there are a new generation of photojournalists/photographers that have found a voice, are inspired and refreshed as a direct result of this century’s developments: what advice do you give?

JL: Become a commercial photographer and choose photojournalism as a creative outlet there’s little money to be made from it. I’m not interested in everyone coming from the same class; the same narrative from one group of people. You’ve got to have a drive, you’ve got to have politics, you’ve got to have passion, and you’ve got to have anger. You’ve got to have a fire in you because if you’re doing it for the money, then really do something else.

MK: I’d disagree with that, I don’t think it’s necessarily about money, driving today’s photojournalists, the start of this century and its events has led to there being so much to be eager about, angry about, excited about, refreshed by....

JL: Yes I just went to New York to see the Wall Street riots, there‘s a story right there, if I had my time again, I’d be photographing every financial press conference throughout Europe right now. What I find interesting is not poverty itself, the images, but the reasons behind it.

MK: A lot of  the photojournalist awards focus upon War Photography –with large  parts of the world altering rapidly specifically over the last 10 years,  perhaps the focus should be on the work of photographers documenting  the consequences, the social issues for example : the documenting of the lives altered in Pakistan since 9/11, the ignored voices of the leftist  Jewish communities of the young in Israel, the lives of artists living in Palestine, the implications for the youth of the Middle East uprisings, Japans environmental/ nuclear affects upon its people and landscapes since February 2011 – As you’ve said, it’s not just about the process of War, it’s always about people. What do you think?

JL: It still has its place, again it’s avenues like  the internet, Foto8 , Duck Rabbit, there are people out there wanting to put stuff together it’s not a bad time.

There needs to be an integrity and honesty about certain aspects of what we do, I’ve known photographers in the past that have moved dead bodies because it would be a better shot and they’re now quite well respected

MK: Some of the traditional leaders within photojournalism have recently appeared to attack the new generation of photojournalists by commenting on the apparent excessive uses of digital processes within photography; rather than supporting and enabling the viewing of the work of a new generation of photographers in a democratic way– What are your thoughts about this?

JL: There needs to be an integrity and honesty about certain aspects of what we do, I’ve known photographers in the past that have moved dead bodies because it would be a better shot and they’re now quite well respected; because that was captured on a piece of film, does that make it less of a picture, they’ve done it, and you can’t prove it, is it any less of a picture, it’s not.

MK: We could talk about these arguments and still extend them further, so let’s stop and get back to the basics, why most photographers do it in the first place: the actual process the subject – the yearning for that picture.
I remember I tweeted a quote by Lewis Baltz : ‘’ Photography is a profound corner that sits in between literature and film’’ - You responded by saying: ‘’ Nothing has made me as happy in being a photographer as that quote’’ (26th April 2011)

That’s a very poetic thing to say, what are your thoughts?

JL: It just sums up what photography is for me, the whole imagery of it; it sums up the better part of being a story teller the story telling of old. Photographers like Stuart Freedman fit this very well he is for me an unsung hero of  photojournalism, he has empathy, a brilliant quality, talented clever. As long as people like SF can support themselves . Photojournalism has hope.

MK: You’ve gone from photographing these incredibly emotionally charged war scenarios to photographing another aspect of being emotionally charged: Fast Cars at Top Gear, how do you describe it?

JL: I love discovery. It is like getting a breath of fresh air into my photography. I love just setting off on a road trip. Just going out there and making pictures. Having fun.

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