INTERVIEW

"Be honest" implores conflict photographer Zohra Bensemra

A Rohingya refugee woman who crossed the border from Myanmar cries while waiting to get a shelter in Kotupalang refugee camp near the city Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, on 21 October 2017. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a 35mm f/1.4 lens. © REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

"With any conflict it’s the same pain, the same tragedies. You see people crying in the same way, suffering in the same way. It's not about nationality – it's about humans," says Zohra Bensemra, Reuters’ Chief Photographer for North West Africa on how conflict in her homeland frames her approach to photographing all over the world.

Zohra started taking pictures as a child in Algeria, inspired by her older brother, who was a keen amateur photographer. Aged 20, her career began with a three-month stint as a photography assistant in Algiers' Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, working on the image library of all the museum's objects.

In 1992, she started working at the now defunct weekly newspaper, The Observateur, then "started working seriously as a photojournalist" at the Al Watan newspaper in the city, where her enthusiasm for the job was rewarded with increasingly bigger stories. This was a turbulent time in the country's history, a time of brutal civil war as Islamic Salvation Front guerrillas and government forces clashed – bombings and massacres were a common occurrence. Zohra was 24 when she photographed the aftermath of a local suicide bomb for the first time.

A child looks down the lens as she waits for food supplies at a processing centre for displaced people in Iraq.
Newly displaced people wait to receive food supplies at a processing centre in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq, on 21 October 2016. Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

"I know the feeling of local people. I know what they're facing. I know what the war is doing to them. I feel like I'm in my own country – it's strange," says Zohra. It left her with a profound empathy for those caught up in violence, which makes leaving at the end of an assignment particularly difficult. "Sometimes I feel shame," she explains. "I don't want to show them that I'm happy to go home when they've just lost their relatives in a car bomb, or airstrikes. I want them to feel like I'm one of them. I don't have anything for them except taking pictures to show the world what they're facing."

Sometimes I feel shame. I don't want to show them that I'm happy to go home when they've just lost their relatives in a car bomb, or airstrikes.

Like so many others in her field, Zohra has developed ways of coping with the emotional burden of her work, but it still takes its toll. "You never get used to the pain of war but you learn how to manage, because you have to stay, to continue taking pictures. If you were to get used to the pain that would mean you aren't feeling anything, so it would be better to stop. Photography is not only the eye, it's also the heart." But she has never for a moment considered doing anything else. "If I stay home two weeks without taking pictures, I feel stressed. This gives me balance."

A younger woman comforts an elderly woman, offering her a bottle of water, as they stand in the Iraqi desert.
Displaced Iraqi women who have just fled their home rest in the desert. They wait to be transported while Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, on 27 February 2017. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a 40mm f/2.8 lens. © REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

I try to think of myself just as a photographer – not female, not male.

In photojournalism, particularly war photography, women remain in the minority, but Zohra has found that being female can have its advantages. In more conservative countries, a woman – especially one who speaks Arabic – is welcomed into domestic spaces in a way that a male colleague might not be, and this puts her in a privileged position to tell women's stories. Still, she prefers not to dwell on the issue of gender. "I try to think of myself just as a photographer – not female, not male. It's not about us. It's about other people," she stresses.

A crowd band together to push over a burnt bus during a protest in Nairobi's Mathare slum.
A crowd try to roll a burnt bus during a protest against an overnight police crackdown on people living in Nairobi's Mathare slum, on 20 February 2008. Shot on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N with an EF 16-35 f/2.8L lens. © REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

For Zohra, the big issue facing photojournalism today is the public's faith – or lack of it – in the profession, fuelled by what she sees as an abuse of digital photography's potential. "We need to work harder, because today people don't trust us that much. We've had a lot of scandals recently, during which photographers have manipulated their pictures, their stories," she says.

Social media hasn't helped, she adds, with news outlets so eager to publish an image as quickly as they can, they sometimes use pictures that are several years old, or that depict a different event entirely. "I'm sad, because I'm not changing the situation. I'm not optimistic about our business, but like most photographers, I'm trying my best to do my work in the right way." With this in mind, what advice would she offer someone entering the industry? "It's not easy, but my advice is to be honest. If you're not honest, you can't do it. If the moment makes me cry, I want the picture to make you cry also," she says.

A woman who fled Myanmar cries as she makes it across the border in Palang Khali, without her father.
Taslima, 20, a Rohingya refugee woman who fled from Myanmar, cries because her father died while crossing the border, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh, on 16 October 2017. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens. © REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

"Being a photographer is about how you see things, how you feel things, how you understand the culture of the area where you are. Talk to people before you start shooting pictures. Understand them. Listen to what they're saying. Respect your subject. Take your time. Feel people. When you do all of this, you can tell their story."

Scris de Rachel Segal Hamilton


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