|Hard on the Ego|
|Interview with Robert Semeniuk|
Narrative 360: Your first assignment was with National Geographic and involved spending two years in northern Canada living with the Inuit – how did this experience set the tone for your career?
Robert Semeniuk: Living with the Inuit as a young man right from the environmental studies graduate faculty at York University, actually taught me a great deal about myself and affected my outlook on life. The Inuit epitomize for me the human capacity for adaptation and having a healthy connection with the environment. I was fortunate to be able to share their sense of the land; the feeling that they belong to the land more than the land belongs to them.
As Bill Reid said: "On the west coast you had to be stupid not to survive." That's why the Haida developed such wonderful art, they had so much time, they didn't have to look for food all the time, they had sushi bars all around them. There only two peoples that I know that live constantly on the edge: the Inuit in the Arctic and the Bedouin in the desert.
I was astounded how people could adopt to live in the arctic. It certainly made me more adaptable. After that experience, I had a feeling that I could live in any place. I had a feeling that I was given a real gift there. It gave me amazing intuition that I can rely on when going and working in dangerous places.
360: Since the time you spent in the Arctic, you've had the opportunity to visit other indigenous people in remote places like Burma and Papua New Guinea, Borneo. You've said that: "For me, photography is a means of taking notice and paying attention; inside and out." Have your experiences and observations in these places had an effect on your world-view? How have they influenced your thinking about life in the first world?
RS: I have a great deal of respect for the people who are connected to the land in opposition to the people who are connected to their SUVs. I think that we've lost that ability because we rely entirely on our technology. I think that we increasingly live in the state of a comfortable dis-ease. Many indigenous people can make a lot out of nothing. Here in the First World we need a lot but we often end up making nothing.
360: What is the relationship between your photojournalism and your work as a human and environmental rights activist? Do you see activism as an inevitable outgrowth of documenting conflict and injustice?
RS. When I am out there working on a story for the media, the magazine that I am working for is as far off my mind as it can be. I am there for other reasons. It is about the stories that need to be told. It is personal, and often really quite selfish. For me there is no difference between being a documentarian and an activist. The work is always a learning experience. I believe that the world could be a better place if people were more aware of themselves and their surrounding. Photography has the ability to push that envelope; it's like meditation. Photography for me is a practice, not the material end product. I like to make a difference with my photography, but it is mostly the learning process that is important, not the picture as the end product.
360: How did you decide to spend time researching war-affected children?
RS. I am interested in the psychological effects of war on children. There is very little widespread interest in that. I think that I have a responsibility to do it if I am in the position to do it. I know that pictures are a very powerful tool to make people aware of things like that. I don't have any grandiose idea of changing the world but my pictures can certainly influence individuals. I have seen many times the profound effect my photographs had on people.
360: You've also turned your eyes on a wide range of subjects beyond war zones. One of those is your book project about marketplaces around the world. Is there a humanitarian component to this work as well?
RS. Absolutely, my markets are my response to globalization. Globalization is certainly good for the big corporations but is killing local markets and local cultural identities. My project is about that.
360: How did media outlets respond to your work? Did you consider the needs and preferences of editors when you were making your projects?
RS. I often disagree with editors. A few times I threatened to take back my stories if my words were distorted or some key meaningful pictures not published. A lot of media oversimplify issues. The substance is getting lost. Media focus on the side issues keeps us from understanding the real problems.
For example, consumerism often shapes government policy. In ecology – diversity means stability. The same in economy. The North American economy's dependence on one kind of fuel is a source of many problems. It drives government policies and as we have seen, even starts wars.
360: Karl Pavek, curator of the exhibition Was ist der Mensch (What is Man), once said that documentary photography's ultimate destination is to appear in print.
RS: I don't think it's true, particularly in the era of the Internet. You can show the pictures in a gallery, you can do a slide show. You can do many things to let people know your work. The problem with the magazines is that the good ones do not have any money. The others are commercially driven info-entertainment.
360: What do you think is the reason for that?
RS: The advertisers are really who is deciding about the content. They have all the power and you can't do anything about it. Editors certainly can't if they want to keep their advertisement money, and their jobs. There are many pictures that are not going to be seen in the mainstream magazines. This also influences photographers, the way they shoot. There are really only a few who have their ethics intact like Larry Towell or Jim Natchwey, for example. As soon as you see that your pictures are not changing the world but selling the advertisements you have a problem.
360: In other words, your saying that photojournalism does not exist without its ethical component and that is what puts it in the conflict with the mainstream magazines?
RS: I believe that. The consumerism culture is really against those ethical values. But you can't take any of the purchased stuff with you – in that sense death is very hard on the ego.