Shining light in dark corners

A young boy lies on a filthy prison cell mattress in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta. His cellmates are grown men suffering mental illness. The little boy has malaria and typhoid. He has not had a change of clothes in months.

New Zealand photographer Robin Hammond takes a picture of the boy and moves on swiftly before he is stopped.

His face is one of the many that haunt Hammond, whose work focuses on documenting human rights issues predominantly in sub Saharan Africa.

“I wished I had picked him up and taken him out of there. We are trying to do something to help him. We have had doctors in to treat him but he’s still there and it’s two years on.

“Every time I go to a place there’s at least one person whose situation you take away with you and it won’t leave you alone,” he says.

The boy’s picture is part of a series Hammond took for a project titled Condemned – Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis, part of the World Photo Press exhibition touring the country.

While in New Zealand Hammond is also being honoured by Massey University when the College of Creative Arts inducts him into its Hall of Fame that celebrates illustrious alumni.

Originally, Hammond went to Juba in South Sudan to cover the referendum on independence in 2011. Driving through the city he saw a mentally disabled man on the side of the road.

“I asked my driver what happens to people suffering with mental illness here and he very casually told me they get sent to prison. I told him, ‘Stop the car. Take me to the prison’.”

At Juba Central Prison and at other institutions and villages across seven African countries over the following months Hammond found mentally ill men, women and children shackled to beds, tethered to sticks, tied to trees. In Hammond’s words, they are the forgotten, the abused, the condemned.

In countries where infrastructure has collapsed and mental health professionals have fled, treatment is often a life in chains, he says.

Hammond, who has photographed for major publications like the New York Times, The Guardian, Time magazine, Paris Match and National Geographic, tried pitching his idea of a feature on what happens to the mentally ill in this part of the world.

No one wanted to cover it so he went ahead and did it anyway.

Hammond, 39, sees his job as bringing their plight to the world.

“I want to remove the alibi of ignorance. I want it so that people can’t say ‘I didn’t know so I didn’t do anything about it’.

“If we saw any of these guys on our doorstep – if we saw a little kid chained to our gate – we just wouldn’t let that happen but because they are far away, because they’re African, because they are black, because they have a different religion, because they don’t speak our language, it means we can care less and I don’t accept that at all. I think we have a moral obligation to help people less fortunate than ourselves regardless of how far away they are or how different they are from us.

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“I think this attitude of ‘well, we’ll just worry about our own little country, our own family circumstances’ is morally reprehensible.”

Speaking from Washington DC, where he is putting his latest assignment for National Geographic to bed, Hammond says it’s difficult to stay emotionally distanced from the situations he is documenting.

But he constantly reminds himself that if he was to break down and not function then what’s the use of being there at all

“My job is to tell their story because most of them couldn’t or were not allowed to tell it themselves.”

In some of the cases such as Condemned he had to deal with difficulties accessing facilities. He had to work very quickly or under cover.

“I’d be taking photos while trying not to be detected and that sometimes distracts you from some of the horrendous stuff you are seeing right in front of you.

“I am conflicted sometimes. I’m there to document and make a change on a bigger issue but there have been a couple of occasions where I wish I had put down my camera and done something directly for that person. Like that little boy in Port Harcourt.

“Some photographers talk about the camera providing a barrier between you and your subject and I kind of get what they mean by that because you see something disturbing, but you have to try and think as quickly as possible, ‘how am I going to tell this person’s story in the most powerful way so I can communicate about this issue’. It’s a fleeting thing and you have to deal with the emotions of seeing these people.

“It’s a cliche, but what you are going through is nothing compared to what they are going through. It almost seems self-indulgent to feel sorry for oneself. [But] you’re seeing it. They are living it.”

Hammond says his own responsibility as a witness to some of the suffering he sees goes beyond taking the picture.

He reckons if he expects others to step up, then so should he.

“I dont stop being a human because I happen to be documenting a situation.

“One of the privileges of my position is, where people usually have to help through an NGO, if I see someone in need I can help them then and there and I can see their lives changed right in front of my eyes.”

He cites a situation where he learned of a young woman of 14 in Ethiopia who had to quit school to earn money to support her family. All she wanted to do was to go to school, and the money she needed to do that and for the family to survive was nothing, Hammond says.

“To them it was a lot. To us it was not. It was small intervention I was able to make.”

Some of Hammond’s photos are difficult to look at. The Somali boy who has been tethered to a stick in the ground for 10 years. The man chained to an iron bed in a prison cell in Somaliland. The mentally ill patient in the Niger Delta who has been chained to a tree by his doctor, begging the photographer for food.

The hardest times are when he gets back from a trip and begins the editing process, he says.

“You’re looking at hundreds of photos of people in very distressing situations. That’s why I feel very passionate about continuing with with projects like Condemned. I know that many of those people I documented for this project are still, there, tied to trees, shackled in prisons, tethered to sticks. That gives me the impetus to keep going.”

As so he does, with poster, social media campaigns and the exhibition.

Hammond grew up in Wellington with his two sisters and brother. An older brother died when Hammond was very young.

A series of office jobs followed his time at St Patrick’s College but karate was his raison d’etre.

He’d been involved in martial arts since the age of nine and it remained his focus throughout his teens.

At 21 he went to live in Japan to further his karate. At his peak he was the New Zealand and Australian champion. He made it to the top 32 in the world in the open tournament and he was ranked No 5 for his weight.

By the end of his two-year sojourn in Japan he had injuries he couldn’t seem to bounce back from and he realised he had gone as far as he was going to go with karate.

He returned to Wellington and, with a “vague interest” in photography, he went to study at Massey University in 1999.

“When I realised that karate wasn’t going to be the thing I did forever there was this real gap. Karate had given me a sense of purpose. When I realised that wasn’t going to be [a career option] part of me thought ‘what the hell am I going to do now’ But in other ways it was quite liberating.”

Hammond was attracted to photography partly because he thought it might give him the opportunity to travel. He also saw it as a job that would have meaning. Something that would

give him a chance to “right wrongs”, he says.

“We were brought up with the idea of how important it was to seek fairness. Things should be fair. Life isn’t fair, that’s a fact, but actually we should try and make it so. That was underlying, I suppose.”

At Massey he was exposed to photojournalism for the first time. It was something of a revelation.

“I had no idea that there was a way to make photography something to use to campaign. I didn’t realise it could make such an emotional impact.”

Inspiration came in the form of photographs by American photojournalist William Eugene Smith. Hammond read his book Minamata about a fishing village in Japan whose inhabitants suffered mercury poisoning from a factory causing birth defects and multiple deaths.

“I never realised that photography about a place I had never been to, about people I had never met, could make me feel connected to that place or to those people, and it really did in a really powerful way.

“I think I put down that book and knew exactly what I wanted to do in my career. It was years before I was able to do work that was meaningful but it set me on a path.”

It must have been a satisfying moment when Hammond received the W Eugene Smith Memorial Fund grant in humanistic photography in 2013 for Condemned.

Having grown up in a loving middle class family, Hammond says he couldn’t wait to get out of New Zealand and into the real world.

Nothing seemed more boring than his existence in New Zealand, he says. “Now, having seen some of the s… some little kids have to go through, what a blessing it was to live in a safe, boring environment.”

His first nudge into documenting human rights issues was a project on Mexican street children in 2005. That project fanned out to photographing street kids in other countries.

Other human rights worked followed: A feature on life in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, rising sea levels in Tuvalu, the dark side of making Gap and Levi jeans, poverty in Angola despite vast oil revenues.

The subject matter is never easy. His pictures expose injustices, pain, poverty and Hammond acts as the messenger for their causes.

But in 2012, Hammond became part of his own story when he was arrested in Zimbabwe while trying to cross the border back into South Africa.

Charged with taking pictures in a prohibited place, he was taken about 800km to Harare and thrown into the slammer, where he waited to be deported.

Sometimes shackled, Hammond was forced to share a 6×4 metre cell with 38 other men for 26 days.

“It wasn’t for a really long time but it wasn’t great,” he says as something of an understatement.

The first four days of interrogation were the worst, he says.

“[The police] are really good at making you feel afraid. They made me sit on the floor and four or five guys would just shout at me.

“They never beat me but they beat quite a few people in front of me. I saw one guy beaten with a broomstick so hard it broke on his back. That’s how police treat inmates there.”

The conditions were horrendous. He shared a hole-in-the-ground loo with hundreds of other men. There was no toilet paper or soap.

Every night before he went to bed he would set about squashing the lice that riddled his blanket.

But as bad as it was, things become very relative, he says.

“There were guys in Harare who had been in prison for years. The only way for me to get out was to pay for my ticket back and I could do that, but many couldn’t.

“When they escorted me to the airport I had to sit in immigration and I kept waiting for them to say ‘we’re going back’. Even when I was sitting on the plane I was waiting for them to come and take me off. It was only when it left the ground that I knew I was out of there.”

He headed for London via Johannesburg where he ate his first proper meal in almost a month. His first shower was a memorable one.

He was picked up at Heathrow by The Sunday Times, who he had been on assignment for, and put up in a hotel to refresh before heading back to Paris, where he is based with his French girlfriend of 10 years, Aude Barbera. Hammond has been arrested twice in Zimbabwe and detained in Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria and Uganda. He is banned from Egypt and Zimbabwe, which is something of a badge of honour but also a hassle for a human rights photographer.

He is currently working on a feature for National Geographic about Lagos, Africa’s largest city.

It’s a departure from his usual human rights focus.

He says that after Condemned and his work on Zimbabwe he needed a break from the sadness and hopelessness of it all.

But one of the other motivations for doing a feature on Lagos was because of a misconception of Africa as a whole, he says.

“A lot of people perceive Africa as a place of complete disaster and crisis and that, I think, is because people like me focus on the problems of the continent. A lot of people think of Africa as death and misery.

“I wanted to cover Lagos because I thought there was an opportunity to talk about a different kind of Africa. Lagos is growing in prosperity with a growing middle class. It is massive and very diverse and full of energy.

“There’s a danger as journalists where we only have one story about a place. I wanted to cover Lagos in a way that embraces the diversities and complexities and not have it be one single story about a very complex place.”

Hammond doesn’t take assignments much these days. Rather he’ll come across an issue or a place or a group of people who he feels is being under-represented and then try to find groups or foundations who are interested in their issues.

He came to a point, he says, where he had done many assignments around the world but at the end of every year he didn’t feel like he’d done much with real worth.

“That’s when I stopped doing assignments. I thought, rather than doing 30 stories why don’t I do one really well

“I’m not earning as much but I am finding people willing to support the work and I think it’s because people believe in the issues and I hope it’s because my passion comes through in the work.”

Robin Hammond will deliver the Peter Turner Memorial Lecture titled, “Finding a voice: the challenge of photojournalism” at 6pm on Wednesday, August 27 at Massey University College of Creative Arts Theatrette, Museum Building, off Buckle St in Wellington.

His work on Condemned – Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis, will feature at the World Press Photo Exhibition from August 30 to September 21 at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Shed 11, Wellington waterfront.

– The Dominion Post