We decided to catch up with Kontinent photographer Niclas Hammarström to talk about his latest exhibition Krigsbarn, which opened on World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd) at Söderhallarna, Stockholm. This exhibition, which runs until May 17th 2016, reflects the terrifying spectrum of physical and psychological suffering faced by millions of children living in war and conflict zones throughout the world today.
Text: Malin Sjöberg
Children are the most vulnerable members of society, and therefore the greatest victims of war. Here you and the journalist Magnus Falkehed, through images and testimonies, have given them a voice. How was it for you to work so closely with them?
Yes children are the most vulnerable yet we rarely hear their accounts of war. Both Magnus and I felt this. When we were thinking about this job we thought to ourselves, what is the most important issue in the world right now? What are we going to to tell people about? It’s these kids. It was the children’s stories we wanted to tell.
What initiated the project War Child?
Once we had come up with the idea of what we wanted to do, we also realised that we needed to make an extensive documentary project, to tell the stories of children who grow up in, or who are born into war. Magnus had met someone from Postkodlotteriet and through them he had found out about Postkodlotteriet’s Cultural Foundation that funds social and cultural projects that transcend global barriers. As the organisation War child was about to start in Sweden we contacted them and asked whether they might be a collaborative partner.
You have worked in war zones extensively around the world. What can we expect to see in this exhibition?
The exhibition depicts the situation of 1/8 of the world’s children today as one in eight children is born into a conflict zone. In order to reflect the scope of this suffering, Magnus and I, decided to cover five different conflicts on five continents over six months. The exhibition consists of stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, Honduras, the Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Please tell us about one of the images that you feel close to and let us know a little more about it.
One picture from Honduras, which depicts a traumatized young girl by the name of Alicia who had just witnessed the brutal killing of her father. The body had hardly been removed by the police before the rest of the family had to flee into the mountains for fear of the gang’s return. There is no time to mourn in a country ravaged by gang violence.
When considering the child fighters of the Congo, one is struck not only by the brutal nature of their situation, but also by their loss of innocence. What was it like to spend time with them?
We were with some young soldiers in the rebel group Raia Mutomboki , a group of lost souls seeking community and belonging. These guys didn’t seem to have any political agenda . Many of them have were abducted as children, brainwashed, forced to witness atrocious acts and brought up as soldiers. The group’s leader had hidden the youngest children when Magnus and I came to the jungle village and rebel stronghold. The kids we met, were 15 years and older. Many of these guys are high on drugs and they wear amulets on their arms, which they believe makes them immortal. They were taught as children that as a result of raping women they would gain extra strength. Magnus and I were supposed to be embedded with these guys for a week but the neighboring village became so jealous that we hadn’t come to cover them first that we had to leave after two days. Tensions were running high and a war nearly broke out.
Please tell us more about the image of the boy in bandages?
This is Artem, seven years old, and we’re visiting him in a hospital in Donetsk, Ukraine. Artem and his nine year old cousin, Xanita, were playing close to a tank which exploded. Xanita was killed and Artem was left with third degree burns covering sixty percent of his body. Artem’s father has not yet told his son about Xanita’s’s death.
I am interested in the duality of the visual language in War Child. It goes between straight photojournalism and a more quiet, contemplative language. Have you specifically chosen to contrast your images like this?
I wanted to have a varied visual expression throughout the project. I wanted to find a different way to reflect the situation of the children in the Congo to that of those in Afghanistan and the other countries we worked in. The stories we heard in Iraq were very powerful. We became close to the people in Iraq, who very much wanted us to tell their stories. I think the images reflect that.
Photojournalism plays a role in recording history, raising awareness and public debate. To what extent do you think documentary photography has a role in conflict resolution?
I think it plays a large role, and now more than ever. Especially when considering the recent pictures from Greece of the refugee crisis, in particular the image of the dead three year old Syrian boy, washed up on a Turkish beach. A single image reflecting the tragedy of the Syrian conflict and the extreme lengths that families were willing to go to in order to reach safety in Europe. That powerful photograph, along with several others, initiated a change in the refugee debate across Europe. So yes, the image plays a very important role today in raising public debate.
I have always been struck by James Nachtwey’s statement “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” You have also bourne witness to many atrocities, yet despite the work of yourself and others, such as Nachtwey, the events repeat. Where do you find the strength to continue?
Right now I feel empty after having met and heard the testimonies of children in war. But I do find immense strength in telling the stories, that few people will cover. It was important to be able to meet these children who want people to hear about what they have gone through and to be able to communicate that to the rest of the world. I strongly believe in the power of the image in raising global awareness.
See more of Niclas Hammarströms work here.