Peruvian photographer, Moises Saman, has spent his recent years living in Cairo, documenting the Arab Spring's effect on the city's residents. Though he might argue "documenting" is the wrong word. His work wilfully avoids a chronological, ordered, historical view of the uprising – instead focusing on honesty and emotions. We spoke to him about how he maintains faith in humanity after working in warzones for years, and the irrelevance of "objectivity" in relation to his work.
VICE: I heard that it was images of the Balkan conflict that initially made you interested in photography. Is that right?
Moises Saman: Yeah, that was the first time I had any interest in photojournalism. Seeing that work in the mid and late 1990s was an inspiration.
That seems odd, even by the standards of war reportage – the Balkans conflict always seemed to me a brutal and especially grim conflict. What was it that hooked you?
I don’t know if it was necessarily anything particular about the photos, though amazing work was done there. I think it was more to do with that specific period in my life. It was a time when everything clicked in my head – when I started paying attention to the news and the world. Covering that war day in, day out was the moment that I "dialled in", if you know what I mean? I became interested in the world beyond my personal bubble.
You went to the Balkans at the end of the conflict there – how did that trip compare to your newfound awareness of the world?
I went in 1999, in the summer. I was totally unprepared and it was a badly thought-out trip. My good friend who was meant to be with me pulled out, so I went alone. I maxed out my credit card and didn’t sell one picture from the trip. I had tried to read up on the situation, but once I was actually there, I realised I didn’t know what I was doing at all.
I needed to do it, though. I think good things came of it, and my experiences there matured me a bit. I went there, I made mistakes, but thank god I came home in one piece. If anything, it reassured me that I wanted to continue exploring photojournalism.
A lot of your work does tend to be done in warzones. How do you feel about the tag of "war photographer" – is it a label you resent?
I don’t know if "resent" is the right word. But I don’t like it. I think it’s full of connotations that don’t really represent what I am about as a photographer. It’s true that I tend to work in a lot of conflict zones. Somehow I hope my work is not just seen as something that is only related to conflict – people killing people and so on. Within the context of violence and repression, I try to find some moments that transcend that.
Sometimes it doesn’t work of course, but it’s what I aim for. I look for moments that we can all relate to. It's not just about showing events and images that eventually we all will become numb to: pictures of dead people or violence. So, "war photographer" is a term I shy away from.
Your have said before that you are “interested in searching for the positive commonalities in human spirit, to expose those intimate moments among people that reminds us of dignity and hope in the face of conflict". Is that something you still believe in and look for after all these years of seeing war, hate and death?
The search continues. If it didn’t, I might as well stop doing this. I think the moment you become hopeless, what’s the point? But I won't lie, after so many years doing this in so many different places you do start to see the consistency of these horrible scenes, they don’t end, they just keep happening over and over.
But I am still motivated. I think it’s important to keep going. We all want to save the world and change lives, but soon enough you realise that is not possible all the time. It’s about contributing to a dialogue. That, I think, is still important.
Was there any one project that came closest to erasing your hope and motivation in that sense?
I would probably say Afghanistan. It’s the place where I have spent the most time over my career. I was there quite early, when the Northern Alliance took Kabul, and I last went in 2010. In the beginning, there was some sense of hope. I was showing a new world to a Western audience; Afghanistan was little known back then, and that was exciting. But as we know, things haven’t quite worked out there.
In retrospect, I think I was hopeful. But more than that I was young; beginning my career, excited and finding myself in the middle of some sort of Lord of the Rings movie set. It was an amazing adventure. I was getting paid for it, and my pictures were getting seen. It couldn’t have been better. But with perspective now – and after returning there so many times – you start thinking about other things. What did my work mean? What does it have to do with what’s happening there? And you worry that there is maybe no hope.
How do you deal with danger to yourself? One photo of yours I always find strange is that of Iraqi men searching the reeds in the River Tigris for a downed US pilot, who they thought was hiding there. It must be odd to be in the middle of what was effectively a lynch mob.
Well. In that particular photo it wasn’t too bad. Iraq at the time was still very much a police state; things tend not to get out of control in police states. Everyone is too afraid of doing the wrong thing. Real danger is somewhere like Egypt, right now. When you are in the middle of a crowd, no one is in charge. There’s no structure and that crowd can turn on you in a matter of seconds. That’s real danger. In that Iraq photo, yes, they might have beaten or killed the pilot, but I don’t think I was in real danger. Journalists are most at risk in situations without any control.
You lived in Cairo until earlier this year. And you are still working there a lot, correct?
Yes. I just moved to Spain.
The new book project you are working on is about Egypt. As someone covering it, and a long-time resident, it must be hard to treat the current unrest objectively. Is objectivity something you worry about?
It’s a grey area. That’s when things get tricky. I think the question of objectivity, for me, is a bit irrelevant. I don’t think objectivity is the true measure of one’s work. I think honesty is more important. Am I being honest with what I want to say and the work I am doing? That’s a question I do ask myself. But in these situations where you are so attached to what’s going on, your opinions and first-hand experiences all matter. And of course, in a place where you are working for months or even years, you inevitably have a stake in that place, if you didn’t you would be a robot. Emotions and feelings are real. I will try to be objective on assignment for a newspaper, doing journalism, but for my long-term projects – like the Egypt work – it’s honesty that I am looking for.
And the book project, tell me more about it.
It’s about the revolution in Egypt, and the broader Arab Spring. The issues it raised at the time, and since. This new search for identity in parts of the Middle East. That’s what I am trying to look into. But I am trying to look at it in more, maybe I would say "a lyrical way"… it’s not a journalism book. It’s not a timeline of events; it’s a personal narrative.
You have worked with Human Rights Watch before. Do you subscribe to the idea that a photographer is obliged to try to improve the situations in which he or she works?
That’s the goal, isn’t it? But I also think that we can't fool ourselves or become too idealistic. If you do, you will become a caricature of yourself. I am aiming to contribute to the dialogue on these issues. Obviously if a picture I take or a story I do has some actual impact that’s palpable or changes lives, then that’s amazing, I hope all my work does that. But the truth is that that doesn’t happen often. You can still contribute, raise awareness and keep hammering at the issues, though. I think that’s a good cause.
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