Dominic Nahr Is a Master of Photographing Human Eeriness
I interviewed him about life in Eastern Africa and nuclear exclusion zones.
KENYA. Hell's Gate, 2013. A worker takes a break in the new geothermal pool at the geothermal plant near Nairobi.
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we've been profiling some of their photographers.
For this round of VICE Loves Magnum we spoke to Dominic Nahr, who – unlike previous interviewees – is still running the gauntlet of selection before becoming a full Magnum member. We discussed Africa's endless potential for stories, the eeriness of post-tsunami Japan and how a feeling of homelessness can be conducive to taking amazing photos.
VICE: As you’re one of the younger photographers we’ve spoken to for the series, could you give me a rundown on how you got to where you are, how you got into photography and your relationship with Magnum to date?
Dominic Nahr: I got into photography when my mum gave me a camera. I have a memory so bad that I don’t remember any of my holidays with my parents, which is not good at all. So she told me to photograph things so I wouldn’t forget. I went to university and started to study film, but I didn’t like working with a bunch of people at that time. I wanted to figure out my vision and style on my own. I quit and went into photography.
My first assignment was for GQ magazine, France – they called me while I was on my bicycle in Toronto where I studied and I almost fell off. Arnaud, the photo editor, was like, "You want to do an assignment in New York?" I said, "I don’t understand – what do you want me to do?", and he’s like, "Do whatever you do." That was the first assignment that I got and kind of like a key moment where I was like, OK cool, this job really exists.
So I started taking more pictures and right after university, in 2008, I got picked up by an agency called L'Oeil Public, who were amazing. The agency closed down in 2009, I joined them in their last year of existence. They were supportive and suggested I go to eastern Congo. I'd never been to Africa before, and I covered the war there. My pictures really moved and many magazines picked them up. I even got an exhibition during Visa pour l’image in Perpignan, which really helped a lot. I think that kind of opened people's eyes to my work and led me finally to Magnum. I'm entering my fourth year with them now.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO. North Kivu, Kibumba, October 2008. Over 25,000 people carry their belongings as they flee one of the main refugee camps due to fighting near Kibumba in eastern Congo. Government soldiers were forced to retreat as they were being pushed closer to Goma by rebels of renegade General Laurent Nkunda.
Wow. I guess that makes Magnum what it is – the fact that’s it’s so hard to get into and you have to convince lots of other photographers to let you in.
This is probably the longest relationship that I’ve ever had with anything.
I wanted to know how you felt about book projects, like your ongoing Africa one, in contrast to other projects you’ve done, which seem more kind of self-contained, one-off reportage stories. I got the feeling you preferred working on more open-ended projects, but maybe I was wrong?
No, I think it’s a mix – like, the book projects, they come out of smaller projects. I'm not going into this like, "I’m a photographer, I have this concept and I'm going to photograph it for six months or a year." Africa isn’t that place – there are so many stories out there. I’ll do small stories and then out of those small stories I pull pictures into my book project. They are all for my book, but my list of all the cool things I want to photograph is super long. It doesn’t end. I live in Nairobi, Kenya and I can’t leave, because, really, if you're feeling complacent or just bored, sitting in your house, that’s just wrong – there’s a lot of stuff to do. Even if people don’t pay you, it will somehow come back around.
So when you first went to Congo that was your first time in Africa, and obviously it was kind of an eye-opener for you. You’ve spent a huge amount of time working there since then. Is it purely the quantity of stories there, or do you like working there in a practical sense?
No, it’s a larger thing than that. I grew up in Hong Kong; I’m not Swiss, German, Canadian or even Chinese – obviously – I’m an expat. So I don’t have this problem with "going home". I'm always searching for my home, but it doesn’t exist. And when I landed for the first time in Africa in 2008, I got out of the plane, my feet touched the ground and something happened to me. There was a voice in my head that said, 'You’re home.’ And of course this had happened before – in East Timor, all over the place – because I’m searching for my home. But it was never as nuanced as when I arrived in Kigali that first time.
And the other thing that my little voice in my head said was, ‘Whatever happens, don’t take things too seriously,’ which I really appreciated once getting to Congo.
PALESTINE. The Gaza Strip, 2007. The funeral of a Fatah member after clashes erupted between Hamas and Fatah fighters in Jabalia Refugee Camp, the Gaza Strip.
So how did that trip compare to your previous work in the Middle East, Gaza and so on? Covering very different conflict zones in very different countries.
Before Gaza I did East Timor, which was quite relaxed, then I did Gaza and then Congo. I don’t know – I’ve been to Egypt, covered the uprising and all that, but somehow working in Africa as a whole versus the Middle East, it’s just more touching for me, rather then hectic. A lot of times I find myself in the middle of nowhere alone or with just a small group of other journalists covering a news story. That’s sort of the opposite to, say, the uprising in Egypt, where there were what seemed like hundreds of journalists. That said, I don’t think of my work as just working in conflict zones, and I really enjoy also working on features set in normal settings without the pressure of a conflict situation.
When you were doing your work in Sudan, were you embedded there or were you working in a kind of free role?
Yeah, we weren’t "embedded", but the only way to get a ride was to go with the military. So my Sudan pictures are of when I entered the country "illegally". So the only way to do that is by going with the advancing army or by going in with rebels. The picture that won me the World Press photo award – for that we had to go with advancing South Sudanese soldiers into the North. We couldn’t take our own car, they would have shot at us. We needed to look like we were cleared by head command, which is what we did.
They then sent us with soldiers. The enemy was dropping bombs on our way into Sudan and towards the frontlines, so having a camouflaged truck is slightly more ideal. Although, on our way back the little string that held down the hood of the car came loose and it just lifted and crashed into the windshield with a huge bang with little pieces of glass flying everywhere. Luckily, the young driver kept his shit together and calmly slowed down without hitting anything.
Talking of sneaking into places, you were telling me another time about having to dress up as a nuclear worker or something to get access in Japan after the tsunami? Risks like that – or the risk of being on the front line with planes over your head – how do you weigh all of those up? Do you worry about them much or are you quite clinical in evaluating what you’re going to do?
Well, I’m worried all the time. I’m always paranoid about everything. But that helps me, I think, to identify the problem and look at the situation quite clearly. I’m not blasé about it – I don’t walk in and go, like, "This is what you need to do to get there," and, like, "OK, cool." I really think about it – I assess the danger and probability of detainment or physical harm, and you assess whether that’s going to happen or not happen, and you look at what you’re going to get in pictures and make a decision.
JAPAN. Namie, 2012. Dead cows inside the 20km exclusion zone belonging to a farmer who stays behind to protect and keep the rest of his cows alive.
What struck me as quite weird about the Japan work was that it was so devoid of people – empty and eerie. It's quite a contrast to most of your work, which is so full of people and human activity. Was it an unusual piece of work for you to do, in that respect?
Yeah, the work that you saw was very unique in that sense. I really got connected to the Japanese spirit while I was there. It was right after my father died. I had only been home for a few weeks in Hong Kong when the massive tsunami hit the coast of Japan. As per normal, I was on my way to the airport after seeing the first waves hit and take out all the houses. I travelled with my Japanese friend, covering the situation for TIME, and at one point we found a temple in the middle of a devastated area.
Everything was destroyed except this temple. It was the only place to sleep and many refugees were there as well, so we slept there. It was a wooden temple and it was in winter. It was freezing. People had recently lost loved ones. I had as well, under different circumstances, but at that point it didn’t matter. It was a very spiritual experience and I respected the Japanese process of grieving quietly and defiantly. I think that’s why it was so surprising when I went into the nuclear zone. Suddenly you’re in a place where human life is non-existent and that struck me. It was very powerful.
It sounds incredibly eerie and strange. I think it would have freaked me out too much.
They have this bell that rings at 5 o’clock to signal the end of the work day, and it’s like a lullaby – it rings out across all the towns and you stop working. It’s this beautiful lullaby, just ringing out across the streets, and you can hear the birds chirping, but there were no cars, no humans and when it ended there was just silence. I remember that moment so well.
Can you tell me again how you accessed the exclusion zone, because you weren’t meant to go into the zone at all, were you? Or you had to do it in the company of minders.
Yeah, initially – in the early days – you could just drive in. There were no stops, no blocks, nothing, because they hadn’t figured it all out yet. You could just drive in, do your thing and come back out, which was cool, but – of course – totally crazy. And then they started putting the roadblocks up and you had to either get passes, which were very hard to get, or just sneak in. You’d sneak in through gates, or sneak in dressed up as a nuclear worker, or on a truck, I hid under a tarp, driving in in a truck one time; you had to do whatever you could do to get in.
JAPAN. Minami Sanriku, 2011. Survivors go to sleep inside a cold room before a mass funeral at a Daiou temple.
So is your Africa book project the main work on the horizon? Or are there others on the go?
No, I think this year's a lot to do with Africa. I am not going to cover news events outside of the continent, unless something really catches my eye and interest. I haven’t been able to go to real hotspots because family is more important right now. It's good, because it actually makes you focus on the place you know. Which for me at this moment is eastern Africa. I mean, I wish it was west Africa because the music is great and the food is fantastic, but for now it's mostly in the east.
I want to spend more time in Somalia and do more work in Kenya, where I live. I want to work more on energy issues and look at what’s going on in this "new Africa", which is changing very fast. It’s very exciting – super exciting. Then there are events like Mandela’s age and what it means for South Africa if he were to die; Zimbabwe and Mugabe; Somalia just got a new government; South Sudan just came into existence; Kenya’s younger generation's identity crisis. It’s all moving at a very high speed.
Kind of an intimidating project to have taken on, maybe?
Yeah, it’s like you’re trying to leave, but if there’s a place that keeps moving, it's Africa. Even energy – anything to do with that is really exciting. The biggest wind farm in the world is in Morocco, and Kenya have said now that they’re going to build a bigger one. On tribal land. That’s not going to be good. They’ve just dug for oil in that same region and there were huge problems and that was a small rig. Just imagine 350 wind turbines – that’s not going to go down too well.
Click through to see more photography by Dominic Nahr.
PALESTINE. The Gaza Strip, Beit Lahia, 2007. A Palestinian man finds his only escape from the Gaza Strip and the rising inter-factional violence by swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, two kilometres from the northern Israeli border fence and under the watchful eye of an Israeli destroyer vessel in Beit Lahia.
SUDAN. Unity, 2012. An oil worker and SPLA soldiers stand near a crater after a Sudan Armed Forces Antonov bombing raid during fighting between north and South Sudan.
JAPAN. Misawa, 2011. A woman walks among muddy trees during a community clean up around the Misawa port after a tsunami hit the coast of eastern Japan.
SUDAN. Heglig, 2012. A Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) soldier lies dead, covered in oil next to a leaking oil facility. His death came after heavy fighting between the SAF and southern Sudanese SPLA troops after they entered the Sudan oil town of Heglig.
JAPAN. Namie, 2011. A television runs in an abandoned house inside the 20km exclusion zone less then 10km from the damaged nuclear plant. Residents left in a hurry as radiation reached dangerous levels.
EGYPT. Cairo, January the 29th, 2011. A protestor holding empty glass bottles takes cover behind a wall during protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO. North Kivu, Kibati, 2008. Four Congolese government soldiers shelter from the rain on the front line, about 5km north of Kibati. CNDP rebels and government soldiers are separated by less then half a kilometre and fighting flares up regularly.
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