Moises Saman's Stunning Photos of Humanity in Conflict Zones

Peruvian photographer Moises Saman's work about the Egyptian revolution willfully avoids a chronological, ordered, historical view of the uprising, instead focusing on the humanity and emotions of the participants.

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Feb 7 2014, 4:00pm

Kunar Province, Afghanistan. March 2010. Afghan soldiers carry a wounded comrade into an American medevac helicopter after a Taliban ambush near the village of Tsunek.

Peruvian photographer Moises Saman has spent the past few years living and working in Cairo and documenting the effects of the Egyptian revolution on the city's residents—though he might argue that "documenting" is the wrong word. His work willfully avoids a chronological, ordered, historical view of the uprising, instead focusing on capturing humanity and the emotions of the participants. We spoke to him about how he maintains faith in humanity after working in war zones 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 war. 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 "dialed in," if you know what I mean. I became interested in the world beyond my personal bubble.

Cairo, Egypt. May 2, 2012. Anti-military protesters beat a man they allege was a pro-military thug during clashes near Abbaseya Square in central Cairo.

You went to the Balkans at the end of the conflict there—how did that trip effect 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 realized 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, and 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 tends to be done in war zones. 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'm 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.

Cairo, Egypt. January 28, 2013. A protester covers his head with a plastic bag he's using as a makeshift gas mask during clashes near Tahrir Square.

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 remind 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 realize 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 [in 2001], 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.

Baghdad, Iraq. April 2003. Iraqis search for a suspected American pilot who was reported shot down over the Tigris River in Baghdad during the first days of the war.

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 Tigris River for a downed US pilot. It must have been odd to be in the middle of what was effectively a lynch mob.
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.

As someone covering Egypt, and a longtime resident, it must be hard to treat the current unrest objectively. Is objectivity something you worry about?
It’s a gray 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 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.

Cairo, Egypt. October 29, 2011. Egyptian police officers ride inside a police truck under an overpass on a Cairo street.

Can you tell me more about your book?
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 a 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.

Cairo, Egypt. November 22, 2011. A protester with a head wound is evacuated on a motorcycle from the front lines during clashes near Tahrir Square.

Cairo, Egypt. May 2, 2012. The scene of clashes in the Abbaseya district between protesters demanding a return to civilian rule and supporters of the military.

Cairo, Egypt. August 16, 2013. Medics try to revive a fatally shot pro–Muslim Brotherhood protester during clashes with Egyptian security forces in the Ramses district.

Ismailia, Egypt. April 20, 2011. A photograph of Mohamad Mashour while in jail sits amid plates with cakes inside Mashour's apartment.

Cairo, Egypt. October 28, 2011. Funeral procession for Essam Ali Atta, 23, a petty criminal who was killed by prison guards while serving a two-year term in Cairo's high-security Tora prison.

Cairo, Egypt. January 25, 2013. Clashes between young protesters and police near Tahrir Square on the second anniversary of the revolution.

Cairo, Egypt. January 16, 2011. Sharifa Ibrahim, a nurse at the Sharif Islamic Committee, a community center operated by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Shobra district.

Cairo, Egypt. October 2011. A highway overpass in the Zmalek district.

Cairo, Egypt. November 2011. People walk on a street near Tahrir Square.

Baghdad, Iraq. May 1, 2003. An American soldier screams at a gathering crowd at the scene of an explosion at an illegal gas station.

Golbahar, Afghanistan. November 2001. Northern Alliance troops arrive in the village of Golbahar to prepare for the final push to Kabul, to retake the Afghan capital from the Taliban.

Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan. An Afghan soldier kneels next to an Afghan translator working with the US Army, who was killed after the vehicle in which he was travelling overturned during a night patrol.

Cairo, Egypt. January 2013. A protestor amid a cloud of tear gas along Cairo's Corniche.

Cairo, Egypt. December 2013. A beggar in downtown Cairo.

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