A War Photographer Returns Home

André Liohn became famous for his images of conflict in Somalia, Syria, and Libya, but now he's using the same techniques to capture the strangeness and brutality of his home country, Brazil.

|
Nov 25 2015, 12:15pm

For anyone who knows conflict photographer André Liohn, he's among the first people that comes to mind when asked the question, "Who would you want on your side in a bar fight?" Liohn is not tall, but it's clear upon meeting him that he possesses a strength, physically and otherwise, that only comes with living through true hardship. He also exclusively wears black, rides a Harley, and has a tattoo on his right forearm that reads "REFUGEE" in block letters.

Liohn, 41, has spent the majority of the last decade photographing in war zones in Somalia, Syria, and Libya, where his coverage of the Libyan Civil War earned him the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 2011. But his new exhibition, Revogo at Caixa Cultural in São Paulo marks a pivotal point in his career. Last year, Liohn returned home and decided to turn the camera on his native Brazil for the first time in his career, haunted by the similarities his homeland bore to the war zones from which he'd come. Revogo is his first solo exhibition, and also his first show of non-conflict photography. But if you didn't know any better, looking at the photographs you'd think Brazil was on the brink of an uprising. Each photograph is loaded with the kind of tension that puts you on high alert—sparks fly from the barrel of a handgun in the hands of a young boy, police lurk ominously outside a bombed-out bus, a woman begins to remove her jeans on an empty street, a motorcycle helmet lies empty in the street next to a pool of blood. Most pictures have a reddish hue to them, as if lit by a stoplight.

Last month, I spent a week with Liohn in Brazil and I was struck by his intensity and his sensitivity. During the workshop he taught the week following his opening, he kicked a man out of the class for photographing two people having sex, yelling at him until he was out the door. But if you watched Liohn closely in social settings, you would often find him writing notes in a small black notebook with the penmanship of a calligrapher. He was also, for the entirety of my time with him, deeply distraught over his recently dissolved relationship.

Sometimes, Liohn just seemed mythological. One day, while chatting at a friend's apartment, I asked him about a military helmet he'd suddenly taken out of his bag. At first, he said he'd forgotten where he'd gotten it. But after I pressed him, genuinely curious, he remembered: "Oh, this was Gaddafi's," he explained dispassionately. "I was the first journalist in his house and it was just sitting on a table. So I took it." He now uses it whenever he's in a war zone.

VICE: Why did you start photographing?
André Liohn :When I was six years old, my parents were getting married at the church. I remember that I wanted to go around the church but no one would allow me, so they gave me a small camera and they said, "OK cool, stay quiet," but then with the camera I understood I could go anywhere in the church and people would accept me. Without the camera, they wouldn't accept me running around. But with the camera I could. But from that day, until I was 31, I never touched a camera again, basically. But the idea of photography was always in my mind from that day—this idea that I could photograph.

How did you come to leave Brazil?
I left Brazil when I was 19 to work in Norway. I was on drugs, doing a lot of shit in Brazil, and everything that I tried to do went wrong. Nothing of what I tried to do actually went well, because of my economic conditions, my intellectual conditions, my emotional conditions, the society, everything around me. Nothing was made to help me get out of the troubles I was in. Nothing.

So you felt like you needed to leave the country in order to do that?
First I left my city where I come from for São Paulo. In the beginning I was living with friends, and then I was living in the square here, Praça da República, for a little bit.

Like outside?
Yeah. I was sleeping outside for a few months. And I said, "I have to do something." So I met this Swiss guy and we became friends and started exchanging emails. I told him if I stayed in Brazil everything was going to go wrong for me. So he said, "OK, come to Switzerland and stay with me." So I went, and through one of his friends, I got a job working illegally as a lumberjack, cutting timber.

So how did you come to pick up a camera again?
I was walking by a shop and I thought, I want to buy this camera, because I was traveling a lot and I didn't have pictures of the places I was traveling to. I thought I could at least photograph while I was traveling. But then the idea of using drugs stayed in my mind, preventing me. I got very depressed, left my work, and went to a place where I could buy heroin. After debating whether I actually should, I finally decided against it. I remember I kept going back there, and one day I had the camera with me, so I started photographing. Eventually, I had a lot of pictures. The health workers who take care of these people asked me what I was doing and I said, "Photographing," and they said, "Photographing for what?"

And why were you taking pictures of them?
For myself. I told them, "I'm here with them, I'm friends with them." And they asked if they could see the pictures. I said no, because at the time I wasn't thinking of becoming a photographer. I was just trying to be with them. I didn't think that I was making "photography." But then the guys who used drugs said to show them the pictures because they need to know how they actually live. So I showed them the pictures and they loved them and they said we've never seen something like that before here in Norway.

And you had no training at all?
No, no.

So how did you go from that to war photography?
I had a friend in Norway who was from Somalia and we met when I arrived in Trondheim. He was a refugee from Somalia, my age. The experience that he had as a child was very similar to my experience as a child in Brazil—the violence. He didn't have the drug part, but came from a very damaging society. So I started asking myself, why is he a refugee and I am a migrant? What is the difference between him being a refugee and me being a migrant if we have basically the same background? In 2006, he said, "I'm going back to Somalia," because he was invited to become the director of a radio program. He had studied journalism in Norway and I said, "Wow, fuck, I'm coming with you." He told me it wasn't going to happen because Somalia is incredibly dangerous but I told him I could handle it being from Brazil. I was pretty ignorant.

Was it worse?
It was far worse. When we arrived in Mogadishu, I was very, very, very scared. I wasn't prepared for that, because it was war. Proper war, you know? I was basically one of the first white people that came to Mogadishu since 1995. And it was amazing, man. So I stayed only a few days, as it started getting really dangerous with kidnappings starting to happen. There was a Swedish cameraman that had been shot in the neck. It was a civil war. Do you know Black Hawk Down? That happened in Mogadishu. I told myself I had to leave, so I left. My friend, his name is Abdi, was Abdi. He stayed there and a few years later he was shot down and killed.

Why was he killed?
Because he was a journalist working for the radio and they were killing every journalist. I mean, all of the people, basically, that I met at the time at this radio, they are dead today. All of them.

I think most people would think you were crazy for going into these war zones. You understand why people fight civil wars, they are being oppressed; you understand why a refugee flees a country—but you have no stake in the conflict, you're not from there. Why do you do it?
In the beginning it was my own troubles from childhood. I wanted to know why Abdi was a refugee and I was a migrant if we had the same background. That was the curiosity that that motivated me wanting to go and see Somalia.

So you new show, you titled it Revogo. What does that mean?
It means "revoke." I wanted to revoke the certainty that we have in ourselves and the only certainty that I had in myself, that I revoked, was my own. I came out completely unsure about everything.

In the photographs, there are kids with guns, bodies being loaded into a truck, and prostitutes. What's the commonality in the photographs, besides them being in Brazil?
That's the feeling we have in Brazil, of chronic delinquency. And chronic delinquency and war have a few similarities. The most important similarity is that you have the possibility to die at any moment, anywhere, in a violent, vulgar way. Wars are like that, and Brazil is like that. The possibility you have of dying makes you adapt, it creates a behavior that will ensure that if someone here has to die because of violence, it won't be me, it will be you, because I don't know you. War as it was before was saying, "I would die for that." But now it's, "I would kill for that." So people start looking for things that they can kill for, and not die for anything. And then at some point they'll find it, and they'll start killing. One thing people are sick of in Brazil is how excluded they are from the system, and then today, they can kill to get included in the system.

Why did you come back to Brazil in the first place?
In January 2014, I came to Brazil thinking I was going to do something about the local violence. My idea was to use the method of war photography on the atrocities here. There was a hidden war going on that I wanted to unveil.

When you say "method of war photography," what do you mean by that?
From my perspective, the method of war photography is physical, emotional, and political proximity. It's when you have a very close physical proximity, a high emotional proximity, and a political opinion about that. So this is what I call war photography. I thought even after coming back after 20 years from living abroad it would be easy for me to communicate with people because it's my home country. I thought I would work for one or two years as I had done in Somalia or Libya and then be finished. I was completely wrong man, completely wrong.

And why was that?
I started feeling very different. I felt, Wow, I found my place. Because now I'm doing the work I can really jump into. And I dropped all my defense mechanisms here in Brazil. Because when you go to Somalia, it is easy for you to build a defensive shell around you. Once I got home, I was able to at least try to become André again. I never fell in love so much with a person as I fell in love here in Brazil.

So where do you go from here?
Man, I have no idea what to do. I've showed enough violence. I need new kinds of human challenges. I don't know what that challenge is,but I need to meet a new kind of challenge in humanity that is meaningful to me. That we can overcome violence is a very important challenge of all of humanity, but I have done my share of that work. I have absolutely no more energy to see violence, to deal with violence. I just have to learn how to trust people in a new way.

Revogo will be on display until December 6 at Caixa Cultural São Paulo. See more images from the show below:

More VICE
Vice Channels