Boniface Mwangi stands in front of one of the murals he helped create. The main character is “the Vulture” — a stand-in for Kenya’s corrupt politicians. Photo: Allan Gichingi
Award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi captured the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya unflinchingly through the lens of his camera. But the horrors he witnessed propelled him into a new career as an activist and artist. Here, Mwangi talks to the TED Blog about the events that led him to stand up against injustice, literally, rather than simply document it.
Tell us about your experience on the front lines of the post-election violence in Kenya.
At the time, I was a photographer working for The Standard, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya. It was a routine election, though hotly contested. There were two contenders: Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki won — at least he claimed that he won — while Raila claimed that he was the rightful winner and that Kibaki had rigged the election. So the supporters of the two politicians erupted into fighting over the results. What followed was ugly, bloody, terrible violence. More than a thousand people were killed, and more than half a million displaced. My job was just to document this violence as a photographer.
Why do you think this particular event created such a violent response?
During the build-up of the election, there was a lot of terrible tribal rhetoric. The politicians were inciting people, slowly. Whatever the outcome was, the losing side would not be ready to accept the results. There were a lot of underlying, unresolved issues; a violent response was inevitable. It didn’t just happen. It was very deliberate.
Boniface Mwangi was assigned to photograph the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. His photos are unflinching, capturing violence from both civilians and soldiers. Photo: Boniface Mwangi
Did you see it coming?
No. No one saw it coming. You see, we’d had elections before in 1992 and 1997 where people died — maybe 10, 20, 50, 100 — but it was a scattered number and relatively few. The sheer brutality of 2007’s events — this level of orchestrated violence — had never been seen before in Kenya.
Did other Kenyans try to stop it?
The violence was in low-income neighborhoods, and most Kenyans did not know the extent of what was going on. If you are extremely poor, you only get your news on the radio. All those communities heard about were numbers of the dead and displaced, and they couldn’t relate. If you’re middle class, you might get the paper or watch TV, but graphic pictures were not shown because TV content is classified for family audiences. Most Kenyans did not see what really happened.
What were the police doing while this was happening?
By and large, the monstrosity of the violence overwhelmed them. Unfortunately, the police were perpetrators as well. I took pictures of women who had been raped by the policemen who were meant to protect them. I saw innocent kids being killed by police. During the violence, I only broke down once — when a girl was killed. She was about 12 years old, and she looked like my younger sister. That made me wail like a baby.
How do you take pictures in the face of such violence? Are you concerned about your personal safety?
When I’m taking pictures, I’m not thinking about the person. I’m thinking about lighting, framing, composition. There is so much adrenaline in your body that you’re not thinking about death. You’re not careless — you’re careful while you’re doing your work — but at the same time you realize that you have to do a job. If you’re a news photographer, or any photographer, and you get a chance to cover hard news like war, it’s stimulating and also humbling. It’s every news photographer’s dream to cover war. So at that particular time, I wasn’t really thinking about safety.
In some parts of the world, half of the women lack basic reading and writing skills. The reasons vary, but in many cases, literacy isn’t valued by fathers, husbands, even mothers. Kuwaiti-born photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak traveled to countries including Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia to document some of the women — schoolgirls, political activists, 60-year-old moms — who are fighting cultural odds for the sake of education. Listen to Boushnak’s talk, then see a gallery of her images on the TED Ideas Blog >>>
Earlier this year, when photojournalist Anastasia Taylor-Lind found herself at the epicenter of Ukraine’s Independence Square protests, she decided to record not the unfolding events but the people living them. She set up a makeshift studio and began making portraits in the midst of fire. The result is a set of haunting and intimate photos that tell a human story of the men who fight wars and the women who mourn those lost. In this talk, given at TEDGlobal 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she shows us the faces of revolution.
For an in-depth conversation with Taylor-Lind about her experiences in Ukraine, visit the TED Blog >>>
Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.
Tell us about the overall focus of your work.
The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.
My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.
How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?
I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.
Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash
From China’s underwater cities to Amsterdam’s neglected neighborhoods to Italy’s looted ruins, Jorge Mañes Rubio seeks out forsaken places and makes art that memorializes, reimagines and reengages them with the world. His project “Normal Pool Level” — which emerged from his exploration of the cities, towns and villages submerged by China’s Three Gorges Dam Project — is on exhibition at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England, until September 7. So it felt like the perfect time to ask Rubio more about this exhibit, as well as about the experiences that led him from a stable career in design to life as a perpetual tourist.
Let’s start with your current exhibition. How did you end up in China, looking for abandoned underwater cities?
My project in China was something very special to me, on so many levels. It all started when I moved to Chongqing for two months in 2013 as part of an artist-in-residence program. The city was quite tough, and pretty much nobody could speak English, so in the end I decided to travel along the Yangtze River, looking for the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project. Thousands of cities and villages have been submerged, and so far 4 million people have been forced to relocate—but very few people know this.
During my journey I came across cities that have no name, cities that don’t appear on any map. On one hand, I was really excited to be able to explore these places which very few people have seen. But on the other, I was appalled to see the conditions people were living in. We’re talking about entire cities that have been pretty much destroyed and left isolated, but where some people have refused to leave. I decided to create a series of souvenirs and symbols that would document and recognize these forgotten cities, and at the same time help me to express this inner conflict I went through during my journey.
What kind of objects did you create?
In the beginning, my intention was just to look for these cities, and to explore this area. But the more I saw, the more I understood that these places deserved recognition. I was struggling with the fact that I found some of these places extremely beautiful. It was a strange and tragic beauty, but a fascinating one nevertheless. I knew photographs were not enough to convey those feelings, so I started to gather materials and objects along the road, and later I modified them and transformed them into the symbols that compose the project.
The most representative are probably two plastic jerrycans that contain water from the Yangtze River. I collected this water at the exact point where the old city of Fengdu used to stand, now completely submerged under the water. Later on, I painted these jerrycans with traditional chinese motifs, as if they were precious Chinese vases. The result is an object whose identity is heavily questioned, which doesn’t seem to belong either to Eastern or Western culture, but that represents the clash between traditional Chinese culture and industrialization. There are more than 10 objects and installations in total, together with a series of photographs.
Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.
You call yourself a “perpetual tourist.” What does this mean, especially in the context of design?
Until fairly recently, I worked with design companies on everyday items like chairs, furniture or small products — homeware, vases, so on. But while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I joined a program that was very experimental, pushing the boundaries of design. So my work became much more about the impact design can have in our current society, beyond manufacturing everyday items.
To put it concisely, I became interested in experience. Right now, with any product that you have or acquire, what you look forward to is the experiences the product might allow you to have. So I started thinking about tourism. In a way, industrial design is about creating a product, and replicating it millions of times. And tourism is the mass-production of experiences. You create one experience — say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower — and then millions of people have, literally, that very same experience. I also find interesting the way people behave when they are tourists. Things look different, the food tastes different, and you dare to do things that otherwise you’d never do. You’re way more open to learning about new cultures, meeting new people. You become someone else. I thought, “What if I apply that kind of behavior to everyday experiences? Can I behave like a tourist every day?”
I did a few projects that explored these ideas. One was an illegal souvenir production project on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another one — my graduation project — was a portable souvenir factory. I rode my bike for three weeks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and attached to the bike I had a portable rotational molding machine. In every village, I met different people, and I used my machine to manufacture my own souvenirs on the road — in contrast to the experience of buying, you know, fridge magnets.
After a childhood spent traveling the world with her rabbinical family, photographer Kitra Cahana found she couldn’t stop. With her camera as her vehicle, she began work as a documentary photographer, shooting for publications like The New York Times and National Geographic. When Cahana is not on assignment, she comes home to a life on the road — living among communities of nomads that wander the United States, documenting their reality. Cahana’s TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road,” offers a look into this world. But we wanted to hear more—about her own experiences, about what motivates people to take to the road, and about the history and evolution of American itinerant culture.
That’s always been a complicated question. I was born in the United States—my parents are both American, but they didn’t want to raise their children in the States, mainly for sociopolitical reasons. So we left shortly after I was born and moved frequently when I was a child. I grew up in different places across Canada and Sweden where my father held rabbinic positions. That’s what took us from place to place.
It was part of my parents’ ethos to prioritize experiences over materialism. From our infancy, they took us on adventures. When we moved to Sweden, we spent months making our way from North America to Europe via Asia. We were raised with this deep knowledge that the world was open and that the world was ours. It’s a beautiful thing to instill in a child — a sense of curiosity about the way other people live, to explore other value systems, to give a sense of otherness and sameness all at once. The idea was to be able to feel a sense of home anywhere, while simultaneously having a really strong core — a family core. In our family, that meant a spiritual and religious core as well.
Which came first, being a nomad, or photography? Or did both happen at the same time?
When I spoke in the talk about wanting to run away as a child, I think that emotion came from wanting to escape stagnation, never wanting to be still. Always wanting to see the next thing around the corner. When we moved to Canada when I was 12, I went from being in a Swedish Montessori school to the rigidity of Orthodox Jewish day schools. I did well, but I hated it. I didn’t want an outside voice to dictate my day to day. Every piece of me was just yearning to explode outwards and move again, to feel unencumbered by any authority but my own.
That’s why I gravitated towards photography, because it allowed me to always be on the move, to investigate other people’s ways of life and to pose deep questions of political and social import. It gave me a purpose to continue the adventuring I had been exposed to as a child, but it went far deeper than just having an adventure. It put me at the crux of really critical and telling moments in the lives of others.
I left home as soon as I finished high school at 16; my photojournalism career started shortly after. I’ve been more or less nomadic since, in many different incarnations of the nomadic life. I’ve lived in a more sedentary fashion in certain places — especially while doing my undergrad in philosophy and my masters in visual anthropology — more transient in others. The lengths of my stays are usually dictated by the projects I’m working on, by the worlds I’m moving in and out of. So it’s always completely different. No world is like the next. Altogether, it’s been about nine years of being in motion. It’s just slowly become my way of life.
Young nomads congregate at the “Dirty Kids Corner” at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana
This is an abandoned tobacco factory just outside Salerno, in the south of Italy, where several villages were destroyed after a devastating series of earthquakes and landslides in the 1980s. With his project Buono Fortuna (“good luck” in Italian), artist and TED Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio hopes to reopen the abandoned spaces in these villages to the public, replacing stolen icons and looted artwork with new fictional symbols, inspired by Southern Italian folklore. To a full gallery of Jorge’s Buono Fortuna photos, visit the TED Ideas Blog. And to read about Jorge’s work creating a micronation in a neglected Amsterdam neighborhood, visit the TED Blog.
As TED Fellows arrive from all over the world today to Ed Ou’s hometown of Vancouver for TED2014, Ou himself is far away in Ukraine, where he has been since February, documenting the civil unrest and growing political tension as a freelance photographer represented by Getty. Today he writes in to give us an inside view at his experience on the field, sending us a cache of his work to date, including links to video segments produced for the New York Times and to his own Instagram feed.
A man accused of being a pro-government provocateur is pulled from the crowd as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko addresses anti-government protesters on Independence Square on February 22, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. The leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution against current embattled President Viktor Yanukovych traveled to Kiev to address the crowd immediately after being released from prison on what many claim were politically motivated charges. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
The body of a man killed during clashes between anti-government protesters and the police are carried down Independence Square in a procession in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 21, 2014. After a week that saw new levels of violence, with dozens killed, opposition and government representatives reached an agreement intended to resolve the crisis. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Anti-government protesters have a makeshift meeting in a bus stop atop Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2014. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Anti-government protesters stand near barricades and tents during a sit-in of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2014. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Women distribute flowers to anti-government protesters guarding the barricades in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2014. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
An anti-government protester smokes a cigarette near Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2014. After a chaotic and violent week, Viktor Yanukovych has been ousted as President as the Ukrainian parliament moves forward with scheduling new elections and establishing a caretaker government. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
How does the situation feel from where you are?
The situation here is very fluid, and the political stakes are very high. But at the end of the day, the most interesting thing for me is seeing how ordinary people come to terms with extraordinary things happening around them. Many feel empowered, like they now finally have a voice. Others feels like they are at the mercy of politicians in Moscow or Kiev who may or may not represent them. Regardless, everyone has a say in the direction that Crimea — and Ukraine — will go.
Tell us about the videos you’ve produced for the New York Times.
The second video looks at Crimean Tatars. They are a Muslim minority group who have Turkic roots, and make up 12% of the population here. They have historical reasons to fear Russia. In the 1940s, Stalin deported most of their population to Central Asia on the pretext that they collaborated with the Nazis. Many died along the way — and only in the last few decades did most return. Many are unsure what will happen if Crimea secedes to Russia.
The Instagram feed is like a personal diary. It’s my own space where I get to be my own editor and show my own take on what you see in the news. Interestingly, I think the people who are looking at my images on Instagram may be a completely different demographic of people who read newspapers, magazines, and so on. So I find that Instagramming photos of international news events — whether it be conflict, political unrest, or social issues — can reach people who would otherwise not seek this kind of information out. I’ve had high school students email me asking me to explain the conflict in Gaza that I covered because they followed me on Instagram and saw a photo I posted. I was happy to oblige. Journalism is all about reaching the widest and most diverse audience, and if I can use this medium to inform someone who would otherwise not read a newspaper, then I’m all for it.
Social violence in Guatemala, Mexican and Central American migrant communities in the United States, the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, children with cerebral malaria in Uganda — for the past decade, photographer Jon Lowenstein has been documenting the often violent and traumatic daily lives of individuals and communities living at the edges of society, both around the world and on his own doorstep in the South Side of Chicago. At times raw and riveting, at others poignant and impressionistic, Lowenstein’s work captures human experience on an intimate level, no matter the circumstances. Most recently, he was in Chile in the run-up to the November 2013 presidential elections, working in partnership with his brother Jeff Kelly Lowenstein to document Chile’s people 40 years after the coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet. Images were live-streamed on theNew Yorker’s Instagram feed, and the brothers posted a series of three articles, titled “Enduring Rifts,” in the New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog.
Here, Lowenstein talks to the TED Blog about how he carries out his work and how he connects with his subjects, and takes us deeper into the worlds behind his powerful images.
How long have you been documenting Chicago’s South Side?
I started on a photo project involving more than 200 photographers documenting the city of Chicago at the millennium, called Chicago in the Year 2000. From there, I was hired by the founder of Land’s End, Gary Comer, to teach at his former elementary school, in the South Side neighborhood where he grew up. This neighborhood had changed dramatically over 50 years from a mostly white, ethnic neighborhood to a black neighborhood in the mid-’60s. In the ’70s and ’80s, after most of the factories closed, crack came in in a pretty hardcore way, and like many post-industrial neighborhoods on the South Side, it hit much harder times. Gary had decided to help rebuild it, and I worked for several years teaching at the school, Paul Revere Elementary. This led me to do a project about the South Side, documenting the post-industrial community from where the meltdown happened to when Starbucks came in, which is where we’re at now. There’s a real pressure to redevelop and repackage these neighborhoods and sell them, essentially, to a more wealthy clientele.
I’ve chosen various ways of telling the story. At the school, I did a two-year project called “The Voices In the Hall” to challenge the stereotypes of the failing inner city school. This led to the South Side Project, which involved photographing the community with a Polaroid in a collaborative fashion. I’ve also started to do more experimental documentary filmmaking — featured in the New Yorker as “A Violent Thread.”
Most recently, I launched a space in my building called the Island. This experimental art space converts several vacant apartments in our cooperative into unique spaces to create conversations, art and ideas for social change.
What is your ultimate goal with your work in the South Side?
My long-term goal is to examine the impact of the post-industrial meltdown on Chicago’s most vulnerable communities and come up with new solutions, and to consider why the United States continues to ignore our most impoverished people. During the past decade, the city has lost in excess of 250,000 African-Americans. For a place that was one of the epicenters of African-American culture during the 20th century, this is a monumental change that’s getting little attention.
One example of this is the wholesale destruction and displacement of Chicago Housing Authority’s public housing projects — some of the largest in the United States — came down in the past decade. You see this kind of change going on all over the world.
Just minutes after a double shooting a man lies in an alley near the 7100 S. Rhodes block in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The shooting was in apparent retaliation to a shooting that had happened the previous day. In “Chi-Raq,” more young people have died in the past five years than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. There still is not one trauma unit anywhere on the South Side, despite the fact that the city leads the country in the number of homicides, with the majority occurring south of the Loop. But to understand what’s at stake, we must look far deeper than the latest crime scene to see the immense waste of human potential that’s being lost with each violent act. The media’s never-ending focus on the violence obscures a larger and far more significant truth: that the wholesale neglect has led to the practical destruction of these communities.
A man poses wearing his mask from the Friday the 13th movies. He stand in front of Jimbo’s Bar, which was a local legendary establishment in the Bridgeport neighborhood. Bridgeport, home to Mayor Richard J. Daley, was known as one of the most brutally racist neighborhoods in the city and to this day has resisted integration by African-Americans, although many Asians and Latinos have moved into the neighborhood in the past few years.
Where do the people go?
All over. They came to places like my neighborhood, they go to other cities in the Midwest. Iowa City, Champaign, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana, Gary, you name it…they go there, but mostly places which will accept Section 8 vouchers. About 100,000 of Chicago’s poorest people were displaced during the CHA’s Plan for Transformation. My issue is that the city is consistently privatizing public services. During the past decade, Chicago has destroyed the public housing system, privatized the parking meters, oversaw the largest single school closing in US history and leads the country in murders. We are not addressing the basic needs of the most vulnerable people and finding ways to include everyone.
The issues are difficult, but the plans need to include holistic approaches to community and to creating better, more viable options for our citizens. This includes affordable housing, high level schools that encourage independent and innovative thinking, safe neighborhoods where young people don’t have to worry about being shot, good jobs at all levels of society and a functioning and powerful healthcare system that serves all strata of the population. Right now, I see mass foreclosures, wholesale school closings, murdered kids, no trauma unit on the South Side, which consistently leads the country in homicide numbers.
How do you get access to places and people? Do you approach them directly?
It depends on the story. Sometimes I write official letters requesting access. I read the newspaper. Sometimes it is word of mouth, and on the South Side I live in the neighborhood, so I walk around, and go to the crime scenes. When I was covering violence a lot, I’d just go to the murder site and start talking to people, or do ride-alongs with the police. Sometimes the victims themselves reach out. There are lots of ways to find stories, but most important is to keep your eyes, ears and heart open.
I tell them I’m a documentary photographer, and I’m working on a book, or a film. People want to know why you’re there. They want to know, “What you care about?” I’m most often seen as an outsider so often my presence is questioned, but if you are honest and speak clearly from the heart, most people will accept you.
You make it sound so easy.
It’s definitely not easy. But it’s just what I do. I’ve been doing it for a long time and believe in it. I believe I should be there to witness what’s going on.