AS A PHOTOGRAPHER for The Guardian, Scottish-born Graeme Robertson has travelled around the world snapping photographs of celebrities, soldiers, politicians and sportspeople.
But it was a trip to Iraq that changed his life.
The stress he found himself under while working in the conflict zone led to him getting alopecia. As Robertson told TheJournal.ie, that experience changed him – and now he’s using his talents to help those less fortunate, by teaming up with Sightsavers for a series on people with disabilities.
“Through my work I’m used to seeing real human suffering, but this particular project really affected me,” Robertson has said. “I’m dyslexic and was treated very differently from other children at school and was told I would never succeed. It pained me that these young people with disabilities may never be given opportunities in life.”
In some way I felt that I knew what that was like in some ways, to be discarded slightly because you were different.
This is a particularly personal project for Robertson. “I met some blind kids [in Uganda] that had been through some awful, awful stuff,” he told TheJournal.ie. He decided to bring the photos back to The Guardian, where they were used on his Eyewitness double-page spread.
After that, he approached Sightsavers to expand the project and get even more people to connect to their work.
“Not everyone can do it”
Robertson’s job isn’t just snapping photos – it’s also, to an extent, people management. He has to be able to meet a stranger and help them feel relaxed, while trying to capture a good portrait.
“Not everyone can do that – that’s the thing about photography, making someone feel at ease and getting what you want out of them, that’s the trick,” said Robertson.
“You hang out with them, make them feel comfortable,” he said. “Or it might be the other side of the coin – you get it done before they get nervous. You have to gauge that on a case by case basis, and I do that on everything.” The morning that we spoke, he had interviewed All Saints, who were nervous despite years of photo shoots.
His most memorable photograph from the Sightsavers trip was the one of Hamza, which recently won him an award.
I always have a soft place in my heart for him because the story was awful, but also it was a really beautiful picture and it was a real moment caught. And that was one of the ones where I didn’t say a word to him, it was a real moment. After the photo, then I spent time with him.
“It was very tiring emotionally”
Part of Robertson’s work has involved going to conflict zones, like Iraq. Robertson said this was a “real privilege” to do this, but it also took its toll.
“I’m quite a sensitive guy; I can close myself off to a lot of things and concentrate on my job, and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, from [photographing] people dying or an AIDS campaign, or running for your life getting shot at, but I did struggle to a point that I got alopecia and lost most of my hair”.
He describes that period of his life as a time of “constant worry”
I think it changed me a lot, it changed me to a point that I am a better person for it. I think it damaged me slightly, in a way that it might not damage other people or other photographers, but I wouldn’t change it. I’ve got the scars from it and I remember it and I wouldn’t change it. But it was a very difficult time.
It was perhaps even more difficult when he had time to step back and think about what he had seen.
“I think sometimes when you have a moment anything in your life where it takes time for you to realise what you achieved, or what you saw, or what it meant,” explained Robertson.
“I think perhaps when I came back I struggled a little bit with normal life after what I’d seen and done, but I think I’ve taken that as a positive thing and it’s made me a better person and a much better photographer for being in these situations.”
As tough as it was, he says if he had to live life over again, he’d still go back to Iraq.
“I really saw how fortunate we are living in such a beautiful country and with not anything like the stresses and the strains that these populations have, these normal people that are exactly the same as us,” said Robertson.
“It matured me an awful lot. It was a very good experience.”
I think when you’re younger you’re happy to look around that corner and see what’s happening, where now you might peek around that corner before you run around.
Making tough decisions
Photographers sometimes have to make difficult decisions – particularly, when to intervene in a situation.
“If you’d asked me that question maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago, I might have a different answer to what I have now,” said Robertson.
“Wherever you are in the world, I am not there to help. It’s not my job to intervene, my job is to document and to show the world what is happening, and sometimes if you get involved in a situation it can make things worse.”
“At the end of the day, this is my job,” said Roberston. He can’t tell an editor he didn’t get a shot in a country like Syria because he was scared.
“Our job is to help: to, one, keep yourself safe and, two, is to document and to take these stories away and that’s your job,” he continued.
I’m not a nurse, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a politician. There’s no point in me getting involved in stuff that is above what I am there to do, and even if you want to get involved, most of the time if you get involved you are only going to make things worse.
“It’s not black and white, there is a gray area and that gray area can only be defined by experience,” he said.
“There have been occasions in my life where I have put my camera down and I have gone to help people, but that’s an experience thing,” he said. “And I’m sure that photographers would all say something different.”
He’s a huge supporter of what Sightsavers do, and for Robertson, it’s important to be able to use his place in the press world to “wisely… try and help unselfishly”.
He’s heading to Sudan next month to shoot some new photos for the project, with the possibility of an even larger campaign, or a book. “I hope that we can take it further and do more things,” said Robertson.
Sightsavers are hosting an exhibition, Framing Perceptions, from 23 February – 6 March in the Gallery of Photography, Temple Bar, Dublin, featuring images taken by Robertson when he visited projects in Uganda, East Africa and Rajasthan, North India.