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This award-winning photographer has seen it all – and the stress even gave him alopecia

We spoke to award-winning photographer Graeme Robertson about his photographs of people with disabilities.

Image: Graeme Robertson

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.

1st March - Uganga: The Young Ambassadors trip to Uganda for Education. Bishop Willis School Words by Rachael Williams.  ( Photograph by Graeme Robertson) Susan, 10 Source: Graeme Robertson

“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”

SEPT- 2014 -New Delhi -INDIA: Photographer Graeme Robertson traveled to India to photograph one of Sightsavers programs as part of his upcoming show in London. These pictures are from New Delhi as he travels though the city on route to his destination. 3rd December 2014 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities and one year on from the launch of the Put Us in the Picture campaign. Sightsavers wants to use this day to celebrate the success achieved to date, thank supporters and inspire, engage and motivate people to continue to put pressure on the government.  To date the main focus has been on the political process and audiences, but we now need to build on the public campaign, and the 13,000 supporters who have already signed up, to show decision makers that this is an issue people care about. By increasing public support, we can put pressure on politicians to ensure they carry out their promises. Coverage will provide an opportunity for me to connect with a wider public audience of politically aware readers in order to raise awareness of the issues and continue to build momentum and public support for the campaign. The content gathered on the trip and the accompanying TV crew (along with the exhibition on the 3rd of DEC in East london) will give people with disabilities an opportunity to tell their stories.  It will bring their stories to life through words, images and audio, so the public can experience what it?s like for people with disabilities living in developing countries and feel moved and inspired to support the cause.  Using the power of individual personal stories we will demonstrate the barriers people with disabilities in developing countries face and the impact this is having on their lives and those around them. We will also show the alternative side of the story - how it doesn?t have to be this way ? that there is huge potential to transform their lives and those of their families and wider community given the right interventions.  Portraits at home ( Photograph by Graeme Robertson) Source: Graeme Robertson

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.

1st March - Uganga: My Sight Savers project at Bishop Willis Primary School.  In December 2013, Sightsavers launched Put Us in the Picture, its first policy campaign to influence the UK Government.People with disabilities have the same needs and rights to health, education and employment as others, yet they are one of the most excluded groups in society, particularly in the poorest countries of the world. As a result, many are being left behind. The potential for over a billion people with disabilities to contribute to economic, political and social development is being missed by governments around the world, because their needs and voices are not being listened to. This needs to change.  ( Photograph by Graeme Robertson) Hamza Source: Graeme Robertson

“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”.

SEPT- 2014 -New Delhi -INDIA: Photographer Graeme Robertson traveled to India to photograph one of Sightsavers programs as part of his upcoming show in London. These pictures are from New Delhi as he travels though the city on route to his destination. 3rd December 2014 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities and one year on from the launch of the Put Us in the Picture campaign. Sightsavers wants to use this day to celebrate the success achieved to date, thank supporters and inspire, engage and motivate people to continue to put pressure on the government.  To date the main focus has been on the political process and audiences, but we now need to build on the public campaign, and the 13,000 supporters who have already signed up, to show decision makers that this is an issue people care about. By increasing public support, we can put pressure on politicians to ensure they carry out their promises. Coverage will provide an opportunity for me to connect with a wider public audience of politically aware readers in order to raise awareness of the issues and continue to build momentum and public support for the campaign. The content gathered on the trip and the accompanying TV crew (along with the exhibition on the 3rd of DEC in East london) will give people with disabilities an opportunity to tell their stories.  It will bring their stories to life through words, images and audio, so the public can experience what it?s like for people with disabilities living in developing countries and feel moved and inspired to support the cause.  Using the power of individual personal stories we will demonstrate the barriers people with disabilities in developing countries face and the impact this is having on their lives and those around them. We will also show the alternative side of the story - how it doesn?t have to be this way ? that there is huge potential to transform their lives and those of their families and wider community given the right interventions.  Studio Portraits.  ( Photograph by Graeme Robertson) Sankarlal Bishnoi Source: Graeme Robertson

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.”

SEPT- 2014 -New Delhi -INDIA: Photographer Graeme Robertson traveled to India to photograph one of Sightsavers programs as part of his upcoming show in London. These pictures are from New Delhi as he travels though the city on route to his destination. 3rd December 2014 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities and one year on from the launch of the Put Us in the Picture campaign. Sightsavers wants to use this day to celebrate the success achieved to date, thank supporters and inspire, engage and motivate people to continue to put pressure on the government.  To date the main focus has been on the political process and audiences, but we now need to build on the public campaign, and the 13,000 supporters who have already signed up, to show decision makers that this is an issue people care about. By increasing public support, we can put pressure on politicians to ensure they carry out their promises. Coverage will provide an opportunity for me to connect with a wider public audience of politically aware readers in order to raise awareness of the issues and continue to build momentum and public support for the campaign. The content gathered on the trip and the accompanying TV crew (along with the exhibition on the 3rd of DEC in East london) will give people with disabilities an opportunity to tell their stories.  It will bring their stories to life through words, images and audio, so the public can experience what it?s like for people with disabilities living in developing countries and feel moved and inspired to support the cause.  Using the power of individual personal stories we will demonstrate the barriers people with disabilities in developing countries face and the impact this is having on their lives and those around them. We will also show the alternative side of the story - how it doesn?t have to be this way ? that there is huge potential to transform their lives and those of their families and wider community given the right interventions.  Portraits at home ( Photograph by Graeme Robertson) Sankarlal Bishnoi Source: Graeme Robertson

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.

SEPT- 2014 -New Delhi -INDIA: Photographer Graeme Robertson traveled to India to photograph one of Sightsavers programs as part of his upcoming show in London. These pictures are from New Delhi as he travels though the city on route to his destination. 3rd December 2014 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities and one year on from the launch of the Put Us in the Picture campaign. Sightsavers wants to use this day to celebrate the success achieved to date, thank supporters and inspire, engage and motivate people to continue to put pressure on the government.  To date the main focus has been on the political process and audiences, but we now need to build on the public campaign, and the 13,000 supporters who have already signed up, to show decision makers that this is an issue people care about. By increasing public support, we can put pressure on politicians to ensure they carry out their promises. Coverage will provide an opportunity for me to connect with a wider public audience of politically aware readers in order to raise awareness of the issues and continue to build momentum and public support for the campaign. The content gathered on the trip and the accompanying TV crew (along with the exhibition on the 3rd of DEC in East london) will give people with disabilities an opportunity to tell their stories.  It will bring their stories to life through words, images and audio, so the public can experience what it?s like for people with disabilities living in developing countries and feel moved and inspired to support the cause.  Using the power of individual personal stories we will demonstrate the barriers people with disabilities in developing countries face and the impact this is having on their lives and those around them. We will also show the alternative side of the story - how it doesn?t have to be this way ? that there is huge potential to transform their lives and those of their families and wider community given the right interventions.  Studio Portraits.  ( Photograph by Graeme Robertson) Shyam Sundar Source: Graeme Robertson

“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.

1st March - Uganga: My Sight Savers project at Bishop Willis Primary School.  In December 2013, Sightsavers launched Put Us in the Picture, its first policy campaign to influence the UK Government.People with disabilities have the same needs and rights to health, education and employment as others, yet they are one of the most excluded groups in society, particularly in the poorest countries of the world. As a result, many are being left behind. The potential for over a billion people with disabilities to contribute to economic, political and social development is being missed by governments around the world, because their needs and voices are not being listened to. This needs to change. I asked every child one question  Why they liked going to the school  so i had a quote to go alone side the picture .  Pictured ; Swabil Magumba  Quote; I like maths and science. I like it here because other children are a help to me .  ( Photograph by Graeme Robertson) Swabil Magumba Source: Graeme Robertson

“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.”

Looking ahead

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. 

Read: Look at these 12 photos and appreciate the beautiful world we live in>

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