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Interviews

Maximum Exposure: A Snapshot of Photographer David Stephenson

from Totally Fushed, Christmas 2001 (revised)

‘Do you mind if I have a cigarette?’ photographer David Stephenson asks, halfway through our late evening session. I hope my questioning isn’t stressing him out! He lights up, and we continue.

By any account, an interesting man is Dave ‘my-next-door-neighbour’ Stephenson. For the photographer, the eye itself must be where all the ideas start. And Dave’s eyes have seen more than most. This tall, dark-haired fellow is almost as well-travelled as they come. Dave’s passion, indeed, his profession, has taken him all around the world: from Kenya to Kosovo to Kerry. Sitting in Dave’s suitably untidy darkroom, it seems the perfect place to do our interview. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the art of photography. And this is a man who loves his art. As well as cameras and equipment, the shelves in this small space are lined with books of photography, and the walls are adorned with stills. Even to someone who knows virtually nothing about the medium, it’s wondrous: a little den of inspiration.

‘I always wanted to take photography and sort of…travel with it, have it as a reason to travel’, Dave says. ‘About five years ago I went on a trip with [my wife] Sally to Africa, to a village in Zambia…’ This trip was part-funded by the charity Trocaire. Dave took pictures in Zambia, ‘and brought them back to Trocaire’.

Trocaire liked Dave’s photos, and they commissioned him to go to Central America – to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. ‘That was in 1998. As a result of that trip Trocaire wanted to have an exhibition for their twenty-fifth anniversary.

‘But I felt I hadn’t got enough pictures – after all, I had visited three countries in three weeks, which isn’t a long time at all. So I went again to Honduras, and spent about two weeks there. I visited various Trocaire projects…a sugar plantation, a children’s shelter…Tough lives, compared to this Celtic Tiger and everything. A wonderful experience, and very exciting for a photographer. I suppose that’s the only way I could justify being a voyeur. I felt I had a mission to record what I was seeing.

‘So we had the exhibition and sold the pictures. And it was nice to know the money was going to Trocaire’s projects.’

Mr. Stephenson doesn’t have exclusively good things to say about charities and their work, though. Often, a certain showmanship or slanting of reality is used to create the message. There is presentation, staging involved – the same as with any ad. One of Dave’s pictures was used by a charity for a billboard, and the caption focused on deaths from malaria. But the people in the photo, says Dave, ‘didn’t have malaria at all – they were just sitting happily outside their house!’

I suppose this raises the issue of how far Western charities should go in their efforts to encourage us comparatively wealthy Westerners to donate to the Third World. Is it ethical, for example, for aid agencies to use pictures of impoverished and/or diseased children to help their cause? Does that not exploit the children’s condition? ‘It’s a good question’, Dave says, and he can see both sides of the issue. All he knows is that, as a photographer, he feels a responsibility to record whatever he sees, wherever he goes.

Not too long after Trocaire’s twenty-fifth anniversary exhibition, the organisation sent Mr. Stephenson back to Africa…‘to three countries there – Somalia, Rwanda and Kenya. Rwanda was a very hard place to be’, he reflects. ‘It’s beyond belief the genocide that happened there.’ In 1994, the Hutu ethnic majority slaughtered up to a million Tutsis during a civil war. Once again, Dave comments: ‘I felt compelled as a photographer to record what I had seen.’

Dave’s last foreign assignment was in Kosovo in 1999, just two weeks after NATO troops rolled into the province, halting Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign. ‘A remarkable experience’, he says of his time there. ‘A mixture of celebration and liberation, but also great, great sadness. People’s ability to just get back up and go after losing their homes and everything is quite remarkable.’

So what’s Mr. Stephenson up to now? ‘At the moment I’m following the relics of St. Therese around the country. I call this ‘the Calcium Tour’’, he laughs, ‘because it’s actually her bones…somebody told me it’s an arm and a leg.’ It’s incredible, he says, to witness the desire people all over Ireland have to glimpse the relics. Consequently, he’s calling this collection of photographs Hunger.

Dave’s been to so many places in the middle and in the aftermath of crises (isn’t the aftermath of a crisis simply a new crisis?). Could he pick one place that’s had the greatest impact upon him? He doesn’t have to think too long about my question. ‘Rwanda is the [place] which has stayed with me the most, just because of what happened there, really.’ While the genocide itself was a horror unimaginable, Dave sees more horror in Rwanda’s, in Africa’s, future. He has seen a continent dying, he tells me.

Whatever the future holds, wherever Mr. Stephenson goes, he will continue to record the present. That’s his passion, and his profession. He pauses after telling me that Rwanda is the place that has affected him most; he looks a little guilty, like he’s just picked his favourite child. Every place is different, he assures me. ‘Every place is special.’

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