Interview with war photographer Andy Spyra

The pull of war

He is one of Germany's most sought-after photographers, his main theme: war. Andy Spyra talks to Bettina Baumann about the hurdles and limits of conflict zone photography – and why it fascinates him

Mr. Spyra, you work as a photographer in war regions but don't like to be called a war photographer. Why not?

Andy Spyra: War photographers I know usually go to the front to watch what's happening there, they're interested in conflicts as such. But I'm not specifically interested in war. I'm interested in the repercussions of war. War has a strong pull. And also a sinister explosive effect. Many photographers and journalists are drawn in like moths are drawn towards the light. But I do think it's possible to distance oneself from that. The stories that interest me take place in spite of the war, behind the front.

But aren't those stories taking place away from the actual fighting equally part of the war?

Spyra: Yes, indeed. What I'm trying to say, however, is that I am not primarily interested in the actual fighting. I'm interested in what goes on around conflicts, their legacy and aftermath. Some of my long-term projects address wars that ended a hundred years ago, like for example the genocide of the Armenians.

During your trip to Turkey, where you did research for your report "100 Years Since the Genocide of the Armenians", you were arrested and sent back to Germany. Have you experienced such restrictions elsewhere as well?

Spyra: No. I must add, however, that in some countries, it's becoming increasingly difficult to work as a journalist. Press freedom is being increasingly curtailed, it's becoming more and more difficult to obtain visas, to work without restrictions – it's risky simply to admit that you're a journalist. It's always a difficult game with the authorities and you're better off if you can avoid attracting attention. People think journalists enjoy some kind of special protection, but the conditions that prevailed in the 70s and 80s are definitely over for my generation. We have ceased being just observers, we have become targets ourselves. Nowadays, journalists don't buy white bullet-proof vests. Anyone doing so would have to be crazy – you′re just a sitting duck for snipers and kidnappers.

Why then do you continue to expose yourself to these dangers? What is it about war that fascinates you so much?

Spyra: War annihilates our comfortable life. Civilization is wiped out, an archaic world creeps in. A lot of horrible things, but at the same time, also some good things. I recently visited a refugee camp where people had to endure miserable conditions. And yet, I bumped into people with whom I had a lot of fun. I came to realise that humanity doesn't disappear. Under such conditions, people become more discernible, far more than those who hide within their four walls and their comfortable life. In my view, war has an immense momentum that draws everything surrounding it into its pull – entire societies, people and landscapes. I find the transforming power of war very attractive.

You take pictures of people who are suffering terribly, who are stigmatised by what has happened to them. How do you manage to get close enough with your camera while maintaining your respect for them?

Spyra: I think that has something to do with one's own attitude towards these people, that – as simple as that may sound – one perceives them as people and meets them on an equal footing, rather than through a camera. I've noticed that some of my colleagues don't look them in the eyes but only see an object through their camera. I couldn't work like that. I need human contact with the people in front of my camera. And that contact needs to be established first. I make an effort not to  have my camera permanently in front of my eyes, but also to talk to these people. Only then do they open up.

What makes a good picture?

Spyra: Good pictures are those which touch me emotionally, in which I perceive a statement, in which I also perceive the photographer. A picture is worthless if it looks like a news ticker, if it only shows that something is there, that something happened. I want to know what happened where, but I also want to know how it feels like.

In the context of one of your long-time projects, you portrayed approximately 80 women and girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram. Did you succeed in capturing their feelings with your pictures?

Spyra: No, in that respect I think I failed. Although I had been to Nigeria numerous times, these women remained strangers to me. What they had gone through – rape, forced marriage, beatings – was horrific, leaving many of them highly traumatised. I tried to capture their trauma and also their immense inner strength in my pictures. But I believe that′s where I discovered my own limits as a photographer. There was so much more that I didn't manage to capture.

Comparing today's media with those of fifty years ago during the Vietnam War, I get the impression that wars are presented less explicitly nowadays than they were back then. Has war photography become less important in the German media?

Spyra: Media access to actual fighting scenes was more direct during the 70s, 80s and 90s. But here, one also needs to distinguish between the German-speaking and the Anglophone media. German media are very conservative when it comes to reporting about crises and conflicts. It's a topic that's often neglected. Quite often, they say "No, that doesn't concern us," or "No, that's not relevant enough," or "No, nobody wants to see that." And then, preference is given to reports about a fashion show instead of reports about Mosul. It's hard to sell topics about suffering people when they appear next to advertisements.

If such topics are accepted, I often feel that it's due to some journalistic duty rather than a true and deep interest. The way German media deal with the topic also has to do with our historically conditioned perception of war. The difference is clear if you compare the access to war scenes in Afghanistan and Iraq you get in the company of Americans, to that which you get when accompanied by German soldiers. With the Bundeswehr, you're only permitted to drive around for half a day and can't get out of the car. All you can do is look out the windows. For British and American soldiers, war isn't such a taboo.

No matter how difficult it may be to sell war topics, you are nevertheless successful in what you are doing. Your pictures were printed by the Times, the German daily "Suddeutsche Zeitung" and the German weeklies "Die Zeit" and "Der Spiegel." What do you seek to express with your pictures from crisis-hit regions?

Spyra: Well, the cliche: a window into another world. These are worlds that would otherwise remain closed forever to people living in Germany who cannot and don't want to travel there. But I think we must not and should not close our eyes to what's happening in these regions. We do have a responsibility, if only for historical reasons. Many of these problems, such as the refugee crisis, for example, are home-grown. They originate here in Europe. I want to make the topics that interest me more accessible to the mainstream.

Interview conducted by Bettina Baumann

© Deutsche Welle 2017

Andy Spyra was born in the German city of Hagen in 1984. After finishing high school, he travelled around Central America and Southeast Asia where he discovered his passion for photography. From 2007 to 2009, he studied photo journalism and documentary photography at an academy in Hanover. Spyra currently works in Dortmund as a freelance photographer. He travels a lot to war regions, photographing in black-and-white, and prefers working on long-time projects. His pictures have been printed in a number of renowned newspapers and magazines.

Some of his photographs will be shown in the exhibition "Conflict - Young Photographers Witness" in Berlin that beginning in February 2017.

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