Interview with Photographer Daniel Tepper

[Find out more about this column, “The Politics of Art” by Safia Southey]

Daniel Tepper is a photographer and journalist currently based between New York City and Boston. Daniel along with photographer Vittoria Mentasti recently completed a documentary project looking into the Israeli drone industry and the wider implications of tele-robotic systems as the technology develops from military to commercial applications.

Why should war be photographed?
It’s important that journalists and photographers work in war zones and cover conflicts in order to communicate what’s happening with the world. Whether or not the act of communication and raising awareness can have any beneficial impact, such as ending the war, is a lot less clear. Certainly during the Vietnam War, some of the most iconic and horrific images did help raise awareness about the brutality of war and helped to bring about its end. But the way we consume imagery is much different today and I think most conflict photography is lost in the sea of images we are bombarded with almost every minute of everyday.

Are there ethics involved in documenting war, such as not getting involved? What are you concerns with this while conducting your work?
The standard ethics of journalistic image making apply in the same way while working in a conflict zone as they do anywhere else. The idea that the journalist should not get involved is something I don’t worry about. I try to keep myself safe and stay out of the way so I can work but if someone is hurt in front of me and I can help them I would. In that case it’s about just being a decent person, not a journalist. But fortunately I have never found myself in a situation like that.

Do you ever fear for your own safety while working in conflict zones?
I think fear is the wrong word, it’s about being aware of the danger and working in practical ways that mitigate the danger – such as wearing personal protection equipment (PPE), having a first-aid kit and the proper knowledge on how to use it on yourself and others. The act of photographing gives me something to concentrate on and helps dispel any feeling of fear that might arise. It’s best to have a mentality that when unexpected danger arises while working, your reaction is cool-headed practical thinking, that will get you to a safer place if possible. Fear is only helpful in that it will keep you aware of the present dangers and force you to react properly. If you let fear take over while working in a conflict zone you’re going to put yourself and those around in great danger.

What does photography add to other mediums of wartime coverage? Does it stop it from being a part of the “CNN effect”, or does it possibly assist that?
I depends on what type of photography is being produced, which in turn depends on the photographer. If it’s the work of a wire or newspaper photojournalist then they are probably working hard to get the most dramatic images of war and send them out as fast as possible. If the photographer is more of a slow-journalist working on a long-term project then the images and scope of the work will be different. The former usually are working to make timely images while the later is looking to create the timeless. One isn’t better than the other, they are different, and both add to the public’s perception of the conflict. What effect the images have depends greatly on how the work is published. Images on the front page of a newspaper will be consumed by a different audience that are in a separate state of mind than ones that appear in a photo book or inside a gallery.

How has your past experience in the West Bank impacted your more current work in India and Myanmar?
Working in the West Bank forced me outside my comfort zone as a photographer. It was the first time I was consistently trying to shoot in a place where communication with my subjects was a problematic issue, as I don’t speak Arabic or Hebrew. I learned a lot through experience, most importantly how to communicate without words and feel my way into sensitive situations with a camera so I could work.

You have worked for a number of news agencies, such as the New York Times, VICE, Al-Jazeera, as well as doing independent work; what has been your favorite place to work?
I’m always grateful to see my work published no matter the venue. Since I love photography and am always shooting personal work, getting paid to make photographs, not matter the job, is one of the best things in life.

I find that I’m most productive when I am working outside my comfort zone, which can be anywhere really. I try to push myself whether I’m walking around the streets of New York City or find myself in a new city overseas. The excitement of exploring a new place with my camera for the first time is always great, but I also enjoy photographing at home, trying to find new ways to see the mundane.

Do you feel that doing freelance work has an impact on your ability to disseminate your work?
It is certainly a lot harder to publish work as a freelancer unless you are getting regular assignments from publications. You have to be much more self-motivated and get used to a lot of rejection, especially while starting out in the business. But I feel I have more freedom to pursue personal work than some of my colleagues who are also freelancers but have closer relationships with publications that keep them busy with assignments most days of the week. Again there’s nothing better or worse about each situation, photography is a very personal pursuit and in order to make good work you have to operate in ways that encourage your creative process while earning enough money to keep going. It can be a delicate balance.

I am sure that many of our readers would be interested in doing freelance work but are somewhat scared about job security, do you have any thoughts or advice for them?
Trying to make it as a freelance photographer can be extremely tough, especially when starting out. Having additional skills that can bring added value to your photo work, such as being able to write or produce videos, is especially crucial. The photo world is built upon personal relationships, all the lines on your CV mean very little when sitting down with an editor and showing your work. The industry is very competitive but forming relationships with other photographers and editors is vital. Going to industry-community events, like meet-ups, workshops, festivals, conferences, are all good ways to get to know people, build professional networks and hopefully make some friends with folks who get what you’re doing because they are part of this funky tribe of photographers and journalists.

Safia Southey

It’s probably easier to list the countries Safia hasn’t been to than the ones she has - frequently found in her natural habitat of Garavan station, she’s always ready to strike another sovereign state off her list. When she’s not off on an impromptu adventure, Safia is known to her friends as the Kitchen Gremlin, serving up hotcakes and hot takes on media, politics, and global issues. As a Dual BA with Columbia student, Safia looks forward to getting nearly run over while rushing to class in her native New York. Look her up if you ever want professional headshots (not that way), life-changing conversation, or just a couch to crash on in any major city in the Western Hemisphere.
Safia Southey

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