Author: BJP for iPad
01 Feb 2011 Tags: Appissue01
“You’re looking for someone who will take you into dangerous situations, and more critically, someone who can take you out,” says Teru Kuwayama, describing the local fixers he and other photographers have come to rely upon. Olivier Laurent talks to five photojournalists about the local people who can make all the difference between a good and a great story – but who all too often stay in the shadows.
“Great fixer needed in Laos. Experienced and well connected, with the ability to follow leads independently, not just follow orders,” reads one message on the Lightstakers website. “’I’m looking for a fixer (someone with contacts in the Egyptian political arena) in Cairo. English speaking,” reads another. Every week dozens of photographers check in to the online forum for photojournalists to find a hired hand with local knowledge to help them with their projects and commissions. These drivers, translators, fixers and journalists are at the heart of the story, but too often, they remain in the shadow of the photographer.
In the last year, following a wave of pro-democracy revolts across the Middle East and North Africa, their relationship with their employers has come under greater scrutiny, particularly in Libya, where the dangers are more apparent. In March four journalists working for the New York Times, including photographers Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks, were abducted by pro‑Gaddafi forces in Libya. They were released on 21 March, but the fate of their driver, Mohamed Shaglouf, remains unknown.
Recounting the incident in a report for the newspaper on 22 March, the four wrote: “From the pickup, Lynsey saw a body outstretched next to our car, one arm outstretched. We still don’t know whether that was Mohamed. We fear it was, though his body has yet to be found. If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for.”
A fixer can make or break a story, says photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale, best known for his campaigning work in Central Africa. “If you’re arriving in an area you don’t understand, in an area where you sometimes don’t speak the language, some local knowledge is not just valuable but essential for effective journalism. You try as a journalist to absorb as much information as possible, and the local fixers can definitely enable that,” he says.
Bleasdale tends to work with fixers only in areas where he spends a lot of time. For example, he’s been working in Congo for the past 12 years, relying on one fixer – Marion P’Udongo. “The fixer is not only your go-to person for information, they’ll keep you updated when you’re not in the country,” he says. “They will start to understand what scope the work has, and become a partner in the creation of it; they’re no longer a fixer at that point.”
P’Udongo, for example, speaks nine languages. “But he’s also invaluable because he comes from a tribe that isn’t involved in any of the conflicts – it’s very important to look at the dynamics of the country you’re working in and choose a fixer who doesn’t compromise your independent reporting, and your or their safety,” says Bleasdale.
“It’s important to bear that in mind when you’re looking for someone. You don’t take the first person you meet on the street. You have to weigh up what skills they have, what tribe they come from, if they are involved in the story. For example, you wouldn’t have taken a Tutsi fixer into a Hutu area in 1994. That would have been rather stupid. Likewise, you wouldn’t have taken a Serb into the Kosovo/Albanian area.”
Another British photographer, Alixandra Fazzina, who bases herself in Islamabad, Pakistan, agrees with Bleasdale and takes her time when it comes to finding a fixer. She prefers to work with women, “mainly because if you’re a man you’re not allowed to enter anybody’s home. But, with a woman, you can get access to some houses, and people tend to trust you more”, she says.
For the past three years, Fazzina has been using the same fixer. “It took me a month to find Hina Khelji. There are a lot of fixers who promote themselves in Islamabad, but I needed someone who could understand the issues I’ve been covering. I didn’t need someone with lots of contacts or looking to make a lot of money,” she says. Fazzina found Khelji through a friend who works for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Khelji studied international and human rights law, so she was naturally very interested in covering these topics through my work.”
Khelji started as Fazzina’s translator, but quickly became much more than that. “She’s the one who keeps in touch with the local NGOs and the people I photograph. She keeps the dialogue going. I would be absolutely lost if I didn’t have her. She is my right arm. I know that she can take care of interviews while I’m shooting, and she’s very good at talking to people – explaining what our job is. She’s very gentle.”
For Fazzina, developing a very close, personal relationship with her fixers is essential. “I’ve spent a lot of time living with Khelji’s family. It’s that bond that creates the photographs. It’s about the way we work – chatting to people, being relaxed with them. It’s all about real life, real daily life.”
The key, say Bleasdale and Fazzina is finding the right person for your work. To achieve it, photographers often rely on word of mouth. “I’ll ask friends and colleagues, other photographers, local photographers, local journalists, or sometimes people you meet in the streets, at demonstrations,” says Italian-born photographer Paolo Pellegrin.
Bleasdale, meanwhile, often places a call to the local BBC office if he’s going to an area he doesn’t understand or has never been to before. “I’ll call the Reuters office, the Associated Press and Agence France Presse bureau and start to research who would be the best fixer. If you speak the language, for example, then you’ll need someone that can get you into a particular story,” he says. “One person might be more able to do that than others. I take as much advice as possible from people who are living in the area or have worked in that area for a very long time. I’ll interview them, speak to them and see if they fit me and my story.”
In some cases, photographers can rely on established networks of fixers and translators. Moises Saman, for example, who like Pellegrin is a member of Magnum Photos, has been working on a regular basis for The New York Times, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the years the newspaper has established its own network of contacts, which are made available to Saman when he goes on assignment for them.
Other organisations such as CNN and Al-Jazeera, to name a few, have similar networks – often pricing out photographers for the best fixers. “It’s also about budget,” says Bleasdale. “The best fixers will go for $350 a day, as an example, and the independent photojournalists like me just can’t afford these prices.” So, often, photographers will have to compromise on price, he explains.
For Teru Kuwayama, the New York-based photographer who spearheaded Basetrack (BJP#7785), an initiative that connects online audiences in the US with real-time stories of American troops in Afghanistan, a good fixer shares the same qualities as a good journalist. “Fundamentally, that’s what they are – and more,” he says. “You want people who are smart, connected, on the right side of daring and reckless, and they have to know the terrain and the subject matter a lot better than you do. You’re looking for someone who will take you into dangerous situations and, more critically, someone who can take you out. You’re looking for someone that you can trust your life with. Solid, talented people get hired by word of mouth, as journalists pass their trusted people onto their colleagues.”
Kuwayama used to work with fixers on a regular basis, but rarely does it any more. “Over the years, four of the people I’ve worked with have been killed on the job, and I avoid the dynamic of putting other people at risk,” he explains. “Of the fixers I knew, the closest to me was Ajmal Naqshbandi, a young Afghan who became one of the best-known fixers in the country. We became friends before he even started working for journalists – he was the first and last person I would see when I went there. He was smart, resourceful, and genuinely kind and decent. He was the kind of person who would have been one of Afghanistan’s best hopes if he had lived.” Naqshbandi was killed in early 2007 after being abducted, alongside Daniele Mastrogiacomo, by Taliban fighters. The Italian journalist was later released unharmed after the Afghan government agreed to free five prisoners.
This is one of the reasons Kuwayama has become a vocal advocate for fixers. “The relationships exist in a legal vacuum,” he explains. “It’s an informal, off-the-books economy that typically plays out in failed states or countries with marginal legal systems or enforcement. There are no standards, no contracts, and expectations and details generally don’t get discussed in advance. When things go wrong – and they can go seriously wrong – they get worked out in an ad-hoc fashion, and they’re highly dependent on the strength of personal relationships between the people on the ground, and the people back in the cubicles in the outside world. There’s a total imbalance of power, and an imbalance in the value that’s placed on the lives of foreign journalists and local hires.”
Bleasdale believes journalists have a responsibility to their fixers. “You’re bringing them into that area. You are responsible for their well-being. News is a fast-moving and fickle business – we hear these stories of fixers being mistreated or forgotten, not appreciated in the way they should be. It’s true. So it’s up to the photographers and the journalists to try and rise above that.”
Kuwayama goes one step further, proposing that news organisations and journalists draft a code of best practice. “The details will be complicated and varied,” he admits, “But the basic principles aren’t. Hiring people to do dangerous work entails accepting responsibility for what happens to them. The same responsibility exists, regardless of whether they’re ‘staff’ or ‘freelance’, hired for a day or for a year, or if they’re American or Pakistani.” For example, he says media organisations should extend to their fixers the insurance they provide to their own employees.
Kuwayama then proposes that news organisations sign on to the framework – or “be completely transparent about their unwillingness, or lack of capacity to honour these basic principles.” And to make this happen, “Western journalists need to take a stand for their local colleagues and aggressively lobby their organisations to define policies for worst case scenarios.”
He adds: “Foreign correspondents and ‘war photographers’ need to display a lot more courage than they have so far.” As Bleasdale says: “Sometimes the success of a particular photographer is the result of the incredible work that the fixers have done. These photographers receive awards in New York or Paris or Perpignan, but the people that should be lifting these awards sometimes are the fixers.”
He didn’t set out to become a professional fixer; in 2002, when the Taliban regime collapsed, Habib Zohori was studying medicine in Kabul. But while continuing his studies, Zohori started working as a translator for various news organisations, and when he graduated in 2009, he chose to abandon medicine. “I got my first permanent job as a fixer and reporter with the Christian Science Monitor,” he tells BJP. “One of the reasons I decided to work in the media was to make money. I am the sole breadwinner of the family. As a doctor I could only make $50 per month, which was nothing.”
He has worked for photographers Franco Pagetti and Balazs Gardi, among many others, helping them set up appointments for photo shoots, as well as translating interviews. “I also consider myself as a bodyguard. Wherever I take them, their safety is my number one priority.” It’s not always easy, he says. “I do get threatened by people on the streets. Some people don’t want to be photographed. Also, photographing women is a very sensitive issue in Afghanistan. Despite my warnings, some foreign photographers still take pictures of some of them and that gets me into big trouble.”
Indian-based fixer Dinesh Dubey (above) once found himself working for Adam Ferguson when the photographer was arrested near Chhatrapati Shivaji airport, where he was shooting a story on Mumbai’s surrounding slums. “I saw a cop approaching Adam,” he recalls. “So, upon seeing this, I slipped away. Adam was detained, and the police made him call me. The officers wanted me to come with his camera. So I took the memory card out and kept it in a safe place. I replaced it with another card that had photos taken in slums. I went to the police station and the cops started interrogating me. I showed them the camera and the pictures,” which they confiscated. After five hours, both men were released and Ferguson’s photos, which he had taken around the airport, were safe.
Dubey, now 39, has been working as a full-time fixer since 2007. “I concentrate mainly on photojournalism,” he tells BJP. “It’s my passion.” He advertises his services on Lightstalkers, like many other fixers, and tries to fulfil all the photographers’ needs – setting up interviews, finding the best spots, and working around the country’s bureaucracy. “Many photographers I work with trust me and treat me like a member of their family.”
But it’s not always the case. One photographer asked him for a low rate because his budget was very low and Dubey agreed, as long as he promised to share a small percentage of his sales. But, says Dubey, “He ditched me. He was the first photojournalist not to pay for my work. But I’ve forgiven him for what he’s done. I write it off as my bad investment.”
We hope you enjoyed this article from the British Journal of Photography for iPad, Issue One. For more information on how to get this free app, which includes all the photos from this article plus hundreds more, click here.
Most Popular Articles
Updating your subscription status
Are you a professional photographer looking to build upon your existing business or an amateur photographer wanting to take your photography skills to the next level?
Working as part of a team supporting the survey of the Mitchell Library's special collections, you will take high quality digital images for our collections database and website
Creative Studio Portrait Photographer needed for a vibrant modern studio in Hertfordshire.