"This photo is really important to me because people need to know that this is happening on the other side of the world," says the photographer of his shot of Rohingya refugees who drowned fleeing Myanmar
Born in Australia in 1969, Patrick Brown lived in the Middle East and Africa before his family settled in Perth, Australia. Drawn to documentary photography, and influenced by the images of war and civil unrest from the 1980s and 90s, he returned to Africa and spent six weeks documenting the work of an Australian surgeon in Malawi. Brown joined Panos Pictures in 2003, and has shown his work in institutions such as the International Center of Photography in New York, and Visa Pour l’Image in France; he works for organisations such as The New Yorker, TIME, Newsweek, National Geographic, GEO Germany, OXFAM, Human Rights Watch, and The Red Cross. Brown focuses on documenting issues across Asia, and has been nominated for the World Press Photo of the Year for an image showing the bodies of Rohingya refugees laid out after the boat in which they were attempting to flee Myanmar capsized about eight kilometers off Inani Beach, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
BJP: Your image is quite oblique, you have to look again to see what’s actually being shown. Why did you choose to shoot the scene in this way?
Patrick Brown: The photo itself I didn’t want to shock people – I wanted to grab them by the heart and make them think. Taking a photo like this forces someone seeing it to think ‘What am I looking at?’ and then hopefully ‘Why is this happening?’ Then, maybe if you’re lucky, ‘What can I do about it….’ You don’t went to drive people away or let them shut down their minds and their hearts. You want them to engage.
BJP: Could you say more about how you took the picture?
PB: I received a phone call from a colleague and friend of mine, Damir Sagoli at Reuters, telling me a boat had capsized only 10 minutes drive from the hotel where I was staying. It was early evening, the sky was black due to a massive thunder storm and the rain was like nothing I’ve experienced before, it was so bad while driving to the scene we had to slow to a crawl. All I could think of was that if you’re willing to take on the Bay of Bangla in monsoon season, what you’re running from must be truly horrific. On my arrival there were police cars, locals who had help carried the bodies to the edge of the road (which is the high tide mark), and local Bangladeshi press. I try not to think about the other photographers [when I’m working] as I need to be focused on what I’m doing. Being respectful of what you’re doing is the most important thing.
BJP: How long have you been covering the Rohingya crisis?
PB: I’ve worked in Asia for many years, and a large portion of that has been photographing Myanmar and it’s troubles with its ethnic minorities – not just the Rohingya, but also the Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, and Shan all have horror stories of war and persecution. Around the 26th or 27th of August I starting hearing reports from friends and colleagues in Bangladesh that large numbers of Rohingya were flooding across the border into the area near Cox’s Bazaar. The stories were pretty frightening and I was worried this was start of something big and terrible. Access to Rakhine State has always been severely limited by the Burmese Army – the Tatmadaw – so I contacted people I know in the humanitarian community to see if they could get me into Bangladesh to document what was happening. UNICEF and my agency, Panos, said jump on a plane.
BJP: Congratulations on being nominated, what does it mean to you?
PB: It’s a real honour to have this image recognised by my peers and nominated for the World Press photo of the year. In some ways I’d prefer to be nominated for one of the many other images I’ve taken over the course of 2017 – for images that tell a story that’s a little less horrible. But this photo is really important to me because people need to know that this is happening on the other side of the world – that people are dying and that mothers and fathers are crying over the deaths of their families. They don’t feel any less or grieve any less than you would. And these deaths and this grief are preventable. It should not happen, it is wrong, plain and simple. That’s what drives me.
BJP: It’s interesting to see who’s on the shortlist, and the media organisations behind them. Where do you feel Panos sits alongside big groups such as The New York Times or Reuters?
PB: I was commissioned by UNICEF on this assignment, and the majority of Panos’ clients are from the Aid/NGO sectors. I see this as great collaboration. UNICEF assigned me and Panos distribute the imagery, so in some way it’s the best of both worlds. When it comes to the fake news argument, you have Panos which is over 30 years old, and UNICEF which is over 70 years old – I think the collective heritage is what gives Panos and UNICEF the ability to navigate the fake news argument.