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Interviews

Marcus Bleasdale: <br class="br_visual" />a responsibility <br class="br_visual" />to report

Marcus Bleasdale:
a responsibility
to report

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII

August 2015

Former Telegraph Magazine Director of Photography, Cheryl Newman, reflects on the career of award-winning photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale and his mission to bring about policy change through his photography...

Marcus Bleasdale describes his proudest moment as meeting his wife, Karin Beate, also a photojournalist, at Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan, a small town in the south of France and home to the world’s foremost documentary photography festival. This is what one would expect from Marcus; not the policy changes his work has made within African countries, not winning the Capa Gold Medal this year; but something personal and very human.

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII

Mbonih Ndele Mari was abducted by the LRA outside Niangara. She was left for dead by them after they cut off her lips and her ears. She is now in hospital in Niangara; her children are being looked after by family close by. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 1250.

It’s seems appropriate that it’s where I also met him, one night in 2002, in the right hand corner of a small courtyard at Hotel Pams; a meeting place for a wine or a portfolio review during the festival. Neither Marcus nor I can remember who instigated this introduction, which would begin our journey as both friends and colleagues – he a photographer, me an editor – that has spanned the last fifteen years.

For many years Marcus was known within the Telegraph as ‘Mr. Darcy’. Our dashing man would cause quite a stir when he visited the office. When he was finally told of this affectionate nickname he, of course, took it with a great deal of good humour. In fact, when I interviewed him [for this article] at his coastal home on a picturesque island in Oslo, Norway, he was still wearing a fresh white shirt; although his hair is now peppered with grey.

Marcus had recently graduated from the London College of Communication and won the coveted Ian Parry Scholarship award earlier that year for his powerful body of work shot in Sierra Leone. At the beginning of his career his star was already in the ascendance. The commission I gave him [in 2000] was to be his first, sending him off to Turkana in Kenya with the late Lord Bill Deedes who was 90 at the time, for the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), one of that year's Telegraph Christmas charities.

In at the deep end

“It was my first real assignment,” Marcus remembers, “And that really gave me a lot of confidence. Scared the living daylights out of me as well.” Marcus prepared for the trip by reading Evelyn’s Waugh’s 1938 novel ‘Scoop’ (in which the protagonist is based on Deedes) for the third time.

“We found huge poverty in the Turkana region,” he recalls. “There’d been a terrible drought and there was enormous sickness in the infant population and young children. We travelled deep into the bush to find these Turkana communities. I’d been in Sierra Leone before and saw the impact conflict had on the population but here there was no conflict. I just witnessed how nature could be so destructive to a population and how the population can become so vulnerable so very quickly.”

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII

Olivier Mbolifuyhe, a 16 year old boy abducted in October 2009. He was forced to kill children and recalls his ordeal now to help to deal with his nightmares. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 25mm; the exposure was 1/15sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600.

He returned with both a significant body of work and some amusing anecdotes. “Of course Lord Deedes didn’t pay any attention to me because there was a female in the car under the age of 35 and he was a terrible flirt! I think he got to know my name at the airport on the way home. But I do remember him saying with the utmost authority, ‘You know. I will fly economy all over the world but when I arrive I need a bloody good hotel’. So he was staying in a bloody good hotel, and I was staying at this sh*t hole up the road on the Telegraph budget; Lord Deedes’s title allowing him a flight upgrade on British Airways.”

His next assignment a few months later was to document the horrific outbreak of the highly contagious ebola virus in Gulu, Northern Uganda, with the charity MSF. Since then we worked on more than 14 stories together, Marcus producing powerful, unflinching, visceral images. Many stay with me years after their publication – not only for the horror and inhumanity but also because of the respect and honesty that Marcus’s images exude: a young mother whose arm was amputated and eaten by rebel forces during Congo’s brutal war and Marie Mboligele, a young mother of four, attacked by the Lords Resistance Army who cut off her lips and ear and abandoned her near her village in Democratic Republic of Congo in March 2010, are distressing and moving.

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII

A child soldier of the Mai Mai militia group in Kanyabayonga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, during an offensive against the CNDP. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 25mm; the exposure was 1/80sec at f/5, ISO 100.

“You cared so deeply about the work that you were publishing at the Telegraph magazine. You really engaged and also were thrilled because you knew that the opportunity to publish my kind of storytelling is not that frequent. You understood the stories and were as moved with what was going on as I was. That gives you an enormous amount of confidence as a photographer; to hand this work over for editorial use knowing that it’s going to be treated correctly and with respect and dignity of the people I was documenting,” Marcus told me; words that reassure an editor that you are doing something right.

Morally responsible

Some years ago Marcus told me that he was driven by moral responsibility and anger at what he witnessed when working in the field. From a background in economics and finance, graduating from the University of Huddersfield in England, 1990, he pursued a successful and exciting career in investment banking with all the luxuries that allowed. “I loved the intellectual rigour of it. Working with numbers and strategy to seeing mistakes in markets and pricing and trying to make it all work,” he explained.

Then in 1998 he describes reading of the uncovering of a mass grave in the Balkans. Arriving at his desk his neighbour questioned the effect the horrific discovery could have on the economic market. It was a life changing moment. He resigned that day, put his house on the market and took a plane to the Balkans.

An amateur photographer, Marcus had taken an evening course in basic photography at the University of Westminster in London. His photographs of nature and sunrises offered very little in preparation for what he would witness over the next two years. However his experience in the Balkans was instrumental in his decision to study photography formally at the London College of Communication on his return.

“I just felt I needed to be there and witness what was going on,” he explained. The pictures Marcus produced over this two-year period wouldn’t have won awards but it reinforced his commitment to the use of documentary photography as an advocacy for change. “I always view conflict as an economist,” he advises, “Looking at where the money comes from and how conflicts are being financed.”

Marcus has worked closely with the Human Rights Watch charity from 2003; first in Darfur, Sudan, and then Congo. It was following the charity's report, “The Curse of Gold” - a document on gold mining in Congo - that he realised the power of images and the impact they could have. “That report really changed the course of the conflict. It went straight to the heart of the people who were buying the gold. Gold was being smuggled out illegally by the warlords from Itori in Eastern Congo and to Uganda where a Swiss company called Metalor Technologies was based. Around $150 million worth of gold a year was ending up on the gold exchanges. Metalor Technologies was buying it at a reduced rate; no-one buys a tradable commodity at a reduced rate not knowing that it comes from rather dubious sources. The “The Curse of Gold” named and shamed and forced them to change their working practices, which was brilliant. So it was about ten years ago I realised how powerful the partnership and relationship between my photography and this organization Human Rights Watch could become, and how it could influence policy-making.”

Changing the pace

It’s a huge responsibility knowing you are sending colleagues to places of conflict. On a personal level it can be hell knowing both the physical danger and the toll it takes on the photographer psychologically. With this in mind I suggested Marcus exchange conflict for a fashion story in the safety of snowy Norway, which became a cover story. He howls with laughter when I suggest it may have been the most frightening assignment so far.

“I felt least confident in my whole photographic career; I didn’t know what Daniela the fashion director wanted, I didn’t have a clue how to approach the commission. However I thought it would be fun. I knew that there wasn’t any serious risk to life! Normally when I’m going to Africa to make a story, I spend a couple of weeks before I leave on logistics, security and making sure that we can stay alive. This time I could just go off in a bus with a beautiful model and spend two days in the countryside. Fantastic. I notice you didn’t send me to do any more though!” he laughs.

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII

People displaced by the fighting between ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces find shelter in an old factory on the grounds of the Catholic church in Bossangoa. November 2, 2013. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens.

The consummate professional, the only time I’ve witnessed Marcus flummoxed was when he received a phone call from his teenage crush, the actress Juliet Binoche, calling to chat about his work. He may have actually blushed.

“The Norwegian director of ‘A Thousand Times Goodnight’, Eric Poppe, is an old friend. He wanted to write a script focused on the world of the photojournalist. So over a glass or two of wine at my kitchen table we discussed what life was like in places such as Congo and CAR.”

Much to Marcus’ delight, Binoche was then cast as the lead in the movie. “She actually rewrote some of the script to focus on a story that we did together in the Telegraph, the Lords Resistance Army, and images I made for Human Rights Watch and the Pulitzer centre for Crisis reporting. When Binoche looked at those photographs, she wanted to tell that story. She was very concerned about highlighting the issue of young children being abducted, boys to fight, girls to be ‘wives’, sex slaves of the military commanders and the crazy human rights abuses in that eastern part of Africa.” Marcus would then shoot on set for a cover story for the magazine. Marcus Bleasdale and Juliet Binoche were a winning combination.

The images from Central African Republic were to be my last story with Marcus for the Telegraph magazine. They were difficult viewing in a magazine read over a breakfast table on a Saturday morning. Bleasdale had been documenting both sides of the conflict for Human Rights Watch since September 2013. Marcus’ images immersed you in a hellish vision of inhumanity. Streets bearing limbs hacked off by machetes, burning bodies and lost traumatised children witnessing the torture. The conflict between the predominantly Christian Seleka and the Christian Anti Balakas Marcus describes as, “The most brutal and hate-filled conflict I have covered in over 15 years of reporting and it will rest in my memory for many more years to come. I was so moved by what I was seeing and angered that there was barely any international press coverage. I contacted you, saying you have to show people what's going on here.”

I went immediately to the magazine’s editor, Michele Lavery and she made changes to the next issue so we could run the images straight away. I am proud the magazine was able to publish his graphic images and raise awareness of the conflict, which had been unreported. Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands were displaced.

The next chapter...

Since leaving the Telegraph last December Marcus and I spend even more time together, working on a mentorship programme in Oslo plus exhibitions and book projects. “We’ve always worked so closely over so many years and know and respect our ways of working that we have created a very honest environment together. You bring your extraordinary encyclopedic knowledge of photography and photographers, and I bring field experience. Together it is a powerful partnership and also a really interesting asset for photographers to learn from this interesting and dynamic relationship,” he reflects.

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII

Children at a centre for street kids in Kinshasa. Many children are made homeless after being accused of being sorcerers when a family suffers bad luck and economic hardship. 2005.

I suggest this years exhibition in Perpignan, the publication of his forthcoming book ‘The Unraveling’, winning the Amnesty award for his work in Central African Republic published in the Telegraph magazine, plus the ‘Capa Gold Medal’ make this quite a year for him. “It’s the first time the ‘Capa’ has been awarded to someone who is working for an NGO,” he told me. “One of the rules of the ‘Capa’ is that the work must be published by an American publication. It’s a sign of the times that’s the way photography and newsgathering is changing that my work was commissioned by Human Rights Watch.”

His views on the editorial market are unequivocal. “There is a responsibility that comes with owning a newspaper and publishing news. It is not simply a way to amass millions. You have a responsibility to report the most obscure and under-reported human rights abuses in the farthest reaches of the world. You should invest in stories that matter.”

Marcus shoots stills and an enormous amount of footage when covering a story. “I use one camera, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, with an EF35mm fixed lens dedicated to shooting stills almost all the time and a 5D Mark III with an EF24-105mm lens on which I shoot video. One in one hand and one in the other.” Like John Wayne in true grit I suggest! “We shot so much film in Central African Republic we have enough for a feature length documentary, which is in production at the moment. It’s incredible quality, shot on a Canon.”

I would describe Marcus as first and foremost a humanitarian. He explains: “My view is that before you’re a photographer or a journalist or a human rights activist you are human being,” he affirms.

I ask what the future holds for Marcus, who is now 46. “I’m going to go to Cambridge this year to study a masters in International Relations. I don’t think I can do what I do when I am 58 and be as effective in the field. I am looking for ways in which I can still be effective on a policy level and maybe not go to places like Central African Republic for eight months a year, running around with child soldiers with cameras; perhaps just three months is enough at that age. It will give me other opportunities to use photography and footage but use it much more smartly and directly, joining together this artistic, academic and policy world.”

I have no doubt that it will come to pass.

Biography: Marcus Bleasdale

Marcus Bleasdale

Englishman Marcus Bleasdale is a documentary photographer who uses his work to influence policy makers around the world. His work on human rights and conflict has been shown at the US Senate, The US House of Representatives, The United Nations and the Houses of Parliament in the UK. Marcus works extensively with the advocacy group Human Rights Watch and National Geographic Magazine. For over 15 years Marcus has worked in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) documenting a war funded by the extraction of the minerals used in every day electronic products. He has partnered with Human Rights Watch and the Enough Project to engage US and European politicians and multinational companies to change government policy and working practices. Since 2013 Marcus has covered the brutal conflict in the Central African Republic and together with Peter Bouckaert, the Emergencies Director of Human Rights Watch, the work was awarded the Amnesty International Award and the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 2014.



Showcase

The displaced camp Mungungu 2 under the volcano Mount Nyriagongo in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 28mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/10, ISO 320.