Photographer and Activist Timothy Eastman

My name is Tim Eastman and I’m a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. I’ve covered stories in Ukraine, Turkey, Jordan, Brazil, England, Egypt, and the United States.

What specific challenges do image makers face in conflict zones?

I think it’s difficult because you’re there amongst people who are engaged in a life or death struggle, so next to that making images can feel a little frivolous. You have to be careful to stay out of the way when it’s necessary. People are experiencing real, serious trauma so you have to be really careful not to do anything to aggravate that. My behavior as a photographer is very different when I’m in this kind of situation. If I’m making pictures in New York City or whatever then I’m not asking people if I can put them in a photograph or anything, I’m just making pictures that I want to make. In a situation where people are really going through trauma taking a photograph has a whole other meaning, it’s a different act.

What kind of conflict zone training do you have? Have you taken a HET course?

I took a Red Cross course in emergency care; in the future I’d like to take a more comprehensive training for conflict situations.

How do you prepare for an assignment?

I think about the kind of story I want to tell, what elements of a situation I find interesting, and how they might manifest visually. Of course a lot of that goes out the window once things are actually happening. Other than that I assemble the equipment I’ll need, safety gear if it’s necessary, make sure everything is working and I have backups of stuff like cables and batteries.

Describe your favourite gear and why.

My camera, of course. Aside from that I’ve been using a tablet lately that I really like. I can use Photoshop and use a stylus on pictures, the screen is good enough to be able to be color-calibrated, and it’s lighter and more compact than a laptop. The weight and size of equipment is something I’m always concerned with and it really makes my life easier.

Have you ever faced an ethical challenge in the course of your work? How did you handle it?

There was one day in Egypt in 2013 that I was photographing some protesters that the police were firing on. Basically the crowd would surge forward, throwing stones, then the police would fire and everyone would retreat. Lots of people were getting shot, some would be put in vehicles to be taken to the hospital, others were having gunshot wounds treated by volunteers while they lay on bedsheets on the sidewalk. There was a lot of eagerness on the part of the protesters to have photos taken of the people who had been shot, and they would rush me over to make pictures of the wounded. The problem was that sometimes this process would hold up the cars that were taking people to the hospital or interfere with people being treated on the sidewalk. I had a friend with me who spoke Arabic and he helped me get out of making those pictures without pissing anyone off.

Members of Pravy Sektor, a right-wing volunteer military that operates independently of the Ukrainian government, make a promotional propaganda film. Timothy Eastman

Describe your favourite image.

My favorite picture is this one by Sebastiao Salgado where a mine worker in Brazil is having an argument with a soldier. The soldier has his gun raised and the miner is grabbing the front of it and gesturing toward himself as if saying ‘go ahead, shoot me.’ The look on his face, he really seems to mean it. Right behind the pair is another miner looking on with an expression like this is no big deal, and around them other activity is continuing. I don’t get shocked very easily but that picture shocked me. It tells so much about life there.

What keeps you shooting?

People are fascinating and a camera gives you a reason to be there, and it gives you a way to talk about what you see.

“My apartment was shelled, I was outside cooking when it happened. I came in and I was shocked, everything was on fire, everything was destroyed. Now I live in a smaller apartment down the hall, my neighbor gave me a sofa and table to use. My documents were destroyed in the explosion. Now I only have photocopies, if I can make a little money I’ll try to get a new passport made if it’s possible.” -Sergei, Avdiivka. Timothy Eastman

A common misconception about conflict zone photographers is….

That they’re all vultures for suffering, or military fetishists. Photography is like any other art, like writing or painting or whatever, there are all kinds of photographers. It has this illusion of being an objective medium, because its appearance so closely mimics what we see, it can seem like photography only serves to blindly replicate the visible. It’s easy to see how this misconception could lead one to think that conflict photographers are only there for blood and guts. It isn’t really the case and many want to tell deeper and more complex stories.

“I came here when the fighting got too bad in Donetsk. I don’t like to be concerned by the war, I try not to think about it at all. I’d like to go home but my relatives say don’t be stupid, stay in Mariupol.” Natalya, 33, Mariupol. Timothy Eastman

What advice do you have for prospective conflict zone photographers?

I don’t have a ton of experience with conflict so I don’t know how much I can offer advice-wise, but I’ll say that one thing that helps me is to keep a sense in mind of why I’m doing what I’m doing. If I’m in a situation where there’s a lot of awful stuff going on, I need to have a good idea of why exactly I’m there, if I have something to say that might be worth hearing, what good my presence might be capable of doing. Otherwise it’s just like hanging around all this pain with a camera and that’s a really horrible feeling.

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