The other side of the lens

Candid talk Nick Danziger   | Photo Credit: Photo: S.S. KuMar

Nick Danziger, award winning photo-journalist and chronicler of our times

There is one advantage that a scrawny trader, struggling up the perilous Silk Route more than 2,000 years ago, will always have over you.

He didn't need a visa. You, on the other hand, would need six.

Unless, of course, you are Nick Danziger — the award-winning photojournalist who began by tracing the ancient trade route with no visas in hand.

In 1982, when Nick won a travel fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, his first plan was to travel in a dugout canoe through Guatemala. “But then, a civil war broke out there.” So, he changed plans to Siberia. “And then, a Korean airliner was shot down there, leading to a political clampdown.” Finally, he thought of Burma. “And, there was a bomb attack on the cabinet. By then, the Trust was becoming highly suspicious of me,” he laughs.

Finally, in 1984, he set out to China from Central Europe, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tibet, amongst others; areas enmeshed in civil wars, political angst and religious clashes, and gutted by poverty. He was allocated 800 pounds for three months — but he returned after a year-and-a-half.

Walking a fine line between arrest, deportation and starvation — there are several stories here: how he lost his bags during an ambush in Afghanistan, and how they turned up intact, six weeks later, in a village 200km away; how in his month-and-a-half there, he saw exactly one woman — he returned with diaries and photographs, which would later go on to become award-winning books and films.

But as Nick tells us, before his talk on ‘Documentary Photography and Social Change' at the Madras Terrance House, the real beginning of the story comes much earlier. As a 13-year-old, discovering that wanderlust can be a beautiful thing, he left for Paris alone without a single pound. He sold his sketches for money, and survived a long, cold week.

“Once, while on a magazine's assignment, I found Turkish soldiers massacring people in a Kurdish refugee camp.” The guards found him, and confiscated the volatile film roll — but not before he'd managed to switch it with an empty one. He escaped and made it all the way home; only to discover that the magazine had different ideas. “They felt the pictures were too violent for people to read at their breakfast tables,” he said.

“That is when I realised that the most important stories were the ones that weren't being told,” he said. “And I decided to tell them.”

So he set out, visiting new places, and revisiting the old ones. He found himself back in a Kabul where the chief industry was that for artificial limbs; “where American soldiers were selling missiles to the Afghans, who would later sell them back to the soldiers.”

“Trade is often more important than any ideology,” he laughs. He saw starving men moving with their cattle to Somalia in desperation. “I asked them where their families were. They replied that they were less important than the cattle.”

But his world doesn't end there. He was allowed access to the private meeting between Tony Blair and the Queen (“I found myself bowing up and down, endlessly, inexplicably.”). He was in Hamid Karzai's office, which has the photograph of the young man who had thrown himself in the way of an assassin's bullets. He has a picture of the Dalai Lama in sun glasses, blowing a kiss at the camera. His portrait of Tony Blair and George Bush, a day before American troops entered Baghdad, won the World Press Photo award in 2003. Nick has a Herculean agenda — to try and keep in touch with all the people he and his camera meet. “Sometimes people think of me as a magic bullet, that I can change lives. I'd like to help everyone,” he smiles. “But I can't.”

And after all this, is sleep hard to come by? “Very. That is why I always return — because these people have become a part of me, my life.”