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Chasing the story: Photographer David Degner

XinjiangChinaDuring the course of his four years as a freelance photographer, David Degner has travelled to China, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Libya, Palestine, Jordan, and Canada. Most recently he was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal to document the protests in Egypt and Libya. He spoke with Heather Cowherd.

10 April 2011

When David Degner, 27, arrived in Egypt, everything he owned fitted inside a school-sized backpack. He had “one pair of pants, one shirt, camera, lens, computer, ATM cards, and two cell phones.” He thought: “Everything else can be bought on location”.

As a freelance photojournalist, Degner must not only travel lightly, but “have the ability to go where others can't.” In his profession, life is about accepting surprises. Whether it’s one day being surrounded by injured citizens during the aftermath of a protest or the next “running through a dark subway station past guards through teargas opening up onto a sunny day in Tahrir.”

During the course of his four years as a freelance photographer, Degner has travelled to China, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Libya, Palestine, Jordan, and Canada. Currently, he resides in Cairo, Egypt.

He has worked with TIME magazine, Le Monde, New York Times magazine, ABC,, The Guardian, and The National (UAE). Most recently, individuals would have seen his images in the folds of the Wall Street Journal where he was hired to document the uprising in Egypt and the protests in Libya.

The following is a series of interviews that I conducted with Degner in the past few weeks, which cover his viewpoints on media censorship, cultural issues, and his work as a photographer.

Where are you currently and what are you doing there?

egypt_collageI'm back in Cairo [Egypt] digging into new story ideas and refreshing my supplies. I've gone through two revolutions with basically one pair of pants and a shirt, it's time to replace those, but it's hard to find quality cloths here.

What have you learned about yourself and others from your travels and through your photography?

I still believe that we are all basically the same slightly selfish people. All we want is a comfortable home, someone to love us, and work to occupy our day. I see that everywhere I go. But then every once and a while I stumble across the extraordinary people that ask for more, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.

Viewing your work as a collection, how would you describe your images?

I see some photographers that have a particular style or subject matter. I don't think I have a particular style or subject matter, it's always changing. Though my photos are often quieter than most.

That is an interesting choice of words—“quieter.” Could you elaborate? Do you observe unseen or let the images speak for themselves?

By quieter I mean that I often avoid the peak action photos, the middle of the chaos photos, I lurk around the edges and look for the people that don't belong or the photograph the effects after the event. This is a really broad statement but applies to many situations.

After graduating from college (Western Kentucky University, 2007), you decided to travel the world and shoot photography. What prompted you to do this?

During college and my internships I was always mulling over and researching story ideas. Two of [them] stuck in my head: The fight of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and the role of Chinese money in Sudan. So after my last internship at the St. Pete Times I took the little bit of savings I had and bought a ticket to China. I worked on my story there for about six months before taking a long trip to Sudan.

What were these stories about? Why were they important stories to tell?

The story in China was about the disappearing Uighur Identity, a really vague story, but I spent a few months in Xinjiang learning the area and the language so that when the Olympics came I would be able to cover any news or specifically terrorist attacks that might occur in western china.

While in Sudan I was looking for the Chinese influence, there was a lot of money that is being invested in Sudan and supporting the government there and helped them carry on their wars in the west and south.

I remember you mentioning that when shooting the Olympics in 2008, you had your passport taken away from Chinese officers. As a journalist, have you encountered any hostility/censorship from other countries because of your work?

egypt_crowdBasically, there's been hostility towards journalism in all the countries I've visited except for Libya and Korea. It's always of varying degrees and often from surprising parties.

For example, in Egypt lately I've been accosted by housewives in protests for taking pictures of the protests that they are participating in. A lot of people either do understand the power of journalism and are afraid of it, or don't understand what journalists are trying to do and are afraid of it.

The fact that you never experienced hostility in these two countries surprises me. Are these countries (Libya and Korea) more accepting of journalists or are there more rules in place to protect journalists in general?

Korea is like any other westernized, developed, country in their view of journalism. Libya was a special case though because I was in Eastern Libya which has been starved of coverage for a long time so they were extremely welcoming to journalists because they knew it was the only way to give their story an international voice.

Of course if I had gone to western Libya the reaction would have been completely different.

Considering that journalists have been attacked while documenting these acts of conflicts, do you think that there needs to be better rules in place to protect journalists?

I don't think rules would help. The people that attack journalists are already doing much worse things. But countries that don't have a free and open atmosphere for journalism should be called out and delegitimized.

When comparing America to the other countries, how does the freedom of access for journalists differ?

Companies and politicians in America spend a lot of time and money on appearing open to journalists while trying to spin the story in the most favorable light. In other countries it might take more work to get the access but once you're in the truth is shown with fewer layers of PR and spin.

Recently, you were contacted by the Wall Street Journal to document the protests in Egypt. Why did you decide to take this assignment and what did you learn from it?

During those first few days it was it was one of the few local photographers shooting in the streets, so the chance to get my photos seen by such a large audience in the US was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I could write a book on what I learned, so many little details about how the sausage is made in the middle of these world changing events.

As a young journalist, would you describe your recent work for  the Wall Street Journal in documenting the conflicts as a rare opportunity?

Being in the middle of two uprisings in a row has been a rare learning opportunity that has aided my career. I couldn't ask for more.

Where in Egypt did you document the protests?

egypt_manMost of the days would start somewhere around Cairo, but we would often end up in Tahrir. For a few days a writer and I made a trip out to the Sinai desert where the Bedouins claimed control. But most days were spent in Cairo.

Did this assignment prepare you for documenting the events in Libya?

The connections that I made during the Egypt uprising helped me in Libya, but the two events were completely different and required completely different skills.

It's relatively easy to get around Cairo, dodge rock salt, and upload at the hotel then return home each night. It's harder to get into Libya, around Libya, dodge a well armed military, and upload on a wonky sat phone in a new hotel each night, all on a dwindling supply of cash.

Because of your location, do you have two perspectives of the events – from both a journalism and bystander perspective? If so, how accurate are the events being portrayed to the US For example, in my opinion, in Egypt there were more reports of violence than of resolution.

My apartment is a block away from Tahrir square. The pharmacy under my house became a first aid center, my favorite gourmet pizza restaurant became a fast food joint to serve the masses, the Hardee's where I would escape to for some western food became a water distribution center, the impotent political activists I had been covering since I arrived became spokesmen for a new country.

My peaceful friends were brutalized, and my foreign friends mainly left. I don't really know how the Egypt revolution was covered in the US. We didn't have access to internet, phone, or foreign TV for most of the time so I was just trying to do what I could and trusted the editors in New York.

In the news reports on the conflict of Egypt, it mentions that the Journalism Syndicate was attacked and then there were attacks made on journalists. Did you ever encounter a hostile situation in either Egypt or Libya? In your experience in both Libya and Egypt were individuals accepting or less accepting of journalists?

The first few days in Egypt were really easy to cover because the protesters craved attention and the police ignored journalists. But then it got harder as it went on and in the end very few people were welcoming to cameras or foreigners for many reasons.

In Libya the protesters were starved of foreign journalists for a long time so when my small group and I arrived we were treated like royalty everywhere.

After the first two weeks there were more than enough journalists sitting in hotel rooms in Benghazi and all covering the same five stories so I'm sure we started to annoy the local population. But they were always gracious. I had good and bad experiences in both places, but nothing too important.

After documenting the protests in Egypt, you were contacted again by the Wall Street Journal to document the conflict in Libya. How would you describe Libya and your time there? Where in Libya did you document the conflict?

Libya was an awesome country, that, if it ever becomes stable and open I'm sure it will quickly be over-run by tourists. The land, beach, waves, and people are all so inviting and unexplored. The novelty of every situation quickly wore off though as I saw how much all the
protesters were putting themselves at risk by standing up each morning.

That was the more amazing thing, watching so many Libyans sacrifice themselves for the dream of getting rid of Gaddafi.

How would you describe the conflict in Libya?

It's a shame that America and outside countries haven't stepped in yet. Their inaction will be measured against Rwanda, and I fear that the east will be massacred the same.

Since our last conversation, America and other countries have stepped in and intervened in Libya, however their actions have been met with opposition from individuals throughout the world, especially in America where the current action is being classified as being another war. I find your above answer rather interesting. Even though I understand people’s hesitancy and concerns to some degree, I really think that many people are really unaware of what is going on in Libya. What do you think about this?

If people are unaware of what's going on in Libya that is our fault as journalists. How much space did that famous actress [Elizabeth Taylor] that just died get in the news? How much space did the 800 rsf in Ivory Coast get?

As a journalist, you are told to tell the story behind the lens and to not intervene—which in certain situations would, in my opinion, be hard to do. Have you encountered points in your career where you wanted to be an active participant in your work and step away from the camera?

A: Nope, I would never step in to help someone. I'm a photographer first [and] a human second! [laughs].

To contact David Degner or to view more of his work, visit his website.

Heather Cowherd is a freelance writer based in the US.

Images from top: Xinjiang, China; protests taken during the uprising in Egypt. Photos courtesy of David Degner. Copyright David Degner.

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