“I am pro-Human”. A photographer’s story portraying the less well-known side of war
Photographer Yves Choquette has seen quite a bit in his 25 years of freelancing. Starting as a young boy documenting protests in Montreal, he has now traveled to over 20 countries telling stories with his camera. He most recently traveled in and out of bunkers in war-torn Ukraine and captured the fatalistic circumstances in refugee camps in Syria and Turkey.
We sat down with this HackPack member to share with you his feelings on photographing death, lessons on covering war zones and why fixers are your best friends.
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How did you decide to become a photographer?
In my family everybody loves photography. My father is an amateur photographer, but a very serious amateur. His brother, my uncle was a professional photographer. So I was surrounded by photography. At home we even have a dark room for pictures.
But it really all started for me when I was about 11 years old in Montreal with the October Crisis. The army was sent into the streets to check the property of the wealthy. People were protesting against the army’s presence including my sister who is five years older than me. So I decided to take my father’s camera and photograph her and her friend throwing stones at soldiers in the street. I took pictures and I really enjoyed it. It was thrilling for me. One soldier even started running after me, but he couldn’t catch me with all of his equipment.
Why did you choose freelance?
I’ve actually been freelancing for 25 years. And the fact is nobody hires photographers anymore. I want to be free to work on projects that I like. I don’t want somebody telling me, “There is a car accident, go and take photos. This is your duty.” I find it very boring. Or covering official meetings — I wouldn’t be good at this. I like to be in the field, where people are suffering.
What did you focus on during your first trip to Ukraine?
In May 2014, I was really interested in the people at the checkpoints. They weren’t soldiers — just civilians. Why would they do this? They spent all day long at the checkpoint. Nothing happened, they did nothing.
So I spent some time at several checkpoints. At this time, Slavyansk and Kramatorsk were controlled by the pro-Russian forces, however, they were mostly young civilians. They had very old weapons, some only had a knife. They were a little confused when trying to tell me why they were there. They thought that it was their duty to help the Donbass and stay faithful to their great brother, Russia. I asked why they hadn’t joined the Ukrainian side, and I always received the same answer, “They are fascists, they are Nazis!” For these young men, you were either a Nazi or pro-Russian.
What surprised you during your first trip to Ukraine?
In April 2015, on my first day I had to go to Dnepropetrovsk, so I waited for some volunteers to take me with them to the frontline. One volunteer told me that they were delivering food, clothing, toothbrushes and other items for the army. I was confused, “What? Doesn’t the government supply the army?” The volunteer replied, “The government doesn’t have any money, we bring everything.” It was a very fascinating trip. Volunteers were just ordinary workers, who decided to take the day off once a week or so to bring goods to the army. They did it for patriotic reasons.
What’s your most recent project from Ukraine?
I had an exhibition in Montreal, called “My Life Is a bunker”. The exhibition is mainly about a family in the area of Petrovsky and Marinka, squatting in old bunkers from the cold war, trying to escape the war. I wanted to portray a side of the war that is not well-known.
You won’t see any blood or dead bodies in these pictures. They are mostly portraits of people struggling to survive in bunkers and also photos of Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline.
Are you against showing blood in photos?
You have to try to make a difference and see the purpose in what you do. That’s why when I take a photo, I have to make sure that it is relevant. If you see blood and injured people, then you need to tell what’s going on. If there is a demonstration and the police beat the demonstrators for no reason, then you show it with your photos. It is like proof. People use such photos in court and can prove something.
How were you able to get up close as a foreigner?
When I visited the bunkers in April 2015, I always went with a translator. If I had gone alone, the people wouldn’t have let me take any photos. They would have just said, “Who you are? Why do you want to take our photos? Go away, we are not in a zoo here.” But an emergency coordinator was helping me, so I went with him, and they knew they could trust me. He helped them understand that this was for their benefit.
Did you have any troubles taking photos in a war zone?
In May 2014, the pro-Russian forces didn’t allow me to take photos. But in April 2015, there was nothing to hide anymore, so I wasn’t hindered. The only exception would be the hospital in Donetsk where they were taking care of foreign fighters. Canadian, American, Danish, German and British soldiers who fought on the pro-Russian side were there. Russian soldiers guarded this hospital. I took a picture of three Russian soldiers. The media was still saying that there were no Russian soldiers in Donetsk.
The soldiers simply told me, “Everybody knows that’s a lie, so we don’t care. You can take our photo.”
In Ukraine, there was a lot of propaganda, do you think photos can be objective?
A photo can always be objective, depends how you decide to use it. When I was in Ukraine, I tried to stay neutral. I was always saying that I was neither pro-Ukrainian nor pro-Russian. I am pro-Human. Ordinary people suffered and lived in bunkers, they were not soldiers, they didn’t have any weapons, mostly women with kids. Their fathers simply ran away. Of course I’m on the side of humans.
What other projects have you done?
I also did a project about refugee camps in Syria and Turkey. I focused on the children living there. It was very sad. There was something fatalistic about it. They didn’t smile. They believed they were there just because God had decided it must be this way. I photographed how the kids played a shocking game. They put a plastic bag on their heads until they were about to suffocate. Kids, 5–6 years old. It was some kind of suicide mentality.
Fixers really played a major role in your work, how do you find them?
Through networks and friends. You especially need fixers when traveling to dangerous places like Syria or Ukraine. You can easily get kidnapped there. I always hire a fixer who has already worked with someone else.
How do you agree on payment?
We negotiate and sometimes they give me a discount. Twenty years ago, fixers were very cheap. Now they understand that they are taking a major risk and ask for more. Fixers stay in a country after the journalist has left. They are the ones who could be killed. Last year in Ukraine one local journalist who assisted foreign journalists was kidnapped in the street. By the time the police arrived he was almost dead and had to spend a month in a hospital.
How do you deal with the financial side of being a freelancer?
Unfortunately, you can’t forget about money. I need to pay my rent, for my equipment etc. I try to teach, give workshops and conferences on photojournalism. Canada is a very small market with only 35 million people, so I sell a lot more work around the world. But I usually will never make money from my trips. This is the depressing side of photography. Too many people give their photos away for free just so their material is printed in a newspaper or online. It kills the business.
What advice do you have about working in dangerous environments?
You have to rely on your fixer because they know the location. When your fixer says, “Get out of here” or “Please don’t take photos” then you do what they say. Listen to your fixer — they know what’s going on.
Any advice on how to take a good photo?
A photo should tell you something. A lot of people like to take photos of homeless people because they think it is street photography. But there is nothing behind it. It’s so typical for every city. Every amateur photographer does it.
A photo has to talk to you, to tell a story. Once a journalist told me that when he looks at my photos of people in bunkers he feels like he is suffering with this family. When I hear this, I know I’ve made a good photo. When you look at the photo there’s nobody to tell you the story like in a documentary. So you have to make sure that your photo really says something.
Which corner of the world would you like to work in next?
I have visited something like 20 countries, but I’ve never been to Greece. I want to go there for a project about a Canadian company that essentially runs the place. They pay the mayor, they pay the police and they do what they want. The company even managed to get journalists put in prison. I would like to make a documentary on this, interviewing people there. But it takes money for this, and I don’t have it right now.
I also have a fantasy to take a trip on the Tran-Siberian railroad and document the people who travel like this. But first I want to take Russian lessons. While taking pictures of people, you have to talk with them. I want to know why they are there. It’s a long-term project, and I think I will start to prepare for that a year in advance.
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