Journalist and photographer Graeme Green has spent the past 15 years travelling the world with his notebook and camera, combining the written storytelling with his richly colourful imagery to bring awareness to environmental and social issues in some of the most remote parts of the world. “Graeme Green has an eye for capturing cultures with a particular sensitivity. He gives a vibrant testimony of the world we live in,” says photographer and photojournalist Steve McCurry of Graeme’s work, which encompasses traditional and modern cultures, global issues, wildlife and outdoor adventure. From Asia, where he is currently on the move, Graeme shares the inspiration behind his work, and discusses how photography can open our eyes to a world we might otherwise know nothing about.
How did you first get into photography?
I was always fascinated by pictures I saw in magazines of remote, distant places around the world, like Tibet or Ethiopia or Colombia. I think I’ve always been a restless, wandering kind of person.
When I was a teenager, I bought a camera and used to walk around photographing what I saw, mainly on black and white film, whether people or landscapes.
Later, when I started working as a journalist, I was travelling to those kinds of places I’d been interested in, such as Nepal and Cambodia. Primarily, I was there to write stories, whether travel articles or reporting on issues like human trafficking or conservation. Photography was something I did because I enjoyed it, but gradually it became a more and more vital part of the job. Photos and words together are a powerful combination and really help to show different elements of a story.
Your work encompasses traditional and modern cultures, global issues, wildlife and outdoor adventure – what draws you to these subjects?
I cover a diverse range of subjects – I think that maybe comes down to the restlessness I mentioned. I’m always interested to learn something new, to go to a new place and try to understand it, to find out about local people, local cultures, the landscapes, the wildlife and big issues in a country. That’s probably the central part of being a journalist and a travel photographer: wanting to get outside of your comfort zone and find out first-hand about the world. My understanding of the world has been formed by all of these assignments and adventures around the world.
I also find it very satisfying to cover stories that are sometimes ignored or forgotten, and don’t get the attention they deserve or need. In Brazil, I reported on people being forced out of their homes in the favelas to make way for property developers. In the Peruvian Amazon, I met the Ashaninka who were fighting to keep their land, where an energy company were planning to build a hydro-elect dam. Getting to shine a spotlight on issues that otherwise exist in darkness feels like a good use of my time.
…and which is your favourite?
I don’t have a favourite. There’s a real excitement to discovering a new place and a new subject. I’m always inspired by exploring somewhere I haven’t been before, or finding a new take or a new story in a place I’m revisiting.
If you’re up in the remote highlands of Ethiopia photographing wolves and monkeys that feels like the most exciting thing to be doing. But if I’m walking the backstreets of Havana capturing local life, I’m equally happy. Anytime you have your camera and an open mind, there’s plenty of fascinating things to find and photograph. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and I still feel excited every time I head out on a new assignment. I keep telling myself I want to be on the road less, but there are still so many places I want to explore.
What inspires your work?
I think photography is always about finding your own unique take. I want to present something real, and to create photos that say something about people, animals, a place, a subject, a story… I think it’s important to get a connection or a deeper understanding to a subject, to learn as much as you can and to reflect everything that you soak up and observe in your photos.
Photography can open up the world to people. That can mean it makes people aware of people on the opposite side of the world that they knew nothing about. It might inspire them to take their own trip. It might lead them to take up photography themselves. It might mean they get involved in a cause to help a group of people or raise money or to campaign to protect a landscape or a wild animal. To get those kind of responses to pictures is always very rewarding. If nothing else, I think it can help people to realise the beauty that there is in the world.
What role do you think wildlife photography can play in conservation efforts and emphasising the need to protect the natural world?
Like most photographers, I question how much good a photo does sometimes. Some images have a huge impact, but we’ve all become very good at passing by or ignoring urgent stories and messages we should pay attention to. We’ve all seen photos of what’s happened recently in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, and still those problems go on. We all damage the world in some way, through what we buy, what we consume, driving, air travel. I’m not someone that gets on my high horse about it.
With wildlife photography, I think it’s a way to reach people emotionally and hopefully to get them to care. Threats to wildlife and damage to landscape and ecosystems can feel very distant and remote, not our problem. Wildlife photography has the power to bring wildlife directly into people’s lives, and, hopefully to make them care. If a photo can help get people more interested in protecting the natural world, it’s doing an important job. Without photography, I think we’d find people care far less about the natural world.
Too many creatures face extinction, or are at risk from loss of habitat, hunting and other threats that could be easily fixed, if there was just more attention and motivation from people. A powerful image can hopefully get more people to care strongly enough to get involved in some way, whether that’s through campaigning or fundraising or donating to a charity, or even taking a trip. Tourism in some countries is a vital part of helping to protect animals from poaching and loss of habitat.
What is the biggest challenge when it comes to photographing wild animals?
Unpredictability is probably the main one. You never really know where wild animals will be or what they’ll do. You can learn a lot about the animals you want to photograph, study their behaviour, all of which increases your chances. But you can never guarantee what you’re going to get. That might sound frustrating, but as a wildlife photographer, it’s also one of the most exciting elements. There are always surprises. Recently, I was photographing in Ruaha National Park and saw a leopard hunt an impala by leaping out of a tree onto it. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see, and it came out of nowhere.
You have to have a lot of patience. You have to be adaptable. You also have to be committed and ready to endure conditions that are not always easy, whether that’s hours travelling on a rocky road, or wading through mud, or standing in the desert heat or in thick snow for hours. It all feels worth it though when you take a picture you’re proud of.
You’ve spent the past 15 years travelling the world with a camera and notepad, what have been your most memorable experiences?
Purely on the adventure side of things, I’ve paraglided in Nepal with rescued vultures, cycled through Myanmar, trekked through Chilean Patagonia…. One of my favourite trips was motorcycling across the Salar de Uyuni, the pure white salt flats in Bolivia. That was just incredible.
With wildlife photography, Antarctica is great, and I’ve loved photographing animals in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, Bako NP in Malaysia, the Simien mountains of Ethiopia. Photographing gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is unforgettable.
I’ve meditated with monks in Taiwan, dug for scorpions with San bushmen in Botswana, and drunk strange beverages with locals from Cambodia to Peru.
But many of the most satisfying stories have been the ones where you feel you make a difference of some kind. In Mexico City, I worked on an article about human trafficking and met a lot of the girls who’d been trafficked, mainly for prostitution. That was emotional to work on, and it’s a subject that doesn’t get anywhere near as much coverage as it deserves. It’s a larger problem than drug trafficking, but it often feels the world’s leaders don’t care at all about it, because it often just involves young, poor women and perhaps it’s not a vote-winner. So working on stories like that, or indigenous rights, violence against the transgender community, people fighting to protect their land, wildlife conservation… Those are really the most memorable experiences.
How do your journalism and photography work together?
A lot of photographing and writing is about looking at what’s around you, understanding a subject and finding your take on it. You’ve got to understand the big picture and also to get a grasp of the smaller details that can make a story more meaningful, more emotional and more powerful.
Photography and writing work well together. I think it’s true that photos have a more immediate power that can draw people in and often give a strong emotional hit, or they can or shock people or intrigue people or show something remarkable. Photographers aren’t just looking for things that are visually interesting. You need to engage with a subject, just as a writer does. You have to discuss and understand ideas, learn about people, dig out stories, find interesting details. All that will help for far more interesting, layered and thoughtful photos than if you just photograph anything that looks visually interesting.
Words can probably give much more context, and explore more detail. You can have conversations, give different points of view, and provide more detailed explanations.
Both disciplines can really feed into each other and make each other more effective. Writers and photographers need to keep their ears, eyes and minds open.
How do you think photography can be used as a force for good?
It’s always a big question of how much good photographs can do. I’ve talked to photographers like Nick Ut and Jeff Widener and Arko Datta in the past about this, and everyone is hesitant to say that photography has as much impact as they’d like. If it did, there’d be no more war or poverty, because we’d all have seen photos of human suffering and put a stop to it. But that hasn’t happened.
What has happened is that people donate to charities or get involved in campaigns or become an activist or in some other way get inspired to change their behaviour or get involved to help, whether it’s helping people, an environment, an endangered animal or our planet.
Photography is very powerful. I think it’s easy for stories to feel distant, for people or animals or a landscape to not feel connected to our own lives. But a photo has the power to connect with people and hopefully make them care. It can communicate a story in a very emotional or thought-provoking way. It can teach us about other people and places.
If nothing else, I think photography is one of the most effective ways to show people we live on a beautiful planet and that we should care about it, including the other people and creatures we share it with.
Graeme Green is a UK journalist and photographer for publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Telegraph, Wanderlust, South China Morning Post, New Internationalist and more. For more on his work, see graeme-green.com. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.