Brooklyn-based photographer, Zack Helwa, takes journalistic photographs of political upheaval around the world.
by Leighann Morris
Zack Helwa is a Brooklyn-based photographer, who has taken journalistic photographs of political upheaval around the world. He is also an artist, who makes sculpture and experiments with video, drawing, and scanning. Helwa’s journalistic photographs present word and image as two polarized realms. For Helwa, the camera is a more truthful and honest medium for communicating ideas about activism. Words, in anthesis, have the ability to distort and misconstrue what is really happening at the scenes of protest that Helwa sets out to record.
Leighann Morris spoke to Helwa about his photographs taken in Egypt this year, during the anti-SCAF protests, his documentation of Gypsy culture taken in Romania, and his documentation of the Occupy Movement.
Nom de Strip You take photographs for notNOTjournalism, a blog that is home to your photographs taken in protests and activist movements around the world- could you tell us a little bit about the work that you do for this blog?
Zack Helwa Yes, notNOTjournalism is a blog I started with a couple of friends. It was meant to be an outlet to tell stories we felt were important, that described social justice struggles using experiential reportage. Instead of describing too much back-story, I wanted to describe what I experienced with my senses. Instead of using written words, I wanted to present my experiences and stories with images instead.
NdS Lets talk about your photographs taken in Cairo, Egypt. You were at the anti-SCAF protests in February this year, in front of the Ministry of Defence, demanding the removal of the military regime. Could you explain how this journey came about?
ZH Since I grew up in Egypt, I felt I needed to be there. I’m actually pretty anti-nationalistic and don’t consider myself to be from any particular country or culture, but I saw all the streets I grew up on and played football on filled with people. I’m always inspired when I see very different people putting differences aside to get together and inspire change, or even discuss the differences to bridge that gap.
I met with other activists in Cairo. They were starting a live stream group to show the events in an uncut unedited raw format. They asked me if I was interested and very quickly I accepted. I ended up being shown around and educated about much of what has been happening. I was one of the main members of the team then and we were there night and day. For a few weeks I can’t actually remember sleeping much because I was trying to be a photographer, editor and live stream journalist at the same time.
I wanted to know for myself what was happening, and not through the media, who filter the events. Many stories circulate about the clashes in Cairo, but what I’ve seen was very different. And thats what my photographs show.
NdS As an “American” (even though you grew up in Egypt), did you feel like an outsider during the riots in Cairo?
ZH Not really. I try not to identify too much with one group of people or countries. I felt like an “insider” when I agreed with the chants and an outsider when I didn’t. I’m a very non-violent person and prefer people uniting to find peaceful non-violent civil disobedience methods.
NdS This photograph, taken in Cairo, is beautiful and haunting. Its my favourite of the collection, but is the most troubling. Did you feel in a difficult position as a “photographer”? Do you find yourself in a moral dilemma with the camera?
ZH I dealt with most situations by trying to be present in the moment as much as possible and by trying to remain human. When I felt I needed to take a picture, I did. If I felt I needed to carry someone, I did. That photograph was a moment where I had to do both.
NdS Can you explain what the atmosphere in Cairo was like at this time?
ZH Many people were scared, so they stay at home. On the TV, you saw people screaming angry slogans and throwing rocks; people being beaten to death. But we have to remember that most stations are trying to compete for viewers, using the most sensationalist stories.
I’ve seen some moments that were quite beautiful, like people helping each other. Sometimes people would make funny jokes and slogans to de-stress and remain non-violent. I found myself making a few jokes with a group as we were running and being shot at.
NdS Is the fact that you are putting yourself in a position of danger something that occurs to you when you are taking photographs in places such as Egypt?
People were being killed around you, and teargas was being thrown?
ZH I believe that most fears come from thinking. Being present and finding the absurd and humor in things is a way to cope I guess. But I was afraid, especially in all the moments of waiting and waiting and just like with my stage fright it all went away when I had to actually deal with the situation.
NdS You also went to Romania and took these photos in 2009. Could you explain your journey? What brought you there?
ZH I’m half Romanian and I was visiting family. I was always told not to play with gypsies as a child, so I think I had an interest in demystifying their culture.
NdS On your website, under this photograph, you say that you got into trouble for taking it. Could you explain what happened?
ZH I was drawn to younger children because they were easier to deal with than the elders, and they loved me and my camera. However, the parents felt threatened by my presence.
I tried to take pictures one day and a whole group of people from the family circled me. One of them had a knife hidden inside his pocket and held it to my neck. They insisted that I was part of the russian mafia or american travelers who kidnap kids and sell their organs on the black market. It took about three hours to figure out a way to calm them down. I said I understood their worry and thought they were acting completely rationally. I also made sure that I wasn’t afraid the whole time because then they would think that I had something to hide.
They eventually realized that I was assertive yet polite, and that I was no threat. They eventually invited me over for dinner!
NdS You have also taken photos of the Occupy movement; in fact, you have captured images of the Occupiers in New York, California, and LA. These photographs relay a different kind of atmosphere than your photographs of the riots in Egypt. Can you explain the difference in atmosphere, and the difference in how you felt as a photographer?
ZH I mean of course, it was a lot less dangerous. There was no live ammunition being fired at us with Occupy. And although there was a lot of police brutality going on, the difference was also very clear. Ultimately both times I was risking a lot because I’m only here on a green card and I was worried of deportation.
As a photographer though, it felt like i was set out to do the same thing. I just wanted to capture Occupy with my camera, which I feel is a more honest medium than reading an interpretation of those events in a paper.