Extracts from a q&a session given by award-winning photojournalist Tony Suau during a presentation in Tokyo.
First on his World Press Photo 09 award-winning image, which is shown in the poster behind him in the photo above.
“The (pictured) sheriff’s name was Robert Kole and I travelled with him in his car for two days to homes that were being foreclosed in order to make sure evictions were finalized. When we arrived at homes we encountered a wide range of emotions, from people crying on his shoulder to others who came at him with weapons. So when we drove up to any home we had to be prepared for anything. We visited 12-15 homes and when nobody was home the law was that they could break open the doors and he had to go from room to room with weapon drawn to make sure the place was clear of guns and safe for movers to come in and remove the goods. There are a lot of guns in the U.S., and there are some pretty crazy people around so you have to be very careful when walking into that kind of situation, it’s very highly emotionally charged. You don’t know what you will find around any corner. So the sherrif was very professional in making sure the house was secured. The (winning) photo was taken in the very last home we visited. The house had been badly vandalized — you can see the debris in the picture. And I saw the light falling on that room and the silhouettes on the wall and so I just positioned myself thinking that if he goes in that direction he will be silhouetted against that wall and you will be able to see him clearly. It was difficult because it all happened so quickly, but for one brief instant he was silhouetted and I think this photo illustrated what I wanted to say more succinctly than any of the other images… What Sgt. Robert Kole was doing at that home was directly related to what was going on in Wall St. Those mortgages were sold on Wall St. and it basically collapsed, which then hit the economy.”
On his photo essay about the economic tailspin in the U.S.
“When I visited Detroit in 2008, what I saw was shocking. It was like a ghost town, and I remember thinking that it was worse than what I had seen in eastern Europe in the early 1990s. There were apartment blocks that were 30 percent empty. And I don’t mean 30 percent of the apartments were unoccupied, they were empty. They didn’t even have window frames. Obama could lead the U.S. in a very interesting direction, but the country really is falling apart, in many many respects – economically, and socially it’s in a very critical state state and I don’t think even Barrack Obama himself will be able to pull it out of the tailspin that it is in…”
“I am continuing to work in the U.S. particularly on the economic situation there… At the moment I am working on a project with 10 other photographers, including David Burnett and Stanley Green. We want to form a kind of recreation of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) that was formed in the 1930s to document the economic crisis in the U.S. for the government. We are trying to recreate that for the Obama government. I think that’s a very important project, both historically and in terms of eeking out some of the stories in the U.S. that are difficult to get to in order to enlighten the public as to what is going on.”
On his “Fear This” book about the Iraq War with a different angle
“Before I set out on the Fear This project, about a week before the war in Iraq started, I was in a bar and people there were talking about how the U.S. needs to go to war. It was very right wing stuff, and I made a comment that I thought it was really bad. They wanted to take me outside and beat me up. I realized that this was in many ways an important experience. I realized that to do the Fear This project I needed to be careful: I didn’t bundle up my feelings, exactly, but rather just kept my mouth shut. And although I really disagreed with what many of the people I photographed were saying, I kept telling myself that I would have the chance to speak once the book was published. When I didn’t have my cameras with me I just let it all out when I saw these people in shopping centers and so on because I realized I didn’t have to bottle it up. But there was a great sense of satisfaction when the book came out and I was able to make my personal statement of how I felt about the subject. … I thought this was a very relevant and interesting way to look at war, and a different way to look at it and how it was created within society and how (people in the U.S.) got swept up in this fervor to to go to war.”
On war and the state of the (photo)journalism industry:
“My feeling is that war is inevitable because it is part of human nature at the moment, unfortunately. In my experience I do not see that photography is doing anything to alter that. It’s just an unfortunate fact that humanity has an affinity to war still, and this is true in many cultures. I don’t that is going to change any time soon and I don’t think photography is going to do anything to help it change.”
“For me it is really important to photograph things that you are passionate about, things that matter to you personally, for you to get involved in it and make photos that are going to speak to somebody else. Unless you feel it yourself, I don’t think you will be able to relay it to the outside world. … I am trying to focus on more anthropological documents. When I take a picture I think the most important thing is well, it may have some immediate use, but will it survive 50 or 100 years from now?”