Leaving it all behind: Jérôme Sessini on the emotional impact of war photography

An Orthodox priest blesses protesters along a barricade in Kiev, Ukraine, during protests in 2014, captured by Jérôme Sessini. Unidentified snipers had opened fire on unarmed protesters, with an official sources suggesting 70 people were shot dead.
An Orthodox priest blesses protesters on a barricade in Kiev, Ukraine, February 20, 2014. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II; exposure 1/125, f/5.6, ISO 200. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos

Bloody civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Violent uprisings in Libya and Ukraine. Gun battles between drug cartels in Mexico. These are just some of the environments in which Magnum photographer Jérôme Sessini has embedded himself. And he’s not one of those photographers who just shows up, takes a few shots and then hightails it. Sessini spends long periods of time, spread across several years, inside some of the world’s most intense conflict zones, so he can properly capture the grim realities of life there.

In doing so, he puts himself in serious danger, and you have to wonder what all this exposure to brutality and suffering is doing to his mind and soul. It’s a question that’s impossible to ignore since the suicide of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter in 1994, who had said he was “haunted” by vivid memories of the horrors he had witnessed. Sessini tries to stay detached, saying: “Of course, it must be having some kind of impact, spending 15 years subjecting my psyche to all that violence and suffering. But I don’t know what kind of impact my work has on me. When I’m back home after a trip, I try to put everything behind me. I don’t want to bring the violence and the wars to my home, to my place, to my people. So I try to cut it off from my thoughts.”

However, he admits this isn’t easy. “You know, it’s schizophrenic because you have to change yourself and your outlook very quickly, and sometimes it takes time,” he says. “So I know that when I’ve been abroad for a long time, I need a week to really ‘come back’ to a normal way of thinking and feeling. But you know, with time, I’m able to manage it.”

You might think this process would get harder over the years, as the emotional weight of the combined horrors grows. But in fact, Sessini says it’s actually becoming easier to readjust to normal life. “It was more difficult 10 years ago,” he recalls. “But with experience and age, I don’t need to prove anything anymore; I’m no longer looking for adrenaline.” This means the change of pace and attitude between the war zone and everyday life becomes less extreme. “It makes it easier to set the two things apart, to not let everything get mixed together in your mind.”

Photographing the victims of war has long been a driving passion for Sessini, who largely shoots on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in images, and when I was a teen I also became fascinated by history,” he explains. “Plus, I remember sitting with my parents and watching the wars of the time on the TV news. So photography seemed like the best way for me to be an artist on the one hand, and a journalist on the other.”

In Jérôme Sessini’s stark image of the Syrian civil war, the bombed out streets of the Karm al Jabal district of Aleppo lie empty in 2013 following sustained attacks.
The bombed out streets of the Karm al Jabal district, Aleppo, Syria, February 11, 2013. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II; exposure 1/125, f/11, ISO 100. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos

He doesn’t actually use the terms journalist or photojournalist very often, preferring to describe himself as a photographer. “I don’t want to box myself into a category,” he explains. “Categories limit your freedom of expression. Some people will say, ‘This photographer is an artist, so he doesn’t have the right to visit a war zone’. Or, ‘This guy is a photojournalist, so he doesn’t have the right to make these kinds of pictures.’ So I prefer to follow a wider vision of photography, without categories.”

At the start of his career, he was heavily influenced by American photographers such as Robert Franks, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. “They were like my masters,” says Sessini. “But the photographer who most made me understand that photography is a language was Mark Cohen. Although it’s nothing like what I do now, that kind of documentary photography was the source of my passion.”

To follow that passion, Sessini moved from his small town in eastern France to Paris in 1998, where he still bases himself today. He hadn’t been there long when Gamma photo agency gave him his big break – an assignment to cover the tragic conflict in Kosovo. Since then, Sessini has shot a variety of war zones and conflicts, including Iraq (from 2003 to 2008), Aristide’s fall in Haiti (2004), the conquest of Mogadishu by the Islamic militias and the war in Lebanon (2006).

Children and dogs play along the edge of the Rio Bravo along the border between Mexico and the United States. Families from Ciudad Juarez, once dubbed Mexico’s most dangerous city, were captured relaxing here by Jérôme Sessini in 2009.
Families from Ciudad Juarez, once dubbed Mexico’s most dangerous city, spend summer weekends relaxing on the edges of the Rio Bravo at the border between Mexico and the United States, July 17, 2009. The ASARCO smelter in El Paso, seen in the background, has been closed for contamination. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D; exposure 1/250, f11, ISO 100. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos

More recently, he’s published a book on drug trafficking and violence in Mexican/US border cities (2012), and his photographs of the Ukrainian conflict were awarded both first and second prize by World Press Photo (2015). He has immersed himself in scenes such as the aftermath of the Flight MH17 crash in Ukraine and the brutal bombings of civilians in Aleppo.

“I always used to say that I didn’t choose to cover conflicts, it’s conflict that chose me,” he explains. “Because, immediately, I felt at ease in the kind of situations that would trouble other people. Of course, I’ve always been constantly afraid and sensitive to the risks. But at the same time, in situations where things have gone crazy, I’ve always found this capacity to remain calm, to analyse the situation very quickly and move to the right place.”

Syria stands out as a notable challenge. “Aleppo in 2012 was very hard, emotionally and in terms of danger,” he recalls. “It was very scary, and [seeing] so many people, civilians, dying in hospitals, that was terrible, and it’s seared onto my memory. Mexico, as well, has been very hard for me. I spent four years following the battle between the drug cartels and I saw so many people, many families destroyed in the crossfire.”

Given the peril of the above situations, it’s a wonder Sessini is still alive to tell these tales. Is it mainly luck or judgement? “I’m always aware of the dangers,” he responds. “If a photographer goes to a conflict zone without that awareness, it’s not just dangerous for him but for his colleagues and other people too. So it’s good to feel the fear. And it’s important to use that, to set some self-imposed limits. You develop a kind of sixth sense where you can feel how situations are going to develop. You instinctively know whether it’s too dangerous to stay.”

Jérôme Sessini captures a man lying in a makeshift tent in West Bakaa, Lebanon. Another victim of the Syrian civil war, he lost his leg during a bombing in Idlib, northwestern Syria.
A man who has lost his leg during a bombing in Idlib, northwestern Syria, lying in a makeshift tent in West Bekaa, Lebanon, October 20, 2013. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II; exposure 1/125, f/8, ISO 100. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos

Right now, he reveals, that inner voice is getting louder and louder in urging caution. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for photographers in conflict zones, because now we’ve specifically become targets. We’re increasingly facing the danger of being kidnapped. So honestly, there are many places that I don’t want to go any more – because I’d feel useless. For example, there’s no point in taking the risk of visiting Syria or Iraq right now, because I wouldn’t be able to do worthwhile work there. It’s sad but I don’t want to be a hero; I prefer to be alive.”

But he does still want to continue working, responding to what some might describe as a calling. “It would be pretentious to think I could change the world,” he says. “But some pictures, they can help bring an understanding of the world, of some situations. And I really believe in the strength of still images, more than video. They remain, they go deeper into the conscience of people. It’s like a very slow walk to touch the public’s conscience.

“I actually think photography is a very egoistic profession. But I also believe that it’s possible to turn this egoism into altruism, for the people. It’s a difficult balance but that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Written by Tom May

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