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The Camera Eye
An interview with photojournalist Nayan Sthankiya
Colin Moore (Colin89)     Print Article 
Published 2007-08-14 12:56 (KST)   
©2007 Lee Young-joo
He's doing well for himself. In a few short years, Nayan Sthankiya's freelancing street photographer CV has grown to include publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal: Weekend Asia Edition and National Geographic Korea.

Born in Uganda and raised in Canada, with roots in Gujarat, India, he came to South Korea seven years ago and has been playing at international relocation ever since. Most recently, Sthankiya has made the move from Korea to India, where he teaches photojournalism and multimedia at the Light and Life Academy in Ooty.

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I interviewed Sthankiya in Seoul on Aug. 4.

Just for the record, how old are you? Late 30s?

Depends on how soon this article runs.

We'll try to get it out before September.

Appreciate it.

You graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design.


And a few years later you came to Korea, where you taught English and did video work for an academy in Daegu.

I've always been interested in news and current events, and travel, and I taught a bit in the digital lab after I graduated. In Alberta, I was getting out of the studio phase. I wasn't doing what I hoped I would do, so that's what led me to Korea. It seemed the prudent thing at the time.

Teaching ESL -- a bit of an adjustment from fine arts.

I wouldn't really want to do that kind of teaching again, in that setting, but it was definitely a doorway. It solidified the importance of education and how proper education can change perception and improve someone's life. In a way, it moved me into photojournalism.

You were doing photography and freelancing in Daegu for a few years before you made the jump to photojournalism.

When Jae was arrested, it really hit home -- the importance of documenting and photojournalism, and undue justice.

[Seok Jae-hyun is a teacher and freelance photojournalist arrested while documenting a group of North Korean refugees and their attempt to reach Japan and South Korea by fishing boats. He was arrested in the port city of Yantai in January of 2003 on charges of human trafficking and was sentenced to two years in a Chinese prison. Protests and appeals for his release were made internationally, though he remained in detention until March 2004. He had spent a total of 14 months in prison. Nayan met Jae while working in Daegu.

Seok was arrested and an aid worker was captured. The refugees were arrested and sent back to North Korea.]

Reporters Without Borders was one organization lobbying for Jae's release. Also [photojournalist] John Kaplan.

Internationally, people were doing things. When he was arrested, in South Korea, no one was doing much of anything to keep the pressure on. It was picked up by a group of foreigners [becoming "Resolution 217"] with no vested interest in Korea who weren't sure about the politics. There were no protests from journalists in South Korea.

©2007 Nayan Sthankiya
There was talk at the time that the [South Korean] reaction came because he wasn't officially on assignment, that he was there doing it on his own.

Some people might have said that he was a teacher and not a journalist, but he was already shooting for the New York Times on a regular basis. They should have stepped up and signed a petition at least, or gave some on-going support.

In 2004 came North Korea, and a two week tour organized the by Korean Friendship Association, an organization created in Spain as an entity for DPRK public relations and promotion. Journalists were on that year's travel list, including those from ABC News and Spain's news daily, El Pais.

What stands out from that trip?

Coming from South Korea, it gives you a lot of perspective, especially after being here for four to five years. It was refreshing being somewhere not inundated by North American ideology.

It's an unknown property for the most part. Seeing how you were chaperoned at all times, how much of what you saw do you feel was the real North Korea?

In your mind you know what you're not going to see. You're not going to see the prison camps and forced labor. But as a journalist you're looking at things you can see. We were there for two weeks. The ability to move outside the group wasn't great, but I did talk to people. The minders had to move around so they couldn't be watching all the journalists all the time. One or two people expressed their dislike for Kim Jong-il. They said they loved the father, that he saved the country, but that they wish they had more food -- all quickly under their breath. It is communist, and very controlled, but not the backward nation in the stone age that we think it is. As for it being the jewel of North Korea, there didn't seem to be any attempt to make it more than what it was. There were beggars. The guides didn't tell them to go away. There were buildings reminiscent of cold war Russia and people trying to make ends meet. It's easy to paint everything with one brush. To say the entire country is messed up though is a dangerous game to play.

The Korean Friendship Association isn't in the graces of many outside of that organization. Despite the warm feelings implied by the name, it's been labeled a propaganda tool of the DPRK. I'm sure you've heard the stories, that the tours they organize aren't much more than pre-programmed whitewashed views of the country.

Yeah, that's the general consensus, that all tours that go to the DPRK are controlled to some extent. The KFA is a pro-DPRK mouthpiece no doubt, but for the most part the majority of people on my trip, the journalists, had a realistic expectation of North Korea. The amount of time we spent there was informative, and getting access, however limited and controlled, to the country is always useful. Too say that the journalists that were on the trip were affiliated with the KFA would be wrong. The KFA facilitated us getting into North Korea much the same as many organizations throughout the world facilitate journalists' access to various regions with the only stipulation being to write about what you see and not make assumptions as to what you have heard. As a photojournalist, I photographed and wrote about what I saw on the trip, full stop.

You took two weeks' worth of pictures. How was the result?

Initially, I had a hard time getting pictures published. People wanted something they had in their minds about North Korea, and those pictures I didn't have. I was trying to tell something about what else was happening now. It was another side that still has something to say.

©2007 Nayan Sthankiya
You were also in Aceh.

Being in Indonesia after the tsunami -- it was quite amazing to see what stood out besides the decimation. Aceh was a place wiped off the face of the Earth, not by a bomb but by water of all things. But the generosity of the people was incredible. They had nothing, a tent if they were lucky. I was walking through the camps with $5,000 worth of gear and instead of begging they invited me in and gave me water. And those people lost everything. I complain a lot less now.

It was a terrible event but also a huge story, with a lot of press coverage. Do you ever walk into those situations with a self-defeating attitude, considering the number of journalists who were already there, doing a similar job?

I was on a specific mission, for the Korean Medical Association. They asked me to go and teach their own journalists something about working in that kind of situation. It wasn't the kind of thing they usually did, so I was helping them shoot and put the story together. The story was massive. Most big places do surface stories and then leave, maybe with personal follow-ups. I try to be a bit more in-depth, talking and being with people, and hope the personal touch comes through in the images. Wire services don't do that kind of photography. With AP and Reuters it's a different style.

The inevitable question: how do people deal with a camera being stuck into their lives? In some of the sensitive situations you've been in, people obviously had more important concerns.

A lot of times people can tell your intent. Approach them with sympathy and understanding and they're not apt to say no. It depends on the situation. Sometimes if you have to ask it will change the mood, but you should be looking for that approval. Hopefully they know that you're there for a story. I was telling my students about lighting situations, using dramatic lighting, and some of them came back with pictures of beggars they thought had dramatic lighting. Okay, but show me why he's in that situation. He's not a palm tree. Don't snap a picture and run. Spend some time with the person, talk to them, get to know them. Approach them with sincerity.

You've taken a lot of pictures. Any favorites?

I try not to dwell on that. If these [favorite] images keep popping up in similar situations, I don't want to be trying to recreate them. It defeats the purpose.

Then maybe something that stands out based on the experience.

One picture still stands out on a personal level. In Pakistan during the earthquake, I was in an ambulance that was transporting a grandfather and his grandson. The grandson had lost his entire family. His village had been completely leveled. We were riding along, chatting in broken English and Urdu, traveling up in the mountains near the Kashmir border. There had been landslides so the ambulance was having a hard time. The grandfather was sitting there with the kid in front of him, and the moment just seemed to unfold itself. The grandson was looking out the window with this distant look on his face, a somber face. Then the grandfather leaned over and put his lips on the back of this grandson's head, in prayer, giving thanks that he was still alive.

What was his reaction to the camera?

He knew. He allowed it. He knew why I was there to begin with. I gave him the respect of letting him know what I was doing, slowly, not by hitting the button and firing off 50 shots. He heard the click. There was an understanding there.

©2007 Nayan Sthankiya
How are your students as far as their purpose in pursuing photojournalism? Is there a moral agenda there, or more of a freshman mentality.

They're passionate. They have desire in the true sense of the word and want to make a difference. The teaching is more of a part-time thing, but I do it especially because I'm Indian. Their photos have so much potential.

When you went there last year and started teaching, it was your first time in India.


What was the feeling?

Like being home, even more so than Canada, though I've spent most of my life in Canada. It's everything I thought it would be. In many ways, it's why I do what I do. Some stories of what my dad had to do to get out [of Uganda], like bribing guards, resonate in my head. It wasn't that simple for them just to pick up and leave. My grandfather was quite influential so leaving became an issue. It was a military uprising so sometimes they did things because they could. They wouldn't let my dad go to the plane. It wasn't a typical kind of boarding, with a terminal and a gate. He gave them whatever he had to get out.

What did your family do in Uganda?

They had sugarcane plantations. My father was managing plantations when the civil war broke out. When [Idi] Amin kicked out the Indians, my parents and grandparents moved to the U.K. for a few years, then decided to move to Canada.

And you ended up in Saskatoon of all places.

That's where the jobs were that the government was offering.

It's hard to think of a place more unlike India. Have you ever thought about going back to Canada to do photojournalism?

Canada is sorted out for the most part. Other places and other countries are in states where they can't help themselves out in quite the same way. This part of the world is different. A lot of guys in IT have made a lot of money and have come back to India to start NGOs and things, to get things on the right track. So with India, in some way, I'm trying to give back to a place that I've never known.
Nayan Sthankiya currently works freelance, by assignment, and is represented by the international photo agency Corbis.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Colin Moore

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