Staying Focused

Bryn Evans - Photojournalist / Documentary Maker

May, 2007 Published Article

 

Six months out from graduating Bryn Evans knew he had made the right career choice: a warrant was out for his arrest and he was being hunted down by the army. He was living in caves, dining on lizards. Times were good. This was just the career break he needed.

 

But today, here in Wellington six years on, Bryn Evans, a man who as a photojournalist is unperturbed by bullets flying overhead, is looking strangely nervous about being put to question. 

He sits with his shoulders slightly hunched, his fists wedged between his knees, but when his interest catches he unfolds – his arms sweeping into gestures, his legs extending and crossing – and he becomes a large man, someone with heft, a useful person to have about if things got dicey. In his military-green top and a pair of jeans he looks almost field-ready. The only jarring touch is the slightly spiked haircut and the abbreviated designer sideburns.

If I have expected some Hemingwayish swagger from Bryn then I am to be disappointed. He is anxious – almost disturbingly so – not to present himself as more than he is. His speech is uninflected and full of hesitancies as he grasps at the right words. 

He is a bit wired, he begins by admitting. Twenty-four hours ago he was on a Hercules back from Bougainville. This was his second trip. On his first, back in 1996, the conflict was continuing: the Burnham Peace talks that would lead to the arrival of a peacekeeping force were still a year away. This time he has been there to see the peacekeeping force depart after a successful intervention.

In 1996 Bryn lived as a fugitive. This time the most traumatic event has been the loss of his cameras, stolen from him within hours of his arrival: his photos this trip were snapped on a hurriedly purchased collection of disposable plastic cameras.

Bougainville before the peace; Bryn the graduate on the make. Bougainville making its way as the peacekeepers depart; Bryn the established photojournalist and soon-to-be father. 

These sets of circumstances are the parentheses to six footloose years during which Bryn has travelled from assignment to assignment, more than a few of them being conflicts or disasters.


What decides someone on a career photographing conflicts and disasters in faraway places? The storyteller in Bryn identifies several plot points. The first was his childhood experiences in the Pacific. Although raised in Opotiki, Bryn spent a number of interludes in the Solomon Islands, where his father worked with VSA. The visits awakened him to an interest in photography and the wider world. He became “a young man hooked into amateur travel photography”. He even had an article published in the Solomon Island airlines in-flight magazine – “nothing too flash”, he says – about his father’s work with UNESCO setting up two world heritage parks.

The second was an excursion into besieged Sarajevo. After leaving school at 16 Bryn had drifted for a while, begun and abandoned an apprenticeship to become a motorcycle mechanic, and then headed for Europe, arriving in London when he was 19. In the early 1990s at age 22 he was working in Salzburg. Yugoslavia was breaking up and refugees were flooding across the border into Austria. A friend who was involved in aid work invited Bryn to visit Sarajevo. Though he was there for just 48 hours the trip gave him what he terms a glimpse of the human condition – as well as a taste of the excitements of war. “When I came back I started watching CNN and BBC and all these things became real to me. That was the moment when I realised I wanted to study photography.”

 

Bryn returned to New Zealand and enrolled in the one-year Professional Photographic Certificate offered by the Wellington School of Design. At 25 he was a mature student, but not particularly old for a course where most students were in their mid-to-late twenties, says photography lecturer Tony Whincup. “Many of them were stepping out of quite well-paid jobs and were looking for something more fulfilling. They were driven people who were quite clear about what they wanted: to make life in photography.”

Though at first a little resistant to the notion that other people should pass judgement on creative work and to the idea of being driven by marks, Bryn was a capable student. At the end of the Certificate six students would be offered an Agfa scholarship to undertake a further year, during which they would undertake a personal photographic project and produce a portfolio. Bryn was one. 

“Getting the Agfa scholarship instilled in me a sense of being special,” says Bryn. “You need that. It’s a very competitive industry. You are self-employed and you have to get up every morning and push yourself.” 

He graduated in 1996, and, as many a graduate must, “walked down Cuba Street and thought what the hell do I now?” He knew he would have to leave New Zealand. For an aspiring professional photographer whose interest was international stories, there were few potential New Zealand employers.

From his boyhood travels Bryn had a good knowledge of the Solomons. Now he formed a plan to return there and to have himself smuggled into war-wracked Bougainville. For four months he washed dishes getting the money to get up to Bougainville. He found a contact at Time magazine. Only one other journalist had made it in to Bougainville with the BRA (Bougainville Revolutionary Army). If Bryn managed to bring back photos, would Time be interested in looking at them?

“You know damn well they are going to say, come back with whatever you have.” And then? “You blag yourself a bit, and then you say, hey, I am working with Time. You need that credibility. No one needs to know you’ve been washing dishes.” Bougainville was under blockade by PNG. Bryn went to Honiara and was eventually smuggled up through the Solomons by small boat. 

It was a defining experience. “I was introduced to warfare and the victims of warfare and the social consequences. I was hunted down. They had a warrant out for my arrest, a price on my head. I stayed in caves for the first two weeks I was there and met some pretty amazing people.” 

From Bougainville, the now as-published-in-Time photographer headed to the UK. Invited to go to Kosovo, he chose instead to return to the southern hemisphere to go into Timor with some of the first ground troops. Then came an event in Bryn’s own territory, the Solomons coup.

“Most of the mainstream media were focusing on the Fiji coup, and the Solomons coup was going on, and that was much worse for loss of human life and hardship. I was really the only journalist there. I was on the front line of an enclave around Honiara where a lot of people got killed, and once again fighting was taking place that shouldn’t have been.”

From there Bryn spirited himself into the Indonesian territory of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), where another freedom struggle was going on. High in the oxygen-thin air of the Castenz mountains he illicitly visited Freeport, the world’s largest copper mine: trucks that were several stories high, expatriates living inside enclosures, and, away from the mine, locals living a life not far removed from the stone age and allegations of torture and killings by the Indonesian military. He did stories about the mine, about the freedom fighters, about slave prostitution.

“Then in 2001 I had the opportunity to go to the oldest and largest festival of mankind, the Hindu festival of Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. It happens once every 140 years. They estimated 70 million people came to this one spot over a six-week period. It was the most incredible experience of life and the afterlife and everything we hold dear. An incredible visual feast. I hadn’t been to India. It blew me away. I was there for five days and the Gujarat earthquake happened.”

Bryn was the on the first flight in to Gujarat, where 35,000 people lay dead. “So I went from the most auspicious celebration to the worst of tragedies. I spent five days in Gujarat, which was about as much as I could have taken.”


The journalists and photographers who follow wars and disasters are a small, close-knit fraternity, says Bryn. You’ll see same people in Gujarat that you see in Kosovo,” he says, “ and suddenly there’s an open bottle of whisky on the table. Sometimes people say photojournalists are just in it for the ego – the bang-bang club scenario – sometimes that may be true.”

Bryn doesn’t pretend that the lifestyle is not without its seductions. “Any photo journalist who says I am doing this for mankind and I want to save the world is sort of lying. You have to be addicted to the game, because that is what gets you there, the element of danger, of adrenaline and addiction.”

So how does Bryn react to danger? “I tend to shut down and not think about it,” he says. “I love getting into those situations. I am very good at handling myself.” It’s this ability as much as any photographic ability that makes for a good photojournalist.

“You have to get to these countries, you have to travel great distances, you have to live with your subjects in very severe conditions, eating and drinking as they do,” says Bryn. In Bougainville Bryn ate lizards and lived in caves. In East Timor he scrounged ration packs from the army and lived in a room without a roof. 

This is how he likes to live, adapting to exigencies. But does he have qualms about what he does? For the morally squeamish it is hard to forget that while the journalists and photographers are there by choice and are no more than a plane ticket away from the safety of home, those whose misery they view have no such choice.

But it is only because of those journalists and photographers that the world’s troubles come to our attention. Bougainville, says Bryn, made him aware that there are people whose struggles are just and whose plight is unnoticed. “It suddenly gave me a personal reason to keep doing what I do. Everyone deserves a voice.” 

It has been said that still photographs are somehow able to crystalise an emotional response in a way that film or television can’t. What do you remember of 9/11? The television footage or that one encapsulating moment: the incongruous, horrifying beauty of flame blossoming from a skyscraper, the business woman surreally coated in concrete dust? Memory, like photography, works in freeze frame. 

In Gujarat, Bryn could have done little as an individual. With his photographs the event became ‘real’ to the outside world. Published by aid agencies and in the international press, they helped elicit an outpouring of aid money.


After Maha Kumbh Mela and Gujarat, Bryn found himself fascinated by the phantasmagoria of sights and stories offered up by the Indian subcontinent. At Bryn’s instigation, Panos pictures sponsored him to live in Delhi as their correspondent. Meanwhile Bryn’s work was being noticed by a documentary production company. After close on two years in India, Bryn left for New Zealand at their invitation for his début as a documentary maker.

Girls in the Ring followed two New Zealand women boxers and their odyssey to take part in the first Women’s World Boxing championships in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Scranton? “Yes,” grins Bryn, “everything you imagine is true: a lot of railway tracks and a lot of empty coal wagons.” 

He describes the documentary, which would screen as part of TV3’s Inside New Zealand series, as “a really lovely story about two heartland New Zealand girls. 

“I wanted to tell a very emotional personal story about these two women and their relationship with each other and with their coach, and their personal journey, and why are they boxing – a sport still quite controversial for women. Boxing was the motif [that stood in] for many other things.”

The shift from taking still photographs to documentary film-making was not such a leap, says Bryn – as a photographer he had always become close to his subjects – and he revelled in the new medium. “It’s oral as well as visual, you have ambient noises, you have music you can add; a whole combination of things you can put together. It just totally blows you away. And your audience is tenfold. Rather than an audience of 10,000 you are getting 120,000 or whatever. The other magical thing is that you can bring in other people you respect and are very good at what they do. A composer or an editor. Everyone brings their input. Your vision becomes organic.” 

On the other hand: “You have ten times as many constraints. The organisation. You have a producer to answer to. You have a network to answer to. There is a lot more money involved. I work very independently. I do exactly what I want to do. And suddenly I can’t. You are answerable to many other people, who at times say ‘You can’t do that bro’.”

Back in India – now a documentary maker as well as photographer – he became taken with another story, that of the Taliban national cricket team, who were about to embark on their first international tour to Pakistan. Bryn was chasing a commission to follow their journey from Afghanistan, when two jet planes crashed into the Twin Towers.

 

“Six months after the US invasion of Afghanistan I got the opportunity to go back and make a documentary and at that point they had become the Afghanistan National Cricket team,” says Bryn. Cricket, which had been picked up by the millions of Afghanis who have been refugees in Pakistan, would stand as a motif for much else. “It stood for Afghanistan’s yearning for international recognition – this whole thing about cricket being a game that civilised countries play. It was emblematic of a group of cricketers wanting to rebuild their country; they felt very strongly about cricket being something that could bring young boys from the battlefield and get them into an intellectual game, working together, before they got thrown into the classroom. It was even emblematic of Afghan politics. The national game is buzkashi [two teams on horseback compete to be first to pitch a dead calf across a goal line in games that can last up to a week] which has no rules, anything goes – and that’s Afghan politics. And suddenly you had a new interim government, and cricket, a game with rules.”

Together with a camera team, Bryn accompanied his idealist cricketers as they travelled a destroyed Afghanistan in a Hiace van taking cricket to the schools. “It was the most wonderful experience.”

Actuarially speaking, covering wars and conflicts is not a good move. Robert Kapa, whose photos from Omaha beach were the basis of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, fell victim to a mine. Sean Flynn, the son of Eroll Flynn, disappeared in SE Asia, perhaps killed by the Khmer Rouge. Iraq has claimed the lives of a number of journalists, including Michael Kelly, an editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

Bryn met his partner, the woman with whom he is shortly to have his first child, after the death of a mutual friend, a journalist, who died in an Afghanistan car crash. 

“We met at the funeral, quite a traumatic experience, and something quite unexpected and beautiful came out of it,” says Bryn. 

Now as a responsible father-to-be, he needs to rethink how he lives his life.

“I have to ask how do I fit in family life – which I am totally and utterly into – and still do something which isn’t a job, it’s part of who I am. Fatherhood is a scary thing.

“These last six years have been a privilege for me, a journey of experiences. I haven’t regretted anything.”

 

END

Notable journalistic and photographic commissions:

2003 Aug  'Last Orders' - Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

[The NZ Listener]

2003 June  'Not a Love Story' - Prostitution, Wellington, New Zealand.

[The NZ Listener]

2002 Mar  'The Great Indian Festival of ‘Holi’ - Barsana, India.

[The NZ Listener]

2001 Oct  'Broken Islands' - Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

[Time Asia, Time Australia, Panos Pictures]

2001 July  'A Lama Incarnate - Dharamsala, India.

[The NZ Listener]

2001 Jun  'The Gujurate Earthquake, Gujurate, India.

[Time UK, The NZ Listener, The Guardian UK, Panos Pictures]

2001 May  'The Maha Kumbh Mela - Allahabad, India.

[The NZ Listener, Panos Pictures]

2000 Sept  'Welcome to the Jungle - Solomon Islands.

[The NZ Listener, Panos Pictures]

2000 Jun 'The OPM-West Papua’s freedom Fighters' - West Papua, Indonesia.

[Asiaweek, The NZ Listener, Metro NZ, Onze World, Panos Pictures]

2000 Jun  'Slave Prostitution' - West Papua, Indonesia.

[Marie Claire UK, Marie Claire Malaysia, Marie Claire South Africa, Grace NZ]

 

2000 Jun  'The Freeport Gold & Copper Mine' - West Papua, Indonesia.

[The NZ Listener]

2000 Feb  'Operation Twilight/ NZDF' - Makira Island, Solomon Islands.

[Panos Pictures]

 

1999 Nov  'NZ Defence forces in East Timor' - East Timor.

[The NZ Listener]

 

1999 Sept  'A Crying People' - East Timor.

[Panos Pictures]

 

1998 May  'The Innocent victims in War' - Gorazda Enclave, Bosnia.

[Panos Pictures]

 

1997 Feb  'The Bougainville Conflict' - Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

[Time Magazine, The Sunday Star Times]