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A New York photojournalist on what it's like to live in a war zone

Jun 27, 2016 Art

Above: The Forgotten Mountains of Sudan, by Adriane Ohanesian, 2015.

Adriane Ohanesian was in the mountains of central Darfur when she heard about a boy in the nearby village of Burgu who had suffered severe burns after Sudanese government forces dropped a bomb outside his house two weeks earlier.

The desperately sad image she took soon after of seven-year-old Adam Abdel, sitting with ravaged head bowed in his mud-hut home, is included in The Forgotten Mountains of Sudan series she shot in February last year.

The image is part of the World Press Photo Exhibition coming to Auckland in July, which features the winning entries in a prestigious competition to find the most arresting and informative images taken in the past year.

In 2010, Ohanesian, 29, moved from New York to cover South Sudan’s brutal civil conflict for Reuters. An estimated three million people have been displaced, and nearly half a million lives lost, in the government’s 12-year war against rebel groups. “You are working daily in 45- to 50-degree heat, and I was constantly ill,” she recalls. “You have to explain over and over again what your role is and what you’re doing there — people are suspicious of foreigners and journalists are often treated poorly. Living in a place like South Sudan is exhausting — you are more than a witness, you are living in it.”

Now based in Nairobi as a freelance photojournalist, Ohanesian’s focus is on documenting the desperation of people who have no choice but to live in war zones. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and Time and in 2014, she was named one of Magnum Photos’ Top 30 under 30.

Awarded second place in the contemporary issues category of the World Press Photo Exhibition — no mean feat in a contest that attracted 82,951 entries from photographers around the world — for Ohanesian the accolade is recognition of what it took for her to get the photo at all, as much as for the image itself.

She spent two years negotiating access to the Darfur mountains with the rebels, then had to get there without a visa by “sneaking” across the border into Chad and through government-controlled territory.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a politician. I can’t necessarily control the things I see. Documenting is all I can do. ”

“Getting to the rebel territory was the most nerve-racking part,” she says. “The problem was that I couldn’t ask other journalists, the UN or anyone what it was like there because no outsiders had been there; there was no information.”

The hardest part of her work is remembering what her role is, she says. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a politician. How much power I have to change these situations, I’m not sure… I can’t necessarily control the things I see. Documenting is all I can do. ”

While she thinks it’s dangerous to believe she can go beyond that, Ohanesian wants her images to have an impact beyond the printed page. “That’s the work. The hope is that it can effect change politically. The ideal situation is to document and put them in front of people who have an interest beyond simply the documents themselves.”

World Press Photo Exhibition, July 2-24, Smith & Caughey’s, 253-261 Queen St, central city.


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