Having first gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011, South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. Since 2013, however, the people of South Sudan have endured a bloody civil war, with much of the violence relating to ethnic divisions between the country’s two main tribal groups. It is estimated that over 3,000,000 people have been displaced due to the fighting, many of whom now find themselves in over-crowded refugee camps on both sides of the state’s Southern border to Uganda. Irish photographer and World Press Photo award-winner, Kieran Doherty visited the refugee camps of South Sudan in 2014 and returned in 2017 to document the Bidi Bidi settlement in neighboring Uganda, which at a size of 250 km2 is the biggest refugee camp in the world. The following series show the dire situation facing the displaced people of South Sudan, with the camps crippled by overcrowding and the spread of disease due to failing sanitation. Yet, Doherty also shows the strength and resilience of the camp inhabitants, who have managed to survive and provide for their families in the face of such adversity.
*The first gallery comprises images from the camps of South Sudan in 2014, while the second gallery comprises images from the camps of neighboring Uganda in 2017. All photos Kieran Doherty/Oxfam.
You have been described by Time Magazine as one of Ireland’s most exciting photographers to watch and won an array of awards including the World Press Photo award in 2015. How did you first get into photography and how has your journey progressed to where you are today?
I was given a camera and some film and asked to shoot a local music festival. Here I met a photographer, who suggested I try working full time. I ended up completing a year-long course in news photography, while gaining work experience at a regional news agency. I learned everything from making tea to developing and printing transparencies. I then headed straight to London to look for work and ended up jobbing as a stringer for the Reuters News Agency. I covered almost every global news and sports event in the world until 2008, when I resigned to pursue my own projects.
What was it that inspired you to follow a career in photojournalism?
To a twenty year old it was a very exciting industry. This was a fast moving environment, every day was different and I was given the chance to work with and learn from some of the world’s finest photographers. Seeing your work on the cover of Newsweek or as a double page spread in National Geographic was very rewarding.
Your series here deals with refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan. What was it that made you want to cover this story?
It was a case of just being in the right place at the right time. I had wanted to travel to South Sudan in 2013 but struggled to find a way to make it work for me. Then in early 2014 I was lined up to shoot an assignment, and as it fell through the British NGO Oxfam asked if I would travel to Juba to document the unfolding story of the civil war.
Since the outbreak of civil war in 2013 the number of refugees has reached over 3,000,000. How would you describe the situation in South Sudan? How has the civil war affected the lives of so many people?
In 2014 South Sudan was a fledgling country on the brink of collapse. Fueled by mistrust, warring tribes committed barbaric acts of violence against each other, creating a civil war that has resulted in a man-made famine. It’s now 2018 and the situation remains the same. As with any huge story, it is the sum of its parts, and the parts are the individual accounts of those who have fled the violence and survived, deeply scarred by the brutality of their experiences. Keeping stories like South Sudan in the public consciousness is very difficult. The same can be said for CAR and DRC and many other African countries.
In one of your shots from 2014 we see a container labeled UN. What role have international aid organizations played in the refugee crisis in South Sudan?
They have played an enormous role. It’s difficult to evaluate their effect when you are sitting at home watching the 10 o’clock news, but when you are on the ground their impact is evident. With regards to the UN, the protection of civilians is primarily the South Sudan government’s responsibility but because many people have fled from government security forces, UNMISS now provides sanctuary to approximately 200,000 internally displaced people at certain locations throughout South Sudan. These camps are essentially a last resort and exist only to offer shelter to people, who genuinely fear for their lives.
Your series vividly depicts everyday life in the refugee camps both in South Sudan and neighboring Uganda. What are the greatest problems facing the people in these camps?
In South Sudan the problem in the UN-protected camps was overcrowding, combined with a lack of sanitation. Latrines would frequently collapse and create huge cesspits, which in turn would lead to outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as cholera. Not being able to leave the camps out of fear for their lives has a psychological and emotional impact too. In the sprawling Bidibidi refugee camp the problems are of a different nature. The Ugandan government decided to give each family a small plot of land, and some land is fertile, some barren, some plots are too far away from water towers, some plots are too remote and are preyed on by thieves. When we were there in June this year refugees were receiving only a third of their food rations and the men in the camps were talking about wanting to walk back over the border to South Sudan to fight rather than sit in a Ugandan refugee camp and watch their families starve.
Having visited in 2014 you then returned in 2017. How have the refugees coped with the harsh reality of being displaced?
They cope. That’s what they do. They have no choice. Their resilience, grace, dignity and even humor in the face of such adversity is a real leveler. I experienced the same strength of humanity in Iraq after the war in 2003 and in Sri Lanka after the tsunami in 2004.
No matter how many problems they face in the camps, whether they have enough food or water, whether they will ever be able to return home, what few prospects they have for creating a new life or how fragile their existence is, they take comfort from the fact that they are no longer listening to the ubiquitous sound of gunfire.
Tackling such a huge issue as this presents its own challenges for any photojournalist. How do you go about trying to tell a story with a finite number of images, when there must be 100 stories you encounter during a single visit?
Telling the story with a finite number of images is not the problem. To tell a story you need time and patience and invariably this is a luxury you are very rarely afforded while working on the ground on a fluid, breaking news story. The magnitude of any given situation can sometimes be overwhelming and so it’s necessary to take a step back and focus on how much time you have and to be realistic about your expectations. The reality can be that I spend most of my time not getting what I need. The trick is to make the most of the opportunity when it does present itself.
When did you first pick up a Leica camera? Which camera did you use to capture this series? And what do you consider to be the advantages of using your particular set-up?
I bought my first Leica in 1990. It was an M4-2. Then I progressed to the M6. I used an M9 in South Sudan with a 28/50/90mm lens and an M Typ 240, Leica Q and Leica SL in Uganda with 50/90mm lenses. The practical advantages are that each camera always has the same lens attached to it, so as to limit dust transferring onto the sensor, which can be a nightmare when traveling through Africa. They’re small, quiet and reliable. I retired my M9 a few years ago. It’s taken everything I’ve thrown at it from monsoons in Liberia to dust storms in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. It’s battered and bruised but still works perfectly.
What do you consider to be the role of the photojournalist in today’s media landscape, where a lot of reporting takes place on social media in the first hours of an event unfolding?
As Azubuike Nwagbogu very eloquently wrote in 2015:
“The most significant change in photojournalism since the birth of smartphones in the digital era is that it is no longer the news that’s important but the story. It is as subtle a change, as it is monumental. Everyone has access to the news, that is, the event that happened, but it is the story, its nuances, layers, intrigues and key drivers that need better understanding”
In my opinion this is where the role of the photojournalist lies.
What advice would you offer to anyone starting out as a photojournalist?
In order to tell stories properly you need to care about them. They need to matter to you. Indifference has a very clear way of showing itself in your work.
What do you have planned next? And what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Good question. 2017 has been a year of tying a lot of loose ends together. I recently had a body of work acquired by London’s Imperial War Museum for their Contemporary War Photography Collection, so that required a lot of work scanning negatives. At some point in the future there will be an exhibition from that. I have an idea for a Brexit story to be completed by March 2019 but it’s still in the planning stage.