Argentine-born photojournalist Walter Astrada has specialised in distressing causes that nobody else would cover driven by his desire to make a difference through his photography. Interview by Dave Tacon.
Walter Astrada is no stranger to brutality. Over the last four years the Argentineborn photojournalist has won worldwide recognition for confronting images of violence in its many forms, although he is not specifically a combat photographer.
In fact, his work is often so disturbing he has struggled to find a mainstream audience. When he was awarded a World Press Photo first prize in 2007 for a single shot of Femicide In Guatemala, no publication had yet shown his graphic images of the endemic abuse and murder of women in the Central American nation. Since then, he has won two more World Press Photo Awards for Spot News for his coverage of Kenya’s post-election violence in 2009 and his series Bloodbath In Madagascar in 2010. He was also awarded Photojournalist Of The Year 2009 in by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) in the USA. ProPhoto spoke with Walter Astrada at last year’s Visa pour l’image festival in Perpignan, France. He talked about his brushes with death in Madagascar, his life as a wire photographer, his rise to the forefront of his profession and his personal projects.
Caught In The Crossfire
Walter Astrada cuts a rather unassuming figure for someone who shines a light on so many of the darkest aspects of human nature. He is slight of build and quietly spoken. He was in Perpignan to discuss his exhibition, Bloodbath In Madagascar, which later in the year won him his third World Press Photo Awards first prize.
The work documents political violence which claimed the lives of more than 130 in February 2009. The most shocking incident of all was when government forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators who were marching on the presidential palace in Antananarivo, the capital of the east African island nation.
Astrada, who works as a stringer for Agence France Presse, had left an assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo to cover the unrest. Yet by the time the killing erupted, he was the only foreign photographer remaining in the country. Others had left to chase new stories, feeling that the worst was over.
The photojournalist was among the crowd in front of the palace just before the first shots rang out.
“When I arrived at the demonstration, I was thinking, ‘Oh, why did they ask me to come here?’ There was nothing going on. Nobody was suspecting that kind of violence…”
Astrada’s pictures are evidence of the deadly force used to quell the demonstrators and show just how uncomfortably close the photojournalist was to the carnage.
“I was lucky not to be killed or wounded. I saw a lot of violence – people shot in the head. At first I ran with the crowd to take cover. Then I stopped and took pictures of what was around me. I was shooting pictures for maybe 30 or 40 seconds. Then I was taking pictures of the people carrying the dead and wounded.”
“It’s a big responsibility not only for me, but for any photographer to show what the police or soldiers were doing. They were trying to kill people. They were not responding to any attack. They were just shooting at people who were trying to have their opinion [heard],” he says with a mixture of outrage and disbelief.
The photojournalist hurried to his hotel to edit and file his pictures.
“I was worried that I might be arrested,” he explains. “Even if somebody was going to take my camera from me later, it was very important to try to save what I had.”
Within 40 minutes, he had 20 images on the wire, cut down from the 100 or so frames he’d shot during a 40-second burst and then over a four-minute period. Although he continued to document the bloodshed and its aftermath on the streets, in hospitals and the morgue for another eleven days, it was these initial pictures that made up the majority of his exhibition and the World Press Photo submission. Twenty-eight protesters were killed and 200 wounded in the gunfire. A Nomadic Life
Walter Astrada was born in 1974 in Buenos Aires. At 13 years of age he was determined to become a photojournalist after viewing an exhibition of Argentine press photographers. By the time he was 21, he managed to land a staff job at the national newspaper, La Nacion.
However, Astrada yearned to travel so, three years into his career, he quit the newspaper and began working on a personal project on the theme of ‘Faith’, shooting in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Ever since then his life is best described as nomadic.
In September 1999 he joined Associated Press in Bolivia before continuing to work for the agency in Argentina. He then moved to AP’s Paraguay office for the next two years, covering Latin American events and the soccer World Cup that was staged in Japan and Korea in 2002. During this time he also pursued other personal projects such as a series in stark black and white images on transsexuals, some of the most marginalised of all Paraguayan citizens.
Unable to shake his wanderlust, Astrada spent 2003 freelancing in Buenos Aires and Madrid before taking up another post with the AP at the end of the year, this time in the Dominican Republic. From here he covered events throughout the Caribbean, but was particularly concerned with Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. He continued to document Haiti’s poverty and violence over the next two years. By 2005, he was freelancing again, this time picking up assignments from AFP and distributing his work through the New York-based agency, World Picture Network.
Since then he has mostly been based in Spain, although he has also spent time working out of
Uganda. Fortunately for Astrada, he has a partner whose work also requires a nomadic lifestyle. He has been married to his wife, Cristina, for three years and she works for non-government organisations specialising in women’s rights.
It’s this shared passion for human rights that led Walter Astrada to Guatemala to begin what has since grown into a long-term project on violence against women.
“I’m trying to balance being freelancer and shooting the stories that I think ought to be shot,” he explains. Astrada admits that he is often frustrated as a wire photographer by time constraints. His Femicide In Guatemala project took two months to shoot. The second half of the trip was financed with his 1500 euros prize money from World Press Photo.
“Nobody is going to send you [to Guatemala] for two months to work deeply on this kind of project.”
It is a subject that he admits is both a challenging and an unusual choice. “It’s more difficult to get access when you are a man. You need a lot of time to talk with them. You need to make them feel that you are there to show what’s happening to them. If you try to do that in two days, it’s not possible.”
The work’s recognition in the World Press Photo awards also led to his work being published and exhibited. Astrada has since broadened his focus to include projects on violence against women in the Democratic Congo and India. He continues to fund this work through paid assignments for the AFP and magazines, but has also successfully secured grants from Revela-Oleiros and Alexia Foundation in Spain and the USA.
In fact, grant applications have become an important part of Astrada’s working life and he has found that persistence pays. His successful application for the US$15,000 Alexia Foundation Grant was his fourth straight attempt to secure the prize. At the time of this interview he had just won the Swedish PGB (Photographers Giving Back) Award and was negotiating a donation of around $5000 to an organisation dedicated to helping victims of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Making A Change
While he admits that he is haunted by the violence he has witnessed, Walter Astrada is driven by the hope that his work will make things better and believes that the topics he has pursued are too important not to photograph.
“You cannot be shooting this kind of thing without it affecting you. The day that it doesn’t is the day I’ll have to change professions. On the other hand, I think it’s very important to show what is going on. This gives me a lot of energy to work.”
While he works with the standard wire photographer’s kit of two camera bodies with a telephoto and wide-angle zoom on each respectively, he favours prime lenses for his personal work and shoots with Nikon D700 D-SLR bodies. However, he points out that camera gear is not the most important thing he brings to an assignment. “When you are telling a story you need facts and you need information,” he points out. “The camera is just a tool.”