The Responsibility Of A Photojournalist: An Interview With Omar Havana

Omar at demonstration celebrating 15M anniversary movement in Granada, Spain ©Koldo Larrea

Omar at demonstration celebrating 15M anniversary movement in Granada, Spain ©Koldo Larrea

Omar Havana is a Spanish photojournalist currently based in Cambodia. His work documents what he calls “forgotten realities”, those worlds which so often remain on the peripheries of mainstream Western consciousness. His photos and articles have featured widely across national and international media, including Foreign Policy magazine, Aljazeera and ABC news.

Armed with his camera and sense that he is fighting for what he believes, Omar’s quest to tell of the untold has taken him all over the globe, from Japan to Uganda, from Asia to the Middle-East. He has covered uprising in Spain, the Priar Vihear conflict and Red Shirts Revolution in Thailand,  the plight of Amazigh Tribe of Libya’s Nafusa mountains and the second revolution in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. I spoke to Omar about what it means to be a photojournalist, about the demands of an increasingly blood-thirsty media and whether he feels he has a responsibility to expose the truth as he perceives it.

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You talk a lot about documenting “forgotten realities,” what exactly do you mean by this? 

I always like to quote a great photographer Walter Astrada in order to answer this question. He more or less said: “If we, photojournalists, show a few times a day a photograph of death or war or injustice, people roll their eyes and complain about the limits of photojournalism. But if we see a thousand times a day the same goal from Messi or Ronaldo people do not say anything.”

If a story is not told, that story does not exist. We have the responsibility to tell those stories.

So you see photojournalism as playing an important role?

I will say journalism in general is the maximum expression of our freedom of speech, or at least it should be. I now often honestly question the media for actually being more politicized than ever and telling the truth depending on which side the funding comes from, or the advertisers. This turns the view to vulgar realities, to whom cheats on who, and at the same time silencing the reality of many people suffering injustice caused by our “democratic” governments.

Do you think it is important for a photojournalist to have a particular moral stance?

Photojournalist are people also, please do not forget that, and we feel, we cry, we laugh and we have a moral position like anyone else. I would even say that our awareness of morals is heightened, as we are the ones facing one after another those realities that people normally observe sitting comfortably in their sofas enjoying a cappuccino.

Another thing, the media demands more and more blood and death, and in order to make a living, we have to cross our limits many times. Trust me, we pay a price for that, and normally no one talks about that when they [the media] put us in the line of fire for a photo that shows what is happening in front of our eyes.

You have covered a lot of political conflict and social revolution. Of all of the protests and activities you have covered, which has been the most powerful in terms of representing a united human desire to change the way things are?

This is a good question that has a difficult answer. All of them in themselves were powerful, from the Red Shirts in Bangkok where three million people succeeded in changing a corrupt government, to the people of Tahrir where children, women and men risked their lives in search of a piece of bread.

Spain is a bit different, probably because it was what we considered a “stable country.” It is hard to me to make a comment on the situation in my country as here my hearts speak louder than my brain. But I will say that it is time for justice, it is time for the people to have their rights and it is time for a change in a system ruled by economics and not by people.

It does not matter where the protests are, at the end all of them have something in common; people are tired of corruption, injustice, hunger, and lies by those who are choses to represents us yet in reality only represent the interests of those economics giant firms around the world. I hope that actually more and more countries start to take the streets and raise their voices to ask for we deserve: freedom and justice.

Union Protest in Siem Reap ©Omar Havana

Union Protest in Siem Reap ©Omar Havana

Is there a person or an image that stands out for you from these acts of protest? Maybe a photograph that you took during one of these activisms that really touched you? 

Not a particular person, more a general message. All the photos are important in telling the stories and it would be unfair to all of those that appeared in my lens to choose one. They each want to  give their testimony, to say, “I exist, I am here, I am fighting for what I believe.” I cannot choose a moment or a person. Normally the most special people during our work are those that never will be in the photograph: our fixer, the family that gave you a cup of coffee every morning, normal people trying to make a living every day. Those are the ones that I remember.

As a freelancer, you sell your photos to a wide variety of media outlets and agencies. Have you ever felt that one of your photos was used in a way that misrepresented what the story was really about?

Many times, this is part of the job. I have to say that the [official] media has never disappointed me  and always respects the story, but social networks are bad for doing this. To be honest I used to be bothered about this, but not anymore. I know what my intention was when I shot the photo, that is enough for me.

Could you explain a little bit more about the work you have done providing photos for educational purposes and what the purpose of that was? 

I was contacted by Editorial Edebe [a publisher specialising in literature for learning] a couple of years ago, and they were interested in some of my photos taken in the Libyan refugee camps and Cambodia to represent the issue of human rights in some educational books. Education is for me the key to the development a country and, more importantly, education is the key to freedom. That was an honor for me, but I have to say that I have still not received a copy of the book, and I will love to have it!

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*Omar kindly donated the photos above free of charge. To see a wider selection of his images, you can visit his website: omarhavana.photoshelter.com

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