Jehad Nga Speaks Out on Professional Insecurities, Libyan Detention

Jehad Nga has everything a young photographer could want: Assignments across the globe, front-page photos in international publications, gallery representation in New York and Los Angeles, and a raft of photojournalism awards.

But for all that, after almost a decade shooting across Africa and the Middle East, Nga is questioning the photography industry and his place within it.

In 2008, The Frontline Club — London’s hub for independent journalists — declared Nga “One of the most talented emerging photographers on the international scene.” The sentiment was echoed by his inclusion in Photo District News‘ 30 emerging photographers to watch, American Photo Magazine‘s emerging photographers and the World Press Photo’s masterclass. His photographs of U.S. soldiers blindfolding and arresting Iraqis were adapted for the cover sleeve of Alex Gibney’s Oscar winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.

Early in his career, Nga had amassed a portfolio characterized by chiaroscuro and shadow-play. He developed an instantly recognizable visual signature for which he garnered widespread praise and sales. Over time, however, ‘signature’ became ‘brand’ and Nga felt his creative integrity slipping away. Everything others wanted of him, he was slowly rejecting. It’s not uncommon for artists to re-evaluate their work and direction, but it is less common that they candidly dismiss work that still sells well.

On top of his professional conflict, Nga has come to a personal crossroads after the uprising in Libya where his father and extended family reside. He was detained there in February for three days and ushered out of the country. Now he wants to go back.

We asked Jehad Nga how he cleansed his feelings of authenticity and what it’s like photographing on the ground in Libya. How are you currently thinking about your work?

Jehad Nga: If you look at my website, you’d think, “Here’s a photographer whose confident and secure in his work.” On a good day it’s a complete mess, but I am very happy with the mess. Dilemmas are hard and can break the spirit but they bring on just decisions about your work. Where did your style come from?

Nga: Theatrical lighting and the Caravaggio look has links to my background. I’ve been in dramatic productions since I was a kid. Bill Henson‘s work was always something I responded to. We first saw your work with your portfolios from Somalia and Mogadishu, a country and a capitol you care for a lot. Did the approach make sense there?

Nga: I choose the view I did because I didn’t want the environment or terrain to influence the viewer.

But for me, Mogadishu was never about guns, bullets and militia [as seen in newspapers]. It was the work I was doing on the side that was more in tune with what was going on. It was work I knew would never see the light of day. I don’t blame people for not picking up abstracted [personal] images.

My Somalia work drew attention to Africa and attention to photography made on the continent. And elsewhere on the continent you made the Turkana series, your most recent big project, in northern Kenya in 2009. Did your disillusionment begin with Turkana?

Nga: I crossed a line with Turkana. I couldn’t accept that my photographs represented the people there. I made decisions that were aesthetic. I ran into a quagmire.

I spoke to [NYC gallery representative] Bonni Benrubi about Turkana. It’s common for photographers to think a show is great and then two days later feel it should come down. The pictures have been selling well. Yet, I’m uncomfortable with that margin between content and aesthetic. Photographers have relationships with their work; it demands attention. You live with it, sleep with it, care for it. In 15 years, I want to find myself in good company and have a pure relationship with my work. How does this wish fit with your gallery representation?

Nga: There’s an added pressure with galleries, as I am required to do one show each year. The relationship I look for with galleries is a personal one and they’re sensitive to what I’m doing. I trust they won’t chop it up. Bonni pushes for museum sales which is what I prefer. In a previous discussion about Turkana you said, “If I never see that work again it’ll be too soon. Maybe I sound bitter, but it’s like being haunted.” Do you still feel that way?

Nga: When we first corresponded, I was knee-deep in crisis. I’d abandoned the work and I couldn’t stand behind it. I felt Turkana was a con … and I stepped away. A lot of people came into the gallery and bought work. Some of the things they said made me cringe. My criticisms are not a broad statement and they might not even be rational, they’re just reflective of a very low note.

How people interpret my work is their business. I can’t tell them how to relate [to it]. But, I’m not going to sell a guy a car in which the air-conditioning is broken. Then again, when I think it’s a fault, they might want it anyway, they might be happy driving with the windows down? So what’s the answer?

Nga: I made a personal decision away from assignment work. I went to Japan for two months and killed the entire project. I thought it would develop into a book, but it won’t. I also learned I no longer need to go to a place for two or three months for a story. Any particular projects?

Nga: I’m going to self-publish a bi-monthly magazine. It’s not for promotion and not for sale. 80% of the people I send it to won’t even be photography people.

My entire life exists on a hard drive and after my death, eventually the hard drive will die. Instead of putting my money into archival prints, I want to put it into these magazines. It will include the work of other photographers whose work won’t get seen elsewhere. Perhaps in editions of 500. The idea that one of these magazines might slip behind a cupboard and gather an inch of dust, but survive is very appealing to me. They won’t all survive; some of them may get trashed.

But this is still a worthy investment [of time and money]. It is therapeutic.

In the process of experimenting, I may take some flak but it’s okay. I’m not public domain. People are full of shit if they believe this [photography industry] is devoid of celebrity. I am sick of hearing “Have you seen such and such a body’s work? It’s about x,y and z.” As if, in some cases, the content is secondary to the name of the photographer. Which is not good when it comes to current social issues. Are you continuing with your assignment and editorial work? You’ve had a consistent relationship with The New York Times.

Nga: I don’t do much editorial stuff; it doesn’t interest me anymore. I am going to areas for my own reasons. The New York Times lends itself to a specific balance; assignment work allows me to see places I may want to return to later. I have one toe in this type of work and that’s good for me. I don’t want to return to a complete version of the editorial photographer. You were recently in Libya. Tell us about your relationship with the country.

Nga: I went in early February and left before the end of the month. My fathers side of family live in central Tripoli, with the exception of a few who are living in other areas. My father lived there until the revolution of ’69 when he started splitting his time between Italy and Tripoli.

I was born in the U.S. My mother’s family is from Missouri. My father lived in Italy. For reasons of a stable education, my brother and I grew up in England. I actually didn’t return to Libya until 2003 when my grandmother passed away. At that point, I was able to acquire my own Libya passport.

There was a veneer that had always existed between my family and I when I had visited but, under these circumstances, that veneer was shattered. I felt a very strong nationalistic connection to Libya for the first time. Were you working straight away?

Nga: I was in Algeria prior to the [Libyan] revolution. I traveled to Libya on behalf of The New York Times. It wasn’t until I got there that I realized working was out of the question. I had to take into account my family. The last thing I’d do would be to jeopardize the safety of my family for the sake of work. I took a step back and decided to give it some room.

People were very worried about journalists being inside the country. My intentions were strictly benign: I had no intention to uncover anything other than what I felt both sides were more than happy to show. That is to say the instability that the opposition were causing and also the measures the government was taking to suppress the opposition. It was important for me to flesh out the support that existed in Tripoli for Gaddafi. And that was objective. It is the truth that there were people who supported Gaddafi and [they] wanted to make their support well known. You’ve not spoken publicly about your detention before. Can you tell us about it?

Nga: I was in Green Square taking photographs. I’d been granted permission by a member of [Gaddafi's] military. He told me to take as many as I wanted. There was nothing remotely dangerous going on. Singing, rejoicing.

It became a case of miscommunication. About 45 minutes into it, some other security personnel saw me taking photographs and of course they didn’t know I’d asked and been given permission.

I was taken into custody for four hours, [which was] as long as it took for them to verify who I was. I can respect how diligent they were in regards to their security. It wasn’t until two days later when I was detained under similar circumstances and that was for three days. Were you alone or with other journalists?

Nga: I was by myself. The reasons [for detention] were relatively unclear. What was clear is that they were less interested in my journalistic ties than they were concerned I may have been someone who I wasn’t. What did you say to them?

Nga: Through clarification they realized that I was no threat. I remained as transparent as possible; an easy tactic as I had nothing to hide. They released me to a hotel where some colleagues had been staying. If it’s not a silly question, why do you want to return?

Nga: It’s not even a question of why. Its knowing in every fiber of my being that I absolutely have to. In respect to Libya and in respect to my family and my father. It is tremendously important what’s happening now. My father was my age in the revolution of ’69. People don’t quite understand. People talk about oppression … like those who’ve spent all of a month there and talk like they know all about Libya.

In 1969, time stood still. Watches stopped ticking and waited for a time when they could start up again. That time is now.

When the moment comes, and God willing it will be bloodless, there will possibly be more journalists inside that country and inside Tripoli than there were in Baghdad ’03. I have no wish to taint my experience in the whole thing by clambering for an assignment. So will you be carrying a camera?

Nga: Absolutely. Luckily, I have a car and a home [in Libya] and these things aid my ability to spend and extended period of time without having to much concern with financial aspect. That’s a real benefit. A lot of people want to spend time but these are costly measures.

I’m not interested in forming a dialogue editorially. It is without question the most important thing in my life – it’s not an assignment. I feel like its my destiny to be there. It’s a culmination of all the roads I’ve pursued over these years and I absolutely have to respond to that. Libya has proved itself very dangerous for journalists. Is it as dangerous as people perceive and does that alter your thinking?

Nga: Without a question it is as dangerous as people think. It is black and white. My dad has lost friends and everyone has lost friends there. There are rabbit holes all over the country and all over Tripoli; you can just fall down them and the likelihood of you coming back up again are slim to none. There’s no gray shades. The possibility of that happening to me is as good with me as anyone else. I serve no purpose in going back if 24 hours after arriving, I’m taken again. My goal is to try to communicate to the powers that be that I am not a threat to anyone.

There’s a tremendous amount of paranoia swirling round. If the government suspects I have some ties with some organization that I absolutely have not they would a grab me and go after my family. It won’t be full steam ahead, I don’t have blinders on. The only thing I want is for the country to be stable. Until I know I can be there without throwing up too much dust, I certainly won’t return. Any idea when that will be?

Nga: Tomorrow, today, as soon as possible. I go to bed hoping that when I turn on the TV in the next morning there’s a signal. For me, its just a matter of time … and my father feels the same way. We’re in holding-patterns waiting for the phone call or a news break. I was ready to go back the day after I left Libya. My bag is packed.

I plan to spend as much time as possible, and not only as photographer. [The last time I was there] I felt the connection I was making with the country and people around me. I felt tremendously proud, while in fact, for most of my life I’ve spent most of my time trying to seek refuge from my ties to Libya; I was a young kid in America and England and being associated with a country that was a black spot in most peoples’ minds. I hid from that as kids do, especially in the 80s when American-Libyan relations were not the best. I was going to an American school in London surrounded by American kids whose parents were in the armed services. In ’86, America was bombing Libya so I tried to blend in as best I could but with a name like Jehad you can only go so far with that.

Note: This interview has been edited together from multiple discussions between Jehad and the author over the past year.

Based in Nairobi since 2005, Jehad Nga has covered stories including the Iraq war, Liberian civil war, Darfur conflict, illegal immigration in South Africa, Ghanaian economic reform, Syrian political reform, and conflict in the Middle-East. He is twice recipient of Picture of the Year Award (POYI). He has been selected by Photo District News, American Photo Magazine and FOAM Magazine as an emerging photographer. He’s represented by Bonni Benrubi Gallery, New York and M+B Gallery, Los Angeles. Clients have included: Vanity Fair, Der Spiegel, L’Express, Forbes, Fortune, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Nike, Newsweek, Time, Human Rights Watch.


June 22, 2012