The man at the helm of the Reportage photojournalism festival knows all about fight or flight in a war zone.
Sydney photographer Stephen Dupont remembers a massive explosion before he blacked out while covering a poppy eradication expedition, then waking to realise he was under Taliban fire.
People lay dead and bloodied after the suicide bombing outside a police station in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, including his wounded colleague, writer Paul Rafael.
Dupont’s first instinct, blood running down his head, was to pick up a camera and take photos and video of the carnage.
“I guess I felt there wasn’t much I could do for him [Rafael] at that particular moment because I didn’t want to move him; I didn’t know how badly injured he was,” recalls Dupont, 45, of the attack in 2008.
“It was more a question of, ‘Let’s just get the chaos over with and then I can deal with him.’ ”
Rafael came through the trauma – “thank god he made it through and he’s quite well today”, says Dupont – but the moment raises questions about what a good photojournalist does in a moment of crisis: immediately help the injured, or record the incident for the wider world to see?
It’s a question that will no doubt recur many times in the Reportage festival, which begins on May 25.
The festival began as the brainchild of documentary photographers Dupont, Michael Amendolia, Jack Picone and David Dare Parker when they met in a living room in Bondi in 1999, talking about the frustrations of getting their work seen by a wider public and appreciated for its art.
The quartet hired the now defunct Valhalla cinema in Glebe, taking their photography to the people, with two Kodak carousels alternating between big vertical and horizontal photojournalism images from here and abroad. It was about the same moment film photography began making way for digital.
That pioneering projection idea will be echoed in this year’s Reportage festival when, joining forces with VIVID, for the first time a cinema-size screen will be erected on the Sydney Harbour foreshore between the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, shuttling through photographic essays from sporting events to broken families to, of course, war zones.
Among the guests will be US photographer James Nachtwey, who will show his work called Testimony in a retrospective at an outdoor exhibition at Circular Quay. Nachtwey has covered trouble spots such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Rwanda.
Dupont, as Reportage festival director, brings his own memories of Rwanda in the 1990s to the task. “I remember walking around the country and photographing a lot of the massacre sites, and the stench as you can imagine was unbearable because a lot of these bodies had been lying there for weeks and weeks,” he says.
“The smell was so bad [but] in a sense you kind of got used to it while you were there. You tend to shut yourself out and focus on the photography and the whole reason that you are there, which is to bear witness and take these pictures and bring them back to your editors.”
The shock came when he returned home. “I remember telling [colleague] Jack [Picone] I just couldn’t get the smell of death out of my clothes, even after washing them.
“The smell was there: even if it was psychological, or there really was a stench, I wasn’t quite sure.
“But there was a foul smell of death that reeked out of my body, probably coming out through the pores, and [I was] sitting there and having a beer and trying to digest it.”
As for the Afghanistan period, has he thought about why he went into his own zone and started photographing in the aftermath of the bombing?
“I think everyone reacts in a different way,” says Dupont, who won’t have a solo show at Reportage this year but will likely exhibit as part of a show called Peace by the photography collective Degree South.
“I don’t think everyone would have picked up a camera and necessarily taken those pictures; it comes down to the individual person.
“But I think most hardened photographers, most photojournalists and photographers who have covered war before and had experienced that kind of carnage probably would have done the same thing as myself.
“That is, to go in and do what we’re there to do; that’s to make the best pictures that we possibly can and have some form of witness of the event and bring back images that will document such an atrocity.
“I felt quite privileged that I was actually there when it happened, in a sense, obviously incredibly grateful I wasn’t badly wounded or killed, but also lucky to get out of that place alive and be able to capture the sort of pictures I captured being there.
“It’s very rare to be a victim and a witness at the same time.”
Reportage runs from May 25 to June 13. reportage杭州夜网m.au
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.