Damien Schumann is a documentary photographer who explores subjects and locations that would make the average photographer think twice. Although understandably, he isn’t always at ease tackling his assignments, he does so with the intention to tell the stories of the people and places he photographs in an engaging and compelling manner. We recently had the chance to ask Damien a few questions about his background, travels and how he goes about documenting stories in the most intimate way.
Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m cursed with asking too many questions, and blessed by finding a few conclusions. I use photography, writing and installation art as my means to explore, inquire, and conclude. I like nothing more than surprising myself – being able to step out of my body and say ‘Is this really happening?!’ and then grapple to get back home changed but safe.
How and when did you get into photography?
After finishing high school in 1999 I spent a number of years working and travelling around Africa and Asia. Over this time I lived with a photographer in Istanbul for a while that was making a documentary on the Gypsies that had migrated from India and now worked as shoe cleaners in the city. I was fascinated by the access and interaction he got with a community that was so foreign to him, and what we could learn from venturing beyond his own bubble in this way. The bug bit.
Six months later in early 2002 I saw a deal on a camera and thought that if I don’t buy it I’ll never know if I can do this or not. I picked it up and self taught myself photography during a trip to Burma. I was going there to get a better understanding of the political situation at the time. Needless to say I spent a lot of time running from immigration, and was welcomed in by the local Burmese who risked arrest for accommodating a foreigner without a permit. My first series was shot during this time while living in a monastery that looked after orphans, and spoke of the resilience of the population living in the shadow of a wicked dictator. The work was published when I got back to Thailand. It struck me how visuals could assist in bringing a story to people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to the places I was, and so I stuck with it. I was also bankrupt when I got out of Burma and this was a way to start earning enough cash to get back to South Africa.
How would you describe your photographic style?
I strive for intimate, engaging and compelling. If I can make my viewer think about what they are looking at I feel I’ve done my job. I don’t follow a fixed style as I feel that my subject dictates how I should interpret it. But there are strong influences from the intrinsic inquiry that comes with documentary, and collaborative portraiture. A big focus of the work is based on the interaction between photographer and participant, and the degree of comfort they express while communicating the topic that has drawn my interest to them.
You have traveled quite extensively, what is it you like about travelling?
It takes me out of my bubble. It makes me see things from a different perspective. I don’t believe one can understand a matter until they can comprehend the other side of the story. Travel is one way to bring you closer to this understanding, when done in the right way. I don’t really like travel that much, I like what it leaves me with. Its value is what one can bring home. Hitchhiking across Africa on a budget of R5500 was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and I was miserable for most of those six months, but it left me with an impression of the continent and of humanity that has changed me forever and motivated a lot of my work.
Does having had the experience of being an outsider/alien on your travels affect the way you now see and document your surroundings?
Yes it has. In fact the Borderline series from the USA/Mexico border is based around the notion of being a foreigner. Being my first time in the Americas, it struck me that I was being considered to be an American and not a white South African. It was refreshing to walk the streets without the labels that come with the latter, but I also experienced what it is like to feel the stigma of another race (Americans aren’t that popular with the Mexicans). In many of the images attention is paid to the looks directed at the camera held by the foreigner in their land. I definitely find it beneficial to my work to understand my foreign surroundings as well as possible.
I came across this when travelling from Cape Town to Jo’burg on a ‘Pricilla Queen of the Desert’ styled road trip with a bus of Gay activists and transvestite drag performers. Particularly in Bloemfontein we experienced much homophobia, and as I was recognized as one of ‘them’, I had to face the assaults and got to experience what it is like to be ostracized to such a degree. This definitely changed that way I documented the story, and built a more intimate relationship with the people I was documenting. But the notion of being a foreigner isn’t only faced during travel. A big part of the series Making Men is an exploration of my own environment and how/if I fit into it. It probes the questions I need to solve in order to embrace my own community and life better. It is also refreshing to step out of the role of photographing the other which is so common in photography, and work from the intimacy of the space I know best.
Can you tells us the story behind Life Is What Death Leaves Behind?
While working on Making Men, I was becoming more self aware and started photographing specimens in the UCT Pathology Museum, that is slowly becoming the Introspective series. The idea is to explore the unknown world of our inner body, and the effects our actions have on this sphere. From here I stumbled into forensic pathology and quickly became aware of the state of violent crime in South Africa. Statistics hold nothing on visibly seeing bodies of murdered individuals piling up on top of each other. I was also impressed with what seemed to be a very committed team trying to seek justice for all of these atrocities. It took months of negotiating, but eventually I gained access to the Salt River Forensic Services – one of the busiest morgues in the world.
Without effective investigation, forensics and prosecution we will never be able to curb violence in our country. And at present only 5.6% of all gunshot cases are reaching a verdict in court. It’s not acceptable. So I wanted to work on a story that could place pressure on improving the state of forensics in South Africa. Since working at the morgue I have ventured into forensic science, and am now researching the role of the expert witness in court.
I chose the title after witnessing the families of the deceased at crime scenes. It must be so hard to see your child lying shot or stabbed in a gutter. How do you recover from something like that? It led me to believe that if we are going to be open to feelings, we have to be open to pain and pleasure equally. So the quest for ultimate happiness can only start once we understand loss, and can comprehend the value of someone before they are gone. Closure from a court case will greatly assist families in moving on from this loss, and I want to do what I can to support this. This life, one of bouncing back from the worst kind of loss, is what death leaves behind.
Photography is not the only channel through which you express yourself artistically. Could you please tell us a bit about your work such as the installation Face It and the 2013 short film I am Floyd?
Face It – The Stigma Exhibition, looks at stigma as a primary entity, rather than a side effect. It struck me while working in HIV and TB how devastating progress was in overcoming these diseases due to the way they were perceived in society. People were not testing, didn’t want to be seen at clinics, and refused to admit they were sick because of the ostracism that would follow if they were known to have HIV/TB. It is common for your spouse to leave you, lose your job, get beaten up and sometimes killed. All of this because of a fear based mindset that was triggered from a lack of understanding of an issue. But if this was caused by a mindset I was pretty sure it was not only in HIV/TB, so I commenced a mission to track down cases of stigma in every race, class, religion, gender and age group.
The strength of the work was people talking about their secrets and fears that they had never been able to share publicly before. So I made an audio installation whereby a series of title-less, identity-less books were accompanied by recordings of the person sharing their deepest experiences. Environmental portraits contextualized where a person who has experienced this stigma finds themself. As all demographics were covered, there was at least one story that one could relate to and realize that this could be their own child, spouse, parent or loved one, and they would never know how much pain they’re experiencing because they’re too scared to speak out. Chapters included anorexia, schizophrenia, the deaf, xenophobia, homophobia, rape, abuse, incest, TB, HIV, and addiction.
I am Floyd was a follow up project to the Shack installation when it was exhibited in Parliament in Holland. With KNCV using this exhibition as its voice, we managed to advocate for Dutch Government to increase their spending on HIV by 50% over three years from 40m – 60m Euros. At the end of the three years we needed them to continue their spending, but had to prove where their money had gone, and why it was still essential to continue funding HIV. I moved forward by making a movie about a young boy who was the main protagonist in the Shack. I returned to Zambia six years after meeting Floyd riddled with HIV related sickness, and found him strong and healthy with good prospects for life. The treatment works, but the war is not over. Currently we’re waiting to hear if funding will be continued.
What are your plans since you have graduated from your Documentary Arts degree, any new work?
There’s always new work! I’m busy researching a story about the expert witness in court. I’m also working with Brainstorm the City on a World Design Capital project about the ability and fragility of the brain. My work on masculinity is also continuing and slowly expanding to cover the state of masculinity in South Africa.