03 Jun Young South Africa: Ryan Heughn Jacobs
June is known as Youth Month in SA. We’re joining in with our annual series Young South Africa: a month-long look at young locals doing exceptional things in creative fields and the projects that celebrate or document youth culture in our country.
One such one-to-watch is Ryan Heughn Jacobs, a freelance photojournalist working for news outlets across the country and abroad. Based in Cape Town most of the time, Ryan travels to conflict areas covering world news and social issues and bringing back bold imagery captured in the midst of civil wars and uprisings. Ryan’s work is also concerned with the effects of war on a country, its cities and its people.
At 27 years old Ryan has captured three wars, in Libya, Palestine and most recently Syria, and is passionate about what he does. At the height of the Arab Spring, Ryan was in Benghazi, Libya capturing the armed conflict and escalating protests of Muammar Gadaffi’s dictatorship. This year he visited Aleppo, Syria to document the savage 3 year civil war and the tens of thousands of displaced Syrians living in refugee camps.
Here’s our interview with this incredible young South African:
Why war photography?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: I dont think that it’s “war” that gets any preference from me. At first it was, I guess. I was naive. Growing up I was amazed by images from conflict, maybe even obsessed.
As time has gone by and as I’ve travelled, seen and done more I have found and realized what I really want. I would be a liar if I said I only had selfless and ideological goals. I do – I want to take those pictures to try to change one person’s view, maybe the world’s – but at the same time it is fun. A lot of fun. I get to travel, see amazing people and landscapes, stand on the cusp of history, be part of history, do the right thing, love what I do, and maybe make a difference.
Did you always know this is something you wanted to do or was there a moment that made you decide?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: I always wanted to be a “conflict photographer”, now just a documentary photographer, ever since I was a kid. I was always encouraged to be and do what I loved. If I said I wanted to be a viking or a pirate, I’d think I could be and my grandfather probably would have encouraged me to be the best pirate or viking I could be.
To get a great photo under these circumstances, how much is left to chance and how much can you prepare for?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: There is chance, but I don’t believe in press photographers or journos getting lucky in conflict. A lot of prep is involved, a lot of planning. It’s not all easily said and done. We have to plan, we need fixers, we need stories. Talking is one thing but at the end of the day, these people have to show their mettle. I would love to take “that picture”, but I know it’s going to take more planning and mettle than chance.
What’s your personal opinion of the customary photojournalist’s role to only document and not to get involved? Is that way of thinking still relevant, do photojournalists still abide by that code today?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: I think we have to be involved. I think we have to take sides. The world isn’t all roses and unicorns and rainbows, there are bastards out there. People die and suffer every day in the worst ways. Kids shit themselves to death because they don’t have medicine. Fuck living in this bubble where people are too concerned with being hip. I want to be your conscience, I want to hit you hard with my pictures. I think that’s the only way to make change in some situations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no crusader, I like shooting other things, other subjects, but when it comes to urgent issues like conflict or poverty, I personally don’t think there’s any other way.
What have you learned about photography since photographing conflict situations? What have you learned about life?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: Life is beautiful, people are beautiful and we have to make the most of it. And the camera, if used properly, is truth. You can create something or destroy it.
Can you tell us about your various trips to Syria, Libya and Palestine? How were they different and how were they similar?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: All the trips were different. In Libya I was naive, I jumped in the deep end but fortunately I met good guys who helped me out and pointed me in the right direction. You see things, you’re part of things but if anything it was confirmation that I was born to do this.
Palestine struck a chord for me. It’s always a tricky question, but it’s something I take personally. I don’t care about religion – believe in whatever you choose – but for me it’s a matter of legality. I don’t really want to talk about it, I’d rather just use my camera.
Syria was just nuts, so much suffering and the world doesn’t do a thing.
What’s a day like on the job?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: 95% tedium and 5% terror. I love what I do. Give me my camera and a plane ticket and I’ll be happy.
Is it competitive?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: Ya, too competitive. I love it. But I respect the guys I work with. I trust them. I have to. It gives you an edge and also encouragement. They prove their mettle every day. They’re good. They’re the only people I see as competition; press photogs and photojournalists, thats about it. They’ll make me better.
What would you be doing if this path wasn’t an option?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: If I wasnt doing this? I think I would be a viking or a pirate.
Where to next?
Ryan Heughn Jacobs: I’m planning a long term project on refugees in places I won’t mention because of wars I won’t talk about. I have plans, and I’ll shoot it as best as I can, but you’ll have to wait and see.