One of the world’s greatest war photographers, Jan Grarup, has spent more than twenty-five years photographing the atrocities and horrors taking place in different parts of the world. The Danish photojournalist has depicted unimaginable examples of cruelty and brutality and has created photographic evidence of what people are capable of doing to each other. 
Having covered genocides, civil wars, conflicts between countries, natural disasters and the turmoil raging from one continent to another, what strikes the most in Grarup’s photographs are the absolutely horrendous conditions people have to survive in, especially those who have no saying in whatever is going on around them. 

Jan Grarup’s photographs are the reminder of how quickly things can change from normal to chaotic, how peace can instantly transform into war, how unexpectedly life can be replaced by death. In his huge photo book, And Then There Was Silence – with 496 pages and weighing over five kilograms –, it is hard to make up one’s mind on which photograph is harder to look at, which is more heartbreaking, which is more inhuman. Tears come out on their own while realizing that somewhere in the world, men, women, and children suffer unconditionally with no ease to their agony.
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In the foreword of the book, the main emphasis is on the silence of those in power who are able to stop or avoid these conflicts but instead remain silent and watch atrocities happen for years. Grarup quotes Dr Marthin Luther King in his book: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.” His photographs are nothing else than the confirmation and visual representation of King's words. Grarup often calls out the authorities to take action and do something to cease the conflicts or, at least, take every possible measure there is to help people go through the hardships with dignity. But unfortunately, he gets silence instead.

It is even more frustrating when some of the fast-forward media publications make headlines and share poorly researched stories from the conflict zones, which makes it even more complicated for the rest of the world to understand what is really going on. In contrast to that, through Jan Grarup’s in-depth reporting and his unique talent to immortalize the most devastating moments in the wake of wars and disasters, we the spectators could simply cut the ignorance and ask ourselves: is there anything we can do to help?

Grarup has been awarded multiple prestigious awards from the photography industry and human rights organizations, including eight World Press Photo awards, UNICEF, Oskar Barnack Award, POYi, NPPA and many more. In 2005, the photographer got the Visa d’Or for his coverage of Darfur’s refugee crisis. Today, we have an in-depth conversation with him about his career, human condition, hypocrisy in the Western world and survival.
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How did you become a war photographer? It’s not an easy decision to make, do you remember the emotions you were going through in the beginning of your career?
Well, I don’t think that anyone decides to become a war photographer just like that. It’s not the way it works. I guess it’s more like you end up in those situations. At a certain point, it’s fate that takes you where these things happen, and all of a sudden, you get involved in conflict photography on a larger scale. It was certainly not a quest or something I had anticipated doing. For me, it started somewhere completely different.
Where did it start then?
It started in Northern Ireland back in the 1980s, when I was very fascinated by cities that were divided either by politics, by religion or by international affairs – places like Northern Ireland, where Belfast was divided between the Catholics and Protestants, or Berlin, divided between communists and the Western world. So it began there; things developed and soon, it became extremely violent. At the same time, there were many other conflicts coming up, like Panama in the late ‘80s, the revolution in Romania, the Balkan wars, etc. Before I even knew it, I sort of ended up covering conflicts all over the world.
I think that what happens is that once you actually start working in places like those, you see life in a completely different light. You happen to be in situations where the people you meet have either lost everything or are fighting for a cause or for freedom. And all of a sudden, documenting these stories becomes your number one target point. So it wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, ‘listen, I want to be a war photographer’. It came by coincidence so to say – or at least, it started as a coincidence – and soon turned out to be my entire life.
What did your first experience teach you?
It taught me something. If you take the example of Northern Ireland, it taught me what religion can do to people. I mean, what religion can actually make you do – that’s something I’ve stumbled upon many times since religion is maybe one of the largest factors in terms of conflict in the world today. It’s as if the battle is more related to them than us. In the Western world, we tend to get involved in conflicts and often mention democracy as a key factor. We say we are fighting for a democratic world and for freedom but, sometimes, that’s not true.
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‘Democracy’ serves as an excuse solely.
In many cases, it’s us who try to force our way of life on someone else or we may have political or financial interests in other places of the world. Then, we use democracy as a kind of a scapegoat; that’s the key issue that we actually talk about, and for me that’s wrong. Honesty is sometimes very hard to see.
Could you elaborate more on ‘honesty’?
Take the war in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. On paper, in Iraq, it was a battle against the chemical warfare and against Saddam Hussein for using chemical weapons, while in Afghanistan, it was a hunt against Osama bin Laden. But as time progresses, you see what the actual truth is. From that point, it had a different meaning, it was something completely different from what was on the agenda.
There’s a lot of dishonesty within the decisions that cost hundreds of thousands of civilians their lives. The stories about the living conditions – the conditions of people who are caught up in the war having absolutely no part of it – are basically the key issue for me to cover. It’s not the war they wanted, it’s the war that other people wanted. And as always, civilians are those who end up hurt the most.
Having witnessed and photographed so many frustrating scenes, death, brutality, fear, etc., do you think your heart has hardened?
Obviously, your heart gets hardened by witnessing all these things. But again, empathy and the ability to take a conflict on a personal level is crucial for my work. It’s within empathy where the story lies, so if you are cold-hearted or if you have a superficial attitude, then the picture won’t turn out good. You have to get involved, which also means knowing from personal experience that you need to give as much of yourself as those people who actually do while standing in front of your camera.
I am diagnosed with PTSD and I have to take medication every day for that reason. I don’t think it’s possible to do what I do for as many years as I’ve been doing it without getting mental or psychological scars. But for me, it is a very small contribution when I compare it to all the people I’ve met and see what they’ve been going through. I have no plans of stop working even though it’s really hard physically and emotionally.
“Empathy and the ability to take a conflict on a personal level is crucial for my work. It’s within empathy where the story lies.”
Is there anything that would make you stop though?
The only thing that would make me stop would be if I were in a situation where I didn’t feel the conflict, if I felt numb. Then, it would be something completely different, I would have to revaluate what to do.
You also have to go through all the photographs lots of times and look at them from a professional perspective. How does that go along with your personal feelings?
From my point of view, it’s impossible to photograph things that are meant to touch other people if you don’t get touched by them yourself. You have to use yourself in many ways, especially mentally, and it’s a price I am willing to pay. I mean, imagine what these people are going through! Being in the crisis of their lives, they might have lost everything – their husband, wife or some of their children. And still, they are willing to stand in front of my camera and tell about their sorrow and grief. If I was to photograph that without being emotionally involved myself, it would be completely absurd; I’d need to find something else to do.
Also, my work has also changed character. For me, what's maybe starting up as a news story or what started as a news story many years ago now became more of a journey into a larger anthropological study of what people are willing or what people are capable of doing to each other. So the stories have become much larger, more complex, with many more layers of photography. Not just the fast-forward news story but just as much of the daily life, the survival, the freedom and many other different factors I am trying to put into those stories.
Let’s deepen a bit more into your work. There are so many series I don’t know where to start, but I think that Genocide in Rwanda is one of the most important for you – both personally and professionally. How did it start?
Rwanda was a turning point for me in many ways. I was 24 years old – already then, an experienced war photographer. I had covered many conflicts before Rwanda, but the genocide was the turning point because of the magnitude, the shared size of the genocide: 800.000 people or more killed in a hundred days. The hatred, the violence and the brutality on innocent women and children, slaughtered even with machetes, were for me absolutely unprecedented. I had never seen anything like that before.
I covered it while it was going on and I covered the aftermath as well, when all the killers escaped to what used to be Zaire (now Congo). And because of the brutality and the craziness of the entire conflict, and also the fact that the international community looked at it without intervening, I’ve been warned not to do anything. Due to international politics, whether it was in the United States, France, Belgium, England, or for that matter, the UN Security Council, it ended up being the biggest case of hypocrisy ever seen – at least, since World War II.
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It was (and still is) absolutely terrible. But could you elaborate more on this hypocrisy? There are many examples throughout history where Western countries present themselves as ‘saviours’ when, in reality, they’re far from being that. Why this genocide in particular is the biggest case of hypocrisy for you?
I’ve been reading thousands and thousands of pages about the genocide afterwards. What had happened? What were the key factors before it actually started? Who helped who? The historical parts regarding the Hutu and the Tutsis was again something invented by King Leopold of Belgium. They didn’t use to be two different people to begin with, it was merely us westerners who decided that through colonial power. There are so many things about that conflict that have made me seriously angry, especially the exposed hypocrisy of the Western world. And when you take that case in particular and compare it to colonialism in Africa in general, you end up with a very dirty story, a very filthy way of looking at other people.
I’ve been trying to highlight that for many years. In April, it was twenty-five years since the genocide started. Right now, as we are actually speaking, I have seven books at home where I read about whatever happened there, so for me, this is not just a photo story, it’s a story about hypocrisy. It’s a story about what we initiated in terms of why we sometimes intervene and call it humanitarian effort and why we do not intervene if we don’t have any political or financial issues or values that we need to protect. So from my point of view, Rwanda was by far the worst thing that I have ever seen.
You have spent seven years in Darfur (Sudan) having witnessed and documented another genocide as well. How was it like?
Darfur takes us back to the genocide in Rwanda because, after the genocide, UN Security Council members met and shook hands on never again to allow this to happen. But while it was happening, the international community watched in silence. In 2013, the first reports came out of the Darfur region saying that the government in Khartoum started ethnic cleansing and, once again, the international community silently stood and watched it happen. There were villages burnt down, children thrown alive into the bonfires, mass rapes of women, men being slaughtered. It was a really brutal conflict.
And the international community did nothing, as you say.
There were some efforts from the UN Security Council to intervene and stop it, but there were two countries that blocked an intervention: Russia and China. Russia, because they sold weapons to the regime in Khartoum, and China, because they bought oil. Because of these two countries blocking an intervention, we let this go on for seven years. At least half a million people were killed over the course of years, creating more than two million IDPs and other million refugees on the borders of Chad. There was a large group of people who sought to escape the country and, again, we did not intervene, we just let it go on for seven years.
And even though the president of the country, Omar Al-Bashir, who is still in power, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, we are still negotiating with him. He is wanted for war crimes and Europe is still negotiating with him. We are even paying the money to keep refugees at home and, again, the hypocrisy is massive. And from my point of view, it is frustrating.
“From my point of view, it’s impossible to photograph things that are meant to touch other people if you don’t get touched by them yourself.”
I understand it can get very frustrating to witness these atrocities. What do you feel you can do about it?
I was declared persona non grata in Sudan; they did not want me back in the country, so I had to go there illegally through the desert with the rebels. I have photographed and witnessed women being tortured and raped, children burnt on purpose. I told this entire story numerous times while it was going on just to let the world know what was actually happening; you know, that’s the only thing I could do. That’s kind of my voice in all of this, to keep reminding people that this was going on. To some extent, it is still going on. People react very strongly to it when I do lectures or speak both on a national and an international level. That’s basically what I can contribute to this discussion.
You’ve been travelling around the world covering all sorts of conflicts, but Africa seems ‘special’ for you in a way.
I have a very strong heart for Africa; not just Darfur in specific but the continent in general. I love the people, the culture, the differences within the continent. At the same time, I get extremely frustrated and have this feeling that people with another skin colour – namely white – see Africans as ‘less’ human than themselves. You know, ‘it’s just Africa’ and we keep bitching about why they can’t build democracies. But it’s really difficult to see how these people could have a democratic system when they have been under colonial powers for so many years – for decades, hundreds of years.
So basically, if you look at the Western world… if you look at Europe and think about the number of years it actually took us to implement democracy here, how on earth would Africa be able to build the same in such little time? Although, what is it, seventy years since we had the Second World War? Where millions and millions of people were killed whether they were Jews, Russian or dissidents? It’s not that we have such a long democratic history ourselves…
You have photographed Danish soldiers in Afghanistan as well. How was their life in the war zone? They seem strong and self-confident in the photographs. What’s your impression?
I’ve been to Afghanistan many times. I think I had seventeen missions during the latest war and was embedded with Danish, American, British and German soldiers. The story of the Danish was not about war, it was more about how these young men were affected by it. I did it as an attempt to tell a modern story about young men in war. It was also a story about people who almost lost their lives. They all had tattoos whose meanings had a lot to do with honour, friendship, injuries, and religion.
Many of these young men returned to the values of the most popular religion in Denmark, Christianity, so many of their tattoos had Christian messages or went even further back to mythology. I tried to tell the story about how war influences on a young man's life. It was like a diary of their lives. They seem very strong and very confident in the pictures, but when you actually read through the book, you will see that many of them are scared for life. Obviously, a lot of them dealt with PTSD as well. Many of them had to live with the fact that they had lost close friends at a very young age.
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I can’t imagine the horror. Do you know more about them or their lives after going back to Denmark?
These people were in their early twenties, so for them to come back home and reintegrate in a community or in a society like the Danish, has been extremely hard, especially with the knowledge they came with, having seen what war actually does to people. They have built a sense of brotherhood between themselves after going through the things they went through. For me, it was quite an experience and my perception of soldiers sort of changed while working on this book. It’s easy to look from the outside and say, ‘they are just warriors, they kill people for a living’. But once you realize how affected they are by it, it’s a completely different story.
You were working in Somalia from 2009 to 2013. Can you talk about what was happening there? I’d like to specifically ask you about your photograph I Just Want to Dunk, where girls are playing basketball in the midst of war. What role do women play in war? How do they deal with the new reality? What do they do for survival and how do they feed or raise their kids during the conflicts?
That’s a very complex question because there is no simple answer; it changes depending on where in the world you are. Obviously, apart from Somalia, there are many war zones around the world where women have a role of trying to maintain dignity and, to some extent, a ‘normal life’, even in very chaotic situations. Theuy have to take care of their children, make sure they are fed, that they have access to water, that they are not sick, etc.
You say I worked in Somalia until 2013, but actually, I was back there just last year because I’m still working on it. Last year, I met this young woman, just 21 years old, who had walked 850 kilometers with her child, who was dying from severe malnourishment, to get to a stabilization center. For me, that story is quite unique. It’s not something unique to Africa, but among other things, women do everything to make sure that their children survive; she was an A-class example of that.
I didn’t know you went back to Somalia last year. What were you doing there exactly?
Somalia is a very special country, I love it there. I love the warmness of the people, their hospitality and empathy. The country’s been going through twenty-one years of constant war, whether it’s been warlords, corruption, Al-Shabaab militias or Islamic groups. And then, there are people who have been able to navigate through all these different fractions of war. Long, in-depth reportage takes you back to the basic issues like community, people and how society works over and over again.
One of the stories related to that was when I met the girls playing basketball. It was kind of a unique story in many ways because these girls were threatened by the Al-Shabaab militia. Culturally, women are not supposed to practice sports, and if you look at Al-Shabaab militias, women are not supposed to do anything but maintain life in the kitchen and raise children. So in those terms, they were breaking lots of rules both culturally and religiously. But they were also standing their ground, wanting to practice sports.
“Democracy and peace are extremely fragile; battles can happen in a very short period of time and things can change dramatically when the world powers start to act.”
That’s really brave.
Even though they were threatened by the militia, they still did it, and it became a very beautiful story about young women fighting in the country with a very significant and strong cultural background in terms of Islamism. I mean, these women were fighting for gender equality as much as they were fighting for themselves being able to play sports. So what could be seen as them challenging Islamic or their cultural background was equally a battle for gender equality, which would have an impact on thousands and thousands of young women. It’s a movement. It started with them but also showed other women that they were able to go to internet cafés, do sports or get out of the house or out of the kitchen. And that is quite unique.
What about the children? Can you tell me about the child soldiers you’ve met on your way? Why do they pick up guns?
This is a huge issue all over the world. There are more children fighting in armed conflicts today than ever before, so it is a very big problem. Obviously, children do not make the decision to go into battle; some are forced into it because they’ve lost their parents in a fight. Or maybe, they’ve even seen their parents getting killed. For that reason, they pick up a gun. Others, they might have been kidnapped or abducted into militias.
Some of the worst cases I’ve seen were in Sierra Leone, where militias would abduct children late at night. They would come into a village and abduct the boys. But before leaving, they would force the children to kill a family member because, once they did, they would be thrown out of the community. I mean, they would have no chance of getting back, so the militias became their new family.
You say Sierra Leone is a place where you’ve seen some of the worst cases. That means that there are others…
It happens in many other places in Africa as well as in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, etc. One could actually argue that they grow up to be young men at a very early age. For them, it might seem natural, but for us, they are merely kids. They don't know the politics behind the wars; they just follow their leaders, the adults. It’s a very big problem and something that I constantly address in my work whenever I come across it.
I remember I met two children in West Bank, in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. These kids were four and si-year-olds and they were in front of a truck during the burial of a killed martyr. These two children claimed that they were political members of Fatah, but a four-year-old doesn’t really know what Fatah means. He doesn’t know what is the ideology behind the Fatah – or Hamas for that matter –, so they get involved at a very early age. A lot of the children who appear in situations where they start riots or throw stones, later on pick up guns and become revolutionaries or freedom fighters or martyrs in that sense.
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Can you recall an occasion when you felt that your life was under threat?
Oh, many times. But it’s more like a given; it’s not a question about you getting threatened or being in danger. That’s more like a rule than anything else. It’s very difficult to do what I do, so it would be wrong of me to mention one place more than others. But for instance, when you cover the liberation of Mosul (Irak) and walk through the urban situations where you have Islamic state fighters, artillery and snipers everywhere, you are in constant danger. But you have to be in the front lines. For me, it’s just a normal part of the job. You shouldn’t claim to be a war photographer or do what I do by staying kilometers away from the front line and thinking that you can actually do it without being exposed to danger. Then, it becomes a completely different story.
You often call out Western countries for being silent over the atrocities happening in hotspots of the world. As a person who has a deep insight from the conflict zones, what would your suggestion be?
I think we have a responsibility and an obligation to stop many of these conflicts as we talked before, whether it was in Rwanda or Sudan. It is very often that the only reason why we intervene has to do with our own political or financial interests. We call it something else, we claim it’s for other reasons, but at the end of the day, it’s about ourselves and nothing else. I think the world we are living in today, with the financial structures of the Western countries, richness and how we exploit other parts of the world, burdens us with an obligation to intervene, otherwise, there's no reason to have the UN Security Council for instance.
Something that really frustrates me is seeing how we deal with those places. And the reason why we go to war ninety-nine per cent of the time has to do with protecting our own interests. I'll give you a good example. A few years ago, there was this big conference where many African countries took part in; a workshop where they had to be in groups and make a list of what was most needed from the Western workd, whether it was money, aid, food, infrastructure or whatever. All the groups came up with the same answer: what they needed the most was free trade. And that's the only thing that the Western world will never give to Africa because it has to deal with their own money. It’s just an example of how absurd it really is. The hypocrisy is gigantic.
When people are exposed to great amounts of information on an everyday basis, how do you think it’s possible to keep raising awareness on conflicts happening around the world? How should the media react?
There’s a big difference between the fast-forward media world and the news that you can see 24/7. We have access to news all the time, and lots of the stories are very poorly researched. It's basically news just for the sake of news. As I see it today, there's an increasing demand for in-depth reporting, as it gives another understanding of a conflict. So when I spend six or seven years in a place and produce one big story, which is obviously told during the process, has much more value and depths in terms of the daily life and what people are going through in contrast to a fast -orward news team flying in those places, running with their cameras back and forth and leaving again.
I think what's destroying both the newspapers and the magazines is that they are having this constant fight of by-lining stories rapidly instead of doing long reads or in-depth reporting. I think at one point there will be a reaction when people have had enough. I don’t follow Danish newspapers anymore; I follow two international newspapers and then, I search for my information elsewhere, from people I trust in. And I can tell you one thing for sure: there’s a reason why someone like me, who is constantly dealing with the dark sides of life, has 75K followers on Instagram. I have a lot of interaction with the readers, and people who follow me tend to ask questions because they want to have a deeper insight. I think that's a reaction to the fast-forward news.
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You’ve covered Chechnya in the Caucasian region, but what about my country, Georgia? Have you been there?
I’ve been to Georgia many times. I was there in the fighting during Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s presidency; I’ve been to South Ossetia, and I have met the president, Eduard Shevardnadze, on several occasions. I know the country pretty well and followed the struggle along the way, having as well covered the Russian invasion of Georgia not that long ago. I’ve actually covered the turmoil over several decades. For me, it shows again that democracy and peace are extremely fragile, that battles can happen in a very short period of time, and that things can change dramatically when the world powers start to act.
I’ve been to Tbilisi, seen the life there, and then drove away for two hours; I appeared in places where everything is in complete chaos. I mean, the separatists, Russian infiltrators, the presence of Russian powers… It shows how difficult it is to build democracy, especially in a country that’s been oppressed for decades and then becomes an independent nation, and large-size players like Russia are involved. You can see it also in Crimea (Ukraine), and it's very tricky.
I’ve heard you are working on an autobiography. What should we expect?
That’s a good question. I wish I could answer that. Stories about a man who came from his early youth and became older, who went through life with lots of scars and, at the same time, with numerous positive stories about people and their ability to survive. But also, on what those stories actually did to him. I don’t know what to expect. I mean, it’s my life, or at least, a part of it. I will continue to do this for as long as I can, so maybe, it’s early to do an autobiography.
At the same time, it’s also about how you change from being young to becoming old and more experienced, especially when having seen atrocities, killings and all the violent things in the scale that I have witnessed, and what that does to you as a human being. But again, for me, it’s just my life, so I don’t know if people might find it interesting. That’s for the readers to decide.
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