Not many people can say that they’ve spoken to war criminals, for example, but William Keo can. Highly curious and wildly introspective, the Paris-based photographer points his camera towards social issues, including migration, intolerance and exclusion. In this interview, he discusses his background, what it’s like to capture conflicts and crises, and what he has learned from his experiences.
First off, could you please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m William Keo, 25 years old, and a photographer and nominee at Magnum Photos. Photography is not my first job nor is it a random thing, I chose this job. Before, I was a coach in an American football club, I served French fries at McDonald’s, I was a mover and also an art director in the advertising world for a few years.
Your work focuses on migration, social exclusion and intercommunity intolerance. What prompted you to start capturing these themes?
These are themes that I am naturally drawn to, sometimes obsessed with, and grew up with. My father used to tell me how he woke up in the middle of the night because the ground was shaking, announcing the arrival of B-52 bombers during the Cambodian war. He told me how our family was hated by the Khmer Rouge and how they were detained in labour camps.
I live in the poor northern suburbs of Paris, and this is not Paris. There is a social border where we are that is made to feel like we come from there, like we will never pass the ‘périphérique’, the road that separates Paris and its suburbs. Throughout my schooling and in my various jobs, being from this district is a weight that I have sometimes been made to feel. The 93 district is one of the biggest myths that France has created, having the reputation of a violent and very poor place. It's not totally false but it's not totally true and it's stigmatising.
When I started photography, I worked for NGOs that immediately sent me on the exodus of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They were on a long exile, and I felt connected to their experience.
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You’ve photographed a lot of major global events, such as the Syrian refugee crisis and the fall of the Islamic State, the 2018 civil war in Ukraine and the conflict in Darfur and Bangladesh. Is it difficult to photograph such hardships? Do you ever get scared or feel yourself being weighed down by it?
It is extremely difficult to photograph these events. From a human point of view, seeing human suffering is the worst thing for me. I'm more afraid of seeing that than the stress of the front lines, which is a manageable fear when you have common sense. When we cover major events like this, I always want to capture the epic dimension of what is happening, so I am often crushed by the weight of events because I am afraid of failing to do so. When you're in the middle of the news, you can lack perspective and understanding, so I sometimes still don't understand all the nuances and subtleties involved in what I photograph.
When a project becomes too much emotionally, what keeps you going?
You have to stop when it becomes too heavy or too emotional – you have to take breaks and come back. Sometimes, when nothing holds me back anymore because I'm too emotionally exhausted, I finish the project.
The events that you photograph are very complicated – there is a great depth of emotion felt by your subjects. How do you capture the complex and intricate nature of these events in your photos?
It's antinomic, but for me photography is not really the right medium to say complex things, contrary to what one might think. I find myself in complex situations that I try to explain with very simple photos. Photography is something that is shared, that is designed for others, for an audience. I don't see myself elaborating things that are too complicated for a general public – the simpler it is, the more universal it will be and the stronger it will be.
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Obviously, emotions felt by your subjects are very raw and sometimes quite guttural. When you’re editing your photos, how do you strike a balance between presenting a high-quality image versus authentically portraying the moment?
When I do my editing, I try to keep the image as honest as possible. I'm not sure that photography is the most relevant medium to be authentic. Sometimes a photo with atmosphere will say more about a situation than a ‘photojournalistic’ photo.
You have a personal connection to migration – your parents fled genocide in Cambodia, and you’ve said that so much was forgotten because nothing had been documented. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to document what is happening in the world so that it doesn’t become lost like your parents’ experiences?
I try to document what is important to me, on my scale. I necessarily feel responsible when I work on subjects that are politically important or close to me. Photography participates in the collective memory; it is an important medium for posterity.
You have an ongoing project called Ukraine: Along the Southern Front, where you show the tragedies currently being experienced by Ukrainians right as they occur. What kinds of images have you captured for this project?
These are mainly photographs I have taken for French newspapers and magazines. I worked as a pure photojournalist; the idea was to capture the atmosphere of the conflict in the south of the country. There are landscapes, portraits and more intimate scenes of life – I wanted to feel the tense and insidious atmosphere of the war.
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And how do you decide on which projects to take on?
Often, it's very simple. I'm curious about something or I have a question, and I look for the answer with photography. I'm not the kind of photographer who intellectualises my projects too much. Most of the time I just plan the photos I need to tell my stories, try to get the right light and go for it.
What are the advantages of using photography to capture these events over other mediums such as videography?
The iconographic power of photography makes the medium unique – photography has an emotional range that I don't find in video.
You used to work as a humanitarian photographer for NGOs but found it restricting in terms of whose perspective you could show. You’ve said you try to show both sides of a story, even if you don’t agree with it. Why do you think it's important to have this discourse, even if it means confronting some pretty uncomfortable views?
My job is not to be right or to have an opinion, even if it can be seen in photography. Telling a story from both sides allows a viewer to understand a complex situation. No one gets up in the morning and says he is going to do evil; he has interests to defend. The world is grey – it's not as linear as saying there are bad guys and good guys.
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What project are you most proud of and why?
My work on my suburb – I love where I live and where I grew up as much as I hate it, and I am deeply proud of the photos I have been producing for the last few months, especially since I joined Magnum. My mentors Jérôme Sessini and Patrick Zachmann have encouraged me to work in this direction and this allows me to give another image to this territory, to put into images this myth of the ‘French ghetto.’
Lastly, you’ve previously said, “Everywhere I go, I learn a little more.” What is the most impactful thing that you’ve learned?
I learned that the world is grey, that nothing is simple. I can share common views with people I'm supposed to be in deep contradiction with – I've had a deeply interesting conversation with a French jihadist in Syria, I've talked to genocidists in Darfur, and common ground with the anti-crime squad, a violent police force in France.
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