The Digital Journalist
Extreme Asia
The photographs of Philip Blenkinsop
December 2004

by Dirck Halstead

They are not pretty pictures. In fact some are heartbreaking.

Early last year photographer Philip Blenkinsop, along with Time magazine reporter Andrew Perrin, trekked out of the jungle in northern Laos to reach a special mountain hideaway that revealed the sad aftermath of the Vietnam War. Hmong guerrillas had fought under the direction of the CIA against Communist forces. When America pulled out of the war, they left behind the fighters and their families. Now three decades later, these fighters were still on the run, being hunted by the Thai military. As Blenkinsop and Perrin approached the village, more than 850 of the former American allies sank to their knees and raised their hands in supplication. They hoped the journalists were the vanguard of their being remembered and saved.

The scoop was just the latest in Blenkinsop's 16-year odyssey to document the plights and stark realities of a part of Southeast Asia that few Westerners get to see. He takes unblinking looks at cruelty and despair. There are human heads on roadblocks, results of torture, and evidence of man's darker impulses.

Philip Blenkinsop started his professional career at the age of 21 working for The Australian, a national broadsheet in Sydney. He soon found that being a newspaper photographer was not for him. He found the work shallow and repetitive and decided to take a chance and move to Southeast Asia. He sold his car, and bought a Leica with a few lenses and an airline ticket to Bangkok.

Those early years in Thailand were difficult. He learned the hard way how difficult it is to freelance. In 1989, he made his first trip to the Thai-Cambodian border and the tragedy of the refugee camps. "Asia was another world for me. I threw myself into that chaos. I reveled in those experiences - to feel and live that different life. These experiences were quite dark, but I was very hungry and I lapped all that up. I photographed what I saw and that was when I became aware of the self-censorship that goes on at the photographer's level. For many people, it's about interpreting life as they would like to see it, and that was not what my work was about. It was about reality - life as it is."

The problem was, no publications wanted to run his troubling images.

"They saw what I do, and their first reaction was, 'Christ, what a sick person - how can he photograph that?' They forgot that what I was doing was simply photograph what was there; it's life that can be painful and unjust. I have just made it a point in my photography to focus on what is real. I want the viewer to know what it was like to be there shooting it. I want them to feel that - whether it was fear, excitement, whatever it might be - they should be moved by it. If they love it, great. If they hate it, great. If they are indifferent to it, then I don't feel I have succeeded. Pictures should move people."

In 1997, he joined VU photo agency in Paris and started to exhibit his pictures in France and Germany. This year, Blenkinsop was the recipient of the Visa d'Or award for the Best Magazine story of the year at the annual Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, the Enquiry Prize at the Scoop Festival of Photojournalism in Angers and second place in the Bayeux Prize for War Photographs.

This exposure has led to assignments and, most importantly, access to organizations and publications. "I know now I am in a position to give people a voice. I'm not running around trying to help every Tom, Dick, and Harry, but I do realize I have the power to do my work and give people that voice which perhaps can correct injustices.

"It can be depressing. You spend time with people under constant threat, but once you've actually spent time with these people, and you have put the pictures out on the world stage through magazines, and you have actually arranged to draw attention to these people and bring them to the politicians who you think it should matter to, and make a difference, you realize it doesn't change a damn thing.

"The people with nothing, and who have everything to fear are the ones who give the most, and are the most beautiful to be around, as disturbing and upsetting as that might be."

Despite his success in magazines and books, Philip does not consider himself a photojournalist. "I am just a photographer. Photojournalism can be stylistic and puerile. It's not the photographer's fault, but they know what editors like, so they mold the product for the magazine. It's like being an advertising photographer, shooting a style because they know how it will appear on paper."

In the past few years, Philip has begun to manipulate his photographs. Not in a computer, but by using pens and inks on the surface of his prints. He writes little histories on the images.

He became aware of the limitations of photography. "It's not the image that is important, it's what's inside it. I like the history, and once you know the story, you can relate to the person in the image. With a caption under a photo, you are often relying on an editor, who can be incorrect. A caption is someone else's work. By writing directly on the image I am putting down my feelings, which helps reclaim the experience. The words are allowed to live through the strength of the image. Story is an integral part of the photograph. The words give credibility. They support the image. I want to create an environment where the picture can live, and transcend photography."

Since photographing the Hmong, Philip has been working on projects in Timor and Nepal. He is currently working on a group project on Violence Against Women for Amnesty International.

The Hmong story still haunts him, and he is depressed that there has been no help for these soldiers and their families. He knows that a year and a half since his story ran, the killing still goes on.

"If I thought the work that Andrew and I did could save the life of just one person, or one family, then I would think that was something, when I am lying on my death bed, that I could look back on, I hope, with great pride. If you can make just a little bit of a difference then everything is possible."

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of the Digital Journalist