Photojournalist Timothy Fadek reflects on his career
by Morgan Meaker
Timothy Fadek calls himself a “news junkie” but he’s really a photojournalist, one of the best. On this topic, he’s modest. He chuckles knowingly as I try to prize his global ranking from him. “I’m not telling you”, he laughs. “I’m not in the top 1%, but I am in the top fifty”.
We meet in a cafe just off Bergmannstrasse, Berlin. He seems relaxed despite feeling as if he’s always on a job interview, constantly pitching. Over the last decade his career’s been at high speed: he’s travelled between areas plagued by war, poverty and drugs, with the results featured across the pages of TIME Magazine, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times.
Generally speaking his photographs are bleak. From charred skeletons in Baghdad to a digger truck shovelling bodies in Haiti, Fadek does not shy away from grim reality.
In his documentation of the Egyptian uprising, the camera is on the side of the protestors. Fadek hid among them behind makeshift shields, and through his lens we see blood spattered faces and smoke drenched streets. He’s so close you can almost smell the tear gas.
He finds his stories in business newspapers; he says they always get the news before everybody else. Two summers ago this tip led him to Mongolia. Fadek captured the nervous energy on the streets of the capital, Ulan Bator. In the midst of an economic boom, people knew something special was happening to their country.
What’s interesting about Fadek’s style is he’s not merely an observer. He gets right to the centre of an issue by speaking with those around him. “I’m a big talker,” he reveals. He explains how he charmed his way into a Mongolian wedding where, between photographs, he gorged on vodka and mutton.
“It’s just luck. War is just like football. The game happens right in front of you”
His easy manner unveils intimate moments. In his series, ‘Athens: Scenes from a failing economy’, one image is particularly striking. In cold monochrome, a man clutches a tissue in one hand and, with the other, injects heroin into the soft skin of his inside forearm. Fadek sets the scene: after approaching a group of young men in one of the city’s squares and asking for their picture, he was surprised to be greeted by the perfect English of university students. Striking up conversation, he was invited to watch them shoot up. These pictures capture Greece in its desperate, downward spiral. He saw first-hand how educated youngsters turn to drugs in tough times.
Fadek believes that this kind of discovery is the real skill of photojournalism. However, with war photography he says: “It’s just luck. War is just like football. The game happens right in front of you”.
Having spent time in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya, Fadek can tell some startling stories. In Iraq, in 2003, he found himself in a convoy of three cars of journalists. Abandoned by their guardian battalion due to a last minute diversion, Iraqi soldiers opened fire from a gas station. With their wheels shot to shreds, they were forced to abandon the car and march across the desert until they were eventually rescued.
“I definitely feel fear”, he says thoughtfully. “But I am not overcome by it”. He stays sharp and hyper-aware. “You have to. It keeps you alive”. He talks about how his camera shields him psychologically. It demands his attention, distracting him from the situation. “I don’t feel so vulnerable when I have a camera”, he seems to think aloud.
The instance in Iraq was one of the reasons he ended his career in conflict photography, but his marriage three years ago was also a major factor. “Now that someone else cares” he says, “it would be extremely selfish to go somewhere and die on them”. He laughs, looking over at my notebook. “I’m giving you some great quotes here!”
After several stories of war and violence, I wonder how he has any faith in humankind left at all. “People treat each other like shit”, he replies. “The whole world is driven by greed, and religious and economic forces trap people.” Yet despite his cynicism, he seems surprisingly human and distinctly kind. He jumps up immediately as I spill my coffee, offering me a pile of napkins.
“I used to think I was wired differently”, he continues, considering how he coped in such difficult circumstances. But towards the end of his career in war photography he realized he couldn’t shake certain images from his head. For instance, the dead children in South Lebanon packaged in plastic bags. He started to struggle to readjust to every-day life. It seemed banal in comparison.
Fadek was convinced that he was experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome, regarding it almost as a weakness. I see a different side. “Aren’t you happy that you can still feel something? Pleased you’re not a robot?” I ask. He laughs. “Perhaps,” he forms his words carefully, “but maybe I’m disappointed that I’m not the superman I thought I was.”
All images featured are from Fadek's story, 'Mongolia: Golden Promises'. See more of Timothy Fadek's work on his website.