What first motivated you to go to Western Sahara? Were you afraid?
My first exposure to the conflict in Western Sahara was back in 2004 when I traveled to the refugee camps in SW Algeria (first established in 1975 for the civilians fleeing the escalation of the conflict, as Spain abandoned their former colony leaving behind a vacuum for conflict). I was there for several weeks and worked on a series of staged portraits of civilian victims of landmines and unexploded ordnance from the conflict.
During this first visit to Western Sahara almost my whole family went out there, including my 18-month-old daughter. Despite the reality of being refugees and living in one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world, the Saharawi people have amazing humour and are fantastic hosts with incredible desert hospitality in their DNA. It was a privilege to be accepted into their homes and so being afraid was never part of the equation.
Have you kept in touch with any of your subjects?
I am a typical Englishman with a grasp on only my mother tongue which does make keeping in touch with the men involved in the project very difficult, though I do keep in touch with my fixer, Boibat, with whom I worked on the landmine project 13 years ago now. Through him I am filled in on what’s going on on the ground and any news regarding those involved in the project, including Mustafa, the military Commander without whose collaboration the project would never have got off the ground.
There is an element of bearing witness in your work, although it sits at the confluence of fine art and reportage. How did the experience of a war zone affect you when returning to your life in London?
The way in which images are consumed has become very problematic for me. The ability to now view and discard in an instant is a real issue that is fundamentally changing our relationship with information and our ability to invest the time necessary to digest important issues, a particularity potent when it comes to war and conflict resolution and important political issues. The concept of Toy Soldiers was very much an attempt at slowing down this consumption.
Since completion, the project has ended up sitting in this oddly complex position. On one hand, the work has an awareness of the realities of an invisible war but implicates culture on the other. This has been quite difficult for me to come to terms with as an artist and in deciding where to go next.
One of your images draws inspiration from Capa’s ‘The Falling Soldier’. Were your subjects generally receptive to having their portrait taken and taking dramatic direction?
The Soldiers age range was 18-60+ and they were all amazing to work with! At times I worked them quite hard as they carted the sharp edge bases we made all over the place. We drove for hundreds of kilometers to all the locations that we had recce’d nearly two years before. The dialogue with Mustafa, their Commander, had begun a couple of years beforehand but I didn't meet the soldiers involved in the images until the production began. They all knew it was coming, and so on the first day we all sat down in the desert and discussed the project, its concept and what it meant.
A respected young man amongst the soldiers stood up and basically told me that the Saharwi people are determined to one day return to their homeland as free citizens and are equally determined to achieve this goal through peaceful means. He thanked me for being there and said that they would do whatever it takes to help the project. It was a very humbling experience for me that I shall never forget. After that it was a case on my part of being quite strict on the interpretation of the toy soldier poses they adopted. I think it’s fair to say that the project was hard work for everyone involved but the shared commitment, passion and mutual trust was never in question. I am very proud of what we achieved together. It was a truly unique collaboration.
What is your next project?
There are several things in the pipeline but they are all proving to be very difficult to get off the ground so watch this space is the best I say for now!