THEO PANAYIDES meets a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist, a smooth talker who’s been close to death as he tries to photograph the human, the fun in the midst of mayhem
Spruce and compact, with a trim beard and slicked-back hair, Muhammed Muheisen meets me in the lobby of The Landmark in Nicosia, a day before he’s due to speak at TEDx University of Nicosia. “What’s your talk going to be about?” I ask. “My journey, from A to Z,” he replies simply – and that’s all he needs, with a journey as remarkable as his. (The talk received a standing ovation; you can watch the whole thing on Muhammed’s Twitter feed.) The title is actually ‘My journey, from Pulitzers to humanitarian’, making reference to the two Pulitzer Prizes he’s won for his photojournalism – a vocation he’s pursued for 18 of his 38 years, taking pictures (mostly) in war zones since joining the Associated Press in 2001.
Did I get him to open up, as opposed to repeating what he’s said in countless other interviews? Did I catch a glimpse of the ‘real’ person? To be honest, I don’t think I did – unless of course this earnest, single-minded, relentlessly on-message, apparently laser-focused fellow is the real Muhammed (which of course is entirely possible). At one point, almost in desperation, I turn to his Dutch wife Rosanna, hoping she can add a little melodrama: Are you worried, I ask, when he goes out to war zones? “Of course,” she replies. “But I know him, and how he is, and how he takes his pictures”.
‘How he takes his pictures’ is largely by persistence and stealth, not bravado, and we’ll get to that later. Then again, it also makes sense that his answers seem a bit predetermined – if only because I assume everyone asks the same two things, the obvious questions for a war photographer. First, how close has he personally come to getting killed? And second, how does he feel about the ethical dilemma that hovers over his profession, which of course is the following: given that people in trouble make the best pictures, what does he do when confronted by a person in trouble? Does he help – or take the picture?
That question comes up all the time, admits Muhammed in his voluble way (he’s a very smooth talker), and “I always say: ‘If there is no help, I should put my camera down and help. But whenever there is help, I can help more by capturing the picture’.” It happened during the refugee crisis in Greece, “I was sitting on the shore in Lesbos and out of the blue this dinghy came, it was full of women and children. There wasn’t anybody else [around], there were no volunteers” – so he put his camera down and pitched in, helping “offload the babies” till the authorities arrived. A colleague took some snaps of Muhammed in action, but was met with a frosty response: “I told him, ‘Your priority was to help first’,” he recalls. “‘Because there was no other help than us’.” That said, it’s not always so simple; there are many, many times when foregoing the photo – even for the most virtuous reasons – does more harm than good. “If this picture doesn’t get published, the world will not know what happened. So there are many questions you have to answer, and you don’t have a lot of time.”
And what of the other big question? How close has he come to losing his life? “I’ve been very close,” he replies calmly (he’s calm in general, his arms folded, his brown eyes unblinking). “I mean, I’ve been in places where death was everywhere… In Iraq, I was in a situation where there was an explosion just right next to me. I remember being in Fallujah in 2003, 2004 and there were snipers everywhere, at any moment I could be a moving target. In Syria, when I was on the ground, helicopters [would] come and start shooting; I remember we visited a place in Syria, seconds later a jet came – pow! – it was bombed.” Muhammed shakes his head slowly: “But you know, when I get asked these questions, like ‘How do you feel?’ – it’s nothing compared to what the people that I went to photograph feel.”
If they had a choice they’d leave, though, I point out. He had a choice, yet he stayed.
“I mean, I stayed for a reason,” he replies amiably. “First of all, that’s what I do. Second of all, I believe that it’s important to be there, to show and to document.”
He’s been there, all right; “I had the full package,” he says ruefully, speaking of his years in the midst of mayhem. He’s never been imprisoned (just as well), but “I was thrown on the ground, I was handcuffed, I was knocked [i.e. kicked] with boots, I had broken ribs. I was stabbed in Yemen, I lost my best friend in Afghanistan.” (The stabbing was more of a bludgeoning, with the “un-sharp side” of a dagger; still, it broke a rib.) I assume he has stories to tell – yet, unusually, doesn’t seem especially inclined to tell them. Most war photographers live for the adrenaline rush of cheating death, yet Muhammed assures me he wouldn’t be bored if he stopped going to war zones; indeed, he already has. For whatever reason (partly, no doubt, an increasing reliance on local photographers), these days he’s mostly in Europe covering the refugee crisis, how refugees are settling down – or not – in their new homes, and he also travels the world, “capturing the beauty of this world” for outlets like National Geographic. There’s also a Dutch non-profit, the Everyday Refugees Foundation, run by his wife (“I make the pictures; she uses them”). Most of his income now goes to the foundation.
Even when he spent his time in war zones, however, he was never that kind of war photographer. “I don’t go to document the actual war. I don’t need to go and show the bang-bang… I hardly show pictures of destruction, or violence”. His brand, he explains, is quite different. “I’m known,” says Muhammed – in a turn of phrase that might seem glib, if he didn’t say it so earnestly – “for fun pictures in un-fun places”.
Meaning what? At one point, struck by how preternaturally calm he seems, I ask when’s the last time he cried – but it’s not so simple. “I mean, there are moments that I cry,” he replies, “but I don’t cry out loud. I cry inside”. He cries when he sees “this boy who was burned in the war in Syria,” for instance (I assume he means Abdullah Ahmed, a 10-year-old victim in a camp in the village of Atmeh; Muhammed’s photo of the boy was cited when he won the Pulitzer in 2013) – yet, on the other hand, “I always have to keep positive, because it will reflect on my pictures. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the theme of my work, it’s ‘A Smile in the Middle of the Rubble’. It’s all about hope. Hope is all we’ve got”. His website, muhammedmuheisen.com, has whole sections on subjects like ‘Balloons’ and ‘Roadside Vendors’; his work in general focuses on children (“the vulnerable ones”) and tries to bring out “humanity, the joy, the fun”. Fun pictures, like he says, in un-fun places.
Was it always like this? Probably not. The 20-year-old Palestinian (a Jordanian national, born in Jerusalem) who joined the fray in the wake of 9/11, fresh from a BA in Journalism and Political Science, surely wasn’t so sanguine. “Back then, we were older souls,” he muses when I mention how young he started; “And there was no social media, there was nothing”. Still, he says, Iraq was a dark place, “Iraq was very difficult, because I was really young and inexperienced and it was – kind of shocking. I thought being born in Jerusalem and surrounded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I’m already a warrior – but when I went to Iraq, I discovered I know nothing.”
I neglect to ask how involved he was in the Palestinian struggle as a younger man – yet I can’t really see him throwing rocks in the thick of an intifada (I could be wrong, of course). Partly it’s because his family sound solidly middle-class, not conspicuously devout or political – “We believe in goodness,” he replies when I ask about religion; he himself, though Muslim, went to a Catholic school – but it’s also because Muhammed himself doesn’t come across as confrontational. He’s a charmer, a professional good guy; he radiates calm, friendly energy. How he takes his pictures is relevant here – because the most important factor is gaining his subjects’ trust, and he does it simply by being there. “How can you convince a community, or a whole environment, that I’m a friend, not a threat – without even speaking? By investing enough time.”
He puts in the time, he explains. “At the beginning you pass by, you walk, you introduce yourself.” You don’t take any pictures, not yet, “you wrap your camera around your shoulder… People start to ask questions – who’s this guy? Nobody answers. You come again, you come again. Simply put, you become invisible. You become part of this landscape”. He does his homework, learns what’s acceptable; he won’t try to photograph women if he knows that it’s frowned upon. He is, in a way, a seducer, almost a spy; he makes himself unthreatening – yet in fact he’s biding his time, waiting to extract a story and sell it to outsiders. That’s where tact and decency come in, says Muhammed when I put this to him: “I always put myself in the subject’s shoes, and I say: ‘If I’m this person, do I want to have this picture seen by the world?’… I portray the people with pride and respect.”
Is he really as decent and devoted as he seems? Can we take his self-description – “A proud Muslim who never hurts, never lies, and does his best to help others” – at face value? Maybe. He appears to have no bad habits in private life (drink, drugs? “I walk a lot…”), in fact he appears to have no private life to speak of. “I mean – my life is photography. Even in my private life, it’s about photography. It’s not a job, it’s not a profession, it’s not a card that I swipe from this hour to this hour. I live surrounded by pictures and voices and stories. I’m in touch with most of the people I photograph.” He relaxes mostly by taking pictures – sometimes in Wadi Rum, the beautiful desert in Jordan where he sets up camp and collects his thoughts: “I sit down. I come back to zero, where I began… I let go of everything”.
And then sometimes – not often, but sometimes – it all comes together. Sometimes a picture does indeed end up changing the world. A photo he took in the Sindh region of Pakistan, showing a group of girls forced to study in a graveyard, prompted the powers-that-be to build a school in their village. A photo of two Iraqi sisters who’d been burned in the war reached a generous man, who decided to help them. And then there’s Zahra Mahmoud, a sad-eyed Syrian refugee girl whose photo was named ‘Unicef Picture of the Year’ – and Zahra’s life hasn’t changed yet, admittedly (Muhammad has been photographing her since 2015), but a young German girl was moved to write to her, and they’ve now become good friends. “So the photographer became the bridge, and the messenger,” he says in his TEDx talk, speaking of all such happy cases. “And this is why I’m a photographer.”
Our interview also has a touch of the TEDx talk; Muhammed Muheisen tends to talk in homilies and heartfelt speeches (sprinkled with the occasional ‘yani’, the Arabic ‘well’). There’s a slight detachment in his character, as indeed there has to be (no other type could survive in a war zone). Then again, his idealism feels earned. “There were some points in my life where I just locked the room and started knocking my head against the wall,” he tells me, speaking of his early days as a witness to death and destruction, before this newfound serenity – and, after all that he’s seen, who are we to sneer if he chooses to focus on hope, and humanity? “Each one has a role in this life,” he says. “If each one of us do their parts, I think someday we can make a difference.” A smile in the middle of the rubble, indeed.