Xposure 2021: Masked emotions, safe distances affect photojournalism

Sharjah - Brian Hodges and Emma Francis were speaking to KT ahead of the Xposure International Photography Festival, to be held in Sharjah.


Afkar Ali Ahmed

Published: Sat 6 Feb 2021, 7:11 PM

Last updated: Sat 6 Feb 2021, 9:28 PM

While most professionals were affected by the world going into a lockdown in 2020, photographers had extreme moments, according to veteran photojournalists.

Australian Travel documentary and editorial photographer Brian Hodges and British-American photojournalist Emma Francis were speaking to Khaleej Times ahead of the 2021 edition of Xposure International Photography Festival, to be held from February 10 to 13 at Expo Center Sharjah.

Hodges is known for capturing authentic moments and images with a powerful connection to place; while Francis has covered everything from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris to protests in Baghdad, fighting in Tunisia and the presidential elections in Nigeria, looks for the human angle in conflict situations.

Impact on professional life

Currently living in Australia, Hodges usually travels abroad for five to six months a year. He was lucky to make it back to Australia where he is now based just before the country closed its borders.

“My work typically involves shooting documentary and portrait photography and recently I have been working on projects in Uganda. I had to cancel my planned trips to Africa and was effectively stuck at home unable to travel internationally or domestically for my projects,” he said.

This is the longest time I have remained in one country in the past 30 years, he added.

The silver lining to this enforced sojourn was that Hodges found time to focus on long-overdue personal projects like updating his website, marketing and promotion. “It all paid off with my work being displayed in expositions and shows on three continents and I won several important awards, including an IPA Lucy.”

Francis was fortunate enough to complete a project covering the protests in Baghdad against the government in January just before Covid-19 hit.

She looks at the positive side: “The pandemic gave me the time to think, brand myself, enter photo contests and focus on the social media aspect of the business which we otherwise tend to neglect. It also brought some opportunities, and my Iraq story was featured at the Visa pour l’image: International Festival of Photojournalism 2020 in Perpignan, France, which was a huge accomplishment for me being a young photographer who has been doing this only for four years now. I also got to do some product photography in Amsterdam. So, I was able to broaden my horizons beyond photojournalism.”

Staying creative

Emma took some time to get used to the fact that she would not be able to travel to take pictures. “Travel is an integral part of my job, but I just had to make the best of it. I sparked my creativity in other ways. I was presented my first medium format film camera and I learnt how to use it. Since then, I have not picked up my digital camera at all! It has been fantastic to step back and do just the barebones photography, really think of each picture and do something other than just photojournalism. It is so important to keep in touch with that. A film camera sort of slows you down and you learn to take your time and appreciate every frame and I have been enjoying that.”

She also discovered the joys of painting. “I decided to paint from my own photographs. I started noticing little details in them that I had not seen before, like shadows and textures that I had not fully appreciated. I have done six paintings so far from my photographs. It has been a really amazing process for me.”

For Hodges, it was a time for reflection. “I concentrate on in-depth projects, so quality matters more than quantity for me. My time spent at home allowed me to reflect on the work I have done and more importantly where I am going.”

Travel plans in 2021

Hodges has already charted out his first trip this year. “Australia’s internal borders are now open, and I have outfitted my old Land Rover for a long camping road trip to tropical northern Queensland that will last several months, as soon as weather permits.”

Francis is not so sure about her travel plans. “I have no idea how my work will pan out in 2021. What I learned is to expect the unexpected. The lockdown gave me time to think about what I wanted to do, the projects I want to take up. It gives me hope and something to look forward to.”

Forthcoming projects

The Australian photojournalist has been photographing South Sudanese refugees in Ugandan refugee camps for the past two years. “Nearly 2.3 million South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries and there are currently more than 1 million in Uganda. As security conditions in South Sudan improve, these refugees will be returning to their country. I would love to document the return of refugee families – travelling with them mostly on foot – back to their homes in South Sudan,” Brain shared.

In February 2019, Emma spent some time in Nigeria covering the presidential elections and ended up falling in love with the place and its people. “I have my ‘family’ over there who have adopted me as their own and are excited for me to go back and visit them,” she said. “I also want to do a story on a Boko Haram rehabilitation centre in Borno state. I want to see if I can access this camp for a long-term project, following one Boko Haram ex-militant through the rehabilitation process. That is my future goal.”

How Covid-19 will affect their style of photography

A connection between the photographer and their subject is integral to photojournalism. How will photographers make that connection in a post-Covid world? “Faces are everything. It is going to be difficult to photograph a person wearing masks and capture their emotions, while also maintaining a safe distance. Photojournalism is not about keeping a safe distance; it is all about being in the thick of what is happening right then and there. It will also affect how people trust me with their stories, how much they open up to me. It is something I am really bothered about because human emotion is everything in my photography. I am looking forward to figuring a way to face that issue,” said Francis.

However, Hodges sees a positive in the situation. “Since Covid-19, it seems like the frantic pace of life has been turned down a notch. I welcome the space this has provided to slow down and reflect. As much as I appreciate photographs executed in the decisive moment, more and more I find I gravitate to the considered shots that take more time to execute. I think the time put into making an image is manifest in my personal style.”

Photo by Brian Hodges
Photo by Brian Hodges
A protestor suffers from asphyxiation due to tear gas in Iraq. Emma Francis
A protestor suffers from asphyxiation due to tear gas in Iraq. Emma Francis

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