Interview with David Stewart-Smith

By Nanne op ‘t Ende
October 17 and November14, 2006

David Stewart-Smith went to Afghanistan for the first time in 1987 and he covered many conflicts since. In 1995 he went to the Nuba Mountains to document the cultures and in 1999 he returned to focus on the wrestling. (See some of his Nuba photos.) In an email interview he talks about his work and his trips to the Nuba Mountains.

Photo by David Stewart-Smith

I was born in a part of London called Wimbledon. I had a very fortunate child hood and both my parents encouraged me into art school and photography. I got into photography, on our family holiday, I (the youngest of three boys) always took the photos with my Kodak Instamatic camera and enjoyed it. In my early teens my parents gave me my first 35mm SLR as a Christmas present: a Pratica with some interchangeable lens.

After leaving school I went on to Art collage and it was there for the first time, I knew I wanted to be a photographer. I used to look through old National Geographic Magazines and try and understand why images worked. The other book I looked through was Best of Life, Life magazines.

From Art collage I went on to follow a two year photographic course; a waste of time for me. The technical side of taking a photo is understanding your camera. Everything else is the important bit: composition, breaking rules in composition, getting to the subject, making the subject relax. Something I say now is that first you are a logistician, then diplomat and the photographer.

What is important to me in taking a photograph is that you are capturing history at 1/125 of a second. Light does play an important part but not the most important part it is the subject. I am not a technical photographer, I am a recorder of what I see.
In 1987 I went to Afghanistan for the first time; I was a young man wanting to see the world and all that it could throw at me. And in some ways I still feel that now. I ended up going to Afghanistan because it was the most difficult place to get into. I had time on my side. I did see death and war for the first time and yes it changes your outlook on life. But you expect to see these things if you are going into a war zone or and area of troubles. And when adults are doing it to each other you can somehow understand that. It is the innocent civilians and children that stay with you. Land mine victims, starvation, child prostitution, napalm burns etc.

The Afghan people are very proud and independent. The Mujihadeen were the underdogs but they won the battle with the Russians; not the war. I have been to Afghanistan many times: in 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1995. In 1989 as the Russians where leaving I photographed a large battle around the city of Jelalabad in eastern Afghanistan. In 1992 I witnessed the mujihadeen inter-fighting and the destruction of Kabul and my last trip in 1995 was with the Taliban in Kanderhar, and fighting in Kabul.

I am trying to make arrangement to go back there with the British Military. I would have never believed that UK soldiers would be fighting out there when I first traveled to that part of the world. The NATO military will not win the war out in Afghanistan: it has to be a political solution with Afghan leaders from all the ethnic tribes. Afghanistan has played a major roll in my life, in what I saw and photographed, and where I sold my photos to. In 1987 I had a photo of a USA Stinger missile been fired at a Russian Mig: it missed

The start of Operation Lifeline Sudan in 1988: I read about it and felt it was an interesting story. Loki [Lokichoggio, base of aid organization in Kenia] was very different in those days. I was not impressed at all with the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement: they kept me waiting in Nairobi for 2 or 3 weeks. The other times I went back was working for Save the Children Fund. I have traveled with many different rebel or freedom fighters and many hardship areas. Karen rebels in Burma, EPLF Eritreans Peoples Liberation Front ( the most organized rebels I have travelled with), Somalia, Croatia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Nagorno Karabagh, Rwanda.

Doing this type of photography I never set out to change things, just inform people what is happening in these areas. But then you want something different. I found that next to the mess the world can offer, you can have great kindness and human spirit. You can come from different cultures and still want the same thing. In 1992 I was in Kabul photographing the inter-fighting in the city. Walking down the street, live artillery rounds landing not close, but one knew it was real. A shop keeper came out and invited me in for some sweet tea and boiled sweets. He wanted to talk to me and I was happy to talk. He told me he wanted three things in life: to live in peace, to earn some good money but not be a rich man, and give his children a better life than he had. And we had this conversation as shells where landing. I have always remembered this.

I knew of the Nuba before, but it was in 1992 while waiting a Loki that I met a Belgian (I think) who talked about the Nuba and the situation; he wanted to travel there. I knew of Roger's and Riefenstahl's work, and I was very much interested in the survival of the culture. Getting away from wars was another motivation to try to go to the Nuba Mountains. It took me about a year to organize the trip. I met Alex de Waal at African Rights. And it was through them that I made the contacts in Nairobi.

The place where I landed in 1995 was just grass and very small. I was so pleased to get of the plane and be in the Nuba Mountains. I didn’t believe it until my feet touched the ground. I was a long way from anybody I knew, and I was all by myself.  The heat was very hard to start with, by 8.30 am it was too hot to walk outside. But after three months I could walk through the heat of the day and fast.

The food was the other hard thing. With all my traveling to different places I need three things, toothbrush, toilet paper and a little bit of luxury from home: I brought some boiled sweets; the best instant coffee I could buy and sugar. Just to start me in the mornings. Food through out the trip was basic but I knew I was getting the best food there was, and I was very lucky for it. The thing that helped the most was the local beer. After some time they would bring it to me at the end of the day, as I cleaned cameras and marked rolls of film.

We walked everywhere, and to start with I was slow and drank all my water within an hour of starting. That was to change… The places I visited where many: Kabro, Shawia, Ndrba, Kurchi, Torra,  Labo, Tabanya, Tabsoola, Shat Sofia, Katcha, Kurongo, Shat Demam, Taboria, Chorra… I did not go out there to photograph the war; I was there to look at the culture. I had armed guards and we had a few night walk to get pass government posts, but there was no real danger. Neroun was with me all the time as my SPLA fixer; Mohamand Kumbal was there as interpreter. Then two guards and a girl cook/guard: I was very well looked after.

For some people in the NM I was the first white man they had seen.  The two main things that stick in my mind: I was there at the end of harvest and there was a great dancer; music and beer; kujurs…The sound and dust as the evening light was fading; one of the most powerful memories in my life. And another at a wedding: the bride had been kept inside the family hut for six months to fatten her up. Nut oil covering the body of the girls - it goes on and on. The mystical world of the kujurs at the start of any ceremony…

I met Yusif [Kuwa] out there in 1995 at Kabro village. We spent time together, listening to the BBC World Service and talking about the future of the NM. To say we where friends would be wrong. He did come to my house in London for dinner with Julie Flint, and I visited him in London a few times. I liked him; I liked his humor.

In January / Febuary 1999 I returned to the Nuba Mountains. The whole aim of the trip was to photograph the wrestling. We tried to go as close as possible to the place where George Roger took the famous photo in 1949. We where in the area, but things were not quite the same: you could feel that there was not so much discipline in the soldiers. The trip was not as smooth as my first but it did work out in the end. The photos where published in Saturday Independent Magazine; Life and others.

I do feel I helped the Nuba by the photographs I took, and they needed the help. They helped me get to where I took the photos. Sadly enough I have lost my contacts within the Nuba Mountains and I have no idea how the developments and peace are doing. If I could go back I would still stick to the Nuba culture. It is a very special place, with special ways that must be recorded and saved.

Interviewed by email, in October and November 2006


The Nuba Mountains Homepage was made by Nanne op 't Ende.
You can contact me here.