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Interview with Paul Hansen

This year the main World Press Photo award was given to photographer Paul Hansen of Danish origin. In the photograph of the year that was made for newspaper Dagens Nyheter Hansen has documented the moment when the dead bodies of two little brothers, who were killed in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict last year in the Gaza strip, are carried at the burial ceremony. During the World Press Photo exhibition at Saint Peter’s church in Riga, Paul Hansen came to Riga on 23 May for his public talk and I invited him to an interview.

How did you come upon the motive one sees in your award-winning picture?

I can give you the long or the short version. Which one do you want?

Long version, please.

I started to work at Dagens Nyheter newspaper in 2000. It was almost the same moment when Second intifada started in the occupied territories in Israel and Palestine. There were a lot of pictures coming in with people throwing rocks and stuff. More or less visual exclamation marks, but usually there were no names on those people and the captions were always the same – Palestinian youth throwing rocks in Nablus, or Tulkarm, or wherever. We thought we should do a portrait of a stone thrower – why he does it, what his family says, etc. I went the next day it was proposed. It was the first time I went down there and since that it has been more or less like a one trip – I cannot distinguish between the trips anymore. You go down and you go home and then maybe six days later you are in Gaza or Tulkarm or Ramallah (edit. – both later called West Bank). So it is almost like the same trip. I have been covering this conflict – or rather, conflicts – for 13 years. But this particular started the night before when Hamas was shooting rockets just before the Israeli election and provoking. Israelis answered in force, with much bigger attacks in Gaza. My picture editor said that I should go because it could be the start of the Second intifada. Me and our Middle Eastern correspondent Erik Ohlsson went the next day. We arrived in Gaza – me, a Norwegian photographer, who is a good friend of mine, and my reporter. We stayed at a small guesthouse, close to al-Shifa hospital, which is the main hospital in the Gaza city.

You entered Gaza via Israel, right?

Yes and it was interesting as there were so many rockets shooting.

So they let you in despite the war?

They were heavily criticized in 2008-2009 because they wouldn’t let any journalists in and maybe this was a change of policy. I don’t know, but we were surprised that they let us in. There were already journalists in there and we were the second big group, maybe 20-30 journalists gathering at the border. The Israeli army met us, a caravan of journalists, at Eretz crossing. It was interesting. There were many rockets shooting above our heads and the Israeli army risked their lives escorting us into Gaza. There Hamas – civil servants I guess – processed us and let us in. So one could say that at one point, in fact, Israeli army and Hamas co-operated (laughs). We went in and stayed at the guest house about which my friend had written a book. It was very good as it was safe and next to the hospital. My Norwegian photographer friend Harald knew the Norwegian doctor that was working in that hospital and we were sitting with him in the evenings and he told many different stories.

Gaza Burial, World Press Photo 2013 winning picture by Paul Hansen
Gaza Burial, World Press Photo 2013 winning picture by Paul Hansen

Who was this doctor? I might have heard about him.

It was Mads Gilbert.

Right, he is well-known in Norway for his work in Gaza.

One night he was telling that he and his colleagues were so worn down because there were so many victims and that his colleagues were not only health workers but in a sense also victims. For instance, he told that there was ambulance coming in with several victims and that they took out victims and put them on the table. Among those was also one boy. Doctor rushed up, but the boy died and it turned out it was his own son. So there were many kinds of horror stories about, for instance, a family watching a TV when Israeli rocket hit the house and the father and two sons died, many in the family got injured, among them mother with heavy injury that made doctors to induce her in a state of coma. Now he was anxious how to tell the mother when she wakes up that her husband and the two children are dead. It was really an emotional evening to hear all those stories. The next day we went to the hospital in Jabaliya where the most of the dead people were gathered and there were hundreds of people and maybe 10-15 victims in the morgue – I don’t remember the exact number. Their relatives were coming and taking them for burial – you might know that in the orthodox Jewish and Muslim society the dead should be buried the next day after the death. There were also two small children and a man from the same family. We decided to cover that because it was more emotionally charged as children are so innocent just by being children. Dynamics of the burial are always the same – they take the loved ones from the morgue, go to the house. It is gender separated and it is the men who take the body to the house where the women wait.

That was the reason why there are no women in your picture?

So it is always in a traditional Muslim society. They go to the house where the women are and have a ceremony there, then they go to the mosque and then to cemetery. This one procession had many hundreds of people and they were walking and walking and I wondered why they never came to the house. I realised that this must be the family that Mads Gilbert was talking about the night before. I asked my interpreter to ask if this was the family I had on mind and he asked and got confirmation. The reason why they walked around so long in the neighbourhood – in fact, the reason why this picture came into being – was because there was no house to go to and all the family was in the hospital. So the immediate family was not there.

Was the father the target?

No, he was a janitor at a school.

But it was written in the caption of the photography that the man and his two children were killed when Israelis started to target the houses of Hamas members.

Human Rights Watch went there to investigate and concluded that there was no Hamas link. So there was no Hamas connection in this family as far as we can see. I think it was a mistake, I don’t think that Israelis wanted to kill those people. But if you bomb such a densely inhabited area, you will kill other people.

You have been there for 13 years. Have you experienced that those pictures have made some difference?

In the long term – no. And I will continue to go there – unfortunately. I think this picture has changed something for that particular family and it was also taken in the middle of Syrian conflict and Arab Spring. So I think this picture is also having an impact for Gaza. Because there are so many power players that think that this picture is uncomfortable. For me this picture, those innocent victims, is very much a visual manifestation of a political failure. On all sides – Israeli, as well as Palestinian, all sides. It is their joint political failure. Hamas shouldn’t have shot the rockets, Israelis shouldn’t have killed the people. They should have sat down and should have had a political solution. But this is a problem of a global scale. There have been so many dead, I have maybe experienced 50-60 funerals during those 13 years.

And you still keep going there even though you say that is unfortunate that you will keep going there.

I go there for different reasons. Maybe it is a drop, but it might become something more. One of the reasons is that people won’t be able to say that they didn’t know. When you see next time those official military videos with targeted bombings from planes, you might ask who is really getting killed, who is putting the spin on the story? What about the children getting killed when legitimate target is attacked? One should ask questions. I asked those questions when I started to go to the West Bank and the occupied territories and the question is so much easier to answer now after September 11. Because what happens in those countries, those epicentres of conflicts, affects us all and more than we think. When you see the planes hitting towers and Pentagon, you realise that it has to be solved. The war on terror is not a war, it is much bigger than that. Political infrastructure has to change somehow, these politicians have to sit down and work out a solution. It might sound naïve, but there are solutions down there if they want them. Look at [Ariel] Sharon – he was a hawk, in many people’s eyes he is a war criminal. That in a paradoxical way gave him credibility – he evacuated all the settlers from Gaza. No other person could have done that. You need a very strong leader to make those decisions. Now we will have unilateral peace negotiations. A unilateral decision that will turn into a multilateral solution. I think that all the people we meet beneath the leadership level in Palestine or Israel want peace. They want everything we want.

You think this conflict is a product of determined and resourceful radical minorities?

I think so.

But that is scary because that gives an idea what can happen, for instance, in our societies – that is, if there are strong, politically determined people who are able to use violence they can make the whole society hostage.

Look what happened in Bosnia.

Or you can think further, say, Sweden getting more radical far-right activists on one side and Muslim fanatics on the other.

I think it is true, but it is also not true. Because if you are living in a society like Gaza, or Libya, or Syria, then you are not well-informed, you are fed lies and spin for all your life. And you live in a paranoid society. You have to be paranoid in order to survive, you live in a dictatorship.

Hamas was democratically elected.

You can say that, but then again they engaged in killing Fatah leadership. Hitler was also democratically elected. But then he somehow perverted all the democratic idea. Some players on all sides have a vested interest in keeping the conflict alive. Because that is their power base. I am not naming names, but all sides are part of this. There are people that are using democratic processes for their own purposes which are not compatible with democratic principles.

Actually it is quite banal?

Yes, banal, boil it down and it is about money and power.

A fellow student collapses with grief on the coffin of his friend Ahmed Shaker. Photo by Paul Hansen
A fellow student collapses with grief on the coffin of his friend Ahmed Shaker. Photo by Paul Hansen

The question is if those people realize it or if they are simply slaves to their comfort and ambitions?

The leaders? I think it is a mix of both. Some are very pragmatic. Like I said – look what happened in Bosnia. I think you are right that it can happen anywhere. In Sweden in the 1990s when there was a financial crisis, we had a party called New Democracy that was based on xenophobia and simplifying stuff. The main motivation for them was to talk like “normal” people do. It was very populist party, very anti-intellectual, very one-dimensional and that was always all against the weak, usually the immigrants. They wouldn’t say it out aloud. But then I think they got 12 % of the popular vote which was a big shock in Sweden – how can somebody vote for those people? Now we have a new, similar party, but not so big. If you have an escalating crisis situation and, say, there is Muslim bombing somewhere and you add a fire here and there, you have a situation that could grow out of control very quickly. Not so long ago we had a Muslim suicide bomber in Stockholm, but he was not very good and he blew up himself. The reaction was very quiet because far-right leaders couldn’t capitalize on it because it could backfire on them. People are educated, they read the news. People know it is not a one-dimensional world out there. This wasn’t an aberration. He was a single man with a mission but he was not a man from a Muslim community. And Muslim community were speaking out loudly against it. So it is a much more complex public opinion in Sweden. It could happen in Sweden but it would take much longer time. But in dictatorship they don’t know.

Still narrow-minded extremists are in Sweden, France, here, everywhere. It is not just about free exchange of information. As we know, there is a lot of crap information being fed and you can pick and choose what you want. Has Gaza got internet?

Yes, that victim family has Wi-Fi.

That means they can choose not to believe in Hamas. What happens on the ground is what makes you chose information of your liking. How can one expect in Gaza less than radicalism if they live in such misery.

They can choose the internet, but most people prefer to watch on TV Arabic news and Arabic news are somewhat biased one may say. TV is big there. And they show stuff on TV that we, in Sweden, wouldn’t even show – a lot of people getting killed, a lot of very graphic pictures and it feeds into siege mentality, us vs. them. So they get information but it is not quality information.

Do you have a feeling that your photography has been used for political purposes?

I don’t know but I am sure that it has been and that it will be.

Have you got any Israeli reaction?

Yes, I got some hate mails, but no as many as I expected. Whenever we go to that area, we usually consider that if we get heavily criticized from both sides, it is fine. Usually people try not to talk about content of that picture, but about its quality. It’s too dark, too toned.

Do you think that the question of the authenticity of your picture has been brought up for political reasons?

I don’t know but the integrity of the picture has been defended so many times. Like I said, there have been no direct attacks against picture. Apart from one German editor, who said that he had heard that it was a Palestinian rocket that killed that family. I replied him that I don’t think so. Then the usual criticism came – it is too dark, too toned, too post-processed and then again I defended and said what I did and did not. The attacks have come from many different corners, but it has not been one frontal attack. Did you read about the blogger who accused me of having made that picture of three different pictures? It was horrible, it was last week. Finally enough was enough and the World Press Photo sent the raw file to 3 different experts – two in the US and one in the Netherlands. One of them was a professor in the US. He is usually commissioned by the Associated Press when they need verification. They went pixel by pixel and I was cleared for any manipulation which was really good because after that it stopped. Now I don’t get those mails anymore. Of course, I realize that it is an uncomfortable picture for many people, it has a very political context. Many people don’t like it, especially political players, because it is a manifestation of a political failure.

Is the picture also disliked on the Palestinian side?

I don’t know, but I can imagine that they would try to get the response that they are the victims. But the reason why those children died was, of course, because of Hamas shooting a lot of rockets into Israel. They have a big responsibility as well. I don’t know how they spin it, but I can think that they would spin it in a way that is sympathetic for their own cause. But that is perverting it, I think. This picture has been evaluated on many levels – by 4 different photo competition juries around the world. I won the photographer of the year at the PoY competition in the US, it won the picture of the year in Sweden, it won the World Press Photo and it won two prices at the NPPA in the US. And these juries are of course no amateurs, they are experts in their field. I can honestly say that I don’t know any picture that has been verified more than this picture. For it reflects the power of the World Press Photo competition. It is not about me personally.

Abu Ghraib abuse pictures in Iraq in a sense turned the tide and influenced the course of the political action. But there is a feeling that the Palestine picture doesn’t influence the course of action.

I agree with you.

And the Israelis being democratic people with a democratic instinct, apart from being against Palestinians, don’t seem to restrict press access to what is happening. Maybe because it wouldn’t make any difference anyway?

I don’t know how they feel, but of course there is a paradox. Have you seen the movie 5 Broken Cameras?


It was nominated for an Oscar last year. It is about a man in a small village Bil’in in the West Bank not so far from Jerusalem who one day picks up a camera to document what is going on in that village. And the village is very interesting because not so far from it a settlement is built and to make a secure road to that settlement they were going to build a separation wall just outside the village in effect cutting off the village from all their land. People got very upset and every Friday they demonstrated against the construction of the wall. They also contested it in court. There were actually two verdicts – the last one from the Supreme Court of Israel – saying that they shouldn’t be building this wall but still the army insisted on building that wall. There was a lot of confrontation there and one of the farmers took up a camera and started shooting. The title 5 Broken Cameras comes from the fact that one of the cameras is shot out of his hand, another one is smashed and so on. It is a chronology. And it shows banality of the conflict. It is not about the land ownership but about how to get to the hospital and other daily things. Once we went to Nablus to cover the story of a soap factory in order to report something else than a war. We got to the checkpoint and there was a big queue and there was a pregnant woman in the cab ahead of us. She was crying because her water had broken and she was delivering. But they wouldn’t let her through. There was a young Israeli soldier standing, a conscript, nervous like hell. Me and my colleague walked to him to explain the woman’s situation but he pointed his gun at us and his friend had a machinegun. So we walked away, got in the car and drew around. We came to the north of Nablus instead and the checkpoint there was fine. It is like that – you never know. I suggested we drive to the hospital and hear whether the woman had made there. And she had and she was fine. She had a son, I think. When we were there, we saw a lot of people standing outside in a strange setting. We asked what was going on and it turned out there was a cab like a minibus that Israeli tank had fired on it and the driver was severely injured and burned and the woman of 23 who was sitting in it was killed. But the soldiers at the checkpoint wouldn’t let the injured man or the dead woman through because they didn’t have their identity cards with them. It is banal, stupid and harassment sometimes or there are young guys who are afraid, afraid of what is in front of them, afraid of their commanders. It has a lot of effects and that for me is the infrastructure of terrorism – that total aberration from normality and the pressure they are living under. On both sides because Israeli soldiers also are living under pressure – they are getting killed and stones thrown on them. What happens is not down to soldiers, it is a matter of the political leadership.

Burnt by a grenade. Karte Seh Hospital in Kabul. Photo by Paul Hansen
Burnt by a grenade. Karte Seh Hospital in Kabul. Photo by Paul Hansen

But most of the terrorism doesn’t come from Palestine, it comes from people living in the West.

Look at Norway, Breivik’s case – we were in a sense relieved that he was Norwegian. And when it comes to Palestine, they have built the separation wall which is really difficult for terrorists to penetrate, but I am sure they are there and want to blow up themselves. During intifada there were a lot of explosions.
Aren’t you afraid of returning to the Middle East, getting injured or killed?
No. I usually avoid that question. We went to Libya, Tripoli, it was very chaotic, dangerous, we didn’t know anybody and were trying to find an interpreter. There were a lot of civilian guys sitting in the lobby of the hotel. One of them was an old engineer. He seemed very nice, calm, with kind eyes, about 60, not a young guy trying to make money. So we asked him if he could work for us and he agreed but said that he can only work for half a day because his son was killed the day before. He wanted to go home and meet the mourners. We go there for a week or two, it might be dangerous, we might get into a situation, but we are one phone call away from going back. They are not. Yes, it is dangerous sometimes but even then the main problem is crime and traffic because in the actual frontline we are one, maybe two days. American journalist Michael Herr in his book Dispatches writes something I really took to the heart. Even though it sounds like a cliché, it is precise while describing the danger issue – I am not afraid from a bullet with my name on it but I am really scared of the bullet on which it says “to whom it may concern”. For instance, in Tripoli people were shooting in the air all the time. A guy was jumping from the truck all the time just behind me and he accidentally discharged his gun, shot himself through the heart and the bullet flew by me. Stupid accidents and mishandling of weapons is what scares me. We were driving from Ajdabiya towards Tripoli and there was a guy by roadside – they call themselves rebels, but he could have been teacher, an unemployed guy, whomever, such were standing everywhere. He tried to stop us. The driver said “fuck him”, we drove further and he started shooting around us. I am not sure if he was trying to hit us, but it was very dangerous. When we drove back a few hours later after doing the story, we walked out of the car by him and my interpreter was going to hit him. And he just kept apologizing. Who was this guy with the gun? He could have been somebody with mental problems. So it is dangerous but one has to take calculated risks – is it safe, can we go there, for how long, who is this guy, whose loyalists are in the area? And one really needs to have a good interpreter who knows the codes. Sometimes I am very anxious, but not very scared as fright paralyses one.

Has your wife come along with you to Riga because your Middle Eastern reporting doesn’t give you enough time together? Isn’t she afraid that you go to hotspots?

No, she is also interested in those issues. She is a political scientist. When we first met five years ago, she emailed me. She worked at the university and once in a while they have a seminar where they invite to speak external speakers. She is interested in photography and asked if I could come with colleagues to talk about the political dimension of the photography. Then I went to Afghanistan and never went to that seminar, but afterwards we had a lunch together instead. After doing extensive travelling to Libya, we went to vacation in Oman just to get away from it. Then the attack on Benghazi started and I left her in Oman and went there. A few weeks later I came back and we decided to go on a vacation to Turkey. When we were checking in at the airport I was joking and saying that I hope that Tripoli doesn’t phone now. And when we came to Turkey, two days later in the morning she herself said to me that I should go to Tripoli – she had looked in the internet and discovered that Tripoli had fallen.

Paul Hansen after his talk at Splendid Palace in Riga. Photo by Annija Vītoliņa
Paul Hansen after his talk at Splendid Palace in Riga. Photo by Annija Vītoliņa

So it is possible to have a family if one works as a hotspot reporter?

Yes, because I do try to involve her in my work and I didn’t do it in my first marriage that resulted in separate lives.

But is it possible to have children with such a work?

I have a daughter from my first marriage and I became a much better journalist when I got my daughter. I don’t take unnecessary risks. Another emotional dimension wakes up in you when you feel responsible for other people. During my first trip to Ramallah I think three people got shot dead on that one intersection. There was a lot of violence, in the evening Palestinians were shooting with AK-47 and Israelis rolled up a tank and started shooting and it was escalating. Just before that happened, my phone rang. I pick it up and it is my daughter. She was 3-4 years old and yelling at me – “Dad, are you dumb?!”. I replied that I am busy and asked if I can call back. “No, you cannot!,” she shouted very angrily. It turned out that she wanted to go riding a bicycle but I had forgotten the bicycle key in my pocket. It was a great reality check regarding what is important.

Now you keep on going there because it is the only work you are capable of doing?

80% of what I do is not war. It is press conferences, articles – everything that is press photographers work. It is almost like a vacation for me – you don’t face any dangers, go to press conference, meet an author or whomever it is, try to take pictures as good as you can and it is over. Then in-between all of that I do my projects. I have plenty of projects going on at the same time. Let’s say I have a press conference at 10am and then something at 3pm. And then in between 11am and 2pm I can go to, say, the Red Cross hospital where people start to learn again. If I do those 3 hours twice a month, six months later I have a visual story. Usually you have an interview – 55 minutes of talking, then a 5 minute picture session. Those five minutes – that is me. Mostly I take static portraits. In my own projects I try to follow the story, to be in present tense. Pictures come and go, I don’t set up anything. Sometimes the story comes slow – longest was 3 years that turned in 7 pages story. It is like knitting a sweater. I build those stories over time and decide the deadline myself. That I do for my soul, press conferences and portraits I do for my salary, but I wouldn’t be happy without press conferences, because that is important work.

You are mainly interested in social situations, right?

Very much so. A friend of mine once said – you are not a photographer, you are a social worker. That is very much my background. My parents are from Denmark, they are semi-immigrants, one can say. We lived in a poor neighbourhood, my father had five children from the first marriage and three from the second. So financially we were very stretched. When I grew up, I saw society from underneath. That is my perspective. I don’t want to be viewed as weaker and now I am financially middle class, but I envy the people that are born prosperous and that they have their self-confidence and the feeling that the world is their playground. I don’t. Me and my wife don’t take anything for granted. When I go back from where I came, I see people who were not so fortunate, say, drug addicts. It could have been me, but I was lucky. I have a profession that I really like and that took me away from my circumstances.

Was this outsider instinct what initially brought you to hotspots?

No, they kind of came to me. It was the war in Bosnia in 1992 when the newspaper I worked for asked me if I wanted to go there. So it wasn’t my choice, it was part of my work.

There have been some news about riots going on in Stockholm, but they have been quite marginal in the context of other global news. Can you, please, comment on that?

Yes, yesterday night I was working there until 3am. But I wouldn’t call them real riots – I mean first night there were real riots, but not later. The basic problem is poverty. Immigrants are unemployed, there is a big batch of young people without hope. That is the issue.

Where is the Swedish welfare state?

Then again those young people are on welfare, they aren’t really poor, but they are poor in Swedish terms. If you went to Swedish slums, you wouldn’t think they were slums. There was an incident with a mentally disturbed man who was attacking police and as a result he was shot dead. That sparked the riots. Those riots gained their own momentum. In the first night there were three guys arrested but they were not from the area, they had come from elsewhere to riot. Yesterday night perhaps 30 cars were burnt in total. But what you see is that perhaps two cars are burning, some five guys stand beside them and smoke and then police and fire-fighters come and extinguish it. Maybe 20 km away other 3 cars are burning. But then somewhere they started to throw rocks at the fire-fighters. It is dangerous, but those are not full blown riots, even though the situation isn’t good.

This is an indication what we can expect in Europe with poverty persisting and social welfare being squeezed.

I don’t think that is the case this time. The welfare state is still welfare state – it is a good system. But it is the lack of hope. They are unemployed, they don’t starve, but they have no future because they are immigrants. Some are more or less forced to take another road and to become criminals, deal with drugs and so on, some are just hopeless and are easily provoked into throwing rocks. They burn cars in their own neighbourhoods, so it is their neighbours’ cars they are destroying. My colleague who lives there was attacked and they threw rocks at, for instance, an old lady that was saying to them from a balcony that they should stop doing in. What is it about? It is about many different layers – crazy people, hooligans, social issues, police provocation.

It also shows how easy it is to manipulate.

If there is hopelessness, people are very susceptible to manipulation.