MediaGlobal interviews award-winning photographer Walter Astrada. Native to Argentina, Astrada has made it his career’s mission to bring global awareness about human rights abuses, especially violence against women and children. His work in Guatemala and their femicide problem, along with his work in Africa, has won him several awards and global recognition. Interview by Jika Gonzalez and LaShawn Pagan. Presentation by Laurent Y. Peter.
MG: We will start with your work in Guatemala, what inspired you to focus on the femicide?
WA: I was scouring the newspapers for ideas on what to work on; I read a story on Doctors without Borders, and their work in Liberia and I thought that was a good idea – but, in the same newspaper there was a small story about a woman killed in Spain (where he was residing at the time). I decided to stay local and do a project on on women’s rights. As I began researching the topic, I studied material on women’s rights violations around the world, by the end I had a map of sorts, where women’s rights were being violated every day.
I designed a project that would concentrate on one country for each continent. Afterwards, I began applying for grants and scholarships, while beginning to work on my own. Guatemala was easily accessible to me, since I spoke the language and had friends living there. After the first trip I won a first place on Contemporary Issues on the World Press Photo (2006) award and that enabled me to go back to Guatemala and continue my work in the country.
MG: I saw your documentary on India’s selective abortion (Undesired). After spending time in Guatemala and India, is there any way to compare the two countries, when it comes to the rights of women?
WA: It’s very difficult to compare such different countries, the religions are different. Violence in India has much to do with religion and the interpretation of it plus the cultural practices; in Guatemala it doesn’t. The only comparison is that in both countries there is a type of violence, and women do not have the same social status as men, but anything more than that is quite difficult to associate to one another. We could maybe compare Guatemala to El Salvador, or maybe even Mexico, but India seems a little complicated.
MG: Leaning a bit more toward photography; when you find yourself in situations where you are so close to violence, is there a feeling of disconnect, is having a camera a sort of shield or protection? Have you ever felt the need to step from behind the camera?
WA: Let’s put things into perspective: the camera is a tool, I’m a photographer. I’m not a nurse, or a psychologist. But I can’t disconnect from what I’m seeing, feeling, so, my mission is to try to do my job well, and that means ensuring the photo conveys the message it needs to. That photo impresses those people it needs to impress, that puts pressure on those who need pressure to act and stop or change what is going wrong.
The camera is not a form of protection; it’s only a tool, that piece of metal that can take a picture that, hopefully, moves us all.
MG: As a photographer, you have witnessed a lot of violence – do you feel you have accomplished your mission in bringing awareness to the problem?
WA: I had tried my best to do it, to bring awareness about human rights violations, but to get your pictures given the message you need to show them.
So, there are different ways of doing it, through publications, exhibitions, screenings, internet, and also awards. With my work I had won several awards which normally come along with an exhibition, so through those awards my photos are able to be seen in more places. The point is: there is something wrong when your goal is to win a prize. Although someone at some point found your work to be important enough to reward you for it, and give it that recognition, what’s most important is getting the image [message] out there.
MG: There was a situation when you had to send a female to do interviews; is this something you’ve had to deal with several times?
WA: No, only in India, because of their strong sense of culture. For example, the maternity photos took me a while to take because I am a man — if I were a woman it would have been much easier. As a woman, some situations are easier to work in and vice versa as a man. It also helped that I was a foreigner.
MG: Tell us about a time where you haven’t gotten more than an “award” for your work:
WA: There several times where you don’t get an award but the pictures makes the pages of newspapers or magazines and the people start talking about the problems.
But there an example when I won the PGB (Photographers Giving Back) prize for both photo and photographer of the year. With that prize there was a monetary award as well. Both the prized photographer and the PGB association decide where the money should go. The association wanted to donate the money to the child or the child’s family (Kenya Post Election Conflict), but I thought it would be more productive to donate the money to a group of 200 women (in Congo), the same women that housed me while I was working there. The amount was $ 5,000 and these women used that money to continuing renting land where they cultivated seeds, and bought tools for faming. In the end, it helped almost 1610 people in the community.
MG: After you complete your Norwegian project on domestic violence, what are your plans?
WA: I want to do a ride on my motobike from Europe to Southern Asia next year.