By Lauren Bowen
This fall, as NetHope’s work with refugees fleeing Syria began, we were fortunate to enjoy the talents of Icelandic search and rescue professional and photographer, Sigurður Ólafur Sigurðsson. We are so excited to share with you this compelling interview about his experience:
Hi Siggi! Tell us a bit about yourself and your path to becoming a humanitarian photographer. Is this your full time career?
Since 1990, I’ve been a search and rescue volunteer and for the past 17 years I’ve worked at ICE-SAR headquarters (Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue). Among other things, I was involved with the ICE-SAR international team until I finally made the move over to professional photography; it only made sense that I would combine these two life passions, photography and search and rescue, into a career in search and rescue, emergency, and humanitarian photography.
I still do a lot of other types of photography, mainly commercial and documentary photography, but also occasional do weddings and product-focused shoots. Regardless, my focus and passion is in emergency and now humanitarian photography. What I am doing there can be best seen on my website which focuses on that niche in my portfolio. Although we live in a time where ‘everybody with a mobile phone is a photographer,’ I believe that people are starting to realise that it doesn’t replace the need for proper documentary photography. In fact, the increased usage of imagery has made us all better at reading images and the need for good images has never been greater.
What kinds of NetHope projects have you been a part of so far? How have you seen these projects change the world?
The European Refugee Crisis was my first mission with NetHope, although I have been watching NetHope’s work from the sidelines through my friends and colleagues for a few years now. Nowadays, communication, collaboration and connectivity has become such an integral part of our lives; I feel that the work being done by NetHope is simply vital to any type of emergency situation. And the fact that it is not just about the technology and the gadgets but also about coordination, cooperation, information management and simply facilitating a conversation between all the different players in this work is what actually makes the technology useful. Setting up the gear doesn’t necessarily solve anything, using that gear, however, to have a conversation does. That’s what the people I know and those I have worked with at NetHope are good at. I know from 25 years in search and rescue that every mission depends on people communicating.
Tell us about your experience working with Syrian refugees. Was it what you expected? What did you feel?
As everyone else there, I knew the situation only from the media. And anyone who has ever been involved in anything like this knows that the media can never really tell the full story. It tends, understandably, to focus on the darker sides, the sorrow, pain and danger these people have endured. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the positive experience. The joy over reaching safety; the smiles on the peoples’ faces; and of course their gratitude for what we and other NGO’s, local and international volunteers, and local authorities were doing for them. At first I thought that they didn’t realise what they were getting themselves into, all the hardship they had coming in the future. But later, having spoken to some of those people and hearing their stories, I realised that I didn’t understand the hardship and suffering some of them were coming from. The whole experience confirmed once again my firm believe that people in general, regardless of origin, faith and nationality, are all the same. All they want is safety, freedom and future.
Your pictures tell some amazing stories. Could you tell us more about your favorite photographs and what was going on at the time the picture was taken?
I always find it hard to select my favorites…especially when it comes to series’ like these that are trying to tell a very human story. Still, there are a few images that stick with me, mostly because there is a certain human connection I have to them. There is an image of a little girl playing with her father’s cell phone with her mother speaking on the phone in the background, another of two proud man proudly showing off their permit to pass through Greece, and my favorite: the images from the beach where we showed up right after a boat had landed – because of the joy and optimism that I felt there. In particular, a photograph of a father photographing his four children by the water’s edge, still wearing their life vests, stands out. It was such a strong contrast from the boat landings I had seen in the media. There was hope in their eyes and their smiles and I felt like I had witnessed and photographed the first moments of their new life. The image that this father was taking right there may have easily marked the beginning of a new life for them – one of those milestone images all families have. I feel honoured that they returned my smile when I showed them my camera and for what made it possible for me to share that. Because, for me, showing hope is just as important, if not more important than showing hopelessness.
You’ve done and experienced so much in these past few months. What’s next for you?
Currently, I am finishing a big project for the 112 Emergency Dispatch Center here in Iceland where I am trying to portray the people that respond to emergencies in Iceland in a 100-page photo book. The plan is to publish that in January 2016 on the organization’s 20th anniversary. The first months of 2016 will be split between smaller commercial jobs I have coming up, moving into a new studio, and then a relatively secret international, crowd-funded project. It’s taking up a lot of space in my mind and needs to get out, but I can’t really say anything about yet! And then of course, the nature of photographing emergencies is that you don’t always know what’s next. We will see.
All images courtesy of SigOSig Photography.