“Photojournalists are merely a link; it’s always the narrative of others that are most significant,” says American photojournalist Carol Guzy, a firm believer in long-form, human-interest, documentary photojournalism, and recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes.
In her almost four-decade-long career Guzy has had “a tapestry of experiences” that have enriched her life, having witnessed much horror and tragedy, hope and love. She has worked in volatile and historic situations — among them, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kosovo refugees escaping into Albania as they fled Serb ethnic cleansing in 1999, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the devastating effects of ISIS in Iraq in 2017, and migrants journeying to America in 2018.
“It was humbling to document the resilient spirit of Haitians dealing with endless adversity. Migrant families endure such struggles seeking a better life for their kids who still find joy playing in dire conditions at refugee camps,” she told Firstpost about her various assignments, in a recent email interview. “There are also times I put the camera down for a second just to absorb the sheer delight of covering historic events like the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Over the years, given the increasing political polarisation all over the world, Guzy has noticed more hostility in the way people respond to her photographs.
“It seems journalists are becoming even more of a target. We are not the enemy and certainly that dangerous rhetoric must stop,” she says.
For people to pay attention to photojournalism, there needs to be an increase in awareness about their role. “There is a need to educate society and the general public about real documentary photojournalism and the vital role it has in raising awareness, as well as the difference between this profession and the thousands of images that inundate social media,” she adds.
Guzy is grateful for any appreciation she gets for her job, or when readers respond to a story by talking about how deeply it moved them. That is her aim as a photojournalist; not just to document history, but also to spread awareness, and actually bring about change.
Her work as a photojournalist has taught her much about the human condition and responses during times of crisis.
“We [photojournalists] may witness intense sorrow and injustice, but also the poetry of life. There are people that show us the meaning of dignity and grace.”
Her photos are known for sparking this same humanity in viewers, reminding them that what they’re seeing aren’t just 'subjects' but real people. “There are so many images that become part of our soul,” says Guzy, attributing the effectivity of her work to the quality of empathy. It is the ability to put herself in the subject’s shoes that allows her to poignantly tell an entire narrative through a limited number of photos. “As photojournalists we walk the journey with those we document and it’s certainly never exactly the same as being in their shoes, but the goal is to provide visual storytelling that may connect a viewer by the universal eloquent language of photography,” she explains.
This empathy, however, is something she describes as “a blessing and a curse,” since “it provides a compelling window into the lives of those we document but can break a heart a thousand times harder.” This has certainly been a challenge and Guzy has spoken at great length about her own mental struggle to cope with the things she’s seen, and how she regularly goes to therapy as a means of coping. “It has been difficult at times to battle the emotional trauma of bearing witness,” she says.
She speaks about her struggle to “highlight the fact that journalists also deal with issues of depression and PTSD as aftershocks of many experiences,” urging journalists to allow themselves to feel and deal with these issues instead of putting on a tough act: “We are human, not walking cameras. It is nothing to feel shame about; it simply means you have a beating heart. Hopefully there will be more dialogue to deal with these issues. We spend our lives photographing the human condition and others’ most intimate moments, surely we should strive to have the same courage of transparency.”
Guzy graduated with an associate degree in Nursing from the Northampton County Area Community College. However, she soon realised that this wasn’t the career she wanted to pursue. Guzy found her passion for photography when a boyfriend handed her a camera, later enrolling in at Florida’s Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale for a course in photography. Throughout her career, Guzy has developed a reputation for finding hope and positivity amidst the disastrous situations she covers, which she also attributes to her empathy.
“It is vital to provide balance with our coverage and in most every desperate situation there are usually shining moments of grace and tenderness from those who rise above it. It seems tragedy brings out the very worst and very best in people. Shining the light also on those moments of selfless kindness helps maintain a faith in humanity,” Guzy says, of the philosophy that guides her work and lens.
Such a moment can sometimes be hard to recognise until it has passed. “That moment can be peak action, expression, body language or anything that can involve a viewer on a visceral level.” While empathy allows Guzy to notice such moments, it is her instinct and patience that guides her through actually capturing them. “The 'moment' is crucial to making compelling images. Moments are fleeting and quite easy to miss — you blink, turn right instead of left, and they are gone. But many-a-times, your gut feeling helps to anticipate a moment. It requires much patience.”
It is for this reason that she doesn’t have plan a concrete plan or process when going out to cover a story: “I try to keep an open mind and not have preconceived ideas of what the story will be, but rather follow as it flows to portray the reality as truthfully as possible.”
When on the field and focused on the situation, she’s decidedly uninterested in spending time looking down at her equipment. “I am very much a content photographer and use zoom lenses to avoid changing lenses and missing those precious moments,” she says. She’s stuck to Nikon cameras her entire career and is now a Nikon ambassador. “I’m not a technical person and usually prefer to learn the mechanics of any camera well enough to forget so that it becomes an extension of my arm, mind and heart to concentrate on making pictures,” Guzy concludes.
In her 2017 project Bearing Witness: Scars of Mosul, The Legacy of ISIS Carol Guzy documented the effects of war in Mosul, Iraq, between ISIS and the Iraqi state.
“The citizens who called this home were trapped or held captive as human shields. Wounded and weak, they arrive at a medical triage and transport area near the Old City, struggling to grasp the remnants of their lives. Most who survived now face an uncertain future, forgotten in the limbo of IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps,” explained Guzy, about the project.
Here's a selection of photographs from Guzy's 2017 project.
Please note many among these are graphic in nature. Reader discretion is advised.