Martine Perret … "When you're in the field you can try to do something."

Martine Perret … "When you're in the field you can try to do something." Photo: peteradams.com

 

MARTINE PERRET 

 From the age of 17, French-born Martine Perret, who is now an Australian citizen, wanted to be involved in humanitarian work. For the past 10 years she has worked as a photographer for the United Nations, based in conflict and post-conflict zones, mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Timor-Leste. Her next mission is to South Sudan.

Forgotten people … Congolese woman Kabibi Tabu, who lost her legs to a landmine, at the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Bunia.

Forgotten people … Congolese woman Kabibi Tabu, who lost her legs to a landmine, at the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Bunia. Photo: Martine Perret

"You tell the story about people who are sometimes forgotten. It's also to tell the story of what the UN is doing. The UN doesn't always have good press, but I've been surrounded by a lot of people who are dedicated to trying to achieve peace.

In September 2006 I was in Bunia in the east of the DRC, where low-level warfare had been going on since 2003. I was photographing different things each day: the army getting training, meetings of warlords, the work of a nursing team that goes into the field and deactivates landmines.

Some UN colleagues told me about this 23-year-old woman, Kabibi Tabu, who went to fetch water near where she was living, blew a landmine and lost both her legs. She was six months pregnant and lost the baby. She was married but her husband left her because, you know, 'Now you're pretty useless to me.'

Kate Geraghty … "You can't photograph the impact of war unless you're right in there."

Kate Geraghty … "You can't photograph the impact of war unless you're right in there." Photo: Anna Kucera

When they told me Kabibi's story, it was just terrible. I asked, 'Where is she?'

The Médecins Sans Frontières people who were looking after Kabibi didn't want me to see her (they can be a bit protective), but I managed to get in and meet her before she left the hospital, and to take her photo. She was incredibly calm when she told me her story and that really stunned me.

I kept in touch with Kabibi and a couple of weeks later I went back to see her in her home. It was a mud hut, there was nothing, no furniture. I thought, 'What kind of life is that?' She had a 10-year-old son, she could not do anything [with no legs].

Urban warfare … an apartment building in Beirut's southern suburbs collapses in the wake of an Israeli bomb.

Urban warfare … an apartment building in Beirut's southern suburbs collapses in the wake of an Israeli bomb. Photo: Kate Geraghty

I heard the Red Cross was making prostheses in a hospital in Goma [a city on the Rwandan border], so I raised money to fly Kabibi there. For a while, I helped out behind the bar where we used to go. It was the perfect time and place to encourage my UN colleagues to help out.

I had to go to Timor-Leste to cover the election. I received an email from a friend showing a picture of Kabibi coming out of a UN flight from Goma on crutches. It brought tears to my eyes, I was really happy. Kabibi was so humble and she had such a beautiful smile. That's the minimum we can do – help her to have some sort of legs.

When you're in the field you can try to do something. It's only one person I may be helping, but it's something, anyway.

Claire Martin … "My photography is about making people aware of a world outside the one we're living in."

Claire Martin … "My photography is about making people aware of a world outside the one we're living in."

It's been five years since I was in the DRC but Kabibi is always on my mind; it's very strange. I often think of her. There are so many times you do a project and you don't follow up. I just want to make sure she's okay. One day I hope I can be back in Bunia, meet Kabibi again and see what became of her. I hope she had a better chance in life."

 

KATE GERAGHTY

Coping with trauma … a Down syndrome sufferer in Haiti performs the butterfly technique.

Coping with trauma … a Down syndrome sufferer in Haiti performs the butterfly technique. Photo: Claire Martin

Growing up, Kate Geraghty wanted to be a hairdresser. Six months after joining Fairfax Media as a photojournalist, she was sent to cover the 2002 Bali bombings and was catapulted into a world of terrorism, war, natural disaster and humanitarian crises. She's since been on assignment in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sudan and the DRC, and became part of the story in 2010 when she was tasered during an Israeli raid on an international flotilla heading to Gaza.

"The 2006 Lebanon War [principally between Israel and Hezbollah paramilitary forces] had been going for three days when Sydney Morning Herald chief correspondent Paul McGeough and I arrived. We crossed over the border from Syria and the first thing we saw was all these vehicles loaded with people fleeing the country. We drove into Beirut and saw trucks on fire and lots of smoke, and when we checked into the hotel we heard our first air raids. It becomes exceptionally real, what you're going into.

Lebanon was an urban kind of conflict in heavily populated areas; we were caught in such indiscriminate bombing we didn't know when it was going to happen. The day I took this picture [above right], I was up very early photographing all the Australians being evacuated by the Australian government. Once I'd filed we spent the afternoon waiting for Israeli air raids.

We heard bombs had hit Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, so I headed over with my fixer, Ghassan. Hezbollah wasn't allowing media into the area because they were afraid of Israeli spies, but we got in because Ghassan had family there.

We had the windows of our vehicle wound down; my head was sticking out looking at the sky for drones and listening. They sound like lawnmowers. We pulled over and started walking down the street when we heard the explosion. We started running the opposite way and found ourselves in this street that had been hit. I had adrenalin surging through my body - I was running over rubble, shooting backwards with my camera on my hip. I just held the shutter release down. I could see two people running while the building was collapsing. I have no idea if they made it.

Ghassan was saying, 'Run, run, give me your camera, run, run.' We took off down the street thinking we should just get out of there before they drop another bomb. You can't outrun bombs or gunfire, so you try not to get yourself in a position where you need to. When we got back to the car I was smoking a lot of cigarettes, shaking. I thought, 'Holy shit. We could very easily get killed here today.'

You can't photograph the impact of war unless you're right in there. In the absence of a legal or justice system, your images are a way to show the world what people are going through. It's a big responsibility.

It's hard to explain to people what you've seen. It's people on the worst day of their lives usually, but you also see people be the most humane to each other. It's very humbling.

I don't think about the risk of dying, I'm so busy doing the job. I suppose I could, I've just got good luck that I haven't so far."

 

CLAIRE MARTIN

Perth's Claire Martin was studying social work when she realised she wanted to make a difference through her photography. With a strong interest in marginalised people in developed countries, Martin has documented drug addicts in a Vancouver urban slum and squatters in the Colorado desert, as well as the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

"I learnt while I was in Haiti that I am more drawn to human stories. Working in crisis zones, it's very risky and unpredictable, the whole mob mentality. Things can escalate so quickly ... you desensitise quickly; when you go out once and it's fine, it becomes very normal. You don't think about it dramatically.

I had gone to Haiti in January 2011 for the one-year anniversary of the earthquake to explore how people resume life when they've lost so much and everything is so hard. I was looking around, going to various different camps grasping what it all meant, what the impact was on people, getting my head around the crisis. Lots of people were being forcibly evicted from the camps on government land and moved back into their earthquake-ruined concrete homes that were really unsafe. Some of them were red-tagged for demolition.

There was no stability in these semi-demolished old homes; any move in the earth could cause the concrete to collapse. I was spending time with a family there when I came across some kids playing on the rooftops.

A few days before I took this photo, I'd been speaking to a trauma case worker, asking how people can overcome so much grief. They've lost their homes, entire families, their legs, they're disabled. They've had so many catastrophic events in their life, you can't fathom how they can move on from there. As Westerners coming in, how can we relate to such a different life?

The case worker told me about this particular technique that they encourage people who've been through trauma to practise. It's called the butterfly technique: you cross your arms over the front of your body and tap your fingers on your shoulders. It's supposed to activate both sides of the brain together while calming the nervous system. I've tried it myself. It's ridiculously relaxing, it's like meditation in a way.

The photo sprang from that conversation: on the rooftop I came across this guy who was unconsciously doing this very protective pose. He had a very expressive face, partly because he has Down syndrome; he didn't have a filter on. Most Haitians, when you take a photograph, put on a filter: they smile, they're affected by the presence of the camera. He was unaffected in that way. By looking at him, you get the whole emotion and feel of what a lot of Haitians had been through. He visually communicated the grief and sense of loss.

The thing about Haitian people, they're so resilient, there's so much joy. They're out playing, they're kicking a soccer ball, the girls dress up, they get on with life in what capacity they can. But there is obviously still so much trauma. Every day I was in Haiti, I felt like the luckiest human in the universe. I was so thankful for what I had, and I wanted for nothing. Within a week of being back in the Western world, I was back to, 'I want this, I want that.' It happens so subconsciously, you're so subject to your environment.

You realise how fortunate we are in Australia. My photography is about making people aware of a world outside the one we're living in. You hope to ignite compassion in people who would otherwise be completely removed from the situation. Depending on your story, it can make people aware of stigma and disadvantage, and hopefully change people's perceptions of problems."