The Story Behind the Picture: Jackson Gallagher

Jackson Gallagher’s versatility is admirable — actor, artist, photographer, activist and we’re not sure what else! We had the pleasure of interviewing the Aussie-based photographer for this month’s Story Behind the Picture. Jackson tells us what inspired his photo project in Jordan and Palestine, how he is trying to humanise the refugee crisis through photography, and why it’s not always easy to detach yourself from the people you photograph.

What initiated your interest in photography?
As a teenager I enjoyed taking photos of graffiti with disposable cameras, which evolved into taking photos of friends to use as references to paint portraits and make stencils. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC after high school and spent time with photographer Jay Maisel that I started learning how to take pictures. Jay gave me my first camera and I spent months walking around NYC taking photos and learning how to shoot. I learnt a lot from watching Jay shoot, he taught me the importance of Light, Colour and Gesture.

The photo is one of many taken in Palestine and Jordan. What did the series entail?
The series was born out of an assignment to Jordan with an aid organisation Act for Peace. The organisation was overseeing an aid distribution in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman, while I was there I interviewed families and documented the community-based work that was being conducted in the camp. After working in Jordan, I travelled to Palestine to meet up with an Australian film maker, this photo was captured during my time in Ramallah.

What inspired the picture you’ve chosen?
I had returned to Al-Am’ari refugee camp in the city of Ramallah, the previous day I was there with a friend who spoke arabic and we had met with a man who ran a school. I had returned alone to meet him again and talk more about the program he was running. Regrettably my Arabic is very poor, so walking around by myself I wasn’t able to communicate as freely as the previous day. I ran into this group of young men, who were curious as to who I was and what I was doing walking around their neighbourhood. Once they realised I wasn’t Israeli tension ceased we started joking around and arm wrestling. At first the guys were very keen to pose in front of the camera, and I showed some them how to use my camera and we joked around taking photos of each other, I was able to fire a couple of frames in between and capture this candid moment.

How long did it take to shoot the series?
I was working with the NGO for a week in Jordan, all up I spent a month in the region.

There almost seems to be a look of acceptance on the faces of the men in the shot. Was that the case? How did they feel about their situation?
What struck me the most during my time in the region was when I asked people about the current situation and whether they thought they would see change in their lifetime, everyone I asked that question to said no. Even though that sounds rather grim, these young men I photographed reminded me of other young men around the world, they had a youthful energy and lust for life. I realised they had become almost desensitised to their surroundings — as an outsider what I found to be confronting they just took in their stride.

The use of colours is quite vivid in this shot and others in the series. How elemental is your use of colour in giving a feel of time and place?
Colour and light are vital to the photos I make. My experience on this assignment was characterised by the vibrancy of the environments I photographed. Although this contrasted with the context of the stories I was capturing, the light was always bright, and the colours extremely vivid. It is this contrast that I think makes the pictures intriguing and engaging.

What camera was this taken on?
Nikon D750, with 24-70 2.8 lense

How important was using Photoshop in editing this image?
I didn’t use Photoshop on this image, I processed the raw image in Capture one, slightly adjusting exposure, contrast and saturation, apart from that not much processing was needed.

Looking at the photograph your approach to reportage photography seems very amicable.  Would you agree with that?
Yes, for me making picture is about meeting people, and the story and experience behind the photograph. As a photographer I try to develop a relationship with the person I’m shooting, even, in this case the relationship is not bound in language. Given the context I was hyper aware and mindful of the reality of the position I am in as a foreign photographer, and I make sure to capture photos that respect and empower the people I am meeting and shooting.

How responsive were people living in these refugee camps to your presence?
Overall the people I met were very responsive, everybody had a story to tell. The families I met and interviewed were very welcoming and generous, people felt the world had forgotten about them, so sharing their story was very important.

Is there anything that surprised you during this series? 
I learnt a lot during my trip. It’s one thing to read about a region and be across media reports, but being on the ground and listening to peoples’ stories, seeing for yourself what day-to-day life is like. I was surprised, and saddened by the lack of hope among the young people I spent time with.

What do you hope people will feel looking at this image?
I didn’t make the picture with an audience in mind. But, since returning from this trip, talking to people about my experience and the work and the people I met and their stories, I realised that I would like my photography to humanise the current refugee situation. It’s easy to become desensitised from the constant stream of tragedy and news cycle, what struck me during my experience and what I want to communicate through my work is how relatable the human story is. The families I met spoke of life before they had become displaced and they lived very relatable lives. I strive to make work that tells a story that an audience can empathise with, it is through empathy and compassion that we as a global community can work towards a positive solution of the refugee situation.

Would you say you’re a subjective or objective photographer? 
To be honest I’ve never really thought about it, I think its hard to detach yourself from the people you are photographing as the very nature of your presence changes the situation you are capturing. However, some of the best moments I’ve capture is when a subject has become so comfortable with my presence and they forget that I am even there.

Is your style inspired by anyone in particular?
As a young photographer I was very lucky to spend time with Mary Ellen Mark, she continues to inspire me and my work, also I look at my work and see the influence of my first mentor Jay Maisel. I also have great admiration for Tim Hetherington‘s body of work and dedication and commitment to the stories he told.

What lies ahead for you?
I’ve recently returned from East Timor, where I was shooting an education program run by an Australian organisation called OakTree, so I’m currently in the midst of editing. Next destination is Cambodia to shoot with the Cambodian Children’s Fund.

What does photography give you that nothing else does?
Photography makes me pause and take a second to look at the world around me, it gives me an excuse to stop and have a conversation with a stranger.

To view more of Jackson’s work click here or follow him on @jackson_gallagher_  and to support the work of Act for Peace click here

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