It’s pretty easy to take for granted the abundance of information we’re exposed to in a single day. For photojournalists, especially those who document war and conflict, they devote and risk their lives not only for the love of their job, but to give us an immediate understanding of what’s going on in the world.
One of those people is Shawn Baldwin, an award-winning photojournalist originally from New Jersey. After graduating from Syracuse University, he moved to South Africa to work for an NGO; a huge leap for someone who hadn’t done much travelling prior to that. Eager to start working right away, he began travelling around the country seeking out projects on his own and with fellow journalists.
It didn’t take long for Baldwin to sell his first set of photos to UK news agency, Reuters, about a refugee camp in South Africa. Impressed with his work, the news agency offered him a gig documenting what was happening in the country at the time.
“It was kind of a busy time in South Africa. It was during the transition from the white Nationalist Party to Nelson Mandela and the ANC, so I stayed there for a couple years until Reuters offered me a job in London.”
After becoming a Canadian citizen in order to officially start working for Reauters (“It’s kind of difficult for Americans to work there”) he spent five years with them and found himself travelling all over the continent, before deciding to go freelance and move back to New York shortly before 9/11. Baldwin, like many at that time, was immersed in the developing situation in Iraq, and by the time the war started, he and his photographer roommate packed up once again and flew to Baghdad. What was supposed to be a month long venture turned into three years, and an eventual gig with The New York Times.
“By the end of my third year [in Iraq] I was fairly exhausted, so the foreign picture editor at the Times offered me a position in Cairo with a reporter who was moving there to cover the region. That was in 2005. I travelled around the Middle East, Africa and bits of Asia, but that’s where it all stared; in Cairo.”
The photo used for the issue five cover of Marker was taken during the very early days of the Egyptian revolution. Sporadic clashes were happening in the city, but it had not become the massive story it would later grow to be.
On this particular day, Baldwin and some other journalists headed to Al Azhar mosque in an old Islamic area of Cairo where Muslim Brotherhood members gathered for prayer. Almost immediately following the service, a sea of Brotherhood supporters came out in a fury.
[pullquote]I think the role of the photographers and journalists is to keep shoving these stories in front of people whether they want to see them or not.[/pullquote]
“I just remember everyone was so angry; I was stunned. The police were maybe a few hundred meters down the road waiting for them to come out of the mosque, and the clashes took off almost immediately across the city. It was just astounding, and by the end of the day buildings and police vehicles were on fire and the police had basically disappeared. We made our way to Tahrir Square around six or seven that night, and it just went on from there; just clashes all over the place.”
Recently, Baldwin was flown back to New York for surgery after a horrible accident where he was run over by a Hummer (twice). Recovering from surgery gave him ample time to catch up on what the mainstream American media deemed as news. Being as immersed as he gets with the people and places he covers, it’s wearisome, to say the least, how many important stories go ignored.
“I think I speak for most journalists and photographers in that we all wish that more of these stories would appear in the media, but budgets and publications are shrinking, and these days there’s such a turn to celebrity news. Its really frustrating that there isn’t more of an interest in international news.”
While many publications around the world are dealing with shrinking budgets, outside, organizations are providing alternative solutions. Baldwin is currently working on a Syrian Crisis Project for the UNHCR, documenting the struggles of the refugees from a camp in neighboring Jordan.
“A lot of the time unless you’re the National Post or The New York Times, [publications] are not sending photographers and reporters to cover these kind of things, so the UNHCR and other groups like the MSF and HRW, are hiring us to cover stories, then disseminating those stories to the media.”
Regardless of what’s happening in the world, or the current state of mass media and print publications, people like Shawn Baldwin and the countless others who do this kind of work are absolutely crucial to how we digest the world’s issues and how we remember those moments as a part of history. As much as Baldwin loves his job and can’t see himself doing anything else, he warns that we still have a duty to react to what he’s helping to expose.
“I think people in the West have a responsibility to people in places like Iraq and Syria and Libya, because so much of the policies are coming from places like the US and Canada, so I think there’s a huge responsibility to understand what’s happening there. I think the role of the photographers and journalists is to keep shoving these stories in front of people whether they want to see them or not.”