Photojournalist Zed Nelson Interviewed

48, 49

Here and there. Zed Nelson’s life has been spent shuttling from one place to another – and a whole lot of places in between. Here, there and everywhere. It’s been that way since the start – personally first, then professionally later.

Here? His home-office base in Mildmay Park, a broad street of north London Victorian stucco where Islington meets Hackney and can’t quite decide which it is? Or Kampala – where he was born and to which he returned when studying for his degree in photography? There? Los Angeles and the Picture of the Year awards ceremony, for which Simon, his temporary assistant, is on the phone arranging flights? Or Kabul, where he came close to death by mujaheddin Kalashnikov?

Everywhere? Senegal, China, Sri Lanka, Brazil, the US, Trinidad and Tobago, Russia, UK, Iran, Malaysia, Thailand, Chile, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Dominican Republic, South Africa, Haiti? They’re the 18 countries that feature in his recent book, Love Me, an analysis of the global beauty business – or, rather, an analysis of the global reach of Anglo-American ideas of how we should look.

He’s the son of a pair of itchy-footed journalists – there’s a sister, too, a little older. His parents met on the Hornsey Journal and moved to Uganda together to edit a paper. Born in 1965, he was originally called Zik – the nickname of a popular African politician. “My parents didn’t think about the fact that, in a few years, I’d be back in a London comprehensive. It mutated into Zed when I started working. People found that easier somehow.” The Uganda years ended abruptly when Idi Amin came to power. “As an editor, my father was dragged out of bed and arrested. People were beginning to disappear. Basically, everything just went bad.”

So then came his first move from there to here – or north London, at least. Next came everywhere. At an age when most young children are just starting to explore the local park, Zed and his sister were shown the world. His parents, having decided that, by having children young, they’d missed out on the exploratory possibilities of the 1960s, converted an old diesel ambulance into a caravan and drove it to India. It took a year. Zed was eight. What can he remember of this first pan-global adventure, a kind of template for his professional future?

“Everything negative. Having cowshit pelted at us as we drove through Afghan villages. Breaking down in the desert and my stamp collection blowing away in the wind. Someone offering to swap me for a pair of boots at the Pakistan border. Mum getting bitten by a rabid dog in India. After a year on the road, I was a bit like a wolf child. I wouldn’t wear shoes.

“I think it made me and my sister want to be incredibly normal. We swore to our parents we’d never leave England again. I didn’t have any hankerings to travel again until my late teenage years.”

Back in north London, his parents – with “incredible naivety” – sent him to what was then one of the worst schools in the country. “Horrible, subsequently closed down.” He left school barely educated and went to work in a warehouse. “Deep down, I resented them sending me to that school. I was less a yob underneath than I looked, but I hung out with people who weren’t going anywhere. It took a few years to get back to an interesting life. My horizons had been so lowered by my school and the people I hung around with.” A memento of the time is a tattoo. It’s not a good one. “I got it in Leicester Square when I was 16. I took my own drawing but [the tattooist] told me to fuck off or have one of his. Ten quid. I got away lightly. My sister had five.”

Somehow – it’s still not fully clear even to him – he took to photography. “I picked up a camera. It was fun and it was rewarding. Later I enrolled on a photography course. From there it gets more complex. It sounds clichéd, but I wanted to change the world, to feel involved. The idea of having a voice – to comment on the world and to influence other people’s opinions – was very attractive. I believed photography could be a powerful tool to make meaningful statements and be a force for change, and also, at the same time be an amazing way to actually earn a living.”

Realising he didn’t have the qualifications to do a degree, he did a one-year course of A levels at the London College of Printing before moving on to Harrow College to study photography and film. There, he found his here. He started working, too. “I could not only do a degree in a subject I loved, but I could also earn a living. No turning back, really.”

He took pictures on demonstrations and took them to newspapers. “It cost you about £30 in expenses. If you sold one and were lucky, you’d get £30.” A focal moment was the Poll Tax riot of March 31 1990 when anti-Thatcher beliefs found violent expression in Trafalgar Square: over 12 hours of sporadic fighting between demonstrators and police – 113 injured (none very seriously), 339 arrested, South African High Commission, Stringfellow’s club and Porsches set on fire.

“When I got there, I was 60% protester and 40% photographer. When it kicked off, I became 100% photographer. I remember being at the front of a crowd of protesters being pushed face to face with a row of riot police as things began to trigger off. I had to choose who I was: photographer or protester? I also remember how scared the police looked and having genuine sympathy for what they were facing.” He calls it sympathy. I’d call it acknowledgement and understanding of complexity. It’s a hard-won acceptance of the challenge presented by Algernon Moncrieff’s justly renowned comment that truth is “rarely pure and never simple” – made to his friend Jack Worthing in the first scene of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.

The riot picture that Zed sold – to City Limits, a left-wing London listings magazine – was of “a couple sitting together in the middle of the carnage, with all the smoke and fire and police running around. It summed it all up for me.”

Right from the beginning, then, he was taking the kind of picture that would become typically his – engaged, yet humane, politically and socially questioning without being either rhetorical or hectoring. The magazine used it full page, paying him £25. Again, he was setting a template for his future. “I’ve refined the art of working in fields where it’s hard to get people to pay you.”

When he came into the game in the early 1990s, there was still a strong tradition of magazine documentary photography, both in weekend newspaper supplements, the Independent in particular, and – extraordinary as it seems at this distance – in youth and style magazines. He worked for The Face and Sky magazine, travelling the world (on a budget) to troubled spots of his choice. Somalia, Angola, Afghanistan – places that the news media weren’t focused on. “Places that I felt were being ignored. Otherwise, what was the point? What would I have to offer?” The money wasn’t great. The Face paid £100 a page. Even then, a six-page story didn’t even cover his air fare. So he lived cheaply and, in time, balanced up with “portraits, the odd corporate assignment and the occasional advertising job”.

Don McCullin was his hero, of course. “I was very idealistic. You could say naïve. I had this idea documentary photography could change the world to some degree. What followed was I became disillusioned with the framework of the media you have to work with – the over-simplification of stories.” Which is common in his field. At its worst, the ‘teddy bear in the rubble’ shot.

Then one day, he found himself in Kabul and near death, with Tyler Brûlé, a man whom he’d met backstage at a Milan fashion show – on assignment for the Mail on Sunday’s YOU Magazine. Later, Tyler went on to set up Wallpaper magazine and something of a small style empire, but in those days he was a journalist set on reporting from the world’s less friendly places – in extremely nice clothes.

Soon after that first meeting, they were sent together to Afghanistan – at the depths of the guerrilla war to drive out the Russians – to do a story for Sky magazine and the German publication Focus on ‘the last aid agency in Kabul’, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières – which was holed up in a basement bunker in its own building. “[They were] a group of devil-may-care Gitane-smoking aid workers. We’ve laughed about it since, but it was obviously not funny. The horror emerges in retrospect.”

Neither Zed nor Tyler had been to Afghanistan before or spoke any local language. Zed’s only real international communication skill, in fact, is that he can do animal noises “very well”. Even that’s been of less use since he turned vegetarian. They flew into Pakistan and made their way to the Afghan border by rickshaw and donkey, then crossed on foot, “against a flood of 2,000 Afghans trying to claw their way out”. Zed paused, rubbed his hand across his half-shaven face and up over his receding hairline. “Pushing our way through heaving bodies brandishing passports and Kalashnikovs. That should have been a warning.” They thumbed a lift with an aid agency convoy to Kabul and pitched up at the Médecins Sans Frontières HQ. “They looked at us with total horror – like we were ghosts. They said: ‘Why are you here?’ As with all disasters, there are, in retrospect, significant moments when you have warnings, and that was one of them.

“We’d arrived in the middle of a raging war. Médecins Sans Frontières were evacuating in a week themselves. We weren’t welcome. Still, they took us in. They tried their best to help.” Zed and Tyler toured the city in a white land cruiser. They visited the British embassy – an empty, bombed-out shell guarded by 10 Gurkhas. “The city was just in ruins.” All kinds of different mujaheddin units were in control of their own little areas – each separated by armed roadblocks.

Then came the third, fateful day. There being no white land cruisers available, they took a dark blue Toyota. A mistake – it was a vehicle favoured by mujaheddin commanders. Their fixer was unavailable so they took a well-mannered doctor. Another mistake – he was too polite to tell them (as a regular fixer would have) that they should not go down this or that street, no fucking way, get the fucking fuck out fucking now.

“The elements came together and ended in disaster. We arrived at a checkpoint: a piece of string with a one-legged bloke on a plush sofa, some kids with Kalashnikovs and a bearded man with a bandaged head and a machine gun. You show your press card and they wave you through. Which they did – basically on to the frontline between two warring groups. A question our interpreter had forgotten to ask. “We turned a corner and the atmosphere changed in the car. There was a growing realisation that all was not well. It was silent. No birds twittering, no one on the street. All the buildings were rubble. The trees were splintered in half. It was like a Hollywood war film set. “Then there was a gunshot and the windscreen exploded – with machine gun fire. I was sitting in front seat with the driver. Tyler was in the back with the interpreter. The sound of bullets hitting metal. A horrible, violent sound.”

Zed had been under fire before but not directly. This was the first time he’d been a target. “The car screeched to a halt. The driver ducked into the footwell. The car got hit 17 times. It felt like it was disintegrating around us. Suddenly I became very clear in my thinking: we were all going to be dead in 20 seconds if we didn’t act. The driver was curled up in ball. He looked like a wild animal. I whispered to him to drive away. He pressed the accelerator with his foot or hand – I couldn’t see which – while I steered without raising my head over the dashboard. We did a 360-degree spin and went back the way we came.”

As they approached the next roadblock, Zed became convinced they would be shot at again. “I remember thinking how ironic that would be.” Instead, they careered through unharmed. “It was only then that we realised Tyler had been shot in both arms. It looked like someone had thrown a bucket of pig’s blood over him. The interpreter had been shot through the neck and was silent. We drove to a hospital we’d photographed that morning.”

The story goes that, when Tyler was lying there, bloody and in pain on a Kabul hospital gurney, he still had the presence of mind to ask Zed to photograph him – and to make sure the label on his Calvin Klein underwear would be visible. Zed laughs. “He never actually said that. But it was clear his Calvins were there. As they were cutting off his clothes and removing his rings – as is standard for surgery – and he beckoned me closer. I thought it was going to be his last words. Instead he said: ‘Get my Rolex off them.’ At that moment a light came on for me: he wasn’t going to die. I don’t think a dying man would ask for his Rolex. So I asked him if he wanted me to take photos and he agreed, but it wasn’t his idea.”

Both Tyler and the interpreter recovered, but it was a year before Tyler could work again. “A disillusioning process. Tyler asked for some kind of compensation from magazines and they pulled the shutters down in his face. It was startling to realise, as a freelancer, how alone you are when something goes wrong.” The magazines didn’t see it that way, I know. They felt it wasn’t their responsibility. I talked to someone who was around at the time, working on the commissioning desk of a magazine which ran the kind of stories that took Zed and Tyler to Kabul. “Nowadays,” they said, “I doubt a commissioning editor would be able to say yes to such a story proposal without terms and conditions. But in those days I don’t think they gave it much thought.”

How did it change, Zed? Personally, not at all, he says. No nervous breakdown or anything. “But professionally, it made me want to do stories which stripped all glamour from guns. Even war reporting can have that glamour. You can live vicariously through images of conflict. There is an underlying exoticism to it. Depicting war doesn’t bring it to an end. I felt sickened by it, but didn’t want to give up what I was doing. I started feeling you had to be more complex in your approach – examine where the weapons were coming from, which governments were profiting from those conflicts. Simply to portray war was no longer enough. First I had a feeling of powerlessness then I channelled that energy into a story.”

Into Gun Nation, that is – his first book, a wide-ranging and sweeping depiction of the relationship between firearms, America and Americans. It’s an arresting mixture of classical 35mm reportage and medium-format portraiture – all in high-contrast monochrome. On the one hand, blur and loud snapshot-like images of, say, gunshot victims arriving in A&E rooms. On the other, almost ethnographic photographs of Americans with their guns – self-posed generally. It’s as if Weegee and Atget collaborated on one volume. As Zed intended, it gives it a texture and analytic power all of its own. Sometimes it judges, sometimes it doesn’t – but it’s never judgemental. It’s always more interested in thinking than deciding.

“It explored the paradox of why America’s most potent symbol of freedom is also one of its greatest killers. It focused on the reality of the gun ‘problem’ – the largely white, middle-class Americans who bought and sold guns in vast numbers, and shot each other – and themselves – in equally vast numbers, in accidents, suicides and school shooting rampages. It was about commercialism, myth-building, history, stereotypes, paranoia and mass denial.”

There’s the same visual approach, more or less, in Love Me, too – only colour this time and an even wider range of styles and approaches. “A wide variety of photographic strategies and techniques – stylised portraiture, landscapes, studio still-life and documentary.”

A glowing golden hairpiece laid on a bright white background, shot in London. A calm, reflective portrait of a young woman with a bandaged nose standing next to her headscarfed mother – rhinoplasty in Tehran. A pair of American officers in combats, by the wing of a fighter jet – US Army plastic surgeons who regularly perform breast enlargements and liposuction on troops. A clutch of attractive young black women with carefully straightened hair – trainee models in Senegal. “I had noticed that not only were places beginning to look the same, but people were beginning to look more similar, too. Globalisation hasn’t just given us Starbucks in Beijing and shopping malls in Africa, it is also creating an eerily homogenised look. Beauty is a $160 billion-a-year global industry. The worldwide pursuit of body improvement has become like a new religion. It struck me that the modern Western beauty ideal has been sold to us, and is now being packaged and exported globally like a crude universal brand.” There becoming here. Everywhere becoming here.

As with all Zed’s work, the certainty and rhetoric of his language is not reflected in his pictures. There is doubt, reflection, thought, questioning. “My aim was to produce a body of work that encourages every one of us to question our own place in a culture that compels us to constantly judge, and be judged, by our appearance.”

The cover is a head-and-shoulders shot of an attractive young Essex girl. It’s only when you get to the picture inside the book that you realise that what you thought were naturally gorgeous full red lips were, in fact, tattooed on. They’re still gorgeous, though.


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