A photographer's take: in conversation with a humanitarian storyteller

Jason Florio is a humanitarian photographer and storyteller. His work focuses on under-reported stories about people living on the margins of society and in places of conflict – and he has done several photography projects for United Purpose. Here, he talks to us about his inspiring career journey to date.

  Above: Jason Florio

Above: Jason Florio

Hi Jason! Can you start by introducing yourself and explaining how you became a humanitarian photographer?

I was born in London in 1965, but called New York City home for nearly 20 years, along with continued long immersions into West Africa. I started out apprenticing to some of the big NYC fashion photographers, but a chance dinner with two National Geographic veterans confirmed my persistent doubts: my path was not to be in a cushy studio shooting French Vogue, but immersing myself into the ‘real’ world. My first big assignment was in Afghanistan about a year later – it was life affirming and confirmed the direction I had chosen to go.

What is your most memorable photography project as a humanitarian photographer and storyteller?

During 2015-16, I was embedded on an NGO migrant rescue ship off the coast of Libya. I
was living in the Gambia (West Africa) at the time, and knew that many youths were
leaving Gambia to try to get to Europe by this lethal sea route – but I never thought I
would meet anyone I was personally connected to. On the very first mission, the
team saved 110 people from a sinking rubber boat. Among them was Abdoulie, the son of a
friend of mine. In the vast expanse of the Mediterranean sea, the world closed in and
become an incredibly small place.

  Above: One of Jason's all-time favourite photographs

Above: One of Jason's all-time favourite photographs

Do you have a favourite photograph?

It’s a bit like asking someone trying to choose their favourite child (and feeling pangs of
guilt!). But I love this image of Henok (pictured above), a 14-year-old boy from Eritrea who was rescued in the Mediterranean. During the voyage on the NGO rescue ship, he led other Eritrean refugees in songs of thanks for being saved. A year later, I met him in Zurich for a film I was making. Only then did he reveal the true horrors he went through on his journey to escape the oppressive Eritrean regime, including seeing his travelling companion shot dead next to him in Chad. But despite his ordeal, Henok was integrating well into his new Swiss life, and was already fluent in German.

How do you approach taking photos of people you don't know? How do you make connections with people?

It varies very much on the situation and the assignment. Ideally, I like to take time to just
chat with the person first and get to know something about them and their life. In
general, I find people open up more if you show a genuine interest in them. Obviously
language can be a huge hurdle, so a translator is essential, but so is learning at least a few
basic greetings in the local language. That tends to break the ice with a few laughs –
normally at my expense!

  Above: On assignment for UP in the Gambia

Above: On assignment for UP in the Gambia

What is your favourite place to take photographs, and why?

I love working all over Africa, but the Gambia has become my second home. Despite nearly 20 years of photographing multiple projects there and making expeditions around the region, the people and the culture never fail to reveal something new and extraordinary to me.

Why do you enjoy working with United Purpose?

What I have really enjoyed about my UP assignments is the opportunity to tell the stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been positively changed. Working alongside UP’s local partner organisations in West Africa has given me intimate access to be able to tell these stories, because of the partners longstanding relationships and the bonds they have formed with the communities. 

  Above: On assignment for UP in Casamance, Senegal

Above: On assignment for UP in Casamance, Senegal

Could you tell us about a particularly memorable assignment for UP?

All of my UP assignments in Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana have been eye-opening. But one community forest project, run by a local partner organisation in the once war-ravaged Casamance, Senegal, was really special. Communities once torn apart during the 30+ year conflict, were coming together with UP support. The forest was used as a place of conflict resolution by helping the communities recognise it as a place of common benefit, if protected and managed jointly. A major success was the villagers' mutual agreement to stop deforestation. One way this was done was by ASAPID training women to produce cooking charcoal from leaves (picture above), instead of chopping down the trees. This has helped preserve the forest, and has given the women a sustainable income.

How has your style of photography and storytelling developed over the years?

When I look back, I don’t think my style has changed too much since my first
Afghanistan journeys. I think once your ‘true’ voice as a photographer has revealed itself,
its quite hard to change it - but that's not to say it doesn't become influenced and
hopefully more informed. I believe that a photographer’s style, and the subjects they choose to work on, are subconsciously a reflection of who they are. Storytelling as a
photographer is first and foremost about listening. I like to think I have become a better
listener over time, and therefore better at translating a story into images.

  Above: On assignment for UP in Ghana

Above: On assignment for UP in Ghana

What drives your passion for photography, and what motivates you to keep going?

The power of photography can never be underestimated. An image's ability to
deeply affect people, and inspire them to take action for positive change, are some of the many driving factors that help keep me going. Personally, photography forces me not to be
complacent and not to take things at face value. It motivates me to step out of my own ‘village’, to keep looking, and sharing experiences, and hopefully open hearts and minds.

 

To find out more about Jason and to see more of his incredible photography, take a look at his website

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