BEYOND THE STORY
IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTINA SIMONS
Award winning international documentary photographer Christina Simons has been committed to discovering stories and sharing them with others using her camera. Part American and Icelandic, now residing in Australia, Christina is a true citizen of the world speaking multiple languages, and having worked in the visual arts industry for over twenty five years, she is a technical master of imagery. With a passion for justice and compulsion to observe, Christina has stuck through the highs and lows of independent work to produce personal projects she is truly proud of. Her commitment has led to series such as “The Haiti Project” on children in domestic servitude, Women’s health in the Philippines and Aboriginal Education in Australia; not to mention her solo-exhibition and multi-award winning series “Running to Nowhere” on Central American Refugees. Her curiosity of subcultures has produced projects such as award winning series "Derby Girls" and multi-award winning series "Lil Bullfighters" of Mexico.
Christina's work traverses many interests including travel, lifestyle and portraiture and is represented in publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian UK as well as working with several NGOs such as Medicines Sans Frontiers and UNICEF. So it is with great honour we speak to Christina about how her journey into photography began, her inspirations and experiences, and how she feel compelled to use her work to tell the stories of those who do not have the means to do so themselves.
Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Seattle, WA and went to grade school in Milwaukee, WI but spent between 3-5 months of nearly every year of my life in Iceland until I was 16, when I went to boarding school in Colorado from the ages of 16-18. After I graduated high school, I left the US and moved to London to attend Central St Martins and then Ravensbourne University. My parents relocated to Iceland at that time, so that has since become the ‘home’ that I visit. When I graduated with an honours degree in Visual Communication Design I went on to work in film and television post production for 5 years, promising myself that when I worked out what I really wanted to do with my life, I would quit post production to do that! I moved to Australia in 2001 to work on the Ned Kelly film and when that wrapped up, I made the jump to photography. I did love working in post production but after spending a few years behind a computer monitor working on other people’s images, I realised that what I really wanted was to make my own.
What was that moment that sparked your interest to pursue photography as a profession, and in specific documentaries?
My first camera was a Polaroid camera that I got for my 10th birthday - I loved the magic of freezing a moment by simply clicking a button. Not long after, my cousin introduced me to the darkroom. He told me that he had ‘magical photographic paper’ and that he would show me how it all worked but to ‘NOT open the paper until he had time’ to teach me. Of course, as soon as I got a moment alone with it, I opened the packet and saw nothing but blank white paper! I flicked through the pages and nothing happened, so I put it back feeling quite disappointed. A few days later my cousin came to me furious, asking if I’d opened it. The magic paper had given me away as it had all been exposed to the light that I’d let in, rendering it un-magical. He was very annoyed and told me he couldn’t show me the magic because I’d ruined it.
Not to be dissuaded, I took photography classes and electives all the way through school, high school and my university studies. It was like a constant thread that had weaved its way throughout my life – but for some reason I ignored the quiet voice inside me that told me photography was actually what I wanted to be doing. I only really listened to that voice after I’d left university and spent 5 years working in Post Production; when the quiet urge to become a photographer had become a loud and painful longing.
My late American father was a doctor who specialised in clubfoot corrective surgery for children. It was he who influenced my humanitarian interests. He travelled the world for conferences and to give lectures, often taking us with him so we could learn about other cultures and countries. I feel that I can attribute my passion for travel, exploration and human connection to these early trips.
When I was about 12 years old, my father received a thank you card from a man living in a leper colony in India. The man had asked someone else to write the card for him as he’d lost his fingers to the disease. My father had corrected his daughter’s clubfoot without charge. The man was deeply grateful that his child had a chance at a normal future and could provide for the family. My father wept as he read it to me and in that moment, I understood that making a positive difference to one person can profoundly impact those around them.
I am not an academic person - becoming a doctor like my father was never on the cards for me, so it is with my camera that I try to interpret the world we live in. I feel compelled to use my work to tell the stories of those who do not have the means to do so themselves; to convey their hopes and fears.
Talk to us about some of your other projects. For you personally, why are making these photographs important? What do you want viewers to understand through your images?
I’m a deeply curious person. I want to know and understand the world around me at a deeper level than what I can see on television or the internet the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their world better. I want the firsthand encounter to be able to answer my own questions about the cultures, anthropology and the psychology of people I photograph. I sometimes think perhaps my photography is secondary to this desire.
I have the privilege to gain access to and meet some very unique people in my work. I feel that it’s my responsibility to ensure that the stories I am entrusted with are told with honesty and integrity. I think with this privilege I get to see and hear things many others don’t, so I do my best to try to expose stories otherwise undiscovered and frequently misunderstood.
I try my hardest in all my stories to ensure my opinions and judgments take a back seat to the story itself. I try to remain impartial and tell the story as it presents with no projections on my part. It’s really important to me to try to do this because it’s from this place I gain a deep holistic understanding of what is happening. I want the subject (person) to feel unguarded and unjudged and feel able to share as openly as possible what is really happening for them. Likewise, I want the viewer to experience an untainted perspective and to form their own opinion. This is not to say that I don’t have an opinion of my own – it is to say that I don’t want the subject or the viewer of my work to be impacted by my opinion.
For example with my Little Bullfighters series – if I had approached this story with critical judgments of what they were doing I would have learnt and seen very little. I went in with curiosity and an open mind to fully understand how and why they were training to become bullfighters at such a young age. I then felt that sharing those images with the same impartiality would provide people with opinions across the spectrum to engage with the series more openly.
What kind of difficulties have you encountered as an outsider when working on your documentary projects?
I think the biggest difficulty I’ve experienced is the language barrier. I speak some Spanish but when I need to understand nuance, subtlety and more complex concepts and vocabulary, I’ve been let down! The consequence of this has been that I now travel with someone whose English is better than my Spanish so that things don’t get lost in translation. Likewise, when I’ve been to countries like Papua New Guinea it’s absolutely vital that the translator I’m working with can speak both languages fluently so that I don’t misunderstand anything. I still spend time chatting to people but I make sure that when I’m recording someone’s account of their experience, I use a trusted translator so that I don’t miss anything.
Another difficulty I face is reluctance or fear. Sometimes, the people I’m speaking with are too frightened to talk to me or let me photograph them. In fact, that is quite common. I don’t necessarily think it’s due to me being an outsider, more so me being a photographer. I think this would be the case if I was a local photographer as well.
I have had people lie to me, like the lovely women at Casa Xochiquetzal, a retirement home for sex workers in Mexico. Their truth isn’t always something they want to expose. I discovered that for some, lying enabled them to hide a deeply traumatic story while for others, it was pure entertainment! That can be hard and frustrating as it means I can’t use the story they’ve given me, although I think in this particular case it was pretty understandable. I mean, who am I to them but a privileged white woman who has appeared from nowhere to ask them about the sordid details of their lives? I totally respect that sentiment - it is a strange position for them to be in and all I can do is hope that the telling of their story through my photographs results in a valuable and positive outcome for them. Ultimately, my work was to be used in a fundraising campaign for the casa, so I hoped that my work could directly impact their daily lives.
Your work ranges from photojournalism to portraits of celebrities and food, how do you define yourself as a photographer?
I primarily consider myself a documentary reportage photographer and visual storyteller. I focus on humanitarian issues but I also am really fond of exploring human behavior within sub-cultures and/or groups of people who have underreported interests. I love working as a photojournalist for the New York Times and other news groups. Within both of these genres I shoot portraiture so shooting celebrity portraits isn’t much of a leap.
When I first started out as a photographer, I got a job with a food and hospitality magazine in which I photographed portraits, food and lifestyle imagery. I had always set my sights on documentary photography but especially in those early days, that work did not pay the bills. As the documentary and photojournalistic work picked up, the commercial work petered off. There was a time where the only way I could support my projects was to shoot commercially. I still take on commercial work when it comes along as I enjoy doing it, but I mostly identify with storytelling through imagery and that is what most of my clients hire me for now.
What are some of your best and worst memories as a photographer?
My ‘on the job’ happiest moments are when the people I’m photographing and I find connection - something that ties us together, a recognition of our humanness, our alikeness, no matter how unlikely that might seem. It's in these moments that both of our defences come down and our more authentic selves show up. Then they are no longer the subject and I’m no longer the photographer, but a friend. In that place, we create the storytelling together.
Building a rapport makes a difference with celebrities as well. I remember shooting Anthony Bourdain after he’d worked a shift at Fenix restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. My colleague and I were second in line to photograph and interview him after his shift - he was tired and didn’t want to be there. Ed Charles, the writer, began asking him what his least favourite food was and he said: ‘Icelandic rotted shark’. Ed and I laughed and told him that I was in fact Icelandic and this started a great conversation about his travels in Iceland and the food there. Then we discovered that we had both fallen in love with Laos and its people. This shifted the whole vibe of the shoot from him feeling annoyed and standoffish to finding mutual ground to bond over. I was no longer a photographer and he was no longer a celebrity - we were just people hanging out having a good conversation.
Another highlight I can recall was in October 2019, when I opened a huge exhibition at the Museo de Arte e Historia de Guanajuato in Mexico with Médicos Sin Fronteras (Doctors without Borders) on my ‘Running to Nowhere’ series which focused on the plight of refugees in contemporary Central America. The show contained nearly 100 pieces from this body of work. It was exhibited in a space of 1000m2 and it was stunningly curated by Israel Arenas with the vision of the viewer experiencing some of the intensity that the refugees experience. It was grander than any exhibition I could have ever imagined for my work and an incredible moment to have hundreds of people and press at the opening. In that moment, the stories I worked so hard to share were seen and heard again and again by thousands of people. I returned home feeling that if I never held a camera again – I would have felt complete satisfaction with what I’d achieved.
Of course, I still feel that deep satisfaction, but the exhibition was meant to travel to the United States and then Covid occurred. The Central American refugee plight endures and so I still feel compelled to continue to press on with the series.
*Editor's note: Read the Pictorial Story "Running to Nowhere" by Christina here on The Pictorial-List.
The darker moments have been moments that have come from experiences where I have felt that I was in danger or that those around me might be at risk. The first time this happened was when I was in Haiti in 2006. We had met a man pretending to care for the street children who had previously been ‘Restaveks’ (children given or sold into a life of domestic slavery). We interviewed a few kids living on the streets who told us this man had sexually abused them. This man was directly connected to the gangs in the slums of Port au Prince. He had weapons and a lot of support. He knew where I was staying and continued to try to contact me. I won’t go into any deeper details, but I felt scared for myself and for my fixer who lived there and had a family there. That stuff stays with you long after you leave and takes time to settle psychologically. It takes less time for me now but frightening and stressful moments whilst working have happened on a few other occasions. I see it as a part of the job I have chosen to do and the stories I choose to cover. It is a choice and I wouldn’t change a thing. So I’ve learned to manage it with self care and time out.
Did you have a mentor? Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
I’ve never had a mentor...no...but I’ve had several people who have believed in me and supported me on my journey and to whom I'm extremely grateful.
I have a lot of favorite photographers but my all time favorite photographer is Sebastiao Salgado. I feel that when I look at his work it reaches into me, it captures my feelings, my heart and I am deeply moved – his are some of the most beautiful and touching images I have ever seen.
I love the greats like Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, Werner Bischof, Saul Leiter, Alex Webb, Diane Arbus, Elliott Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Vivian Maier, Rene Burri… etc. There is a lot of new talent and imagery out there now. The more people I encounter on Instagram the more blown away I am at the talent in this world.
Do you prefer to work in black and white or colour? Do you spend a lot of time editing? What is your process?
I prefer black and white but I always shoot in colour even if I feel the series works better in black and white. I prefer to convert the colour files to black and white in post-production. I like having the ability to control the way the colour is converted, so I never shoot black and white in camera.
By editing if you mean image selection – I’d say yes, I labor over what the best image is and which is truest to the story. Especially if it’s a series, then it’s about which images work best together as a cohesive story. But if you mean retouching – no, I don’t retouch my images. As a documentary photographer and photojournalist I only apply contrast and manage saturation and exposure tweaks. I might darken the corners/edges and if I need to convert to black and white, I will do that.
However, when I’ve worked commercially, retouching is a totally different story!
The past year and a half has been tough on many artists. How have you been feeling through this time, both personally and as a photographer?
The mantra I have chanted in my head over and over is that I am not alone and I am not the only one going through this, the whole world is faced with this crazy awful circumstance. Melbourne, where I live, has endured a total of 6 months in hard lockdown. At times it was really hard seeing people on social media in the rest of Australia living life and doing normal things, but I know that in the rest of the world people were struggling much more than we were.
I’m fully vaccinated now, so in theory I’d like to take on work overseas again, but Australia has made it very difficult to get back into the country, so we’ll have to wait a bit more to see. Meanwhile, I am pursuing local stories and assignments. I teach photography one day a week at a private university and in that I find inspiration and joy – being able to share what I love about photography.
I feel we are really very lucky to have a safe and comfortable place to stay in our lockdown in Melbourne when many other people had a terrible time and experienced terrible circumstances. I was able to get a few jobs during this time as an essential worker, working within the media for the New York Times to photographically report on some of their stories.
For example, the Times ran a pitch that I sent them on the Melbourne public housing high-rise towers that went into a snap hard lockdown in 2020. The people in those towers had no warning of the lockdown. The buildings were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of police and residents had no idea why. It was really traumatic for a lot of the residents, some of whom had come from war-torn countries where they had been traumatized in the past. Many families had young children in small two-bedroom apartments with up to 8 people living in them, it was not at all well managed by the government. The residents had no time to prepare for this and they had a really tough time. Of course, none of the residents argued that a hard lockdown was unnecessary, but the way it was implemented caused much angst. In fact, it was found by the Victorian Ombudsman that the North Melbourne public housing lockdown breached human rights.
What are some of your goals as an artist/photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
I have a ‘bucket list’ of clients I’d like to add to my client list.
I love working with MSF. Their projects have constantly inspired me, so I hope our relationship continues for a long time. I think in the next few years as my son gets a bit older, I can take on longer assignments away from home and pursue both those as well as personal projects. I just want to keep telling important and untold stories, doing more of the work I love and hope that it may impact one or two people who haven’t previously heard of the subject or story I’ve covered.
Are there any projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
We had hoped to exhibit in the US, but it was cancelled last year. I’m still hoping for the exhibition to travel there eventually. We are still planning to exhibit ‘Running to Nowhere’ in Australia and Greece. I am in the process of publishing a book on the series as well.
In 2020, I had a huge couple months planned in Africa but unfortunately that was cancelled. I still intend to do that work but it’s hard to know when that will be. I am also researching a couple of potential projects in Venezuela and Columbia, but until I can travel it's all on hold.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
...I have a seven year old son so I spend most of my spare time running around after him and enjoy watching him grow up. However, when I’ve been on assignment in Mexico and have a few days to myself I’ve been known to take myself off to Cozumel to go scuba diving or Palenque to trek through the Mayan ruins in the jungle. If it’s just a day, I would spend hours in the Museums of Mexico City; Anahuacali, National Museum of Anthropology, Palacio de Bellas Artes and the ruins in and around the city...all these sorts of experiences feed me like nothing else, all of it is in the name of learning, inspiration and exploration."