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Magnum Photos member Chris Steele-Perkins has shot hundreds of stories during a varied career as a photojournalist that's lasted for nearly 50 years. However, the story that brings the biggest emotional reaction from him is one he shot over 25 years ago in Somalia. Here he reveals why he's still haunted by what he photographed.
In 1992, Chris was in Somalia while working on an assignment for The Independent magazine. His brief was to report on the famine that was causing the deaths of thousands of Somali people at that time. Yet this famine wasn't brought about by a drought or natural disaster, but by the civil war that had followed the overthrow of President Barre the previous year.
"The famine was totally unnecessary," Chris remembers. "There was plenty of food in the country, but it was being stolen by armed gangs and put into guarded warehouses until the prices went up. It was absolutely outrageous."
When Chris arrived in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, he found people were literally dying on the streets. "I'd covered wars and famines before, but there was a strange level of callousness there that I couldn't understand," he continues. "There would be a woman and a child lying beside the road, clearly on the verge of dying, and people would just ignore them. I had armed guards with me because you couldn't go anywhere without them, but they were reluctant to help those people. So I felt more hopeless than I've ever felt in any other situation."
To follow the story, Chris went to a large displaced people's camp housing a few thousand. Although people there were desperate to receive food and medicine, they were receiving neither. He estimates around 100 people were dying every day in that camp alone.
He captured the shocking scenes he witnessed, including images of mothers preparing their children's bodies for burial. He also photographed gunmen from the many militia groups who were effectively in control. And the arrival of food aid, much of which was subsequently looted by those armed militia.
For Chris, the most memorable image he took during his time in Somalia showed a mother breastfeeding her child at a feeding centre (seen below). Although he didn't speak to the woman and shot only four frames, he still vividly remembers the moment he saw them.
They were clearly in a life-threatening situation, but Chris feels the picture gives a different message to many of the others he made in Somalia. "Mothers and children have been photographed countless times, but there's something about that picture that has a kind of biblical echo," he says. "As hard as it may be for others to understand, for me it does have an element of hope in it. The child is as skinny as it can be, but it is getting some milk from its mother and maybe could survive."
Chris covered the famine for around four weeks in the soaring temperatures with the sight and smell of death all around. "It was one of the few times I've seen hardened journalists and photographers just breaking down," he says. "I'd seen famines before and thought I'd be able to cope more, but in this case it was very harrowing. I remember talking with a French journalist I knew very well and saying if there was such a place as Hell, this was it. I think that remains true to this day."
Chris shot all his Somalian famine images with Canon F-1 cameras loaded with colour film. "Canon F-1s were my workhorses and just kept on going, even in the hot and dusty conditions," he remembers. "They were simple and that was all I needed. Around 90% of the time I was shooting with a 35mm lens, though occasionally I'd use a 100mm if I wanted to keep a discreet distance."
Today, Chris continues working on personal projects – including one titled The New Londoners, in which he's shooting portraits of migrants from all around the world who live in London. His main cameras are the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Canon 5D Mark III and he enjoys all the benefits brought by digital SLRs, including fast autofocus and greatly improved low light performance.
"I have no nostalgia whatsoever for film," he says. "For me, the two great advantages [of digital] are that you can shoot more than 36 frames in any one go, and you can change your ISO as you go along. To do that previously, I had to rewind the film I was shooting, take it out and replace it with another film, or shoot with more than one camera.
"Now, you can make the adjustments in a few seconds. With the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III, you can push the ISO a really useful distance without feeling you're sacrificing the quality. I like my cameras very simple really. If the flash works and the camera's reliable and the lenses are good, then I'm pretty happy."
Looking back on his 1992 images of the famine in Somalia, although Chris is now less optimistic about how much photojournalism can really change things, he feels he at least contributed something by being there and recording what was happening.
"The Independent magazine ran a cover story on it, so the famine and its causes were well reported and my pictures were used. I don't know what good it did ultimately, but at least I felt the story got onto the printed page and was seen by a large number of people. It didn't just stay in a filing cabinet."