Paddy Dowling - A Portrait of the World
Posted on August 28 2020
Paddy Dowling is a globally renowned British Humanitarian Photojournalist and Correspondent. His work with the international press, UN agencies, global foundations and international NGOs highlights the displacement of refugees, internally displaced people and the most marginalised children in the world.
We were honoured to speak to Paddy about his incredible work, and the equipment he carries with him to accomplish his ground-breaking projects.
Paddy Dowling standing on the rooftop of a bombed school in Mosul. The risk here is unexploded bombs in the rubble and getting shot by snipers. Photo by David Bird.
Can you tell us about yourself, your background and where your photographic journey began?
I vividly remember being fascinated with my father’s camera, an Olympus Trip 35, which he kept stashed in a desk drawer. He was the first person to put a camera in my hands, but it was months of pretending to take pictures before I was let loose with my first roll of film. I still have the camera today.
Who or what inspired you to become a photojournalist?
It was my father who explained to me the atrocities and shame of mankind across the world as we walked around in the peace and tranquility of our farm in Cornwall. I remember feeling disbelief at how life for so many people was so full of sadness, suffering and cruelty. Our conversations had enormous impact on me.
His insight, reinforced by the work of perhaps the most authentic and courageous person to ever hold a camera, Sir Don McCullin, who placed himself in harm’s way to hold the world to account, was all the inspiration I needed.
Orphans of Darfur, the price of conflict. © Paddy Dowling/QCharity
Did you study photography or have formal training, or was it something that developed over time?
No, I’m self-taught. I have been incredibly fortunate to have had help and advice from some really talented individuals. What I have learnt is that, in order to become truly great, you need to take time to deconstruct or reverse-engineer your mistakes, learn from them and don’t spend too long thinking about the successes. I never look back at my work with any real satisfaction, I am my own worst critic... It’s never good enough! You need to have total self-belief that the next frame you take will always be better.
Do you have an ‘idol’ or role model in the world of photography? Please tell us who and why.
It’s hard not to be spellbound by the work of so many great men and women behind the lens. Don McCullin, has always stood out for me. His natural ability to produce material which pulls us out of our comfort zone, makes us sit up and pay attention is what I find so remarkable.
I have the greatest respect and admiration for Don, not just for what he achieved, but for who he is. His work in my opinion has that vibration that lasts a lifetime.
He always maintained that one of the hardest parts of his work was being celebrated for documenting the suffering of others. I really can relate to him here; It doesn’t sit well with me at all.
Empowerment of Women, Northern Uganda. © Paddy Dowling/EAA
Why did you choose to follow a career in photojournalism rather than another genre?
I worked as a photographer for many years which was great. The switch to becoming a humanitarian photojournalist came at a point in my life when several things were changing on a personal level. It was perhaps easier at that juncture to focus on the suffering of others rather than my own.
It was impossible to revert back to any sort of normal life after I had spent time in the field. My life had changed and inadvertently I had found my calling. The switch was really difficult, declining all commercial commissions which was challenging financially, but, I had to steer the course and stay true to my new path.
This transition would never have been possible without the love and support of my amazing family. They believed in me completely and their support both financially and emotionally was unwavering. I would never be where I am today without them.
The work really is all-consuming. A blessing and a burden in the same breath. It quickly becomes such a solitary existence. Having said that you need that time to yourself to process everything you have seen and heard. The trick is managing that noise in your head between trips and still remain vaguely sociable or ‘normal’.
We believe that you have been asked to collaborate with the UN. Can you explain what this will mean for you and your photography?
Working with UN agencies is a huge privilege for me. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) are the frontline of pretty much every crisis involving the displacement of people across the world. I plan to continue working with the UN, UNHCR and UNESCO across major global hotspots and highlight the amazing work they do. It is essential to support agencies and INGOs to provide relief for the people who desperately need it.
Paddy Dowling holds a photography lesson at school in Zaatari refugee camp for children who have fled conflict in Syria. Bag pictured is a Billingham 207.
What has been your most challenging or memorable project to date?
I honestly couldn’t single out a particular trip. Just when you think you have heard or seen the worst, you get levelled by the next story you hear or portrait you take. Working in Red Zones the entire time, danger can come from the most surprising angles. I have learnt to always expect the unexpected, and that each project will be emotionally challenging, memorable and dangerous.
How important do you feel the role of photography has been in documenting conflicts, crises and other global events?
Documenting the atrocities of mankind is not a new phenomenon. Before the invention of the camera, the great painters documented scenes of battles, conflict and human suffering…. Photojournalists today are just continuing that work. It is super-important to hold the world to account and document it truthfully for future generations to learn from.
Refugees from war-torn South Sudan in Uganda. © Paddy Dowling/EAA
Can you tell us about capturing images in a conflict or crisis environment? What have you found to be the most difficult photographic scenarios?
The hardest part is where you are unsure whether you should put the camera away and help or continue to stand firm documenting what is unfolding in front of your eyes. It’s a dilemma for all photojournalists. There is no right or wrong answer. You just have to do what you feel is right and what you can live with at that particular moment.
Rapid Support Forces Darfur, Sudan. © Paddy Dowling/QCharity
Most photographers have a personal favourite photograph. What would you consider to be the most notable or outstanding picture you’ve ever taken and why?
I really wish I could narrow down one particular frame. I see them all as stories that have their place forefront and centre in one particular time. However, if I was to think about one image which really demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit, it would be the young albino boy, Charles, I met in Uganda. A simple walk to school for him meant the risk of being abducted and sold for witchcraft rituals. He explained, “I will never feel safe. However, my own safety is less important to me than getting an education. I am determined to get my diploma and have a job where I can help protect the rights of other albinos.”
Persecution of Albinos for witchcraft in DRC & Uganda. © Paddy Dowling/EAA
Can you tell us more about the equipment you use, such as lenses and accessories?
I traditionally carry a split of medium format and non-medium format kit. I tend to stay with primes and don’t use zooms or long lenses. I believe to make the work really authentic you need to be close and right in the mix of things.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have had amazing support in my career and I feel it is important to acknowledge those individuals for it. Mark Cheetham on the Pentax 645z UK team understood the importance of the work and our collaboration has changed the lives of so many people around the world. I can’t thank him enough.
Do you also shoot video? Tell us more.
I never shoot video, I leave that to the experts that do. I have followed the careers of some great DOP’s and cinematographers such as close friend Ryan Mackfall and I am in awe of what people like him do but it just doesn’t call to me in the same way stills do.
Having said that, I recently had the privilege of directing a film ‘Dreamers in Doorways’ for the UN Human Rights Forum at Palais de Nations in Geneva last year, with the super talented Exell brothers (Josh & Luke) from Exell Film in London who paired me up with an amazing Cinematographer, David Bird (one to watch) from Lux Artists Agency. You can watch the film here: https://vimeo.com/363766390 [warning - it does contain some distressing scenes].
Restavek’s in Haiti, a life of domestic servitude. Also featured in ‘Dreamers in Doorways’. © Paddy Dowling/EAA
If you could take just one piece of equipment with you to an important event or trip, what would it be?
Good question. Other than the essentials like cameras and Billingham’s, it would have to be the bullet-proof vest or maybe a jar of some really good coffee :)
Home in the studio, bags landed and parked ready for the next trip away.
(Top-to-bottom on the left) 207 (Khaki FibreNyte/Chocolate Leather), 550 (Khaki Canvas / Tan Leather), 555 (Khaki Canvas / Tan Leather), 555 (Khaki FibreNyte / Tan Leather), Weekender (Khaki FibreNyte / Chocolate Leather)
You are currently using a Billingham 550, 555, 207 and a Weekender. What are your thoughts on these bags? How do you use them in your daily work?
I tend to fly heavy, especially hand luggage. Roller luggage with clothes, med-kit, bullet proof ‘Press’ vest and a Billingham 550 packed flat. Hand luggage is always two full 555s at around 18kgs each. I carry medium format kit in one and non-medium kit in the other.
When I am out in the field, I work out of the 550. Three bodies, primes snapped in and more often than not, they will stay in for the entire trip. It is a truly amazing bag with its easily accessible pockets which bits get thrown in and pulled out of quickly.
The Billingham Laptop slip with MacBook Pro.
I always take a 555 full of other kit options which has the added benefit of a compartment for a laptop. The 555s are the workhorse for me. They get seriously heavy use, and I am astounded at how pristine they still look - without exaggerating, not a single fault with all the stress and strain they go through... it’s amazing. The zips are so robust and take such a hammering when you are trying to stash cameras quickly into a bag going through military checkpoints looking for cameras.
Paddy Dowling In 2018 covering the Venezuelan Refugee crisis with his Billingham 555 (in Khaki FibreNyte and Tan Leather) on the Ecuador/Columbian border.
The Billingham bag is a piece of equipment I never have to worry about. I have so much respect for Harry Billingham and the amazing innovation and dedication of the team back at the factory in Cradley Heath. They create without a doubt the best camera bags in the world.
I have recently picked up the Weekender and that is perfect if you are looking to break away from a hub in the field for a day or two. It just means that you can leave the roller bag back at base and be a bit more mobile.
As a British Photojournalist, I’m so proud to collaborate with such an iconic British brand like Billingham Bags. I get stopped at airports all around the world asking where they can get them.
What developments do you believe we will see in the world of photography in the future?
I am constantly surprised at the speed at which some manufacturers are bringing major specification changes to the industry. I am not convinced by all of them, and some are better than others. I do however understand from a commercial perspective why some of these decisions are made.
The world has gone a little bit pixel crazy and it is so important that technology works in harmony with quality the whole time.
A window into the world of people in crisis - children play football on the beachfront in Gaza to a backdrop of a shelled building. © Paddy Dowling/EAA
What advice would you give to young people thinking about a career in documentary photography today?
I am sure there are people far better placed to give general advice. Being a humanitarian photojournalist is not just a job it is a privilege.
You have to be prepared to make enormous personal sacrifices. The impact you can have on humanity is as prolific or as insignificant as you want it to be. That weight on your head and your heart is par for the course, it just comes down to how much you can take. I always explain to people it is like voluntarily climbing down into a black hole knowing there is no escape exit.
You need an amazing support network around you that just ‘gets’ what you are trying to achieve. I feel so privileged to have the support of my amazing wife and our children.
What’s next for Paddy Dowling? Can you give us details on any forthcoming projects?
I would love to divulge, but honestly, it is just too risky for me to do that. You almost have to be like a ghost, slipping in and out of countries sometimes, documenting the stories without creating too much interest especially from non-state actor groups. However I will always share my movements through the press and with Billingham when I am back home safe and sound.
Refugees in Rwanda, escaping conflict in DRC. © Paddy Dowling/EAA
Where can readers find you on social media?
In the past social media has been a bit of no-go zone for me, although, I have just started using Instagram @_paddydowling
When working as a journalist in potentially hostile environments, it still remains dangerous to discuss where you are at that point in time or where you are planning to go. So if I am away, my Instagram might go a little quiet, so apologies for that.
Where can people come and see your work / meet you? Do you have any forthcoming exhibitions, talks or workshops?
With the coronavirus pandemic so much has been postponed for all of us... life put on hold. I expect confirmations for exhibitions, and talks to start coming through in the coming days and weeks now.
How does it feel to have your work adorn the front of newspapers and magazines across the world?
Of course, it is a privilege, but I try not to think about it... just focusing on the job in hand, staying safe and really making a difference, always pushing myself to do better each time. I always maintain this job is not about me, never has been and never will be…It is about those incredible people I meet in the far-flung corners of the world living in the shadows of society.
Paddy Dowling can be found at:
Web site: http://www.paddydowling.co.uk/