In February 2011, after the violence in Libya erupted, Jehad Nga was the first journalist into the country. On assignment for The New York Times in neighboring Algeria, he and his colleagues had watched as the protests in Benghazi turned violent, staying glued to the newswires as the Libyan people rose up against the brutal regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. One of very few American journalist to also hold a Libyan passport – his “golden ticket” into the country – the Times asked him to be their eyes on the ground as the revolution spread towards Tripoli, an assignment he quickly accepted. This was his chance, that moment he’d waited his whole career for. “You think you’re going to paint your masterpiece,” says Jehad. “That ‘this is your Sistine Chapel.’”
Once inside the country, it quickly became almost impossible to take any photos. The government started arresting journalists about 3 days after he arrived, so brandishing a huge camera around would just paint a giant target on his back. When he could no longer film normally, Jehad began to simply drive around the city, seeing what he could see, and calling in his notes to the Times’ correspondents across the border in Egypt or Tunisia. It didn’t take long before the security forces started noticing him popping up over and over again. He started to get repeatedly detained and questioned. At first he was able to talk his way out of getting arrested, never getting detained for more than a few hours. However, by the third or fourth time he was stopped, they stopped buying that Jehad had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time he wasn’t getting out of it. Jehad was arrested and held at the government’s central intelligence complex.
Born to a Libyan father and an American mother, Jehad had spent the first years of his life in Tripoli. The family moved to England when he was 4, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He was educated in American schools, but grew up immersed in the cultures of both sides of his family. As a young adult he bounced around a lot, never forming a tight-knit group of friends, and trying to form his own identity, one that mixed the cultures of his parents with the ones he’d grown up in. This cultural “duality,” as Jehad refers to it, has informed much of his life thus far, and is one of the reasons he has spent so much of his career photographing different countries around the world.
He came to photography through an interest in erotica, but started dabbling in photojournalism very naturally. A trip to Southeast Asia in his early twenties began as an excuse to get away after a bad breakup, but quickly turned into a longer excursion to keep taking pictures. Jehad would shoot all day, every day, steadily gravitating away from the subjects most beginner photographers love – sunrises, landscapes – and towards more journalistic topics. Families living in AIDS hospices. The Phnom Penh garbage dump. A similar trip to the Middle East took him to Jordan, Beirut, Palestine, and the Gaza strip, where he spent the entire time taking photos, despite an underlying current of disorder that permeated the entire trip.
Jehad wanted to return to Palestine as soon as he was back in the United States. He began training as an EMT, in hopes of volunteering with the Red Crescent in Gaza. But before he had a chance to put his training to use, the United States invaded Iraq, and he traveled to the country with two close friends to work as a freelance reporter during the invasion. He received his first assignment – from the New York Times – while in Iraq, beginning an on-and-off relationship with the paper that would last for over a decade.
To first look at Jehad’s photography, one might be surprised to learn that much of it was taken on assignment for major publications like the Times, The New Yorker or Time Magazine. His work deftly walks the line between art and journalism, delivering visually striking pictures that still reveal meaningful stories about their subjects. He sticks to journalism’s ethical code, refusing to majorly edit images after they’re captured. This approach makes Jehad consider everything – from how the technology of the camera will make the photo look, to how his composition and technique will effect what he’s trying to say with each photo – before the shutter is ever released. His only goal: to present the truth in the most visually appealing and effective way possible.
This process-oriented approach can seem counter-intuitive to many photojournalists, many of whom simply try to get as many pictures as possible and find the best one later. In fact, Jehad strongly prefers working at publications like The New Yorker, which use less photography, than for publications like Time that are more photo-centric. “It allows me to shoot at the tempo that I want to,” says Jehad. This slower, more deliberate, pace Jehad allows for some interesting experimentations with his photos. He’s used older, mechanical cameras that don’t allow him to take more than 5-6 pictures per minute, and experimented with polaroid and instant photography to help alleviate his ongoing frustrations with digital photography. All of this is fine with his colleagues at the New Yorker, where he enjoys a rare degree of creative freedom and a strongly collaborative relationship with their editors and the writer he works with on many assignments, John Lee Anderson. “They don’t question a great deal,” says Jehad. “You go some-place, and they don’t expect 300 images.” This relationship has allowed Jehad to experiment with new and creative ways to capture the truth, without constantly hounding him for a deadline.
Around the same time Jehad was arrested in Tripoli, the Libyan government was beginning to let other journalists into the country – part of extremely supervised tours conducted in attempts downplay the scope of the revolution. Two of his colleagues from The Times were among the first group allowed into the country, and though they couldn’t contact him directly, it was clear that something was wrong when he stopped calling in reports and went quiet. “As soon as they landed, they knew something was wrong,” explains Jehad. The two were able to lobby government contacts on his behalf, and Jehad was released after a few days in prison. Despite his desire to stay in the country and continue reporting, his colleagues insisted he leave, and got him a flight home the day after he was released. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, the decision was for the best – it simply would have been too dangerous for him to stay.
He spent the next 5 months watching the revolution develop from the outside, desperately trying to find a way back into the country. “You feel like the one person that should be there is you,” says Jehad. “That’s where your family is from, where your father is from.” He was able to get back into Tripoli right before the Libyan government fell, and covered the exuberant chaos that surrounded Gaddafi’s fall from power. The city, though festive and excited, remained extremely dangerous and violent even after the National Transitional Council took power, with Gaddafi loyalists committing countless atrocities as they left. “There’s a kind of suction,” says Jehad, explaining the general feeling of a country after it has gone through a revolution. “It’s kind of like a Hydrogen bomb – it extinguishes all nearby oxygen when it goes off, but as that oxygen rushes back to the focal point it destroys everything in it’s wake.”
Though much of his career has been spent in the as a photojournalist, Jehad doesn’t really feel like he has much invested in the medium any more. He goes through what he describes as “an annual crisis,” in he wants to give up photography all together. Though he’s learned to resist that urge, he still feels like the time is coming for to evolve away from photojournalism. “I have a very, very short attention span,” says Jehad. “My interests can only sustain for a short period. This is the longest I’ve ever gone, so my intensity and my drive has tapered off.” He’s had an increasing interest in cinematography over the last 9 years, and has been working with a friend on a film treatment that explores the idea of “duality” that has informed so much of his life.
In the mean time, he’s been exploring more artistic endeavors. His recent work explores the disconnect between the image a digital camera captures and what was there to begin with. It would be understandable to assume that Jehad spends hours editing the code behind these images, but his changes to them are minimal. A line here, a letter or number there, it doesn’t take much to corrupt the output. He avoids approaching any image with an end-result in mind, and wont edit it after the code has been adjusted. To him, editing a photo feels to much like he’s distorting that same truth he seeks as a photojournalist. “I think I’m just haunted by my conscience,” says Jehad. His work is not here to manipulate his audience or make a statement. He simply tries to capture the truth, and let others take it from there.
Header Image Credit: zkinkade, deviant art