PHOTOGRAPHING DAVID RATHBAND
BY Justin Sutcliffe
The pictures were taken on the 7th July in 2011. Almost a year to the day that he’d been shot. I remember all of us in this tiny, tiny little claustrophobic room where it was literally just about big enough to put a single bed in and walk around that single and with one tiny little window.
I was immediately struck by his face, his amazing face because he was, you know, he was a good-looking man, he was quite er, quite drawn, obviously he had lost a lot of weight, er and he had sort of very strong cheekbones and a very strong face but also, even a year after the injuries, he had lots of scars and he had things that were still appearing, his body was finding and bringing to the surface so his skin was pocked and marked all around his face, er, especially around his cheek and above his eyes and the texture of his skin was, you know, it was very moving, you know, he did wear his injuries to a certain extent. He didn’t have burns in the way that I was possibly expecting especially given the heat of, you know, being that close to the discharge of a shotgun, er, but the amazing thing is that his eyes were these clear, like newborns eyes, they were so, er, convincing that I wondered, you know, I had to ask, what’s the deal with the eyes because they were so clear and so crisp and he would occasionally put his hand to his eyes and, sort of move his finger and thumb and what he then later told me is that he had learned and been taught by the people that had given him these new flexible, sort of rubber plastic eyes – I don’t know, I suppose they are latex – he’d been taught a technique to listen to where a voice was coming from, judge how far away it was and through practice and being told whether or not it looked realistic he had learned to adjust the eyes so that when he put his head back up they looked like they were pointing towards the person that was speaking. It was quite uncanny, there was this immediate contrast for me between this weather-beaten face and these crystal clear eyes and of course they were crystal clear because they were brand new, you know, they had only been made.
I have been around conflict zones for much of the last 15 years as photographer and his injuries are as bad as some of the stuff that you see on battlefields in a way, maybe even worse some of them, his description of the nightmares that he had every night but also how he was unable to stop himself from feeling even during the day when he was awake, he would constantly feel as though he was falling down a never ending well – it was getting tighter and tighter and his life seemed to be this little circle at the top that was disappearing out of view and getting into a smaller and smaller disc of light that he couldn’t imagine. There was no way of imaging how he could return to a life that he would recognize and then slowly, you know, forcing himself day by day to just carry on when he felt completely adrift, totally isolated, alone and at the depths of despair and you know, for someone for whom sight is a primary sense in many ways, I found this deeply haunting, deeply haunting and the way that he talked about it is just my worst nightmare really.
In such a small room I immediately decided that there was not very much point in trying to photograph him in any environmental way so frequently portrait photographers might use the environment to tell the viewer something more about the subject rather than just what they looked like and to give the viewer an idea of their life but obviously there was nothing relevant to his life. I decided to photograph him using the light from this one small window to light his face and using a light that I brought with me just to lighten the white wall behind because I didn’t want him sort of photographed in darkness, I didn’t want the photograph to feel depressing.
As I was taking photographs he would, you know, he would smile occasionally and then he would look lost for a second and look – I think he was trying to put a brave face on and I sort of said, ‘look, you don’t have to – it doesn’t have to be smiling, I don’t think it’s appropriate in any case given everything you’ve been through, but equally I don’t want to tell you to look depressed if you don’t feel depressed. I’d like an actual reflection of how you feel at the moment.’ I said ‘but don’t feel that you don’t necessarily have to look at the camera or turn your face towards the camera, you know, you could look away. So there were some where he would turn sideways and think about things and he would chat as we were talking and then I did say, you know, ‘I noticed that you took your eye out as you were talking to the writer. Is that something that you’re comfortable with being photographed doing?’ And he said, ‘yeah, you know, I take them out the whole time.’ At which point he then just did, you know, he sort of reached down and took one of the eyes out, sort of pinched it and pulled it out and sort of held it up and looked towards me and you see the socket of his eye which is still, sort of raw, obviously and then he put his head back down and put them back in again. The picture that was strongest was one of him with a sort of, a more neutral sort of open expression, he wasn’t looking sad, he was looking pensive more than sad, you know, somehow he had this amazing presence to him. Really amazing presence. This authenticity.
It’s like people who have been around the sea. If you really know the sea, you learn to respect its power and I am somebody who has spent my life swimming in the sea of the media. I was already really worried, I was really worried that he would be exploited and/or manipulated or, worse still, ignored after a news cycle and that that was actually going to be very, very, very damaging to him because that’s the nature of rolling media is, you know, there is no long term interest in things. I was very worried that he was going to feel betrayed by the media in the same way that had felt betrayed by the police that, you know, people had turned up, fed on him, got what they wanted and then left him. But in fact throughout the context of the chat I suddenly realized that, you know, the fame that he had not sought but been, sort of thrust upon him, was not helping him at all deal with the very complex issues of completely rebuilding his life from scratch at the age of 43. It was a very moving meeting.
I was immediately struck by his face, his amazing face
He would smile occasionally and then he would look lost for a second
I was very worried that he was going to feel betrayed by the media in the same way that had felt betrayed by the police