Andrew Renneisen: American life through a lens

 

The documentary photographer and winner of the Ian Parry 2016 Achievement Award talks conflict, criminality and his experience of using a Leica M

Congratulations on winning the Ian Parry 2016 Achievement Award - what does this mean to you? 

I feel like I've become part of a new family; everyone has been super-supportive already. I definitely have some big shoes to fill in terms of the photographers who have won in the past.

Can you tell us about the project you submitted?

It's a body of work called An American Dilemma, Revisited. It's five years' worth of work that, in a very general sense, tries to trace racial inequality and violence throughout America, which is still such a big issue. I focused mostly on the East Coast, so New York; Philadelphia; New Jersey; Baltimore; Syracuse; Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina.     

What was the motivation behind it?

The reason the work is called American Dilemma, Revisited is because, in the 1940s, a Swedish sociologist called Gunnar Myrdal came to the US and studied the country. He concluded that America is a great country -land of the free and the brave - but for black Americans it's just not the same. Everything he wrote back then in the 1940s is still happening today, and that was startling to me. I still feel like it's an issue that's under-reported, or maybe it's just the fact that people need to see it more and more. That was my motivation.

 

How powerful is photography in conveying a message?

I hope that looking at a photograph can change someone's opinion, or at least create an understanding. It introduces you to something that maybe you didn't think about before and makes you think about it. That's really what I'm trying to do with this work - that's the most important thing. We're now in an age where people are consuming more digital photographs than ever before through social media, so photojournalism can get to a much broader audience.

Your work explores themes of race, religion and inequality. Why would you say you are drawn to these themes?

When I was little, I wanted to be a police officer - which is interesting now, looking back! When I did my first internship at The New York Times, I became interested in issues around crime, and I think that evolved as I grew as a photographer and started to understand violence in America, why it was happening, and trying to dig deeper.

How do you prepare yourself for a situation that's going to be emotionally charged or even dangerous?

With the emotionally charged part, I think you try to connect with people and be as honest with them as you can. Mentally, you just have to prepare yourself. There's also a lot of great resources for journalists going into difficult situations.

 

You're currently based in Nairobi and have recently been on a trip to Somalia. Do you find similarities between people, no matter the country or culture?

Yes, I think everyone is human and experiences the same emotions in life: love, fear, hate… A photograph is universal; it captures these emotions, and you don’t need language to communicate that. Somalia is fascinating; it's really hard to work there, obviously, but I do want to go back. It's a country that's trying to build a democracy in the face of so many odds. I think the common thread in everything is this push for equality.

How do people react when you're there with your camera?

It's very situational. For the American Dilemma project, I'd sometimes spend months with the people I photographed so they were used to the camera. In places like Ferguson, during a very volatile situation, you never knew how people were going to react. In 2012 I photographed the funeral of a boy who was killed: he was playing soccer and his coach was going to testify in a murder trial, and the poor boy was caught in the crossfire. I covered that funeral and, at the end of it, the family thanked me for being there.

It must feel like you're doing something very worthwhile.

I think if I can change someone's attitude or help someone understand a situation that they otherwise wouldn't have seen, that is the most rewarding thing.

 

What image in your Dilemma project stands out for you?

I don't think I can pick out a favourite photograph or one I'm most fond of; the photographs kind of all balance each other out, because I'm trying to document this really complex issue and show the good, the bad, the ugly. I'm trying to paint a bigger picture.

What do you like about using Leica cameras? 

I love Leica and use an M. The cameras are small and discreet - they don't scare people as much as a big SLR. I work differently when I use Leica cameras - they're great for reportage.

What's next in the pipeline?

At the moment I'm focusing on Africa and want to look at (jihadist terror group) Al-Shabaab. It's a broad subject, but I'm trying to understand what causes conflict. I do want to continue the Dilemma project - I don't think it's a problem America is going to resolve any time soon. I hope not, but it's probably going to be something I'll photograph for the rest of my life.