A Conversation with Pete Muller
As we welcome Pete Muller, the first new photographer to join Prime since our launch, we wanted to help everyone get to know him a bit better. We interviewed Pete about his work, the stories he’s tackled, and his approach to photography.
Prime: What inspires you as a photographer?
Pete Muller: My work is born of a fascination with the human condition. Before documentary work, I nurtured this curiosity with the study of history. Both formally and informally, I pursued a course of historical study that focused on marginalized communities, identity politics, and armed conflict. I spent copious hours studying identity schisms in so-called nation-states—poring over the cases of former Yugoslavia, Israel/Palestine, Chechnya, and other conflicted lands. With time, history spawned interest in anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines that offer insights into power, nationalism and conflict.
My work in photojournalism is an extension of this investigative process. I practice photography with history in mind—aiming to contribute nuanced primary documents to the emerging record. Quite often, photography is my excuse to embark on close quarter research without seeming too peculiar. The photos are my questions and assertions about the issues I cover and serve as a means to conversation about them. I am driven by a strong and sympathetic interest in underrepresented and marginalized communities. I often focus on the universal desire for dignity and believe that intimate, sensitive photos actively oppose the sterilization of suffering. I hope that my work encourages nuanced consideration of the lives of those depicted.
Prime: How did you break into photography and who were your major influences within the world of photojournalism?
PM: My mother was a news photographer throughout my upbringing so I was exposed to photography and news culture from an early age. During my mischievous adolescent years, she often enlisted me as her informal photo assistant which, generally speaking, amounted to carrying her equipment, taking down names and keeping her company as she processed film in the darkroom. During her tenure with the Lynn Daily Item, a local newspaper on Boston’s north shore, the city of Lynn was in the throes of a drug epidemic, gang wars and a staggering amount of violent crime, much of which was intimately connected with the declining socioeconomic conditions in the city at the time.
My mother was, and is, a very compassionate photographer who felt a deep connection to the issues of poverty, inequality and struggle. She felt a strong and natural connection to disenfranchised communities and her solidarity with those communities allowed her remarkable access. People trusted her- they knew that she would not exploit or embarrassment them and that their dignity would remain intact in the images she made. While I was not conscious of it at the time, I was heavily influenced by her approach.
Our apartment contained an impressive, if battered, collection of photo books. I was fascinated by a LIFE magazine photo book that depicted 20th century American culture and history. I have always been deeply interested in history, which is the subject I studied study in college. The LIFE book explained history in visual terms, a union that I found then and continue to find very compelling. There were also photo books by Robert Mapplethorpe and others whose work focused, at least in part, on rather explicit sexuality. Mapplethorpe’s work was edgy and exciting and beautiful and gave me the sense that photography was a means of documenting such a vast variety of human experiences. It could be whatever the photographer wanted it to be.
I have always been attracted to sensitivity and beauty in documentary work. This preference drew me to the work of Jehad Nga whose early chiaroscuro-style work was a major aesthetic influence. I find his work at once dark and beautiful; real and surreal. I am also influenced by Tim Hetherington and Richard Renaldi, two photographers whose work deals, in different ways, with issues of manhood and masculinity. Masculinity as social construction has long been of interest to me and will play a more central role in my work in the coming years. I have been deeply inspired by the intellectually rigorous approach employed by Peter van Agtmael whose exemplary work on America’s wars is of the utmost value to the historical record. While I have only been recently exposed to his work, I have profound admiration for Jason Eskenazi who, I believe, is one of the finest photographers working today. I also find perpetual inspiration in the work of Stephen Ferry, Alex Webb, Mary Ellen Mark, Paulo Pellegrin, Eugene Smith and Arnold Newman.
Prime: You spent three years observing South Sudan’s transition into independence. Why did you choose to cover this particular story?
PM: I moved to Sudan in 2009 knowing that the country was at a critical point in its history. It had been devastated by decades of brutal civil war between the Arab-Islamic north and largely African-Christian south and was on the cusp of formal division. I also knew that very few journalists were there covering the story. I believed that spending a few years documenting southern Sudan’s transition to independence would be of value to the historical record and might shed light on an underreported but geopolitically significant story.
It has been an exhilarating time to be in Sudan and, later, South Sudan. One has an unmistakable sense that something momentous is underway. The effort being made by the nascent southern government and its international partners is as awe-inspiring as it is daunting. They are truly building a government and all the requisite state institutions from the ground up. The international community, with America playing a leading role, is working double-time to ensure that southern Sudan’s transition to independence yields stability rather than collapse.
I’ve allowed my longstanding curiosity in nation-states to guide my photographic work in South Sudan. I’ve always been interested in notions of identity that compete with the prescribed “official” identity of respective states. The unified Sudan was torn asunder by this dynamic, with the official identity and policies of the state hinging on Arab, Islamic principles while significant segments of the population were neither. The marginalized southern population felt it imperative to create a state that more aptly reflected the identity and principles of their “nation.” While this move was warranted, I believe it opened a Pandora’s box of identity questions in the south, a land of remarkable diversity with scores of competing tribes, languages and cultures. I aimed to explore those issues.
I hope that the work from South Sudan reflects my fascination with the diversity that exists there. I hope that when appropriately paired with words, it contributes to the record of South Sudan at its long awaited birth. In an intellectual sense, I hope that it underscores the challenges of national identity and nation-states that exists in countless countries across the world and has, for centuries, been the source of immense bloodshed.
Prime: What were the challenges of telling the South Sudan story and why did you continue your coverage over three years?
PM: South Sudan is an extraordinarily difficult and complicated environment. At a logistical level, it is damn hard to get around. The country is vast, the roads are nearly non-existent and, during the lengthy rain reason, are largely impassable. This made it very difficult to respond quickly to reports of fighting, displacement and other types of breaking developments. Accessing remote areas often required coordination with the UN mission, which is a process fraught with red tape.
At a more serious level, the political landscape is treacherous and complicated and outsiders are often viewed with suspicion. I came to believe that there was one narrative for outsiders and another for Southern Sudanese. It was possible to access the latter but only after developing a significant network of connected sources and doing a formidable amount of detective work.
I remained for nearly three years because the story required it. I kept telling myself that I’d leave at certain points and those points repeatedly came and went. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew. These realizations would cause me to question my own assertions on the situation and compel me to dig deeper—to stay longer. I aim to make work that satisfies my own strict academic requirements and I felt achieving that in South Sudan required a significant time commitment.
Prime: The Cattle Keepers of South Sudan was a project on violence in the South’s pastoral communities. Can you talk about the images and the idea behind the portraits?
PM: Those images were made in the most remote place I have ever been. They were part of a project I was doing about violence in the South’s pastoral communities. I hired a car and translator and drove about 8 hours, mostly off road, to an isolated riverbank where a subgroup of the Dinka tribe was keeping their cattle. I chose the area because it has long been the epic center of violent cattle raiding, a major source of insecurity in South Sudan. I wanted to understand more about what life was like for these isolated populations.
I made the pictures under a moonless sky. After taking each photo, I’d show it to the person, all of whom were thrilled to see their own image. I worked for as long as my light’s battery held out.
When I finished the night session, many of the young men headed to the riverside where they shouted provocative slogans at the neighboring subtribe, whose cattle camps were a few miles away. In the morning, around 7 am, a raiding party from the neighboring tribe launched an attack on the camp where I was staying. Gunfire erupted as the Rek fighters sought to repel the raid and protect their herds from theft. I chased the group as far as I could before they disappeared across the river. Five young men were killed and several more were wounded.
It was an extraordinary experience that I reflect on regularly. Never before had I been so removed from everything I knew.
Prime: Describe the project documenting the fight against mass rape in Eastern Congo? How did you decide to visually tell their story and how did you cope with what you heard and what you witnessed?
PM: I believe that the mobile military tribunals are an important aspect of establishing the rule of law in eastern Congo. For far too long, militias and military units have been wreaking havoc throughout the east with impunity. The tribunals are the first taste of restitution that rape survivors and community members have experienced.
I believe that the portraits honor the quiet defiance I found among many rape survivors in Fizi. Despite their facial identity being concealed so dramatically, I feel that each woman’s willingness to appear in the series represents a level of resistance to the intimidation and violence they endure on a daily basis.
Once we’d established the condition of relative anonymity, dozens of rape survivors were eager to pose for portraits. They moved quietly to the center of the room and waited patiently for me to work. In many instances, I was required to use my hands to make minor adjustments to their stance and location. Their faces were already covered and, given the horrible experiences they’d so recently endured at the hands of men, I felt overwhelming pressure to guide them as delicately as possible. I moved them gently by their shoulders and spoke softly in KiSwahili, a common language in eastern Congo. I felt the weight of crimes committed by fellow men and, in those moments, felt ashamed to be part of the group.
I intend to work more on some specific aspects of the trials in the coming year.
Prime: Outside of your work in South Sudan and the Eastern Congo, you have a body of work on Machine Gun Americana. How did you find the story and what were you hoping to portray within the images?
PM: Machine Gun Americana is an embryo. It is a series of pictures that I took at an extreme machine gun shoot in Oklahoma at the end of June. It is my first venture into gun culture—a subject I find of great interest. I am fascinated by frontier culture- notions of centralized state power and how proximity to it shape a community’s sense of safety and security-based self-reliance. I believe that this dynamic is at play, but perhaps inadequately discussed, in the American gun conversation. What’s fascinating to me is that this dynamic is universal. Certainly in South Sudan, a community’s proximity to state security mechanisms and community buy-in to the validity of the state plays a significant role in the retention of arms and so-called “gun culture.” I aim to build on this in different environments in the coming years.
Prime: You’re moving to Nairobi. What are you planning to work on while you’re there?
PM: In addition to remaining involved with regional news coverage, I am keenly interested in exploring some quieter avenues. Sexuality, gender and relationship issues have long been of interest to me and I intend to more actively explore these issues in Kenya and elsewhere. I would like to further develop the gender conversation as it relates to men. In conjunction with an NGO, I intend to expand my curiosity in gun culture in a few illustrative areas of East Africa and elsewhere. I’ve got a long list of projects that I’m eager to get started on.