Photojournalist Mariella Furrer

"I see myself as a visual storyteller"

(Courtesy of Mariella Furrer)

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / September 22, 2021

Photojournalism News:  What drew you to photojournalism?

 Mariella Furrer: Growing up in Kenya, I never really was exposed to photojournalism. We subscribed to National Geographic back then, but most of our magazines never made it to us – they would get stolen in the post, and we would have to buy them back off the streets in Nairobi. Nat Geo was very different back then and while I loved reading and learning about the world, I don’t think I was moved by the imagery in the same way as I am now when I look at their photography. So, it was purely by chance that I ended up discovering photojournalism and documentary photography when I was 23yrs old.  

I had finished studying Hotel Management in Switzerland and found a job in the library of the Kunsthaus Museum in Zurich, while looking for a more permanent job in a hotel. I was feeling quite lost at the time, as despite being Swiss, Kenya was my home. It was where I grew up, and where my heart and soul resided… I just did not fit in in Europe.

Also, hotel management was the obvious thing for me to do as my father was in that field of work, and I grew up in hotels…  also, I loved meeting new people and speaking different languages… But I also LOVED the outdoors and adventure… and so at that time, I was very much in limbo...which I hate!! … but have learnt to respect more with age!

Anyway, as luck should have it, the museum was holding a fifty year retrospective of Magnum Photos. As I walked around the show, I remember being absolutely stunned by the power of the photography. Besides one of the most haunting images I have ever seen by Frank Fournier, years earlier, I had never really seen this kind of photography before, and it moved me on such a deep level.

Frank Fournier’s photo in 1985 was of a 13 young girl called Omayra Sanchez who was “blocked by debris in putrid waters following a monstrous landslide that wiped her Colombian town from the face of the earth in mere minutes following the eruption of a nearby volcano.”- AFP

She spent 60hrs in the water while rescuers desperately tried to save her, but in the end, she died trapped. It was heart-breaking.  I will never forget Fournier’s photo and the look in Omayra’s eyes. Truly devastating.

Besides this incredible photo of Omayra, I don’t really recall having seen photos that moved me as deeply as the ones I saw at the Magnum show. That body of work opened my eyes to the power of photography, and the capacity it had to evoke emotion, and inspire people to support the cause, or push for change, when needed.

During the show, I ended up chatting to a photojournalist, and asked him what I needed to do to become a photojournalist. I was 22yrs old at this point, and he suggested I apply to the International Center of Photography (ICP) in NYC. I had never even heard of it.

Shortly after this, in January 1991, Somalia’s civil war began. I was in Kenya at the time, and a journalist friend was going in so I tagged along… At the time I did not own any gear, but the owner of a photo store in Nairobi loaned me a camera and a lens and gave me three rolls of B&W film. And that was how my journey began.

I then applied to ICP.  I was turned down, but reapplied the next year, and was thankfully accepted for the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Programme the following (1993). After ICP, I attended the Eddie Adams workshop in 1993…both were life changing for me…  ICP taught me to find my voice, and to develop my style… The Eddie Adams workshop introduced me to my tribe, and gave me a bit of confidence, that I was on the right track and might actually be able to make it as a photojournalist…  

 Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

 Mariella Furrer: I am not very knowledgeable about equipment… my main cameras have been Nikons and Leicas. I have also used Canons. All are great, but I really love discreet gear, so I am thinking of Fujifilm…

My favourite lens is probably a 28mm. Wide but not too wide…

 Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

 Mariella Furrer: I have taken time off to be a mother so have not really worked social media the way I should… currently I am using Instagram, Facebook, and a bit of Linkedin.

 Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

 Mariella Furrer: I would do a lot of research before heading out on assignment… I would want to know all there is to know about the issue. Have stories and photos been done of it before? What access did they have? How could I try to do it differently? I’d want to learn more about the country, the people, their culture. It is important to me to be respectful of the culture, and behave sensitively to the people I am photographing. So, for example I would try to dress and behave in a way that would be considered appropriate and acceptable to the people I am photographing.

I usually have two bodies, three of four lenses… 17-35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 70-210mm.  I rarely if ever use the 70-210mm, I but take it just in case. I also carry a flash (which I never use, but again… just in case)… flash cards, hard drives, lens cloths, batteries, chargers… and I almost always have a scarf I wear around my neck… I can keep my cameras under it if necessary and wipe them clean if I need… etc

When I am actually working, I wear two Domke pouches, and carry one or two cameras on me… my camera bag, with any extras, I keep in the car in case, but my main gear is one me.

 Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work?  What are you trying to say with your photography?

 Mariella Furrer: My work focuses on in-depth stories about issues or subjects that really move me…  an injustice, or something that I feel the world needs to hear about to bring about change. I still do believe that photography has the power to do that.

Style wise… it is complicated! Prior to my child abuse project, my style was loser, freer, less constricted. I shot the way I saw… multi-dimensional and layered… which is what the world is… Working on my decade long project on child sexual abuse changed this, as it was very restrictive.

Because of the nature of these horrific crimes committed against these children, it was critical to keep their identities hidden… Not being able to show faces, and thus the emotions of the very people who’s stories I was trying to tell, was very challenging…and to have this restriction for ten years was laborious… I found it very confining… it felt as though my wings had been clipped.

I think my photography, as a whole, suffered because of it, but there was no other way to have done this work… to not only keep identities concealed, but to also not cause secondary trauma to the child and his/her family.

Now, photographing my daughter allows me to be free again, but I do need to find another long-term project that moves me and allows me the freedom to shoot as I see.

 Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

 Mariella Furrer: I shoot a lot… too much probably. And in the end, when I look at everything, I seem to always find that the first photo was the best! When it comes to a photo story, it really depends on how much work I have put into it, and how many images I feel have something important to add to the story. I do not have a cap on the number I can use, but my tendency would be to go for 16 - 24 images… Also, I am definitely NOT a single image photographer! I see myself, very much, as a visual storyteller, and so I will use as many photos as I need to fully tell the story in the way I want.

 Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

 Mariella Furrer: My last assignments were working with game rangers in a wildlife conservancy in Kenya, which has the last few remaining White Rhinos, and in Tanzania with girls who have been rescued from human trafficking.

 Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

 Mariella Furrer: I am still trying to figure out what is next for me… I am in a creative rut! Hopefully my next assignments will be less emotionally taxing… and ones that have a bright light at the end of the tunnel! I love working on stories about or with NGOs or foundations and organisations that are making a difference… Also, I hope to find my next long-term project soon, as that is what really feeds my soul.

 Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?

 Mariella Furrer: That is a difficult question!! I think what moves me are the people I have photographed, and their situation. I carry them and their stories close to my heart.

For today, I will share one that always fills me with emotion. The photo is of Inspector Michael ‘Stroppie’ Grobbelaar, who was without doubt the most outstanding police officer I worked with, over a period of almost 10 years, during my child abuse project. In the photo Stroppie, who was leading the search for 7 year old Kamo, is standing in the kitchen with Anna, Kamo’s aunt and adoptive mother. You can see the emotional toll the search is taking on him, and his struggle in telling Anna that they have still been unable to find any trace of her little girl. You can see the helplessness and grief in Anna’s eyes and the posture of her body. This photo makes me really sad every time I see it.

Stroppie would stop by Anna’s house every single day to keep her updated, and tell her that they had not given up hope. The search which consisted of helicopters, the police dog search and rescue unit, the police mounted unit (horses), canoes, foot patrols etc was halted after a whole month. Kamo was last seen walking hand in hand with an unknown man. She was never found again.

 Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

 Mariella Furrer: Emotions. Intimacy. Soul. I really do believe that photographs have the power to bring about change, and my hope is that my work moves the viewer enough, to compel them to take action, to make a difference, because this, in my eyes, and in the words of the great Ralf Waldo Emerson, would be to have succeeded…

“To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;

This is to have succeeded.”

(All images © Courtesy of Mariella Furrer)

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?

 Mariella Furrer: I usually find photos are visually interesting to me when they are multi-dimensional and layered, when there is depth to them, or where there is soul and a certain emotion evoked by them.

 Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

 Mariella Furrer: It would have to be a visually interesting photo or one that evokes emotions in me. I am not really moved by a pretty photo, but I do love a beautiful image that has soul to it, and/or tells an important story.

 Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

 Mariella Furrer: Injustice is my greatest motivator. It keeps me up at night, and for days on end… It is what compels me to take photos… Photos that I hope open the hearts and minds of the people who see them, and move them enough to want to support the issue, or to push for change – in whatever way they can.

 Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

 Mariella Furrer: I, Leon, a friend working in TV, and some Zairean Red Cross volunteers had crossed the border (about 7 kms) on foot from Rwanda into Zaire (now DR Congo), to shoot a massacre in a village… Within minutes bullets were whistling passed us… we all ran… I had my period at the time which made me a bit anaemic, so my energy levels where lower than normal… I got separated from the others and got lost…  the way back to Rwanda was up seven hills with absolutely no ground cover in which to hide… I have no idea how long I was lost for, but it felt like a lifetime… crawling in ditches, hiding in abandoned huts, just running up the open hills, with bullets still whistling past me…  finally, I found a forest and as I ran in, I spotted some Rwandan Military, who showed me the way to safety. MSF and ICRC teams were all on standby… nobody could believe I made it out alive…

Still today, if I get lost in a place I do not know, I panic. I have had flashbacks because of this incident… and this, along with several other incidents, have caused me to have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).

 A different type of work risk is one that was in relation to my project on child sexual abuse. which began when I received a three-day assignment from Marie Claire Magazine USA. I was shooting film at the time, and sent the developed film and detailed captions, with instructions, about not using any photos where you could identify a child (ie. no faces to be shown) to my Corbis, my agency at the time, and to Marie-Claire. Four months later, I received the magazine and they had used a double page spread with absolutely no attempt to hide the child’s identity. After confronting the Marie-Claire and Corbis – in vain… I quit Corbis, and never worked for Marie-Claire USA again.

 Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

 Mariella Furrer: Hmmm… that is a tough one… Honestly, I think right now, I would love to be living the van/bus life with my daughter, and pets, traveling the world, and photographing stories at different stops. This would be my ultimate dream… but… on more realistic note… I do not actually have any dream assignment as I really LOVE shooting… I do love working in hospitals doing medical stories, and, also, working on issues that focus on women and children… but there is still so much that I haven’t explored so I am open to anything… I love to travel… so something adventurous, outdoorsy…that would be amazing… Also, after years of working by myself, I would really enjoy to work as a part of a team - with other photographers, film makers or creatives etc.  Working on long term projects can get lonely!!

 Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

 Mariella Furrer: Humanity. Integrity. Curiosity. Empathy. Trustworthiness. Honesty. Authenticity. An ability to have people trust you and allow you into their lives… a sense of adventure. And of course, a good eye!!! But overall, I would say humanity… if there is a choice between taking a photo or saving someone’s life… it goes without saying… save the life!! That life might even be your own… no photo is worth dying for.

 Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

Mariella Furrer: For photojournalism, I think it is absolutely essential that the image is NOT manipulated… I am a purist when it comes to this… there is no place in our industry for manipulation, or the setting up of an image. I was a jury member on one of the more important photojournalism awards, and the photo selected to win the award, we soon discovered, was set up. For me, this should have incurred an immediate disqualification, and a ban from applying to any photojournalism awards for a couple of years.  But instead, it took days for those in charge of the award to decide what to do… and in the end, the photo was disqualified only because of a misleading caption, and not because it had been a complete set up! I was furious! I have to say this incident, and the many people defending this particular photo, really knocked my faith in our industry… 

That said, there are many ways to tell a visual story… so, yes, you may want to set it up and/or manipulate it. I do not have a problem with that. In fact, I also appreciate this kind of work, and it can be very powerful, BUT it is NOT photojournalism, and cannot, and should not, fall into the category of photojournalism.

The only situation I can think of where I would accept manipulation is when someone’s face needs to be blurred, black-barred, or concealed, to protect their identity. This, I have done myself, on one photo in my book on child sexual abuse.

 Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?

 Mariella Furrer: To be ethical to me means having a certain moral code. Having integrity. Being honourable. Having humanity. Being honest, and trustworthy.

 Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance? 

 Mariella Furrer: Absolutely not… I think photojournalism will always be important. Nothing can move people in the way a strong image can… we are more likely to remember a single image than a moving picture – in my opinion!! In terms of evolving, though, yes… there is definitely a change in our industry… I am not really the right person to ask about this as I have taken some time off, but there is no doubt, that these days, newspapers and magazines are rarely giving out 2-3 week-long assignments. Previously, these assignments allowed us to do in-depth work. National Geographic is one of the few that continues this, but in the past their assignments could go on for a couple of years! So, there are less publications that will invest in us to actually do the work, but there are definitely more grants and funding available to us, than was back when I started out. I think the industry is continuously evolving, and to survive we will have to evolve with it… BUT I do not believe that it diminishes the importance of photojournalism.

 Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?

 Mariella Furrer: I never really had any issues being a female photojournalist. I have mostly been blessed with male colleagues who were very supportive. That said there have definitely been situations where being a woman has made things more complicated, and others where it has been a bonus.

 Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

 Mariella Furrer: I love being a photojournalist and I really believe this is one of the most incredible careers you could chose… it opens doors to people from every walk of life, to different countries, and cultures. It allows you a way of creative expression, and it is a way to make a difference in this world.

That said… it does not pay so well… so, you really need to be good with the business side of things to survive. This is something I have never been good with, and is something I am having to learn now. So, do not only focus on the creative aspects of telling a story, but also on what will make you money to be able to continue doing the stories you want.

Another few things to keep in mind… NO PHOTO IS WORTH DYING FOR. This is the truth… you are better alive, and able to recount what you have seen than being killed for an image. We all take risks and I think with age and experience we become better at gauging them, but of course there is no guarantee.

Also, do take care of your mental health. I was knocked out with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the 90s, and it has affected me, and my capacity to work on several occasions since. It is critical to care for yourself, so that you are able to share these stories.

At the same time, it is important to allow yourself to feel what you are witnessing. You cannot convey emotions through your images if you are unable to feel them.

Lastly, I would say, never ever lose your humanity and empathy for the subjects and situations you are photographing. Humanity should always come before photography.

Mariella Furrer

Mariella Furrer is a Swiss/Lebanese photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Kenya. She is the of author of My Piece of Sky: Stories of Child Sexual Abuse, an in-depth body of work including photography, interviews, artwork, poetry, and journals around the issue of child sexual abuse.
Mariella is the recipient of multiple grants and awards, is a TEDx Speaker (The Courage of Survivors), and is one of three photographers featured in the documentary, “Beyond Assignment". She has been a jury member on several photography awards, and festivals including World Press Photo Awards, The Netherlands, and has taught in workshops such as The Foundry organised by VII Academy & PhotoWings.
Her work has been published in books, magazines, and newspapers, internationally, and displayed in exhibitions and museums around the world. Her work on the Rwandan Genocide is on permanent display at the Memoria y Tolerancia Museum in Mexico City.