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Capturing the aftermath: Sean Sutton talks to The Mancunion

“My camera was pointed so close to the cluster bomb, I didn’t notice his children running away from him as he attempted to knock off the fuse to show me how to make a lamp out of it, a lethal trade that claims lives daily.”

These are the words of Sean Sutton, war photographer and Marketing and Communications manager of Mines Advisory Group (MAG) at a presentation of his work at the University of Manchester last week.

Working in warzones throughout his career, Sutton’s images tell powerful and unbelievable stories about the lives of people affected by conflict and MAG’s work in clearing the remnants of combat.

A photojournalist since 1989 when he found himself embroiled in Burmese offensives against the Karen people on the Burma-Thai border, Sutton’s first-hand experiences in countries as far removed as Cambodia, Afghanistan and Angola helped turn his focus towards what he calls the “residue of war”.

He said, “I decided to centre my work on the indiscriminate effects mines and other ammunition continue to have on communities long after conflicts are officially over.

“There were times during active battle in Yugoslavia where I thought I wasn’t going to come out but often the dangers come when you don’t expect them; in post war societies that are peppered with mines and other explosives.”

Heralded as a pioneer in photographic style, Sutton’s news photography has distinctly a humanitarian focus: “Initially I got sponsored by the Guardian then worked through photo agencies but found myself drawn to NGOs who worked in the areas I was capturing on film and through whom I could get better access to situations the mainstream media found it hard to.”

It was in the mid ‘90s that he was introduced to MAG, where he was able to give his photography skills the chance to affect change in a way he found he was unable to do as well through the international press. His work helped MAG to secure more funding.

Sutton continues to return to the field despite the impact on family life, “What continues to amaze me and keeps me coming back to these places are the extraordinary displays of human strength and character in the most appalling of situations. One woman I came across in Cambodia told me how her husband stood on a mine outside of their family house, blowing off his leg.

“When he came back form hospital several weeks later he asked her to go get some painkillers from the neighbour and upon returning she too stepped on a landmine, the same happening to her, and she said to me, joking ‘so I took the painkillers because I needed them more!’ When people try to rebuild their lives and even joke about what has happened to them after years of turmoil it can give us all hope about the resoluteness of humankind. I want my images to show them not as victims, but survivors.”

During a trip to northern Iraq after the 2003 invasion, Sutton photographed eight village children playing with mortar bombs as toys, only days after they had been dropped. He tried to highlight the dangers to the families by showing them pictures he had taken earlier of those who had been injured in the same way. He returned to the site the following morning to find that 3 of them had been killed. Although support is there, he says, the problems facing these citizens are so widespread that they don’t always get help and are left to fend for themselves.

More recent experiences in Laos have culminated in the publication of ‘Laos: Legacy of a Secret’, a narrative set in the most bombed place on the planet per capita. The country suffered the equivalent of a B52 dropping its tonnage every 6 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 solid years by American forces. Sutton’s book follows the incredible resilience and resourcefulness of its citizens who continue to live there and fashion everything, from buildings to boats, out of the scrap metal that litters the ground.

The intention of Sutton and MAG is clear. With black and white Leica images they aim to highlight the urgent need for mine and artillery clearance so that countries once riddled with war can develop. The work MAG does has seen “the transformation of minefields into thriving villages.”

Sutton continued, “It is important to get the message across to governments that before these countries can develop we must give them land free from bombs so they can produce for subsistence. This has to be done before you can build hospitals, schools and industry.”

Sean Sutton’s exhibition ‘Surviving the Peace’ will be at the Royal Armouries in Leeds from 15-29 November before travelling around the UK. His book, Laos: Legacy of a Secret will be published 1 March 2011.

Tags: burma, photography, sean sutton, war

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