Life Through the Camera Lens: An Interview with Photojournalist Mike Nelson

During Time Stands Still, the 10th Street Gallery will present photographs from photojournalist Mike Nelson. Capturing gripping and emotional stories from across the world including Lebanon, Africa and the United States over his 35-year career, Nelson has seen the first-hand effects of war and conflict on communities and their people. Now living in Los Angeles, he works for the European Pressphoto Agency.  In preparation for his exhibit, we asked Nelson how his work has affected his life and his family in this two part blog series:

  1. When did you start photography and what was your first assignment?
Lebanon italian paratroopers

Photo by Mike Nelson.

Professionally, my first assignment (self-generated) was in Paris in 1981 on my way to Lebanon where I photographed and interviewed former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr. My first assignment when I arrived in Lebanon was covering a street battle along the Green Line in West Beirut.

  1. Where have you been to capture your photographs and why?

            In my career as a photojournalist, I have traveled extensively in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. As a wire service photographer, we monitor the news locally and decide if the story is newsworthy to cover. Because I have been a part of a major news agency most of my professional career, our offices around the world will also ask for coverage of certain stories. If there is a breaking news event like a terrorist attack or a disaster, I move on it right away. On breaking stories, the sooner you get there the better chance you have of getting access to the area. Once the authorities get organized, they limit media accessibility.

  1. What made you decide to continue with photography in places that some may consider dangerous? Do you still go to these places and if so, why (or why not)?

I was a history major in college and I wanted to experience history in the making myself. My college roommate, a Lebanese-American and political science major, suspected the Israelis were going to invade Lebanon to try and destroy the PLO. Therefore, after we graduated, he suggested traveling to Lebanon to cover the civil war. We arrived in Lebanon on Thanksgiving Day in 1981 and in June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. When you are young, you feel invincible and war is exciting. Now as I look back, I took some foolish chances during those early days in Lebanon. Once I started working for Agence France Presse (AFP) in the Middle East, I was the only American photographer they had that had any conflict experience, so they wanted me to cover war stories as well as conflicts involving the US military (Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo).

I am no longer interested in covering active war stories. They are dangerous. They are uncomfortable (you often have to sleep outside or in very rudimentary conditions), food can be difficult to come by and dealing with unsavory and suspicious militiamen at checkpoints or military bureaucracies can be scary and frustrating. If called upon, I would cover the aftermath of war. I don’t enjoy such coverage as it deals with funerals, grief, the injured and the terrible destruction of people homes, livelihoods and families.

  1. Did you have any close calls when you were out on an assignment?

    Photo by Mike Nelson.

    Photo by Mike Nelson.

Yes. In Lebanon, a Palestinian militia friend was shot in the stomach near my seaside apartment as the Israelis tried to make a landing in the middle of the night. I evacuated the landlord’s family and during the gun battle taking place on the corniche, my friend was shot. I helped him to safety but learned he died a few hours later. A television cameraman, Ken Jobson, was shot in the neck next to me by a Phalangist militiaman as we tried to take cover from sniper fire. He survived.

And bizarrely enough, one of the most frightening situations was here in the United States when I was covering the rioting that followed the police officer’s acquittal in the Rodney King beating. I was out at night in south Central covering the looting and burning and though I tried to stay with the fire fighters, I needed to drive around looking for where things were taking place. At one point, a large group of rioters carrying clubs and smashing things along the street swarmed into the road where I was stuck in traffic. I had a pretty crummy car at the time and I hunkered down and they passed by the vehicle without noticing that I was a white person. Earlier in the day, a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, had almost been beaten to death and rioters were attacking white people and Koreans. I had been very scared and got out of there right away.

Learn more about Mike Nelson’s experiences in our blog post next Monday, February 20. Nelson’s work will be on display during Time Stands Still February 24 – March 19, 2017. Purchase tickets at 414-271-1371 or click here.  A free gallery reception for the exhibit will take place Thursday, March 16 from 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. before the performance of Time Stands Still. A talk back with the cast and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel war correspondent , Margaret “Meg” Jones, will take place after the performance.