David Pratt talks to The Glasgow Guardian about his new exhibition in Glasgow, Pictures from Ukraine, and a career of covering conflict.
Pictures from Ukraine has been brought to Glasgow’s Saltmarket by multi award-winning photographer and foreign correspondent David Pratt. The exhibition captures the pain of the conflict in Ukraine from the build up of the pro-seperatist movement in 2014 to the crucial present day moment of the Russian invasion. A graduate of Fine Art at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), David has covered just about every major conflict of the past four decades. After a brief period teaching art and design history at GSA, he left the city of his student days for Nicaragua. “I lied to my bank manager and said I wanted to go to America. I just failed to mention it was Central America and there was a civil war going on.”
The world’s conflict zones may not be the most popular post-grad destination for the Art School’s bright young prospects, but David thanks his cultural education for a large part of his success in journalism. “I came through in the halcyon days of GSA…it was a very intense, creative environment which allowed you to do what you wanted to do, and writing was part of that. GSA at that time was a perfect springboard for me to come into journalism.” While contemporaries, who included Peter Capaldi and Franz Ferdinand went on to find success in acting and music, they were all as politically engaged and curious about the world as someone who went into war reporting. The artistic background in turn made for a successful print journalist: “Some people know my work as a writer more than as a photographer. I don’t see the difference between the two. Some people say I write like a photographer, which means I write very visually.”
Along with the Pictures from Ukraine exhibition, David is currently working on a film of the same name, to add to his previous versions on the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, two of which were premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival. The purpose of the exhibition was to get something out immediately showing the human impact of the war and show where the conflict started to where it is now. These are certainly achieved. Pictures from the Donbas region in 2014 show young men in balaclavas with crowbars who were the beginning of the separatist movement, and the Donetsk regional administration building, where David interviewed the self-appointed leader of the separatist movement, Denis Pushilin.
The most notable element of the Pictures from Ukraine exhibition was the emotion that comes through in the images. None of the images are overly graphic – “photography can become almost forensic in that way, and it loses its aesthetic power”, says David. Amongst the most powerful images in the collection is of a grieving mother standing at the grave of her son killed in the fighting, with her back to her community standing behind her watching on. The exhibition’s position in Glasgow city centre brings home the reality that this war is still happening, and images like this, taken not at a moment of intense warfare which seems far removed to the audience, but at one to which everyone can relate – a moment of grief – helps people connect to the image.
Photography is by its nature voyeuristic as a medium, but this is never thrown into focus more than in a warzone. To what lengths should you go for art – if someone has just been wounded, do you help or take a photograph? “Photography is an intrusion. The fact that you are stepping into someone’s grief, pain, suffering, and trauma is not an easy thing to do. Experience teaches you when you are overstepping the mark and it’s a very fine line.”
Almost 40 years into his journalistic career, David is “less interested now in nuts-and-bolts journalism, and more interested in things like exhibitions, books and films – I think that’s the platform my archive has moved on to”. As well as a new book being in the works, having already written one on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has recently been approached by London’s Imperial War Museum with an interest in housing his Iraq and Afghanistan archive.
What was apparent in The Glasgow Guardian’s conversation with David was how much value he sees in the positive effect culture has on his work. Alongside journalism, photography, book writing and filmmaking, he is still a keen painter, a practice he says “intensifies your way of looking and seeing makes you very visually aware”, all qualities which are clear to see at the exhibition.
Pictures from Ukraine is housed at Sogo Community Arts Hub in the Saltmarket and will be open every Wednesday-Sunday from 12-5pm until 30 October.