"People have their right to get high and stoned. The fuck, whatever. But, I don't know why they do it this way when it could just be from a plant on their balcony. Or, from a bowl of French wine, like me."
Teun Voeten shrugs, laughing and pushing his long hair from his eyes. This is what he does for a living - thinking about humans and their motives and choices, that is. An internationally acclaimed photojournalist, Voeten spoke last night to a filled auditorium at SMU regarding theory and methodology, and focusing on the ethical and intellectual problematic of war correspondence. Discussing his work in BORDER, a collective at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery featuring three photographers who have documented the Mexican/American border and the societal disruption there, Voeten described the adversely-symbiotic relationship between the United States' insatiable lust for narcotics and the chilling drug cartels, just across the Rio Grande, that are forever transforming the modern understanding of "war." Before he jets this weekend back to what has been called the most dangerous city in the world, Juarez, you can join Voeten tonight for a less-formal free gallery talk and wine reception, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at PDNB Gallery.
Trained as an anthropologist, Voeten considers each shot scientifically, relying on simple, stark realism to capture humanity at its most exposed and most present. In combat zones, he finds and records the effects of war both visible and invisible, that which can be seen plainly in the photograph, and the larger ramifications of war, ineffable but undeniable in the sad-sorrowful eyes and trembling lips of his subjects. His first book, Tunnel People, documented the five months he spent living with homeless people under Manhattan's Upper West Side in the mid-nineties. Since then, he has quite literally traveled the globe, documenting humanity at its best and, more often, worst. Largely self-trained as a photographer - he learned the trade in "about a year and a half" before finally studying at the School for Visual Arts in New York - Voeten exists on planes, snaking through time zones, seemingly defying circadian rhythms, and essentially living one long, unending day of passionate work.
But, thrilling though it may be, Voeten's life is not glamorous. "Twenty years ago magazines were calling. Now, they say, 'Sure, that's interesting. Go shoot it and see if you can bring something back.' They've had the taste of money and they know photographers will still go take photos whether they pay or not." He shakes his head, "You will find a way."
Despite having been published in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic, and despite the incredible risk of his various undertakings, Voeten is largely self-funded, relying on the occasional grant, but also the proceeds from his numerous books, and gallery shows like BORDER. But, somehow, he inevitably manages to find time for others, spearheading a campaign to raise money for a school in Sierra Leon and auctioning photos for "Girls Empowerment" in the Netherlands and the MAPC Shelter in New York. "It is a hard life," he says, humbly. "But, when you've been there, the Western world and regular life feels mediocre."
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War correspondence is an inescapable drug for Voeten, admittedly motivated by both self-interest and altruistic concern. He acutely understands the ethical questions behind photographing humans at their most vulnerable, in the throes of loss and despair, sometimes even just moments before death. And, he says it is crucial to realize when one's work approaches the edge of voyeurism and exploitation, and to treat those moments with great respect and tasteful care. "We don't like bad things to happen, but when they do," he says, "We should photograph them."
It is not that Voeten is especially optimistic that his work will affect great change toward ending the world's greatest travesties and injustices. While he notes that journalists played a critical role in garnering the attention of the international community to end the atrocities of the Bosnian War, he is not hopeful that humanity will outgrow its most baneful cravings. But, like the iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, photographed by Nick Ut in 1972, and whose tiny body, running naked and burning through Trang Bang, is for so many still "the image" of Vietnam, photography makes inescapable that which is all too easily ignored by those of us hiding behind the luxury of Western privilege. For that reason, Voeten produces the type of images that cannot be unseen, and they carry remarkable small sparks of human experience that utterly ignite upon viewing.
Don't miss Teun Voeten tonight at PDNB Gallery at 1202 Dragon St., Suite 103. Wine reception begins at 5:30 with a gallery talk beginning at 6:30. Call 214-969-1852 for more details.