Life Through The Camera Lens: Part Two

In Time Stands Still, Sarah, a photojournalist, is injured in a war-torn country but eager to return to work. The story not only explores why Sarah puts herself in dangerous positions but also how her profession affects her family and friends. In part two of this blog series (see part one here) with photographer Michael Nelson, whose work will be on display at the 10th Street Gallery February 24- March 19, we discuss how his profession has affected his family.

  1. How has your profession affected yourself and your family?

Photo by Michael Nelson.

            Fortunately, my wife has generally been understanding of what my work involves. There have been times when I was younger and was asked to deploy with military units that she was fearful for my safety and tried to stop me from going. We are never forced into covering dangerous situations and have the choice to turn them down. I have never turned down an assignment, though I did express reservations about covering the war in Liberia. I had never covered a West African war and was not familiar with that part of Africa. The brutality and summary execution of people along tribal lines made me uneasy. Thankfully, I was not assigned to that story.

I have been fortunate in that I have not been very emotionally affected by what I have seen while covering grim stories. The camera has acted as a type of barrier to what I am seeing. I am thinking about telling the story, composing the picture, making sure the exposure settings are right, what the lens choice should be. I am not thinking about the terrible way the person has died or the suffering an injured person is going through as they are being treated or evacuated or the sorrow of a loved ones funeral. It is rare that I will just look at a scene without thinking about how I am going to depict it through a picture. I am saddened by what I am seeing, particularly by the senselessness of it. War is such a waste. A waste of life, a waste by all the destruction it causes, a waste of all the resources it takes. And in most wars I have experienced, it is not the politicians who declare the wars, or the manufacturers of weapons, or even the generals and soldiers who carry them out that suffer, it is the poor innocent civilians who are caught in it and have no choice.

  1. How did you meet your wife?

            I met my wife, Mona Sherif, at the International Language Institute in Cairo when I tried to learn Arabic and she was the Arabic teacher. She was and still is an exceptionally beautiful and exotic person of Nubian-Egyptian ancestry. After courting for almost a year, I converted to Islam and we married. Unfortunately, even after marrying the teacher, I never really learned Arabic very well.

  1. Did having children change your attitude about covering dangerous situations?

            Yes, it did. I almost missed my first child’s birth as I had left to cover the coup d’etat in Sudan at the beginning of July 1989. Fortunately, within days of returning my son, Shamseddiin, was born on 15 July.  At first, it did not have any impact as I separated work from my personal life. I had covered famines in Eritrea, Sudan and Darfur in 1985 and 1988 and had seen and photographed the same sort of scenes. It was difficult to see anyone suffer needlessness and to be helpless to do something, but (and this may sound heartless) it did not affect me personally. After spending the day shooting such scenes and then processing, printing and sending the pictures in the evening, I did not lose any sleep over what I had experienced.

However, when I covered the Somali famine in 1992, I was greatly saddened by the terrible suffering of the people but particularly of the poor children. To see malnourished children my son’s age, starving, and knowing many were in absolute misery and many would die, was heart wrenching. I wanted to do something. Pick them up, give them some food, save at least one, but that was not possible. So I took pictures. But those visions stay with me to this day and when I look at my pictures from those days, I hope they survived. But I know many of them died and it is sad. I may not have realized it at the time, but I came to understand my change in perception was due to having a child of my own that I love and would protect with my life. To think of him or my daughter suffering like that is unimaginable.

  1. What would you like people to know about the photographs that will be at the 10th Street Gallery?


Photo by Michael Nelson.

Photo by Michael Nelson.

The photographs are a small slice of the work I have done over the years. There are dozens and dozens of photographers around the world covering stories like those every day. They are all good people and they are all taking risks to get the story out. We all do it for different reasons. Some people find it addicting and need the thrill and excitement. Others do it because it is a way to make a living in a situation they cannot escape. Others (like me) are dutiful employees that do it because it is one of the requirements of the job. Whatever the reason, the images are important. They inform people and policymakers of what is happening.  Without such a record, wars and tragedies will go on unobserved, out of mind and unchecked.   I know many of us have become immune to the horrors of such situations, especially with all the make-believe violence that entertains us in movies, television programs and video games.

But these are real people and we need to understand that wars and gun violence (here in the US) kill and hurt people and we need to care about them and when we can do something to help, we should try.


Michael Nelson’s work will be displayed during the run of Time Stands Still February 24 to March 19, 2017. Purchase tickets at 414-271-1371 or click here. This exhibit is sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club Endowment. A free opening 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. 

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