Henry Zwartz: Honing his Photographic Intuition

Henry Zwartz, age 21, was born and raised in Sydney, Australia to a family of jazz musicians. He developed a passion for documentary and art photography after his dad lent him a Leica film camera four years ago. While at university, when not studying, he would go out and take photos. Now, having just graduated with an arts degree from the University of Sydney, he hopes to become a full-time photographer and writer. In 2013 he was offered a place in postgraduate law at Australian National University, but he has deferred for a year in order to pursue photography. He has worked as both a journalist and photographer intern for news organizations and journals in Asia and Australia. Here he shares with us the story of and images from his trip to document life on the Thai-Burma border.

Q: What made you want to go to the Thai-Burma border to take the images in this portfolio?

A: I first went to the border town of Mae Sot during a holiday to Thailand with my family in 2010. I found the place fascinating. It reminded me of the TV series “Deadwood.” The town has long been a regional hub for gem trading, people smuggling and other forms of illicit cross-border trade. The mix of ethnic groups and cultures was overwhelming. It was a dream come true for an aspiring photographer. I knew I had to go back. Even if this meant saving up money in Sydney and going on self-funded trips to the border, which is exactly what ended up happening after some hard work.

One day in late 2011, I wanted to escape Sydney for a while and asked Phil Thornton, a mentor and highly respected journalist who lives on the Thai-Burma border, if I could get involved with KarenNews.org. Phil helps with this news organization that gives a voice to the ethnic Karen people of Eastern Burma. The ethnic Karen people have long faced discrimination and human rights abuses from Burma’s army.

I have now been to the border to work there twice – most recently from January to March of this year – helping document many different kinds of stories, from mistreated migrant workers in Thailand, to the everyday life of Karen refugees, to armed ethnic ceasefire groups and poppy growers in different parts of Burma.

Q: You describe the town of Mae Sot, a hub of illicit activity, as a “dream come true for an aspiring photographer” and you worked hard to save up enough money to return. Do you see yourself as a photojournalist in the tradition of W. Eugene Smith and Sebastiao Salgado? Do you think it’s possible to support yourself in this way, and if not, what is your plan B?

A: I am intensely curious about the world. I found the Thai-Burma border interesting because it was so different to anything I had been around before. This was why it was a dream come true and why I have gone back. I am drawn to variety, not necessarily just political strife or conflict; it just so happened that there is a lot of instability in that part of the world. I certainly don’t think that the only stories worth telling are in conflict zones. Indeed, a number of famous photos by photographers such as Cartier-Bresson and Martine Franck are about the beauty and delight found in everyday life, and these types of photos also interest me a great deal.

There are a large number of legendary photographers, including Salgado and Eugene Smith, who are my heroes. I am inspired by that great tradition, and this continues to have a great influence on me.

There is no plan B. In the future I will be photographing and writing. The only thing in question is whether I’ll do this with no money or some money. One thing I learned from my parents is the value of finding something that you are passionate about. My mother and father chose jazz; I am finding my own creative outlet.

That being said though, I acknowledge that following your dream takes a great deal of hard work and dedication. I think that photojournalism is under some pressure now with the 24-hour news cycle and instant communication, which makes it especially difficult for young people like me trying to get into it. I hope those out there will appreciate that we still need good quality journalism and documentary photography.

Q: Although you are an aspiring young photographer your camera of choice is a classic Leica M6 and all the pictures in your Thai-Burma border portfolio were shot in black-and-white. What is it that draws you to this very traditional medium? Have you considered shooting with a digital Leica M or using color film for some of your work?

A: I used the Leica M6 TTL for all of my personal work in Thailand and Burma because it was tough, unobtrusive and suited my purposes well.

For me, I was first exposed to photography through the black-and-white photos taken by legends like Eugene Smith. I felt drawn to the gritty character of film, which is different to the creaminess of digital. It was an artistic choice to use film. I also wanted to go through the process of learning to use film to improve my abilities as a photographer – “with film you have to make every picture count” as Nick Ut said on this blog a few months ago. That being said, I would love a digital Leica M if I could afford one!

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: My dad, who is an accomplished jazz double-bassist and composer in Australia, helped kindle my love of Leica. He has been using Leica film cameras for over a decade. He was kind enough to lend me his M3 four years ago so I could take photos of a jazz gig. I immediately loved the camera for its simplicity and feel. Leica cameras reminded me of the craftsmanship of a classic Ludwig drum kit. I saved up for two years in order to buy my M6 and Elmarit 28 mm ASPH. lens.

For some reason Leica has long had a close relationship with jazz. Eugene Smith was a great supporter of jazz and took thousands of photos of New York’s jazz scene. Photographer and jazz musician Milt Hinton took all of his iconic photos of jazz musicians with a Leica camera. I think it’s because we appreciate the craftsmanship behind the camera, like we appreciate a beautifully made double bass or saxophone.

Q: This photo of a man in a dark room standing in front of a barred window with streams or rays of light emerging from the latticework is a very striking image. Where is this? What is going on here and what were you thinking when you took this shot?

A: The photo was taken at dawn in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, Thailand’s largest camp for refugees with around 55,000 inhabitants. I was staying in the camp for a few days with a Karen News journalist colleague for a story we were working on. It’s a photo of the Abbott of the camp’s local monastery as he prepares to pray. One day just before dawn we were on the way to get some photos of the area and we came across the monastery at the top of a very steep hill in the middle of the camp. I went inside and saw this beautiful dawn light creeping through the window, silhouetting the Abbott.

Q: There is something disturbing about this straightforward image of a soldier holding what looks like a mortar. His peaceful and enigmatic expression contrasts with the powerful weapon he’s holding on his shoulder and there is a matter-of-fact quality to the image that says “business as usual.”

A: Eastern Burma has been an area of on and off conflict since World War II, so life on the Thai-Burma border can be cheap, but it’s also full of courageous and caring people. In this photo, the man is holding a rocket-propelled grenade. He’s a member of the Karen National Liberation Army, which is the military branch of the Karen National Union (the main political organization for the Karen people). The KNU/KNLA has just emerged with a peace agreement from a 64 year long war with Burma’s military, the world’s longest running civil war.

I was at a KNLA camp for a couple of days inside Burma on a story for Karen News. Getting there was very difficult, it was raining heavily almost the whole time, the terrain was very mountainous and there was a rather hair-raising nighttime river crossing involved, but it was worth it.

Q: There are many charming pictures in your portfolio that give a clear picture of everyday life in a poor country and they contrast with the menacing quality of some of the images of military, police, and the authorities. What kind of a statement or message do you think you conveyed by including both these aspects in your coverage, and was this contrast intentional?

A: The contrast in the portfolio was intentional, and perhaps mirrors the extreme contrasts in everyday life as an ethnic Karen; to be ethnic Karen in this day and age is to live a life of perpetual extremes. They are a people proud of their unique culture and history, but continue to struggle with poverty, internal displacement, racial discrimination and conflict. Right now as Burma opens up to the world, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of ethnic minorities in Burma, including the Karen. As Burma opens up, I am trying to capture different aspects of daily life before it all changes forever. This will hopefully form part of a longer storytelling project I am working on.

Q: This is one of your most powerful images showing an intense looking man at a distance of about ten feet looking directly at the camera. He’s standing in a large room with what looks like a portrait of a revolutionary leader in the background. He projects an image of outer calm and inner ferocity. Who is he, where is he, and why do you think this picture is so compelling?

A: This photo was also taken in the Mae La refugee camp. My colleague and I were walking through the camp one morning and this man saw us and beckoned us over.

He offered us a precious cup of three in one coffee (very good on a cold morning in the mountains!) and told us about the history of the camp. It turned out he was the custodian of the camp’s library. It was a humble library, two rooms with a bed in the corner, but he was proud of his role in keeping Karen culture and history alive in the minds of the camp’s young people, as half of the people in the camp are under 19. His eyes had a certain charisma; he was a very kind and wise man, and I’m grateful he let me take his photo. The picture next to him is of the founding father of the KNU, Saw Ba U Gyi, who was killed by the Burmese Army in 1950.

Q: Can you say something about how photography has changed your perception, and how it has expanded your vision?

A: Photography has made me both more patient and more predatory as an observer. I suppose photography is like hunting in a way and about knowing when to take the shot. It is both meditative and addictive. You begin to think differently, instead of just walking through life you begin to stop in your tracks and think to yourself “hey, that would make a great shot,” and if this means engaging with your subject, then all the better. When I talk about this process of seeing what I think could be a good photo, it usually happens in under a second. It’s about honing that intuition I guess.

At least, I have found this happening more and more for myself anyway. Other photographers would have different perspectives on how their profession and passion has changed the way they interact with the world around them, but that’s been my experience so far.

Q: Do you plan to explore any other photographic genres in going forward, and how do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years?

A: I love taking landscapes, street photography and nature shots too. I’ll be traveling to New Zealand in May to get some shots. I want to keep pushing myself and especially to see more of the world and the people in it.

Q: Do you have plans to showcase, promote, or publish your images?

A: I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to exhibit! I want to exhibit the work and donate all of the profits to Burma Children Medical Fund. I have seen the good work done by this organization firsthand in saving the lives of young children. I am looking for places to exhibit or publish the work to this specific end.

Strangely enough my first exhibition will be in the United States, not Australia. I have some street photography that will be exhibited at Gallery 1855 in California in September 2013.

Thank you for your time, Henry!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Henry’s work, visit his website