A conversation with @dariusaskari: Wartime Photojournalist

In one photo, an armed night operative of the Al Hash’d al Shaabi, The Iraqi People’s Mobilization forces, stands poised with his finger on the trigger of his rifle. In another, Iraqi fire fighters stand in a cloud of billowing smoke, shielding their faces in a scene reminiscent of Armageddon. In a third, limbs overlap, as men lie head-to-toe on the floor of the Quezon City Jail.

While images of war and bloodshed continue to inundate mainstream media, we rarely expect these images to infiltrate the sanctity of our Instagram feeds, a space usually reserved for selfies and the occasional sunset timelapse.     

Yet it is this very space that Darius Askari threatens to disrupt. Putting aside the fact that Askari, a self-made “visual architect” and native New Yorker, has cultivated an impressive following of 15.4 k followers, Askari joins a small cohort of photojournalists who use Instagram as a medium to showcase their work.

From the Panaminian Jungles to Thailand’s Muay Thai Rings

According to his website, this impetus has in turn carried Askari “from the jungles of Panama with the Guna Yala Tribe, to the sweat-soaked gyms where Muay Thai fighters tried to secure their place in the rankings, eventually leading to the revered monks in the blue mountains of the Shan region of Myanmar, all in search of that first defining story."

It has also taken Askari to the streets of Duterte’s Philippines, where he captured life in the throes of a violent crackdown. A simple caption next to the photo reads, “slain bodies litter the streets of Manila like confetti after New Years in Times Square, to the tune of over 6,000 drug related casualties since President Duterte took office.” For Askari, words fill a void when images themselves may not suffice.

Askari’s Instagram includes in its collection projects such as the Scorched Earth, Scarred Campaign, Myanmar: Coming Out of the Shadows, and Last Rights at Lumpinee.  His photos are typically shot in monochrome. 

 Q&A: An intimate look at the photojournalist's life in the field

While he was out in the field in Iraq, Askari was kind enough to do an e-mail interview with me, during which he shed clarity on his choice of Instagram as a reporting tool, his artistic vision, and his reasoning behind shooting “Scorched Earth, Scarred Terrain.” 

SL:  As a photojournalist, your choice of using Instagram stories/ live video is very unique (and you’ve also cultivated a very impressive following). Is there a reason why you’ve chosen to use this platform over other traditional forms of reporting? 

DA: It was only because of Instagram that I began photographing. That was about 3 years ago and while it was a great catalyst for creativity and that initial spark, it has changed for me in purpose and utility. I no longer see it as the medium I wish to convey my messages through. Despite that, I still like to follow other photojournalists I admire and friends I made through the social aspect of the application. My real work rarely makes it to IG but I do love the video story side of social media. It’s an agent to show people firsthand what’s actually happening here.

As for other forms of reporting, those are in the works as Iraq was always intended to be the place I finally produced something I was proud of enough to advance in the industry.

Watch the documentary War Photographer (if you haven’t already) and you’ll see what I mean. 

SL: You've mentioned on your website that your travels have carried you from Panama to Myanmar “all in search of that first defining story.” What (if any) is the one message or vision that you would like to communicate to your followers? 

DA: My website is extremely out of date and I’ve been meaning to update it with work from The Philippines and here in Iraq. The “stories” you see there will be taken down as they were put up during a time of self-reflection and transition. Those images don’t adhere to the standards I’ve placed on myself over the last year or so. 

As far as the message I want to convey, I don’t really think that’s up to me. I only want to present the images, the facts and the story and allow a varying audience to develop their own opinions. I think multi-media can help with that which is why I’m working on a documentary out here in Iraq and will have more specific sub-stories released in the near future. 

My desire for wanting to focus on conflict and war has changed over time as well. I once was very idealistic but witnessing things first hand starts to eat away at a person’s naivety regarding combat, death and heroism. 

SL: What led you to shoot in Iraq and produce "Scorched Earth, Scarred Terrain"?

DA: Again, Iraq was to be my first real story after some botched attempts at other endeavors in various parts of the world. Manila was my first successful attempt at journalism and having worked published. 

It’s been a learning curve and one that I’m still deep in the midst of. Gary Knight, the founder of VII Photo Agency and world acclaimed photographer helped me feel confident enough to finally enter a war zone after I had worked the drug killings in Manila back in December of 2016. 

 A selection of photographs from the photojournalist's Instagram account, @dariusaskari

A selection of photographs from the photojournalist's Instagram account, @dariusaskari

I’ve had other mentors along the way that have helped and are still helping me. 

As for “Scorched Earth, Scarred Terrain” I thought something that’s often overlooked was the physical carnage that results from war on the actual landscape. The scars don’t just exist in the physical form of human wounds, but also the theatre in which combat occurs.

First encounters: photojournalism in conflict zones

Photo projects involving militants or covert operations beg the immediate question of how civilian photojournalists are able to get so close to the life they are documenting, especially if they are not afforded the immunity of war. Intimacy is hard enough to achieve as it is between foreigners, and tensions still may rise with the additional barrier of a camera.

Askari addresses such issues in his Q&A video posted on his Instagram account. He recounts how he was met with an absence of hostility, even after having arrived in Iraq at a time when the executive order banning Muslims from seven countries was in effect.

“Some people are fervent advocates of the Trump administration, which is a bewildering concept seeing as how the administration in place has taken a very xenophobic view of the outside world,” Askari notes in the same video.

The Iranian-Jamaican joins other well-seasoned photojournalists on Instagram with the likes of David Guttenfelder, Phil Moore and Benjamin Lowy.

In the crossfires: Instagram as a reporting platform

Instagram as a reporting platform has risen in tandem with AR and VR. The use of live video in both remote areas and conflict zones raises many key ethical concerns surrounding the role of photojournalists in war. Kevin Carter most notably raised this issue in his photograph of a child and a vulture in National Geographic, which sparked a nationwide debate.

Of the many things photojournalists must consider, one is how to skilfully balance accuracy in reporting and storytelling, while maintaining a story’s integrity.