Anush Babajanyan photographing the Araks River on the Armenia-Iran border. Photo credit: John Stanmeyer / VII.

VII photographers answer: Who/what inspires you to create and why?

Seven VII photographers are talking about inspiration in this special edition of #7withVII. It’s where we ask one question and get 7 answers. We asked, “Who/what inspires you to create and why?” Here’s what Anush Babajanyan, Linda Bournane Engelberth, Ed Kashi, Esther Ruth Mbabazi, Daniel Schwartz, Nichole Sobecki, and John Stanmeyer had to say.

Photo by Anush Babajanyan / VII. People in the historical center Sur in Diyarbakir, Turkey, fled their houses during clashes between Turkish police and Kurdish militants, in 2015–2016. Many returned to find their houses looted. The family of Halide (far left), Gulistan (in the middle), and Kader (far right), a family of 14, left Sur for 2 months in winter 2016. Only a young man remained to take care of the pigeons and dogs. People were looting the neighborhoods at the time, and someone stole a Kalashnikov gun from their house.

Anush Babajanyan answers:

The visuals I create are always internally supported by that inspiration that drove me near in the first place. It is very often the historical aspect, I am quickly taken by stories that can visually connect to what happened in the same area years or even centuries ago. As if trying to resolve that mystery of how it really was back then, how it felt. And can the present image of the changing human connect us to the older times.

Relating to the same historical aspect, what inspires me are connections and questions that I cannot answer, the mystery once again. What is going on here… There will usually be an answer before I start working, but the actual true answer will come only by the end of the working process or after.

That is what truly inspires, the lasting search to find out why.

The people who I work with, mostly who I photograph, have inspired me. I will spend time in a house with a family, and go out with the brightest of inspirations to continue to go farther into the story, to know more people. No matter what the experience, I usually am fascinated and inspired by any new person, place and story. Being inspired is really a constant state for me.

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Photo by Linda Bournane Engelberth / VII. Krāslava, Latvia. Despite the struggles this generation encounters, there is still a deep connection to national identity, especially the rich and lush nature in the countryside.

Linda Bournane Engelberth answers:

I have always been interested in how close you can get to other people, to see the similarities we all share. If you take away religion, ethnicity, and class, you strip down to the basic needs of just being human, we are all very similar. We share the need for love, protection, to take care of our families, and so on.

I like to explore this sameness we share, in a world where terror and wars make us feel so separated from each other.

That is why intimacy and the feeling of recognizing yourself in a photo inspires me. My more practical inspiration when it comes to aesthetics is from literature and film. I think of my work filmatic when I build a narrative. I used a long time to find my own way of photographing. At some point, I decided to spend half a year of shooting with no other intention than to find a visual approach. I watched a lot of movies. One movie in particular that really changed my expression and became a turning point for me was “Silent Light” by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I really loved the aesthetics of this film, so much so that it actually changed my photography.

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Photo by Ed Kashi / VII. Young Syrian refugees in the desert of Jordan, 2013. Half of all Syria’s more than 5 million refugees are under the age of 18.

Ed Kashi answers:

I am inspired by the desire to tell stories that have impact on both individuals and the greater good, and that can contribute to positive change in the world. But what’s so captivating about being a visual storyteller is the privilege to learn about the world, from individuals who are doing inspiring things and by the wonder of being alive.

Photography allows me to have an intimate and front row seat to both witnessing and recording history, but also the small and no less powerful moments in the lives of regular folks who do amazing things that we will never hear about. I am also inspired by the challenge to create imagery that is compelling, aesthetic and in some way artistic, while staying true to the reality that confronts me. This specific challenge is a rigorous kind of inspiration through problem solving. I am driven to tell stories.

While many photographers can teach me, show me new ways to see or capture the world, my vision is determined by my own inner drive to learn, observe, anticipate and capture the world in front of me, as it is.

Photography is a kind of diplomatic passport to worlds unseen, issues that need illumination, history in the making, the human experience in evolution and the many awe inspiring places in our fragile world.

If photography has taught me anything, it’s that we must seek the common good, treat people with respect and dignity, look to expose the problems that exist, but also be open to capturing the beauty of life and the human spirit.

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Photo by Esther Ruth Mbabazi / VII Mentor Program. At home, Job Nandala, 10, spreads his laundry to dry in Iganga District, Uganda, on October 12, 2017. Job was born with albinism, a rare genetic condition where the body is unable, or is limited in its ability to produce melanin, the substance responsible for the coloring in skin, hair and eyes. In Uganda, many people with albinism suffer from daily discrimination and lack of support from the government. Children can be bullied, and an inability to see well, which afflicts many with albinism, can be a major handicap in the classroom. In spending time with Job, I saw not only his tremendous courage, but also the isolation that albinism had imposed on his young, active life.

Esther Ruth Mbabazi of the VII Mentor Program answers:

What inspires me is the desire to listen and share someone’s story as a human before being a photographer. I am drawn to the different emotions that people experience. I am inspired to tell stories that I am drawn to in a way that is realistic. I understand sometimes the stories I document can be hard-hitting issues, but when such is the reality for a particular person, I believe the audience should learn about that situation at the least.

I am inspired by the people that I photograph for my projects who always open their homes and lives to me and allow me to share their stories with the world; they keep me going.

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Photo by Daniel Schwartz / VII. Street marking after rain. London. 14 May 2014.

Daniel Schwartz answers:

Inspiration can be anything. An unexpected kiss, some remote corner down the road. A new sight or sound. The real challenge, however, starts when inspiration sprouts in your mind. That can be a fantasy, an ambition, a notion which sooner or later you crave to turn into something concrete and tangible. That is when photography comes to help, forcing you to focus, think and make decisions. But having embarked on the journey coincidence a.k.a. Fortuna strikes, jumbles your plan. You realize that the outcome of what you have begun is not in your hands. That what you depict lies outside your effective reach and that you are merely a medium to convey. That is great a gift, and it comes along with responsibility. The question what inspiration means to me may not have been answered down to the root, but it
proved to be an inspiration.

Join Daniel and Philip Blenkinsop at their upcoming workshop in Myanmar >>

Photo by Nichole Sobecki / VII. It’s been seven years since Silvana Hinestroza Mendoza first spoke publicly about being raped by members of a guerrilla group who kidnapped and tortured her when she was a young woman. More than 15,000 Colombian women and girls were raped or otherwise sexually abused during the country’s civil war; many remain too terrified or ashamed to tell anyone. After spending most of a hot Wednesday afternoon with reporter Jill Filipovic recounting some of the most intimate details of the worst days of her life, Silvana retreated to her grandson’s bedroom. Finally speaking the truth about what happened, Silvana said, feels good, even powerful — like a layer of shame peeled back with each telling. But each telling also means exposing painful scars, literal and metaphorical. I photographed Silvana at that axis of strength and depletion, as she sought out the grounding weight of her grandson’s small body, and offered him the soft foundation of her own. These are questions everywhere: whose stories we choose to believe, what weight we give a woman’s words against a man’s, whether women have exclusive jurisdiction over our own bodies. It is simultaneously dignifying and terrifying for women to tell the secrets more-powerful men demand we keep, and it’s never felt so important to listen, to believe, and to acknowledge the personal courage and integrity of the women who share their stories with us. “I feel light,” Silvana said after our interview ended. “Like I was carrying something really heavy and I put it down.”

Nichole Sobecki answers:

As a person I tend to be quite introspective. I love to read, and listen to music, and spend time alone, and that is where much of my inspiration comes from.

I’m drawn to photography because it pushes me out of my own head and into the world. My camera gives me the opportunity to witness lives being lived in a countless array of ways. I’ve learned so much from those who have allowed me into their space, their sorrows, their bravery.

To me this is the ultimate privilege: to be able to indulge ones curiosity, explore with humility, to engage, and to slowly become more aware of this marvelous, chaotic and slightly dangerous world we all call home.

With this opportunity comes a responsibility to share these stories in a way that is authentic and dignified. That is, after all, why people let me in. Particularly at this time when the world feels so acutely polarized, and the tendency of many is to retreat into our own familiar tribes, it feels worthwhile to try and deepen our understanding of each other. It’s a risk, and I often fall short. But it’s more than enough inspiration to keep trying.

Join Nichole and Danny Wilcox Frazier at their upcoming workshop in Kenya >>

Photo by John Stanmeyer / VII. A respite from the heat, children enjoy the rain which fell today in the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. With the start of rainy season, cases of malaria are skyrocketing in the camp of 60,000 Sudanese.

John Stanmeyer answers:

To this day, a few kind individuals, serendipitous moments, have influenced in guiding me forward. If there were two, who inspired early on in life, they would be my mother and father. She planted the seeds of wonder, the awareness of pain, the beauty and mystery that caused me to question, be aware of the fragile beauty of existence. My father gave water, the nourishment never to give up, a belief in the limitless possibilities that are before all of us. Once awoken — and yes, it takes time, I am still learning — the realities of the world slapped me most profoundly.

The only means I knew to scream, affect change in my insignificance, was through telling stories. Seek wisdom from trees, the movement of water. The stillness and strength of rocks. Quietude, when we turn off the internal dialogue, takes us further than most words or rapid decisions. Believe when I share firsthand how difficult this can be. Try and give to it, guiding yourself towards the field of awareness. Within the tangible, find role models outside of our business…you do not want to be anyone other than who you are meant to be. Sages as Jan Goodall, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or a mother trying to nurse her starving daughter. A family living over a heater vent in New York City, a merchant who smiles rather than frowns or a banker who works diligently to support small farmers in the developing world, each will teach, giving you far more than the giants of photography whose shoulders I tremble in reverence to stand on.

If I can share one closing thought…the work me or my colleagues do is not about us. It is the narrative of life that binds humanity as one.

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In case you missed it …

Check out our 7 With VII series: “Ethics in Photojournalism,” “What’s in your bag?,” “World Press Freedom,” “All About Gear,” and “Fake News”.

Follow VII on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.