When German photographer Kevin McElvaney tackles a new project, he regularly steps out of his comfort zone. His curious mind helps him take a unique spin on important, often underreported social and political issues, from e-waste in Ghana and sulfur mining in Indonesia to the current European refugee crisis. In this interview, he reflects on his fascination with people and the role of political activism.
How did you first get into photography?
I bought my first camera in summer 2010, because I had the opportunity to work at the FIFA World Cup in Cape Town. I just wanted to document this trip and for a long time, journeys and events were the only thing I captured. I studied Economics at the time and when I had almost finished my Bachelor I gave myself two years to try out “being a photographer.” I have to thank my friends a lot for this, because they told me I should give it a try and my parents took it easy, as well. After a year and a half I published my series about Agbogbloshie which became a big hit. I am lucky to be working in this kind of field now.
What has changed for you since you started out?
When photography becomes your job, there might not be a hobby left to express yourself in a different way—enthusiasts should be aware of that. Every trip I take these days has to do something with photography or a story I am interested in. Maybe other photographers work differently, but it really controls my life. I think if you just “like” photography, you will be frustrated on this bumpy road one day, because it often is a tough and unfair business. But you will be able to forget about all this when your inner motivation is bigger than all the obstacles out there. It made me stronger and I am acting in a more reflected way now.
You focus on portraiture and reportage. What fascinates you about each?
The people I meet and the opportunities I have. I need strong interaction with the people I photograph and I also like eye-contact—which is often unpopular in reportage images but I can’t really work without it. These people realise that I am there and that’s ok. Photographers shouldn’t try to imitate an invisible observer because this just happens very rarely. Sometimes I don’t speak their language but photography works fine for communication, and I love that. Another great thing is to meet wonderful people and document them and what they do. People are fascinating and it is great if you just contact a person, who you have never met before, on the other side of the globe and he comes back to you. Sometimes there seems to be no limitations as a photographer when you really want to photograph or say something important. Portraiture is always a big part in my reportage because it is always the person that matters most.
How do you connect with your subjects?
There is no rule. I believe a bit in karma and I think you can’t have a positive impact on your subjects if they don’t feel comfortable or maybe don’t like you. This happens very rarely. Often, I joke around with my subjects and find a positive connection. It’s important to understand what you do in terms of technique and to know what you want to achieve. When people feel your inner motivation, they most likely will cooperate with you.
For your reportage, you travel to places and cover topics that other photographers shy away from. What is your motivation? How do you find the courage?
I am just very interested and have questions in my head. If I can’t find adequate answers to a story somewhere, I become nervous and want to see it with my own eyes. So this sometimes brings me to awkward places but is not a must. However, there is definitely a correlation between weird or dangerous places and lack of information, like you mentioned. I just won’t say that “courage” is the right word, because from a personal and overall perspective it just makes sense for me to do what I do. As long as I have these desires, I will work like that and probably have a camera with me. The sad thing is that I am too bad in writing, so photography became my medium number one.
You often cover political issues. Do you see your work as a political statement? In how far do you consider your work activism?
It all starts with my personal opinion and experience I had while covering the story and yes, very often it is a political statement. With important issues you have to speak out and try to force change. Otherwise better leave it in the first place. Whether this really becomes activism depends on the story, the moment, and its first success, I think. My story about the e-waste dump in Ghana, for example, started pretty small but I had enough motivation and saw the potential. This potential somehow turned into a commitment for me and I had to try my best, knock on every door and push it as hard as I can. In a way, it was also the right time because people care about sustainability and the environment. You won’t be able to always have a shot like that, but if you see the potential you have to go crazy—that’s activism. Informing people is a legitimate alternative for stories which have less potential to introduce change. These stories are also important.
What are you currently working on? What are your plans for the next few months?
Right now, I am busy publishing the series #RefugeeCameras which was photographed by refugees en route to Europe. I will also display these images in an exhibition which is a lot of work. After some commercial work in Mexico and a smaller project in South Africa I want to work on a series in Kurdistan. I had this idea before I went to do the refugee route, but after having talked to some refugees fleeing from Iraq and Syria, it became even more important to me. I talked to some refugees about this. After telling them what my exact plan was, some offered me help to get there. That’s all I can say at the moment.