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Frederick Paxton

Above photo: Frederick Paxton/Vice News

Emmy-nominated filmmaker and photographer Frederick Paxton has traveled the globe — witnessing the literal edges of life and death — in an effort to capture, record, and share that which we all strive to understand more fully: our humanity.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect when reaching out to Mr. Frederick Paxton for an interview, but it proved to be an engaging, thoughtful, and altogether wonderful conversation. In retrospect, it’s difficult to expect much less from someone who has committed much of their life to capturing and telling the stories of conflict across the world. It has clearly had an effect on him. And he on us.

While Mr. Paxton’s background is relevant to his work — a London-native that graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York after studying both film and fine art — it’s not particularly of interest for our interview. Rather, what holds our interest is the broad scope of work Frederick has captured. From Iraq and Syria and the Ukraine to the Central African Republic, Somalia, Afghanistan, and beyond, there is a consistent arc of Paxton’s work: capturing the edges of humanity as seen in areas of difficulty and sharing them, thereby revealing humanity in a deeper and more meaningful way.

Photo: Frederick Paxton/Vice News

“There are lots of interesting things going on in the world,” says Frederick. “And I want to be engaged in those things. What interests me when I wake up in the morning are human stories. Having an understanding of humanity.”

Whether you’re an artist or photographer, you need a tool to express what you’re looking at, or express what you’re trying to say. And for Frederick, that’s a combination of his personality and his camera. “You don’t even take the camera out straight away,” explains Paxton. “You get to know your subject. You actually spend time with them. You gain their trust.”

In doing so, in becoming anything from an unnoticed observer to an integrated part of a remote community, Mr. Paxton takes a necessary and thoughtful approach to his work, whether it’s a personal project or one supported by international media juggernaut Vice News. He’s sensitive to approach every situation uniquely, taking care to invest in his approach to culture with as much sensitivity as his approach to capturing a shot.

The result is an array of spectacular and profoundly moving images, that shed light on the stories that Mr. Paxton has had the privilege to witness. It’s evident through both our conversation, and the images Frederick shared with us, that his understanding of humanity is a byproduct of witnessing conflict on such a scale with such regularity. Frederick’s brings a considered approach to every project, and he articulates his perspective with keen understanding.

Photo: Frederick Paxton/Vice News

How did this fascination with humanity on this scale begin?

“Quite specifically, what started this route was when I did a big project on the concept of ‘borders’. What does a border mean? I went to North Korea and was fascinated by these bridges and tunnels that ‘connected’, yet ‘disconnected’. There’s a bridge that is the Chinese/North Korean ‘friendship bridge’, and there was really nothing friendly about it. What changes when we cross this little bit of water? It’s the same kind of land on each side. And yet everything is massively changed. I wanted to explore that.”

Are areas of conflict the best place for exploring human stories?

“Personally, it’s about expressing a visual language. I’ve developed a deeper understanding of humanity as I’ve seen so much suffering caused by fighting that has no need to occur. There’s something in human nature that we always come back to conflict. Trying to understand why that is. What is it in humans that ends up in these terrible situations?”

“Go to Syria for a day and see if you still want to refuse people escaping their country. I feel very lucky to have an understanding of things that some people haven’t been able to see. That’s one of the important reasons for the work. To give people insight into what’s going on in the world in a way that isn’t about throwing them information, but about helping them feel and understand humanity in a deeper way.”

Photo: Frederick Paxton/Vice News

What’s a small but interesting insight into humanity you’ve experienced, specifically because of being behind the lens?

“You know, across various conflicts, the way soldiers smile or pose in dark places shows me human nature across environments. Just because you’re a soldier on the front line doesn’t mean you’re not insecure about how your hair looks.”

What’s particularly special and unique about working for Vice?

“For Vice, I’ll pitch directly to them and you have a process with your editors to define it. It takes someone to trust that and get behind that, and then you start into the logistics: how do we do this safely? What are our backup plans? On one hand, you’re trying to connect with people and create great imagery, but to get there, there’s a huge amount of complex logistics that need to get figured out. The last critical piece is the backing to go and do it right. I just made a film and photo series in a village in eastern Ukraine. To live there and stay there with people is amazing. And it’s powerful to be able to stay there for a longer amount of time and show them that you do actually give a shit. You’re not just there to get something and get out. It’s the tension of the nature of people needing information quickly today. A long time ago, a journalist would go somewhere for a month and a half, then a month after they get back, after weeks in the darkroom, they’d come out with a story. It’s not that way today. The world is oversaturated with images and people want things fast. But with Vice, I have a bit more time to do things right. It’s a huge honor to go about the world and capture these stories. To be let in by people and have an organization like Vice back and trust me to do this is quite an honor.”

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

“People think it’s exciting all the time. It’s very misunderstood. In the films and images I make, I try to represent that. On the front line, 95% of the time there’s not fighting. People are smoking cigarettes, listening to music on their phones, trying to get on the line to talk to their girlfriends. There’s a huge amount of waiting around.”

Photo: Frederick Paxton/Vice News

Do you have a routine? Or at least a way of staying sane amidst conflict?

“You have to keep as many things normal. If you exercise in the morning or meditate, you try to keep normality in that. To you, you’re in a war zone or conflict zone. But to the people who live there, that’s their home. So you try to carry on with ‘normal’ as much as you can. I like audiobooks, so that’s my thing, especially the old classics. You fall asleep with them and it activates another part of your brain. I’ve got a necklace from my girlfriend that I always wear. I try not to be superstitious, but there’s a bit of that. Humans get scared, and it would be unrealistic to say you don’t. That would be disingenuous. If I’m particularly terrified, I’ve found myself biting that necklace and telling myself, ‘everything’s going to be alright’.

When have you been most afraid?

“There are all kinds of different fear. One time when we were in Syria, we were in a safe house. There were some media guys from an Al Qaeda affiliate. A guy in a suicide vest invited us in for dinner. It’s that low level, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ fear. But it’s interesting because these are real people that you’re eating with. But then, suddenly, ‘that guy’s wearing a suicide vest…but now, okay…he’s taking it off for dinner.’ For now.”

“Another time I went to Sinjar, the mountain with a lot of Yazidi refugees that ISIS had pushed on. Some terrible things had happened; a lot of women had been taken to use as prizes for their fighters. We crossed over the desert, a very slim humanitarian corridor where ISIS was all around you. You’re not quite sure if you’re going the right way. There’s a lot of fear when you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Something bad could happen’. In contrast, when you’re under fire, it all happens very quickly. The last time I was in Ukraine, I was filming and we got hit by five mortar rounds in quick succession. But it goes by so quickly you’re just thinking ‘Are we safe? Are the people around me safe? What image can I capture?’ You have adrenaline and you simply react. But when you’re sitting for hours, driving down a road that you know gets hit regularly by airstrikes, your brain has a lot of time to think and work out what could go wrong.”

“It’s like if your boss or partner said, ‘Hey, I really need to talk to you later tonight’. All day that’s now on your mind. You’re not at ease. Unfortunately, there are a lot of places in the world in which that is daily life. Except instead of a looming conversation, it’s airstrikes. Over time, that has a real effect on people.”

Photo: Frederick Paxton/Vice News

What kind of relationships do you form while on the road?

“It’s a very powerful thing. When you’re in extreme environments, it brings you together with people very quickly. There is the potential for bravado, but you also get down to real very quickly. You don’t have space to try to act or be a certain way. You are simply honest. Some of my closest friends are the local people I work with in different places in the world. In a normal life, I might not meet someone who used to be a school teacher in eastern Ukraine that became a translator that became a fixer that now works for a humanitarian company. It’s amazing. You become very close with those people you work with, as well as those people you’re making work about.”

Anything else?

“Last thing that needs more attention are contrasts, which are quite crazy. PTSD and veterans returning from war zones, the change is massive. Hopefully, it’s part of your story and you can learn from it, but if you’re thrown into death and suffering and then thrown back home without support and conversation, the effects of that are considerable.”

What’s next for you?

“Right now, I’m finishing up a 50-minute film about borderlands. I’m also working on a photo book on what goes on “behind and around” conflict. Visual repetition. It’s fascinating that, while the impetus for fighting and conflict are different from place to place, much of the imagery and situations and motifs keep occurring. Why is it that these same things occur time and again?”

“I’m also exploring some additional projects in Russia. I travel there quite often and my girlfriend is from there, so it’s important to me. It’s important to have projects that engage me in different ways. Ultimately, the edges of humanity don’t only exist on the front line. They can and do exist everywhere. When I feel I can add something to what’s going on in the world, when I can engage the conversation, I’ll go there and capture it. And hopefully I can engage people and help them understand humanity a bit better because of it.”

Photo: Frederick Paxton/Vice News