Photographer Peter Dench has been a close friend to the award wining photo-journalist Marcus Bleasdale for many years. Here he brings us a personal and intimate insight into the fiercly passionate photographic world of a championing voice.
There is no greater love than that between two heterosexual men. The silver screen is testament to this: the eponymous Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis); Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford); Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in Midnight Cowboy; and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in the Star Wars franchise (assuming Chewie is a chap). From slaves on the road to Rome, to cowboys on the run in Bolivia; from surviving on the streets of New York, to a galaxy far far away; platonic man-love flourishes. If I was to spring from the trenches across no man’s land, it would follow a man’s order to “CHHHAAARGE!!!!!!” If I was to pirate the seven seas, it would be as an able seaman in an all-male crew.
My luxury item on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs, would be a man; and that man would be Marcus Bleasdale. I first met Bleasdale in the London offices of the Independent Photographers Group (IPG), where he was formalising his membership to the agency I had joined two years previously. I assessed the newbie: his legs a little short; his hair a little long. Bleasdale had just self-published One Hundred Years of Darkness; a photographic journey into the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I assessed the work: dark, dense, moody images presented a raw, threatening world of dark, dense, shadowy characters. Out of necessity, the photographs were often shot from the hip; often out of focus. I suggested a ‘welcome’ drink in The Fox next door. Four bottles of wine later a bromance was born.
It’s the annual family Dench winter vacation and Norway is our destination. Norway: a country where state-run liquor stores open less frequently than a nun’s nightgown; where kindergarten kids play outside in temperatures touching -14C. Norway: a country where unemployment is counted in single-figure percentages and which, according to a UN report, has the world’s highest living standards of health, education and income. I hit the tarmac tired, hung-over and broke, having maxed out on the duty-free maximum. On the journey from Rygge’s airport, Moss lufthavn, to Bleasdale’s home, I’m no longer curious as to why the VII Agency photojournalist chooses to live here.
Arguably best known for his work with Human Rights Watch, and for his images taken in the DRC (one of the least desirable places on the planet to live, according to the same UN report), the Norwegian capital could not be more different. Pushing the buzzer to the apartment which he shares with his photographer wife Karin Beate Nøsterud (KB), I’m a little nervous. I have a new haircut and wonder if he’ll notice. Bleasdale answers in his underpants; Norwegian underpants: full-length black thermals. A student assisting him with a multimedia piece on HIV and tuberculosis cross infection in Tanzania takes our arrival as his cue to leave. As Bleasdale excuses himself to dress and freshen up, I take the opportunity to have a nose around his office. It’s impressive.
An Ian Berry print is propped on the desk; a poorly ‘fixed’ Paulo Pellegrin lies on the floor. There’s a pristine platinum American Express card and a bowl of grubby Congo currency. There’s an Olivier Rebbot Award, a World Press Photo award, two Days Japan International Photojournalism awards and a Unicef Photo of the Year award. I count up to 11 POY and NPPA awards before a zesty and scrubbed Bleasdale returns to take over the tour. He pulls down his prized possession: a first edition of Vietnam Inc. by his great friend and mentor, the late Philip Jones Griffiths. He marched PJG down to 99 Judd Street in London and the premises of Photo Books International, where Bleasdale had located a copy to purchase and for PJG to sign. Randomly pulling books from the shelf, there’s a signed Cartier-Bresson and a host of signed Eugene Richards; a legacy of when the noted American photographer popped round for lunch.
There’s an unopened copy of Don McCullin’s In England and a copy of iWITNESS by Tom Stoddart. It’s signed: “To Marcus. Mate, thanks for your support and friendship since you joined IPG. I’m proud that we are in the same team. Tom 2004.” (On return to my flat in London, I check my copy of iWITNESS. It’s signed: “To Peter. With best wishes and a reminder that it’s your turn to buy the beers! Hic. Tom 2004.”) I fit in the chair that Ron Haviv couldn’t, as Bleasdale shows me his £325, 22/50-numbered, limited-edition Magnum Contact Sheets book, complete with a René Burri contact sheet of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, 1963. We take a tour of the rest of the apartment; it’s impressive.
The rooms wrap themselves around a central sauna big enough to contain my ego.If you flung all the room doors open, you could run a full circle around it. I resist the urge to slap Bleasdale on the arse and shout, “You’re it!” The apartment is in the Frogner district of Oslo; Knightsbridge would be the equivalent location in London. Bleasdale plops on his timeless four-cornered hat – a recent purchase from the J.J. Hat Center on 32nd and 5th, New York – and suggests we grab the girls and pop out for pizza. Over bottles of La Raia Piemonte Barbera, with the Norwegian predilection for 1980s pop ballads playing in the background, he talks about his experiences in the Congo. Experiences of being kidnapped in the capital, Kinshasa, where he was dragged from his car and robbed of cash and phones by men he suspects were government soldiers. Of nearly overturning a car when escaping from direct gunfire with a dwarf polio victim being tossed around in the back; and of delivering the vehicle, riddled with AK47 bullet holes, back to its owner (an alcoholic priest). Of hiding in ditches from young child soldiers who should be playing hide-and-seek. And he reports on the rape; so much rape.
As Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s Anything for You plays, I stare out into the soft snowflakes that dust the beautiful women walking by in seal skin boots. Why would he leave? Why choose to spend half of your year travelling thousands of miles away from those who you love with the very real possibility of death (Bleasdale already has malaria)? Television presenter and former pop star, Ravi (Ivar Christian Johansen), interrupts to say hello and I pay the bill. It comes to £235.56. For pizza! Maybe that’s the reason he leaves.
Bleasdale grew up with a brother and sister in Brindle and Preston in Lancashire, UK. His parents split when he was 10 years old. He remained with his mother; a mother from a sibling stable of 16. Times were tough and the tough young Bleasdale often chipped in to help pay the bills with money earned from odd jobs. His part-time jazz musician father advised him against going to art school in favour of business, money and security; advice Bleasdale heeded. By the age of 30 he was being paid half a million pounds a year, owned several properties and drove a 1968 Porsche 911. He packed it all in for photojournalism. Why would he leave?
Back at the house of Bleasdale, in the company of Rioja and the music of Norwegian rock band Madrugada, he answers the question. The reason is because he is angry and the driving force behind that anger is statistics: “More than 5.4 million already dead from conflict in the Congo since 1998; the largest death toll since World War II. Photography is a tool; a method to inform people what is going on in the country. It could be a pen or a telephone. I want things to change and the tool for me to do that is a camera.” I ask him about a photograph that shows him sitting with four camouflaged DRC government forces. He is wearing a pink shirt. “It’s a red shirt. I will wear anything that will distinguish me as a non-combatant.”
Over the four days spent with Bleasdale he plays affectionately with Luna, his Toller breed dog. He takes my daughter Grace on long walks, he takes her sledging, he takes her ice skating; always patient, always calm, never angry. On one occasion, at the Tabernacle Bar in London, cocktail infused and bored, I suggested we have a scrap and relocated to the waste ground opposite. I punched him in the face. He had not been punched in the face since the age of 11, when Ian Wheeler wheeled his furious fists. Bleasdale calmly guided my head-locked face into a wall. We returned in good humour to continue imbibing. In more than a decade I have never seen him angry.
Is there a future in photographing human rights abuses? There is for Bleasdale. He expects to be documenting in the DRC for another 20 years. Does he crack? There are clues. Those clues are in what he views. Bleasdale confesses to crying during episodes of CSI, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the Harry Potter films; all eight of them. He loves photographer David LaChapelle, but wants to be John Stanmeyer. (Bromancing behind my back!) His favourite films are Casablanca and The African Queen. His superpower would be to, “Spread love around the world.” Two-thousand-and-12 is shaping up to be an exciting year. He will be working on a first direct commission from National Geographic magazine; it’s not in the DRC.
After a Sunday morning of skiing – well, of Bleasdale taking my daughter skiing – we do what most of Norway is doing after what most of Norway has just done: watch Lycra-clad competitors fighting it out on the slopes in skiing contests on television. His adoring and adorable wife massages his shoulders; homemade brownies are baked and nibbled. I flick through his 2010 book on the DRC, The Rape of a Nation, and assess the work. Across the black pages, bodies are taken for burial, people mourn, drunk soldiers carry weapons, money is being counted and strong men mine for gold. There are bones of the victims of violence.
Time spent photographing in the DRC has allowed Bleasdale’s camera to move up from the hip to focus. I stop flicking on the image captioned: “Refugees flee south after rebel attack on Bule and Fataki, northeastern Congo, 2003.” I look over at Bleasdale wiggling his toes as he sucks noisily in disgust as the French team triumph over Norway in a shoot and ski biathlon; it’s the most angry I’ve seen him. The image in the book is the only photograph of his own hanging in the mainly painting-adorned apartment. It hangs by the front door. The photograph is a metre high and two metres wide. It’s an appropriate image and an appropriate size; an image that reminds one on entering that this is the home he retreats to; a refugee from the intense horrors he has witnessed. It is also the last image one sees when leaving the apartment; an image of fleeing, of transit, of movement and change.
I don’t know where Bleasdale’s anger resides. Perhaps he leaves it festering in the DRC, to collect on return with his camera from beside the rotting corpses and rape victims; or perhaps it lives in the eyes of each child who levels their gun at him. I’m glad that Bleasdale is angry; angry enough to help fund the St Kizito orphanage in Bunia, Eastern DRC, and angry enough to keep shooting his photographs; photographs that won’t allow us to stop noticing, that show us how we can fail so spectacularly as human beings and what we must do to correct it. It’s time to go. I squeeze the arm of this contemporary Spartacus – an arm that bears the tattoo, ‘Inner peace’ – bid him farewell and, assuming the role of Antoninus, singer of songs, I turn home: “Through blue shadows and purple woods… I turn home. I turn to the place that I was born… To the mother who bore me and the father who taught me… Long ago, long ago… Long ago. Alone am l now, lost and alone, in a far, wide, wandering world. Yet still when the blazing sun hangs low… When the wind dies away and the sea foam sleeps… And twilight touches the wandering earth… I turn home.”
© Peter Dench 2012
You can make a donation to the St Kizito orphanage at www.congochildren.com