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Sean Sutton: photojournalist and landmine campaigner

Sean Sutton: photojournalist and landmine campaigner
04 Apr
Sean Sutton is a photojournalist and international communications manager for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an NGO that assists people affected by landmines, unexploded ordnance, and small arms and light weapons. This interview coincides with the launch of MAG's Home Safe Home appeal to remove landmines and unexploded bombs from across Lebanon (further details below)

Conflict has always been where I’ve ended up doing stories and landmines were always part of that narrative. When I was finding myself as a photographer in my twenties in Southeast Asia, I came across the refugee scenario on the Thai-Burma border and spent a year documenting the conflict with the Karen people and the Burmese military. Up in the remote area on the border with Thailand there was a factory making wooden legs and I often went out and patrolled with the KNU [Karen National Union]. I saw people standing on mines and I met people who had stood on mines as they were being carried out, the vast majority civilians.

My intention wasn’t conflict, but I found the situation and the people fascinating. I felt compelled to try and tell that story and that led me to other conflicts once I’d gained some recognition and got support from editors and aid agencies. I ended up in Bosnia, Albania, former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Laos. The last couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time in Iraq and South Sudan.

Before that I was going to go to university and then it all went pear-shaped. I was planning on going into the military with the Air Force to be a pilot and then decided that I really didn’t want to do that, so I played in a punk band and travelled around Australia which was a much better education.

008Angola95 Candre Antonio walks using crutches past a bullet-pocked wall in Angola in 1995 [Image: Sean Sutton]

I guess it’s the extremes of things that are often the most challenging. There’s that sense of injustice which links very much into the landmine issue, and wanting to change things and use what you do to make things better for other people. That was always a main purpose for me and I found it frustrating in those early days because I wasn’t sure how much of a difference I was really making – just getting lost in the noise. I felt that really changed when I started working directly on the landmine issue because I know that the imagery you use to inform donors and other decision makers about the problem makes a really big difference.

Landmines are certainly used much less than they were before. Campaigning work has had a big impact in stigmatising them. Mozambique has now been declared landmine free and in Angola we think that half the mined areas are now safe. But there’s still a problem left over from the Cold War years and those proxy conflicts and other conflicts where mines were used. It’s still as urgent as it ever was, even though so much has been cleared. A good example of that is northern Iraq, in the mountains near the Iranian border. The amount of mines used across that border was extraordinary, mostly from the Iran/Iraq war. We’re in the middle of an emergency up there again because people are moving back to the countryside due to economic pressure. It’s the same in Angola as well. And then you have this horrific scenario with ISIS who built and laid mines on an industrial scale and laid massive barriers all the way around the Mosul area.

KOS BW 2An 11-year-old boy called Andrevski who tripped on a fragmentation mine in Kosovo [Image: Sean Sutton]

The most memorable photographs I have taken would probably be early on. I did a big exhibition at the RGS-IBG with Princess Diana in 1997. There were a couple of pictures there that had a really big impact on raising the issue of landmines. One is of a boy on crutches walking past a bullet-pocked wall in Angola in 1995. His name was Candre Antonio and he stood on a mine planted by his father. His father was a policeman and because I guess he had a lot of enemies he put mines around the house at night. One morning his son got up very early and stood on one.

There’s also one picture I took that had a massive impact on me of an 11-year-old boy called Andrevski in Kosovo. He tripped on a fragmentation mine that blew both his legs off. I met him two days later in the hospital and he didn’t want to live because football was everything he dreamed of doing. We used the picture in the Guardian in 1999 and about a week after, a woman phoned from Scotland. She was in her early sixties and she decided to drive from a village in Scotland to Kosovo. She found Andrevski’s family and gave food and clothing to them and also to the village and wider community. That to me says an awful lot about what a picture can do. If you can do that to an old lady in Scotland it can, of course, influence those who can fund clearance and help people rebuild safely after war.

On 4 April MAG is launching its Home Safe Home appeal to remove landmines and unexploded bombs from across Lebanon. All public donations to the appeal before 4 July 2019 will be doubled by the UK government, making hundreds of homes safe again in Lebanon and beyond. Find out more here: www.maginternational.org/HomeSafeHome

home safe home MAG red UK AID Donations flag RGB

This was published in the April 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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