When Canon Ambassador Daniel Etter was 20, he watched a documentary on war photographer James Nachtwey, and it became the source of his passion and path in life. "It portrayed a romantic idea of the lonesome photographer who goes out into the world and tries to trigger positive change through photography.” 19 years on, he is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, best known for his reportage images of the refugee crisis, and his work has appeared in the world’s most prestigious news publications. Here, he reflects on the journey, curiosity and the way images can drive change.
“After watching the documentary, I had this seed in my mind of the path I wanted to take. I started by studying political science and later went to journalism school in Germany. At the time there were no schools that focused on the journalistic photography I wanted to do, so I decided that this route would give me the understanding I needed to photograph in a political context.
Looking back, although there are always the banalities of life and running a business, the stories I've had the privilege to do are quite amazing. You meet people, go to exciting places and sometimes – if you're lucky – see history in the making.
However, many people have been inspired by the idea of triggering positive change through photography and if you do this job for a while, you realise It's almost unachievable. But I believe reporting on the ground and sharing accurate information is important to our understanding of the world and to history moving forward. I see myself as part of a big machine that is journalism and this is vitally important to democracy, but the world is a complex place and you don't always know the impact your images and stories will have.
From 2012 to 2016, I mainly focused on stories of migration because it was, and still is, one of the biggest issues of our time. Right away, you could see the impact of the work we [Daniel and other photographers] did on the refugee crisis in 2015. I received messages from people wanting to help after seeing the images. People volunteered, donated and boarded planes to Greece to help – mothers, fathers, doctors, nurses and teachers – to try to make positive change and give their time to people they had never met before. I don't think it would have happened without them seeing visuals of the situation.
You hope to inspire change for the better, but it doesn't always come. There are stories I've covered, where the hope I had a beginning didn't turn into reality. But doing the job, being on the ground talking to people, hanging out in different places on the level of normal people, trying to understand the phenomena, politics and history, is quite a privilege.
This image is from a protest in Khartoum, Sudan when thousands of people gathered on the streets. I've been to a lot of protests, but there are very few that have historical significance. This one, on 3rd May 2019, demanded the end of the government in Sudan. There was so much joy and hope. The crowds were singing these really nice songs and at that moment you forget about the complexity of the situation and the challenges that will almost certainly come afterwards. At this moment, the music played, everybody went wild and was dancing and jumping around. It was just pure bliss, pure joy, one of those moments that takes you and moves you. To feel their hope for their future and for a moment forgetting about their worries and anxieties to come, the complications of choosing a new government and of shaping a new country. It was an incredible thing to see and to experience – a moment in time, stripped bare to the pure essence of hope. That's the power of photography. You capture and condense a complex situation and moment in time into a single frame.
You always take something with you when you leave people and places behind. I have developed a huge appreciation of the privileges that come with being born and having the citizenship I have. When you're on the ground you see how unpredictable and complex things are – and that humans are simply humans. I’ve learned patience and to listen with openly. Most people are very interested in telling their side of the story and I’m hugely fascinated by the complexities, processes, explanations, links between events and political decisions, always seeking a proper understanding of why things happen the way they happen. I have learned to have a curiosity to understand things as they are.
This year, of course, has taken a different turn than originally planned. In the beginning, lockdown felt quite liberating as I expected things to go back to normal quickly. I live on a small farm in Spain, so it was nice to enjoy some quiet there and work in the garden. After a while, I realised that this was probably going to last longer, and I had an urge to work and document these things of historical importance. So, I came back to Germany and photographed the Coronavirus impact in a hospital and also did a portrait series of essential workers. A lot of the stories I do involve travel, so have been postponing them as travel is still heavily restricted. On the other hand, I have started to think more about stories that I can do in the proximity of where I live. I've never been so long in one place at a time.
My vision for the future is to keep informing people objectively, using photography as a medium – which keeps being powerful on an emotional and visceral level – to inform people of topics and issues that are relevant to our lives. I still have the same ideals as I started with, but they're probably more grounded in reality now – being a small part in the process and public debate with the foundation of political discourse. A foundation of democracy.”
Daniel’s photography and written work can be found on his website.