Photographers In Focus #001: Alexander Treves

Photographers In Focus #001: Alexander Treves

When he’s able to take time off from work in Hong Kong, Alexander Treves travels in pursuit of his photographic campaign – to capture the global refugee crisis and share these stories with the rest of the world. Treves fights to educate those who associate the term ‘refugee’ solely with Syrians who risk their lives travelling to Western Europe. To think in these terms is in fact to only scratch the surface. His photographs compassionately capture the lives of those worldwide – his subjects are united by their situation and not necessarily their location. The black and white portraits are stirring, striking and deeply dignified. Faces in Focus caught up with Alexander to find out more about his recent trips to photograph Rohingya in Kuala Lumpur, Afghans outside Jakarta, and Africans and others in Cairo. 

When did you first realise your enthusiasm for photography? 

When I was a teenager I developed a very shallow interest in photography but I didn’t do anything about it until about 10 years ago when I was in my mid-30s. 

What type of camera do you use? 

I have a Nikon DSLR and a Leica digital rangefinder.

Do you think social media platforms have changed the way we think about the photographic medium? Do you think it has changed for the better or worse? 

On the one hand social media have made it possible to disseminate powerful images further and faster than was ever the case before - which is a good thing.  On the other hand social media seems to have contributed to shorter attention spans, and the sheer quantity of photographic and other information out there dilutes the impact that any photo can have.  “Iconic” photos used to retain their power for years; now I feel that I’m reading about an “iconic” photo on a monthly basis.

Who inspires you (photographic or otherwise)?

Sebastião Salgado, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Mark Lanegan. Also I learn a lot about ethics from my teenage kids.

You have recently travelled to Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur and Cairo. Where did you stay when you travelled there? Do you find your accommodation a key part of learning about the area?

I stayed in hotels and guest houses.  My photographic trips are short: I would love to immerse myself but with the demands of my job and my family it just isn’t realistic for now.  What I really care about in accommodation is that my kit is safe; and hot water is nice too!  But ideally I’m out and about as much as possible.

During your time in Hong Kong, you’ve spent time in a centre assisting refugees. In a city that is already severely over-crowded and where the living conditions for many are cramped, many living in subdivided flats, how do you think they will fare with an this new housing situation on their hands? 

This is a very sensitive issue in Hong Kong.  Disparities in wealth levels are extremely high, and as you say this is an overcrowded city.  But given that refugees and asylum seekers here make up less than 0.15% of the population  - i.e. a fraction of one per cent - I really don’t think that refugees are the problem.

What were your first impressions of Hong Kong? 

First impression of Hong Kong? That was over 20 years ago. “Wow, I’ve landed in Blade Runner”.

How do you think the refugee crisis can be fought for through the medium of photography? Do you think it is helping to make change?

I want to say that photography is helping, I really do.  The photos of Alan Kurdi in the surf in Turkey softened attitudes for a while, although that wore off soon enough.  So yes photography helps at the margin, and it can make a difference for individuals, and there is no excuse not to try.  But the real solutions to the crisis lie in ending the conflict and persecution which causes people to become refugees, and I struggle to see that photography is a key part of the answer to that.

How much do you know about your subjects before you photograph them? Or do you wait to hear their stories after the shot is taken? 

Ideally I’m speaking to people as I’m taking photos, so the photography is part of a broader conversation during which I learn about the people I meet.

What was your childhood dream? 

I have no idea! I don’t really remember much about anything. 

What’s the next country you hope to travel to? 

For photography? I wish I could get to Bangladesh.  For work I travel often but without time to take photographs.

Recent video footage has been released of a North Korean soldier driving his truck up to the boarder and running across the border into South Korea. Have you met many refugees from North Korea? Any temptation to travel to there? 

I’ve met a number of North Korean refugees who now live in Seoul.  Sure I’d like to go to North Korea, although it is a very restrictive place for taking photos.  My wife is South Korean and my kids speak Korean and we travel to Seoul quite a lot and I do worry about what could go wrong if we travelled to Pyongyang.

Name one image / painting / photograph that has changed the way you look at the world. 

Gosh I’ve been thinking about this for hours.  I’ll nominate a show.  In winter 2003 I got to go to a private view of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs in the Serpentine Gallery in London.  Inexplicably, all of the other guests were drinking crappy wine in a marquee and I was pretty much alone with the seascape photos in darkened rooms - outside the windows it was raining and black - the experience was utterly immersive - and it opened my eyes to how photography can work as a creative medium.  Which doesn’t really answer your question! If I had a second choice it would involve Francis Bacon triptychs in a generally similar situation.

You’ve raised an incredible amount of money so far for the refugee crisis. Where does this money go? Does it go direct to a chosen charity?

Thus far two charities primarily: Refugees International Japan and Justice Centre Hong Kong.  I used to be on the Boards of both, so I’m confident about the good work that each does.

View Alex's 'Glimpses Over The Edge' series here

Faces In Focus