The first photograph I saw by Daniel Etter wasn’t in a magazine or newspaper or even on a website. It was on Twitter. In May 2013, Istanbul was erupting in protests. News of it was dominating social media—and all of a sudden this stunning image of a protestor holding the Turkish flag appeared on my feed. I was instantly struck by the mood and defiant body language of the protestor, who was surrounded by tear gas. It was timeless and epic. The photo went viral, as it should have, and was reproduced all over the world. It’s even a statue now. “I lost control of it quickly,” Etter told me.
Etter has a knack for making viral photos. A photographer is lucky to have it happen once; it’s almost unheard of for it to happen again. Yet it did—only this time the subject matter was the refugee crisis, and the photo just won Etter the Pulitzer Prize. I recently talked to him and started at the beginning.
PATRICK WITTY: So, why photography?
DANIEL ETTER: I think a lot of photojournalists my age [Etter is 35] will tell you the same story: The seed was planted when I watched the documentary “War Photographer,” about James Nachtwey. Back then, I was impressed by the image of the lone photographer in constant pursuit of that one image that shapes world events. I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
Over the years that romanticized idea faded and was replaced by a more sober image of the impact photographers can have. It took me a very long time to actually summon up the courage and go out in the world and do it.
PATRICK: You’re German and you live in Spain, but most of your work is in the Middle East. How did that happen?
DANIEL: After I moved to India and worked there for a while, I slowly made my way back [to the] West. First I moved to Istanbul, then to Berlin. I just felt drawn home, I guess. But after a few weeks in miserable Berlin weather, I decided to move south.
I find it difficult living in the middle of the stories I am covering. I need distance from it. Here in Spain I have that, while I am not too far away geographically.
And if you think about it, so much of today’s big journalistic stories happen around the Mediterranean. The Arab Spring, the refugee crisis in the Aegean and between Libya and Italy, the financial crisis in Greece. So most of my work is centered around the Mediterranean and so is my life. I just choose a quieter corner.
PATRICK: You’ve had a couple of photos go completely viral in the past few years. The photo you made during the Gezi Park protest in Istanbul has been everywhere, appropriated time and time again. Tell me about making that photo.
DANIEL: I was on the way to do a story in the Ukraine when the Gezi protests started. When I landed in Kiev I checked the news and decided to turn around right away. This was happening right in front of my apartment in Istanbul and was much bigger than any of the usual protests in the city.
The night I returned, protesters marched towards the office of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then still prime minister. Police tried to push them back with tear gas. Even though I was wearing a gas mask it was difficult to breathe.
The protesters built barricades out of mobile fences from a nearby football stadium, but the tear gas was so heavy that most stayed far back behind the barricades. There was one guy, who kept climbing up this pile of metal fences alone and waved the Turkish flag until he collapsed. This was the scene that went viral.
PATRICK: I saw the photo you posted of someone with a tattoo of this image. What’s it like to see your image reproduced over and over again? And made into a statue?
DANIEL: On the one hand, it’s obviously very humbling and satisfying to see that this image meant so much for so many people. On the other hand, I feel slightly melancholic about it. The Gezi protest marked a turning point in the recent history of Turkey and not in the way the protesters had hoped.
Erdogan’s government is more authoritarian than ever and the level of oppression of critical voices—be it journalists, scientists, artists—has never been higher in recent years. Something like Gezi would be unthinkable today. Even small, peaceful protests, if they are only slightly diverging from the government’s line, are met with water cannons and tear gas from the outset.
PATRICK: Why do you think that image resonated with people?
DANIEL: The protest was an act of defiance in the face of this looming—and by now very real—authoritarianism. And for them, this feeling was reflected in the posture of the lone protester on the barricades. He was almost the perfect metaphor for the struggle to uphold the ideals of the Turkish Republic, no matter the push back.
PATRICK: And your heart-wrenching photo of Iraqi refugee Laith Majid and his family landing in Lesbos. That went viral also—why do you think?
DANIEL: It was very early on, when media attention just started to focus on the high number of refugees coming from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan towards the Greek islands. The public knew that refugees were coming by boat, but the realization [of] what it meant to cross in these flimsy boats in the middle of the night had not sunken in yet.
When I photographed the scene, it was still very dark. I knew that this was a moment I needed to photograph, but I was struggling to get the picture in focus—the autofocus of my camera didn’t work under these low light conditions, and people were moving a lot.
It took me a while to realize how powerful this moment was, and a few hours later I was suddenly overcome by the emotions of it, which I carried around for days.
So I knew what it meant to me but was still overwhelmed by the reactions it triggered. It was shared millions of times on Facebook and Twitter; dozens of people offered to help. And, according to the family, a number of countries offered them asylum.
PATRICK: That photo truly resonates with me, especially as a father. The children falling into their father’s grip, his dignity, and the emotion in his eyes—so powerful. I read that Laith said that when he was crying, you were crying too. Tell me about that.
DANIEL: In our profession, you are confronted with countless heartbreaking stories. Most often, you don’t let them get close to you. You are there … in a professional capacity after all. Being overly emotional doesn’t help much. But some stories, some moments, you just can’t help it. This was one of those moments.
PATRICK: Laith’s story took a sad turn after their family’s arrival in Germany. Tell me about that.
DANIEL: Berlin, where they were, was overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers, and conditions there are chaotic. Applications are postponed over and over again, housing is often overcrowded, and nobody really knows if they have [prospects] in Germany or not.
A few weeks ago, Laith’s mother died. The combination of all these things apparently hit him so [hard] that he decided to return to Iraq to say goodbye to his mother. His wife wouldn’t let him go alone, so they and their youngest children went together.
They couldn’t return to Baghdad, their hometown, since they were threatened and extorted by militias there, which is why they fled in the first place. Now they live in Erbil in northern Iraq and are struggling to rebuild their lives, which is incredibly difficult [as Arabs] in a predominantly Kurdish city.
Ironically, I found out about this when I tried to call them after my colleagues and I won the Pulitzer Prize. The photo was part of our entry of work we produced for the New York Times on the refugee crisis. I wanted to share the news with them and couldn’t get through by phone on their German number. A few days later I found out why.
PATRICK: You’ve been covering the refugee crisis for some time now. What has drawn you to that story so deeply?
DANIEL: I [first] thought of it as a singular story about people enduring incredible hardships in the hope of reaching the prosperity and security we in Europe or the U.S. are privileged enough to be accustomed to. This fascinated me in itself.
But now I see it more as a symptom of a larger, very worrying development. The resources we have on this planet are limited and it’s simply impossible for seven billion people to reach the standard of living we in the West enjoy. Climate change is already having an impact. Mix that with corrupt and authoritarian leadership and you have an explosive combination.
I was in Raqqa Province in Syria recently, and all you see there are dusty fields and overgrazed pasture. I don’t imply that the Syrian civil war was caused by climate change, but I am quite certain this was a factor that played into it. And I feel like there will be many more conflicts where this will be the case.
As long as we don’t manage to find a way to confront and solve these problems globally, find a way to distribute resources and wealth more justly, people will be on the move, away from poverty and insecurity, to wealth and stability. The logical but inhumane short-term reaction to this is to build walls and fences, but in the long run we need solutions that go to the core of this development. Unfortunately, what we see in Germany, France, or the U.S. is the rise of political parties or figures that go in the completely opposite direction.
PATRICK: And now you are a farmer? Sounds pretty nice.
DANIEL: It is! It’s a small farm in northern Spain—woodland, orchards, and some fields. It’s not yet producing commercially, but I am planning to turn it into a small-scale organic operation. In a way, it is a response to the thought I just laid out. The way we produce and consume food in Europe and the U.S. is simply impossible to sustain on a global scale. But apart from that, I really enjoy being there. It is the perfect place to come back to.
View more of Daniel Etter’s work on his website.