Five questions for award-winning photojournalist Peter Bregg
Photojournalist Peter Bregg has returned from a three-week tour of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan where he was photographing senator Roméo Dallaire and his work in the demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers. He spoke to Angelina Irinici about his experience and how difficult assignments can still choke him up.
Peter Bregg and General Roméo Dallaire with security in Goma/Allan Thomson
J-Source: Can you tell me about the initiative headed by Roméo Dallaire?
Peter Bregg: Well, Roméo Dallaire has a book called They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, from his time in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. I think that was the first time he encountered child soldiers. Over the years he has developed this organization called Child Soldier Initiative. It is like a think-tank, research organization and is centered in Dalhousie University in Halifax. This trip was more of a fact-finding mission. He is working with NGOs and trying to help demobilize child soldiers and get them reintegrated into society. He is a solider and he knows how to talk to soldiers and he is a senator so he works with NGOs. He is able to bridge the two, which is important in a story like this.
J-Source: What was your role as a photojournalist and how did you get involved?
PB: [I got involved through] a film crew from White Pine Pictures, who did the Shake Hands with the Devil documentary from 2004, which retraced general Dallaire’s steps throughout the genocide in Rwanda. [Bregg accompanied and photographed Dallaire during the shooting of the documentary in April 2004] I was along on that mission, so when White Pine Pictures decided to make a documentary on this project with Dallaire, I just asked if I could join. I worked as the still photographer and thought I could get a couple good photo essays out of it for publication. So it will benefit me if I can sell some pictures as well as try and get something published, which to me is more important.
J-Source: You are a very diverse photographer with a wide range of coverage under your belt. You’ve photographed big celebrity names like Rihanna and Sandra Oh and covered crisis and major world events like 9/11 and The Olympics. I know you are also very involved in politics and at one point were Brian Mulroney’s personal photographer. What type of photography gives you the most satisfaction and why?
PB: When people ask I usually say documentary work. I’ve had fun doing them all, but it’s really been these different African projects. I’ve done lots of work in Africa, photographing HIV/AIDS, the poverty and genocide. All of those trips have been the most rewarding. Those would be classified as documentary, I suppose. Right now, for instance I have put together a couple hundred images into a slide show from these various trips to Africa and now I can add one more —child soldiers, another topic — and I show it when I am invited to talk. I can talk about Africa and the plight of the people in Africa. If I show them to three or four hundred people and two decide to contribute to any of those charities involved, or to something about it then I get a very an intrinsic reward, one could say. Spreading the message sounds corny, but that’s what I do with my pictures, I spread the message. And it’s very powerful.
J-Source: A seasoned photojournalist such as yourself has seen the dark side of many stories. After covering war and the AIDS pandemic in Africa, to what extent does doing work like this affect you after experiencing all that you have?
PB: When you cover an event your mind is on your work. Your mind is in a variety of places. In other words, not only are you trying to get your story you are also competing with others. Your job is to get the story and get it first and so all that is taking up a lot of your energy as you are working. But I know that when I show the pictures afterward there are some images — when they flash on the screen — that affect me and sometimes I stop a moment to catch my breath because I choke a little. The pictures affect me later on, after I have taken them.
J-Source: If you could share one image, story or anecdote with the world that you experienced on this project what would it be?
PB: Gosh, it was such a world wind trip, as they say. A lot of the mission was spent in meetings with military officers and NGOs. We visited a lot of refugee camps with ex-combatants. Probably the most interesting was when General Dallaire and I and some others were at this camp where the ex-combatants were all put up in tents in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s like a refugee camp full of young men. They were all sitting around and the most exciting thing they had was a checkers game that they had created with bottle caps and a piece of cardboard. So, he [Roméo Dallaire] gave someone $50 to go buy a couple of soccer balls. A few days later we went back and they were all playing soccer out in the field. There was so much energy to spend and nowhere or no way to do it. These two soccer balls made a big deal. It was amazing to see tough 65-year-old Roméo Dallaire in this field of essentially rocks, playing soccer with these 20-year-old ex-combatants who were soldiers, porters and even sex slaves.
Peter Bregg is an award-winning photojournalist who has been in the business for over 40 years. He served as chief photographer of Maclean's for 17 years and after that, photo editor at HELLO! He has travelled to numerous countries in Africa, capturing the AIDS crisis and has shot for human-rights groups such as the Stephen Lewis Foundation and WaterCan. He also teaches photojournalism to students at Ryerson University.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity.