Interview with Daniella Zalcman

One of Boreal’s newest members talks with Laurence Butet-Roch.

Laurence Butet-Roch: Hey Daniella. How are you? Where are you today? You’ve been moving around a lot lately. It’s hard to keep track! 

Daniella Zalcman: Hah! I’m good. I’m actually home, in London, for once. Just got back from hostile environment training (HEFAT) in Belfast last night. 

LBR: How was that? And why did you decide to get such training? 

DZ: It was intense. Really intense. I’m not a conflict journalist, and I don’t really ever plan on becoming one, but I do like operating on the edge of conflict and in post-conflict zones, so I think it’s important to be prepared. And maybe most importantly, I strongly believe that journalists have a responsibility not to add to the burden of medical professionals operating in stressed environments — we need to know what to do if something happens to one of us. 

LBR: What do you consider to be the edges of conflict? And why are you drawn to these stories?

DZ:
I think there are plenty of areas that are far enough from the front lines of fighting that they may be considered safe for civilians, but where life is still dramatically impacted by conflict and the byproducts of conflict. I’ve always been attracted to people and communities living in the margins of modern society, in whatever form that takes.

LBR: Do you have some examples?

DZ: I think the best example (and really the only time I’ve worked on the fringes of a conflict zone) was when I was in South Sudan — so many people living in Juba came from parts of the country that’s seen fighting as part of their country’s protracted civil war, and the capital is ringed by refugee camps. That experience was enough to convince me that I really needed to be more prepared if I was ever going to return to a similar environment. Coincidentally, I just found out I’ll be in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in February, so I’m glad I had the opportunity to go through HEFAT. As for communities living in the margins — that’s pretty much every project I’ve ever worked on: Indigenous residential school survivors in Canada, LGBT activists in Uganda, a community eco village in the UK. 

LBR: Where does your interest for communities living in the margins come from? Which was the first you encountered and how has that experienced shape who you are, as a person and as a photographer?
DZ: I think at its core it’s a very fundamental attraction to stories of injustice. That, I think, is journalism’s most powerful application — its ability to expose those inequities. And as long as I’ve been a journalist I’ve been drawn to those stories. My college thesis project was documenting a neighborhood of New York City where Columbia planned to construct a new campus, and effectively had to drive out existing residents and businesses in the process. My first long term project was photographing Uganda’s LGBT community, which I started in 2011. Giving voice to people who are fighting for equality is deeply important to me. Side note, if it’s relevant, that I majored in architecture in college, not journalism. 

LBR: Architecture? I didn’t know that - what made you change fields?

DZ: I never wanted to be an architect — I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 12 or 13 — but Columbia doesn’t offer an undergrad degree in either journalism or photography. Architecture seemed interesting, and going to school in NYC gave me the chance to start freelancing while I was still a student.

LBR: So, how did you go from being an architecture student to a photographer working with the Pulitzer Center in just a few years?

DZ: Going to school in NYC was a huge advantage — I started freelancing for the New York Daily News when I was a student, and then moved to The Wall Street Journal when they launched their metro section in 2010. In 2012, I moved to London (when my husband, also a freelance journalist at the time, got a job offer from the WSJ) and had a chance to reevaluate my career and how I worked. I shifted largely from daily assignment work to longer form projects and was lucky enough to connect with the Pulitzer Center, who thankfully has been funding the majority of my work for the past two years.

LBR: What are some of those longer-term projects?

DZ: Right now, I’m focused on the legacy of forced assimilation schooling for indigenous Canadians. Residential schools were horrible, and most North Americans (they existed in the U.S. as well) know very little about them. I’m also looking at the legal process for LGBT asylum seekers in the UK, and I’ve got a couple new projects in the works that are still in the research/grant proposal phase.

LBR: How do you juggle between all of those?

DZ: Poorly! Hah. Logistically, it’s not too bad — I think it’s a little more complex psychologically. Journalists are terrible at self-care, I’m not any different. But I manage.

LBR: Haha. I just learned there’s a clinic here in Toronto, dedicated to artists, and I thought that for such a place to exist we must have some pretty unique problems. 

DZ: Ohhh that’s great. And we have so many problems.

LBR: Is that why you joined Boreal? To share yours?

DZ: In a way! There’s always strength in community, and I think it’s much easier to maintain a healthy perspective when you can check in with people who know you and understand your work. I think more importantly, I view Boreal as something of a collective conscience — everyone clearly has a very strong sense of justice in their photography, and having an opportunity to be surrounded by that is incredibly important to me.

LBR: I like that idea of a collective conscience - having a sounding board to know if you’re heading in the right direction. Were you surprised when we approached you?

DZ: Completely! I think of the 10 members I’d only ever met you, so I was very surprised but thrilled.

LBR: Your work spoke for yourself, in a sense. All the members were all able to get a sense of what mattered to you through the way you photographed. And we were also impressed by @echosight. That showed us that you thought of photography in a collaborative manner.

DZ: I do! Which is… counterintuitive, maybe. But I think collaboration is a vital part of the photographic process, even if only to get the input of people whose insights and moral compasses you trust.

LBR: I don’t know whether it’s counterintuitive or if it’s more the result of misrepresentation. I feel like photographers have been portrayed as lone wolves, but I don’t know if that was ever the case. You have to be good with others if you are to gain their trust so that they share with you their stories. For instance, when working with residential school survivors, that must have been quite a challenge. 

DZ: That’s true. At the same time, I routinely meet photographers who obviously must have superhuman interpersonal skills that shine through in their work, and yet seemingly can’t function in a normal social setting. I’m certainly a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to projects — I much prefer operating alone when I’m out in the field — but I think collaboration during the stages on either side of that are crucial. It’s hard, sometimes, especially for freelance journalists because we tend to guard our work compulsively pre-publication, but you can’t work in an echo chamber. 

LBR: Well, it’ll be our pleasure to make sure you don’t ;). We should probably end it there since we have a Boreal meeting in a few minutes. But before we do, I wanted to know what are you most looking for between now and the new year? 

DZ: Self care! It’s been an amazing year, and I’m grateful for the projects I’ve worked on and the people I’ve met and the opportunities that I’ve been afforded, but it’s also been a pretty grueling, intense period, especially these last few months. I’m headed to the beach next week, and I’m very much looking forward to putting up a vacation responder and going offline for a bit. :)

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