Amina at home in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya: an example of how sometimes trying to break down a stereotype falls short - © UNHCR/ANTOINE TARDY
“Go out there, be a photographer”
How and why I quit my job as a Communications Officer and became a freelance photographer
1 Dec 2021

April 2016, I am sitting on a train gliding along the pretty lakes of central Switzerland and my life is about to take a decisive turn. In my hand is the job description for the position as Photo Editor of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The paper is entirely covered with my handwriting and my mind is racing. A few days later, in my cover letter, I write these words: “Today, it is with every confidence that I write here that I have never felt so enthusiastic and convinced about submitting a job application.”

My letter remained unanswered but my epiphany did not. A few months later, I would land my first job as a freelance photographer. A few months after that, I would be on a plane to Kenya and Jordan on my first mission for UNHCR. A dozen more field missions would follow, along with regular assignments for a variety of institutional clients. I never looked back on a decade working as a Communications and External Relations Officer for the UN, and later for an international foundation. From the first moment, it simply felt right and natural.

I have never been entirely sure of exactly why I am so driven to photography, and I will refrain from going into grand philosophical considerations about the art and craft of pressing the shutter. I will say this: to me, photography has always been an excuse to be elsewhere and enter someone else’s world. Satisfying my curiosity and wanderlust is probably what draws me to it more than anything else.

My camera is the key that opens the doors to so many different worlds: from refugee camps to diplomatic circles, from mountain tops to textile and coffee factories. It is the magic wand that gives me the ability to see more clearly, to feel more deeply, and to leave my comfort zone. Photography is my go-to way of engaging with the world and trying to make sense of it.

Essentially, if there were a common denominator in my work and the way I approach it, I would venture that it is people-centered and driven. Whether I photograph the haves or the have-nots (and anyone in between), I always try my very best to treat them and represent them in the same way: with honesty, empathy, respect, and an open mind. Physically, as much as metaphorically, I strive to find the right distance and be eye-to-eye with the people who trust me with their story and their image.

In other words, whether I am covering the World Heath Assembly, documenting disaster preparedness on a faraway island, photographing a gym class for elders or making the portrait of an incoming ambassador in Geneva, I remain mindful of trying not to impose my presence or my vision. I attempt to strip myself of my judgment and let the story unfold, outside of a predetermined narrative or reductive categories. I aim for a nuanced portrayal of people and events that helps break down barriers between “us” and “them”, the “viewer” and the “subject”.

That means that I constantly reassess the amount of intention and care I invest in the people I photograph. And, sometimes, reality is there to call me out on it. Back in February 2017, on my first assignment for UNHCR, I visited the home of Amina*, a young, bright and friendly student living in the refugee camp of Kakuma, in the arid reaches of northwest Kenya. As she was studying on her bed, I was bustling around the place, fully focussed on making dignifying photographs that would transcend her living conditions. At some point, she asked to see the photographs and, as I showed her an image I had taken from outside through her fenced window, she exclaimed: “Oh God, I really look like a refugee girl!”. Touché.

Over the past five years, my work has mostly been divided between reportage and portraiture, navigating between the worlds of diplomacy, politics, humanitarian and social work, finance, health, sports, dance and music, all at the local, national, and international levels. This has given me the opportunity to observe and reflect on some of the intersections and disconnects of our world. Hanging up your jacket after covering a policy or intellectual forum in Geneva before reaching a refugee camp a couple days later can be a sobering and puzzling experience. The way I reconcile the stark contradictions of our world is by keeping a questioning mind. Isn’t reportage, after all, meant to pose questions more than provide answers?

Between mid-2016 and early 2018, over the span of twenty months, I quit my job, lost three grandparents, had a child, and turned my side hustle into a career. The momentous events, in such a short time, were decisive. Decisive also, on a societal level this time, was the COVID-19 pandemic that forced us, collectively and individually, to rethink how and why we do what we do. As I have been going through it myself (aspiring for instance to venture into editorial work and to develop long-term personal projects), I have kept as a compass the words of an experienced photographer who kindly shared some wisdom with me when I started out: “Respect yourself and respect others, be compassionate, it will always pay off. Don’t overthink and don’t be scared. Go out there, be a photographer.”

* Name has been changed.

* Antoine Tardy is a freelance photographer based in Geneva ( / Instagram: @antoinetardyphoto).
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