Interview by Ruby Pascoe.
Joshua McDonald grew up in regional Northern NSW Australia. He changed schools at age fourteen, following an expulsion and moved out of home at age sixteen. Josh was in his second year of an apprenticeship after leaving school and living with friends when he decided to go on a holiday to Bali with a group. He made a last-minute decision to travel somewhere else entirely and at age seventeen, he booked a solo trip to Kenya.
Josh has now been working as a human rights photojournalist for the last five years in many different countries around the world.
When did you first start to show an interest in photography?
My sister is a well-respected photographer in the Northern Rivers, so growing up I was always surrounded by cameras, naturally, I was always interested in it.
[In Kenya] I teamed up with a local NGO, and started taking photos on my first camera – a Canon 7D my sister gave to me second hand. The photos were no good, but it allowed me the opportunity to feel I was doing something worthy.
You’ve worked in a range of different countries, how did you become drawn to these stories and issues around the world? Are there particular stories that you want to tell?
My first interest in the kind of stories I cover came from discussions with my father as a kid. Saturday was always our time together, he’d drive me to my soccer games, we would talk about the ancient world, the Sudanese famine, Afghanistan and conflict. We spoke about everything. In the years to come this would be my main interest. I never watched TV, only documentaries, I read lots of books. I spent most of my spare time just researching these topics.
My main focus would be conflict and human rights. Personally, I can’t understand how these topics go undiscussed in the public. I love people, I love taking photos of them, hearing and sharing their stories. I guess the stories I want to tell are just other people’s stories that I, as a kid, would’ve taken interest in.
How did you find yourself working as a photojournalist at such a young age?
The combination of my keen interest in history, traveling, politics, and photography really influenced my interest in photojournalism. Shortly after Kenya, I returned to Australia only for a few weeks to quit my job and say goodbye to friends and family. I took a one-way flight to Paris with the intention of pursuing a vagabond lifestyle. Most of my photos in the months after this were of the people I met along my travels and the places I went.
I, along with two friends had booked a trip through the Balkans [to] the Middle East and down the coast of Africa, we were only a few days away from Israel when the war [in] 2014 started. My friends pulled out instantly. I, at the time, felt drawn to go and see it for myself. I covered the bombings of Gaza shortly after my 18th birthday. I had no connections, no prior training and very ill equipment.
At the time, I felt very brave. My friends would tell me how awesome it was that I was there, but it is only now that I have covered conflicts around the world that I understand how naive it was of me to document those bombings. I not only put my own life at risk but all [of] those who I worked with. Overall, Palestine was a stepping stone towards my career but I was lucky, very lucky that I made it out alive.
You’ve worked during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, mostly on the front line, how was this experience for you as a photojournalist?
I felt that I was ready for Iraq only because, as a naive kid, I covered Palestine. The reality could not have been more different. It was exciting, I loved it [and] I miss it so much but at the same time I have nightmares of what I witnessed in Iraq. I knew these places existed and I knew what to expect, but actually seeing it [and] feeling it was hard. I came so close to death several times, yet if asked today to head back to Mosul, I’d go.
You’ve also worked in Nicaragua, and have helped bring to light the disease CKDnT which has and is causing many deaths in the state. Now that these stories are being published, along with your images, how do you feel your work is effecting the public’s awareness of this disease and the people it effects?
Nicaragua was my first large investigate story. I lived in a village there for a few months and spent almost a year working closely with medical experts in London and Boston. I spent a lot of money and time on this project and wasn’t ever convinced I’d achieve much from it, as not many people are interested in rural Nicaragua, so to now see that my work there has won awards and secured me future contracts in Afghanistan and the Ivory Coast is amazing.
In Nicaragua, changes are being made to improve workers’ rights. And in neighbouring El Salvador we have convinced a sugar mill to implement a new work ethic which has been very successful.
In your experience, do you think photojournalism can change people’s views on an issue and therefore lead to change?
Yes, of course, For anyone who doubts this I only ask that they watch the film – Jim. It’s a film about a friend of mine who was killed in Syria. This film proves why photojournalism is so important. Storytelling, whether through photography or writing always has and always will be very important. I will stand by my belief that a camera, if in the right hands, is much more powerful than any weapon.
Where do you see yourself in the future in your line of work? Where would you like it to take you?
I don’t want to work for a large publication. I just want to cover stories that mean something. I can see myself covering conflict for the next few years then hopefully focusing on my own projects.
After spending some time back home in Australia, Josh now has assignments on child labour in coal mines in India, slavery on cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast and a trip to the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. He is hoping to cover these stories before October this year. During a long connection flight, not too long ago, Josh wrote a list of all the stories he wants to cover, but these will have to wait for now, until next year.
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Joshua Mcdonald: firstname.lastname@example.org