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That’s about it,” said Wendell Phillips, surveying the gear arrayed on the floor of the Alberni Street condo he shares with his wife, a provincial court judge. “Laptop. Two cameras. Four fixed lenses. A flash. Two portable 80-gigabyte hard drives. This cable loops around my camera bag at night. It has a motion sensor, and an alarm goes off if anyone moves the bag.”
It was early June, and Phillips, 46, was about to travel on assignment to Palestinian refugee camps in Syria; then on to jobs in Jordan, northern Iraq, and the West Bank in Israel.”Any Israeli retaliation from its northern border against Hezbollah shouldn’t affect my ground travel,” he said, “but if any part of Syria becomes a staging area, I’m hooped. I’m getting briefed daily by colleagues in Beirut and Damascus.”
First aid kit. Tylenol. NeoCitran. Penicillin. Simpliflux, for diarrhea. Doxycycline, an antimalarial. “I’m up-to-date with my immunizations—cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and B, yellow fever. I’ve never had malaria or dengue, but I got something after spending 14 months in the Philippines, eating and drinking locally, that plagued me for years. Every five weeks or so I became unwell. It was like chronic fatigue-I could barely get out of bed, and when I did I was nauseous. Eventually it cleared up on its own. They never really figured out what it was.”
Over the past quarter-century, Phillips has worked in more than 50 countries and sold his photos to some 200 publications, ranging from the London Times and the Independent to the South China Morning Post, Time magazine, and National Geographic. “I’ve worked for the United Nations, CIDA, the Red Cross, the Danish government, Islamic relief, and-well, let’s just say international agencies and NGOs in various countries. Sorry for being vague, but these relationships took years to cultivate and there’s lots of competition for the work.”
The subjects of his contract work have included land-mine clearing, AIDS initiatives, renewable energy, peer lending and microcredit programs, vocational training in slums, disaster relief, immigration, innovations in agriculture, water and sanitation stories, food security, the environment, transportation, war orphans, women’s issues, and numerous health-related stories. The work brings him face-to-face with corruption, endless logistical challenges, and grave threats to his personal security. “I’ve been detained,” he said, “subjected to cavity searches, that sort of thing, but nothing too drastic.”
Photocopies of documents. Passport-style head shots. Money belt. U.S. cash. Various currencies. Calf-strapped wallet. “If I get rolled,” he said, “I’ve still got copies of my papers and a bit of money.” Working in unpredictable, sometimes risky, conditions has taught him the need for fastidiousness, but even meticulous preparation can’t prevent misfortune. Scandinavian Airlines once lost his baggage between Frankfurt and Copenhagen. “I was on the way to polar Greenland. I landed in Kangerlussuaq, not far from the North Pole, with nothing but a camera bag and a light jacket.”
On that trip, he ended up subsisting on raw whale meat. While living with a Muslim faith healer in the Sahara Desert, he relied on camel milk. Embedded with NATO troops in Kosovo, he ate K rations. No wonder he always packs protein powder, fruit bars, and minipacks of peanut butter.
Power adapter. Digital recorder. iPod. Minispeakers. Head lamp. Batteries. Ziploc bags. Sleeping bag. Earplugs. Toilet paper. “And, of course,” he added, “my lucky bandanna—I wouldn’t go anywhere without it. All in, this stuff weighs about 45 pounds. The less I take, the easier it makes things. The West Bank alone has more than 500 security checkpoints.”
Growing up in Manitoba, son of a Safeway manager, Phillips got interested in photography at the side of a mother who liked drawing and cartooning. “We often drew together,” recalls Mae Phillips, who lives in Brandon. “Wendell was very good at it. He worked part-time at the grocery store and saved up to buy his first camera. He’d get up when it was still dark outside and go out to take pictures as it became light.” At 16 he wanted to be a news photographer and at 18 he was hired on at the Brandon Sun, soon moving up to the Winnipeg Free Press. “For me, cameras were never about pretty landscapes or dramatic sunsets,” he said. “I felt compelled to tell stories.”
When Phillips was 21 a friend asked if he’d like to spend a winter working in Peru, at a photographic company. He exchanged the proceeds from selling his battered little Jeep for a ticket to Lima, a city that opened his eyes. “I went to South America knowing little of the world—suddenly I was surrounded by Peruvian friends who knew all about history, political ideology, important events.” It was a time of intellectual fomentation in a young man’s life. When he got back home, Phillips immersed himself in learning about the world, and when he got the chance to work in Nicaragua, in 1986, he leapt at it. The assignment was to document how civilians were faring in the midst of war.
“It was unnerving-I saw horrible atrocities and grief. It was overwhelming. But it was also educational, listening to what Reagan was saying about the Sandinistas and seeing what was really happening in the country. And I was learning the ropes, making connections in the editorial and human development fields. I went back to a staff job in Winnipeg to pay the bills, but from then on I was really motivated to spend time overseas.”
At the time, a camera was still a novelty in parts of the world. No longer. “Journalists are everywhere now, and the only places without tourists are the really dangerous places. You can go to the most remote locations and people want to talk about Leonardo DiCaprio. I remember years ago at a Karen village in Burma we’d spent all day hiking in to—the children came running, the way children do. But it wasn’t the novelty of seeing a stranger. They wanted to look at the back of my camera for the images—they knew it was digital.”
Yet even as travel and technology shrink the world, war and corruption and disease and economic disparity divide it. Beyond that divide, among the invisible and the disadvantaged, is where Phillips finds many of his subjects. If his body of work can be summed up in a phrase, it might be “documenting the plight of the disenfranchised.” His best friend, Gary Nylander, who lives in Kelowna and is also a photographer, speaks of Phillips’s “incredible dedication” and “passionate engagement.” Phillips uses the same approach the world over: “I think people see that I’m genuinely inquisitive, sincere about wanting to understand their circumstances. Being allowed into their lives is a privilege, and I’ve never taken it for granted. I’m in awe of the resilience of people who find hope and courage in the most desperate situations.”
This empathetic, deeply personal approach has led to many awards, from being named Canada’s news photographer of the year in 1988 to his 2007 nomination for Canadian photojournalist of the year. The award for picture of the year he recently won in the photo-essay category marks the 19th time he’s been so honoured. (His documentation of the Downtown Eastside, in our last Power 50 issue, won gold at this year’s National Magazine Awards.) His work has been described as social advocacy, but he’s uncomfortable with the term, feeling it implies a lack of objectivity.
“I’m not a crusader, a bleeding-heart liberal. True, I’ve done presentations over the years, and the money goes to social causes. But that’s not why I work. I’m driven by what I think are relevant stories, by my desire to make good photos, by the enriching experiences I have—and, of course, by what I’m paid to do. My own life is not about social advocacy. It’s about returning home from Iraq one day and being asked to be in Afghanistan a week later. My passport’s full, I have no visa, and I have four days to sort it out.”
I’ll be laying low for awhile,” read an email Phillips sent in late July. Back from the Middle East, exhausted, he was undergoing psychic decompression. “Here’s a number if you need to reach me, but please don’t give it to anyone. Sometimes,” he added, “I go into a cocoon when I get back.” A couple of weeks later, he re-emerged. In Lebanon, he explained, after jumping through bureaucratic hoops, he’d finally been allowed into the notorious Nahr El-Bared refugee camp north of Beirut—but with no equipment. He solved the problem by having his gear smuggled in garbage bags on the backs of Palestinian refugees who were being permitted, for the first time, to return to their bombed-out homes.
“After leaving one scorched building, we found ourselves in the middle of all this screaming and wailing,” he recalled. “In the rubble lay the body of a boy whose head had been fatally opened by falling debris. My hand was gripping my Leica through the garbage bag, but my colleague, Jamshed, cautioned me, ‘No way! No way!’ Lebanese soldiers were rushing in, so making pictures was not a good idea. The dead boy’s mother collapsed in front of us as a truck crashed backwards over the debris. A stricken man lifted the body and ran past us into the dust, and then they were gone, leaving only screaming and moaning. Another day in hell.”
In hell, how does one bear witness without being consumed? Phillips offers a credo you might expect from a paramedic, or a pediatric surgeon: “You can’t be disconnected, and at the same time you can’t allow yourself to get too emotional. You have to take real interest, but then you carry on.”
Well and good, but some things are not easily forgotten. Once, near Kampala, a shrivelled woman in a tiny hut told him of having so little that she knew she couldn’t keep both her children alive. To save one of them, she had to let the other starve to death—a Ugandan version of Sophie’s choice. In post-tsunami Banda Aceh, Phillips found the pain and despair overwhelming. Almost everyone working on the cleanup had lost family members. Phillips’s driver wore the same T-shirt day after day-his “tsunami shirt,” he called it. He’d been wearing it, he explained, while trying to pull his mother from the churning waters, gripping her forearm until she slipped from his grasp.
“In Bangladesh,” Phillips recalled, “I once spent 10 days on an old oil tanker that had been converted into a floating hospital. Thousands of people came each day—many in great distress. There’s a parallel world I journey through, a world apart, fraught with pain and adversity. Coming back here can be difficult.”
It’s not the affluence and waste that unsettle him. It’s the apathy—”people who don’t see others’ pain as relevant to their own lives.” Poverty and deprivation are served up to most of us in abstract generalizations. To Phillips with his ever-searching lens, the work-his life-comes down to a simple question: “What is our responsibility to people who are suffering?” In the end, he believes, we all must answer that in our own ways. “Mine is to make their stories personal.”