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DUTCH pho­tog­ra­pher Robert Knoth de­scribes him­self as a sissy, then laughs. If Knoth is a sissy, he is not the sort of sissy most of us would recog­nise. His travel re­sume is a cat­a­logue of the bleak­est, most dan­ger­ous places on earth: Afghanistan, An­gola, Sierra Leone, So­ma­lia, Ta­jik­istan, to name a few. It seems he is drawn back time and again to such places to doc­u­ment the suf­fer­ing of the forgotten.

Knoth’s con­cern is not dis­as­ter zones. Rather, he says, it is to seek to un­der­stand what drives peo­ple to do ter­ri­ble things in th­ese places.

‘‘ What is the mo­ment when peo­ple start killing each other? What is the mo­ment when gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary say, ‘ This is what we are go­ing to do, we know it is go­ing to kill a lot of peo­ple.’ How does it work, how do peo­ple re­spond?’’ he says.

With his wife, An­toinette de Jong, Knoth is in Aus­tralia to launch Cer­tifi­cate No 000358/, an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs taken dur­ing a sev­enyear pe­riod, look­ing at the hu­man fall­out from the Soviet Union’s nu­clear pro­gram, both mil­i­tary and civil­ian.

The ex­hi­bi­tion has trav­elled the world and been seen by more than 200,000 peo­ple.

The bulk of the pho­to­graphs in the ex­hi­bi­tion are por­traits taken on a medium- for­mat cam­era, with the sub­jects at home, star­ing straight into the lens. A small sign gives their name and the ill­ness from which they are suf­fer­ing.

‘‘ I find it a very sim­ple and di­rect way of con­fronting peo­ple with a prob­lem, say­ing: ‘ Look, this is what hap­pened and this is a per­son who got af­fected by it, it has a name, it has a life, it is a per­son and, in a way, it could have been you’, and a lot of peo­ple read it like that,’’ Knoth says.

Few of his sub­jects show any ob­vi­ous phys­i­cal signs of the can­cers or men­tal dis­abil­i­ties that ra­di­a­tion has in­flicted on them. Knoth has re­moved the pathos from their vic­tim­hood and em­pow­ered them in the process. Th­ese pic­tures speak of the value of hu­man­ity and its abil­ity to en­dure the seem­ingly un­en­durable. The ex­hi­bi­tion, he says, ‘‘ is very much a story about how peo­ple just pick up their lives again and try to make the best of things’’.

The cam­era has cap­tured a look of ten­der sym­pa­thy in the eyes of 15- year- old An­nya Pe­senko, bedrid­den and in agony; the hor­monal fum­blings of a high school dance in a dank vil­lage hall near the nu­clear re­pro­cess­ing plant at Mayak; the strength of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween twins who dis­cov­ered three months apart that they had brain tu­mours. Knoth’s lens has dis­cov­ered that the cal­cu­lus of hu­man suf­fer­ing is an in­fin­itely com­plex equa­tion.

The ex­hi­bi­tion also in­vites in­ves­ti­ga­tion

of uni­ver­sal ques­tions about the abuse of power.

‘‘ It is a story about nu­clear en­ergy, but for me it is more a story about power and the abuse of power,’’ he says.

‘‘ It’s about how a cen­tral gov­ern­ment is will­ing to sac­ri­fice a large part of its pop­u­la­tion.’’

Knoth de­scribes his work as photo- doc­u­men­tary: large- scale projects that gen­er­ally find out­lets in books rather than the more im­me­di­ate dis­ci­pline of pho­to­jour­nal­ism.

‘‘ What I try to do is present a feel­ing, rather than the ob­vi­ous in- your- face pho­to­graph. I al­ways try to pho­to­graph the sen­si­tive, the hid­den, the sub­tle,’’ Knoth says. He cites Diane Ar­bus, whose sig­na­ture work was of those liv­ing on the fringes of US so­ci­ety, as an in­flu­ence.

Knoth is sim­i­larly at­tracted to those liv­ing in the mar­gins. ‘‘ Life for most of us is easy, but there is al­ways this shield we put up to not show too much to the out­side world. Th­ese peo­ple don’t have that prob­lem any more, which makes them far more in­ter­est­ing to pho­to­graph.’’

The power of Knoth’s method is clear at his ex­hi­bi­tion. The shots are all in black and white, and taken on tra­di­tional film rather than dig­i­tal. His tech­nique has a be­guil­ing sim­plic­ity, cre­at­ing the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect akin to the pow­er­ful per­sua­sive­ness of wit­nesses rather than the shrill keen­ing of vic­tims. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

There is one pho­to­graph of a de­formed fe­tus, which in some ways ac­cen­tu­ates the nor­mal­ity of the other images, but Knoth gen­er­ally has tried to avoid the freak show as­pects of Ar­bus’s work, and has re­grets about in­clud­ing the im­age.

‘‘ If you make it very con­fronta­tional, peo­ple don’t watch, pe­riod. You se­duce your au­di­ence into watch­ing, into get­ting to know more about that story, and if you can se­duce an au­di­ence by tak­ing aes­thetic pho­tos, that’s a tool.’’

De Jong, her­self a vet­eran of many war zones, wrote the short text that ac­com­pa­nies the pho­to­graphs and the book that goes with it. ‘‘ It re­ally is a joint pro­duc­tion: the text is as im­por­tant as the pho­tos,’’ Knoth says.

He de­scribes the process of tak­ing the pho­to­graphs as brief, typ­i­cally no more than five or 10 min­utes, but says the in­ter­views take much longer. ‘‘ What I do spend a lot of time do­ing is find­ing the right per­son, find­ing the right story in which I can tell what I want to say,’’ he says.

All the por­traits are named, gen­er­ally with some back­ground on the re­sult of the ex­po­sure to ra­di­a­tion in a way that per­son­alises the pho­to­graphs. ‘‘ What is strik­ing is that I do get a lot of emails from peo­ple who see the work and they all specif­i­cally ask for cer­tain peo­ple — ‘ How is so and so?’ — it all comes back to try­ing to show peo­ple as in­di­vid­u­als, and I think it works in this case.’’

Knoth and de Jong are em­bark­ing on a new project to doc­u­ment the col­lat­eral dam­age done to so­ci­eties along the heroin- smug­gling route from Afghanistan to Europe. It fits into their pat­tern of at­trac­tion to marginalised peo­ple on the fringes of West­ern con­scious­ness. Where the sissy bit fits in is any­one’s guess. Cer­tifi­cate No 000358/ is at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Pho­tog­ra­phy, 257 Ox­ford St, Padding­ton, Syd­ney, un­til April 26, then trav­els to Queens­land and South Aus­tralia.

Pic­ture: Sam Mooy

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