Photographer and VR journalist Julia Leeb talks about her special work, its dangers and the motivation behind her job.
Julia Leeb is a VR journalist, film maker, and photo artist. Her work focuses on states in political turmoil – which can mean war, rebellion, dictatorship, and often terror. We visited her at her exhibition at the Süddeutscher Verlag publishing house in Munich to talk about her work, her motivation, and the dangers she faces.
Julia, your work as a journalist and photo artist takes you to countries such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan – all of which are hotbeds of dictatorship, civil war, or violence. Why? What made you decide to put your life on the line for your job?
For me it's important that we see and learn to understand the world we live in. We’re in the 21st century, and we can fly to the moon – but we oftentimes don’t have the faintest idea about what's happening in our own world. I can't understand that. The many conflicts I experience always shock me. I just can't wrap my head around the fact that we can do all these great things – cure illnesses, perform surgery – and yet continue to club each other over the head. At the same time, we are often shown these conflicts and wars in very simplified terms, meaning, one side is being demonised, while the other is being idealised. I refuse to accept this. My aim is to get to the bottom of conflicts and question both sides, because conflicts can only be solved if you know what they're really about. That's why I go out there and give a voice to people who would not have one otherwise.
There are good reasons why hardly anybody else dares to enter these conflict regions – the risks are unforeseeable. Are there moments when you consciously think about the fact that something could happen to you at any time?
That's the difficult part about it – and maybe also the biggest triumph for me: I don't often have recourse to others' wealth of experience. On my last trip – to the Nuba Mountains in Sudan – the threat level was severe to critical. I only had recourse to a single journalist who had been there and had written that chemical weapons were possibly being used. When I arrived there, however, the situation was completely different from what I expected. Conflicts have dynamics of their own that are extremely difficult to gauge. Fear discourages many from recording the situation, but that's exactly when it's particularly important. It is suspected that there is a genocide in Southern Sudan, but we have no pictures of it, no proof – in the 21st century! What's happening there needs to be verified. The world is getting smaller and smaller – it concerns us all. A conflict in Africa today can be a European conflict tomorrow.
This means that you are often exposed to situations with a potential to traumatise people. In Libya, you and your team were deliberately attacked by Gaddafi's troops while filming, and one member of your team was killed. How do you carry on despite all this?
My work gives me a lot, but it also requires a lot from me, of course. I pay a high price for this. On the other hand, I was given the greatest gift of all: I was allowed to survive. And that's another reason why I want to lead a meaningful life. To me, what I do is a duty. I live my job. I couldn't do it any other way. Without my work, I wouldn't know who or what I am.
I see women in a weak position. They are the first victims of a war they didn't start, but also the first to forgive.
Apart from being a journalist, your work also has an artistic side to it that you have showcased at a series of exhibitions in Munich. What is your art about?
My work as a journalist is, of course, about being precise, and recording as much as possible. In my art, on the other hand, I work with cross-fading to get the topicality out of the pictures. The exhibition is a journey through thousands of years and yet at the same time highly topical. Here major events such as revolutions are just tiny drops in the ocean of time. Social systems are established and then disestablished again. The same types of people keep making their mark in the most different of places around the world. Art is part of my overall concept. What I hope for most is that people start learning from history.
I very much believe in the potential of virtual reality and try to use it to build a knowledge base. Imagine integrating virtual reality into history books: somebody is reads about the Egyptian revolution, puts on VR glasses and suddenly becomes part of the situation, sees the faces and feels what it means to be part of a historical moment. That's very different from merely reading about something. I want to use this technology to create a collective memory. To create a shared recollection from simple moments.
You have researched and worked in more than 80 countries. Can you reveal anything about your next project?
I rarely talk about future projects. That may sound strange, but I don't go looking for my destinations. I don't follow the bombs. There is a particular phase when I encounter a topic, and then things start to materialise more and more. Once I have the destination in mind, there is always a way. For example, a medical shipment to an African country gives me a brief time window that I make use of. It's like a sign. It's not possible to plan it months in advance, of course. The decision is instinctive and spontaneous – not like life here.
One long-term project is the Congo (DRC). You travel there again and again, and many of your pictures in this exhibition are from there. What do you find so gripping about the conflict?
It's definitely the women. Never before have I seen such strong women. So many bad things happen there, but there are so many positive faces. They are inspiring women with unbelievable strength. This gives me hope. As long as they don’t give up, and as long as they keep believing that they can change their country, I will not give up either. I keep coming across the same types of people. In war zones, I see women in a weak position. They are the first victims of a war they didn't start, but also the first to forgive. Rebuilding and survival would be impossible without them. But they are nowhere to be seen at the negotiating table.
What lessons do you draw from what you see and experience there?
Adversity divides people into two groups: good and evil. They let their masks slip because they realise their own mortality. Here you can be married to somebody for thirty years and not actually know who he or she is – because here we don't have to prove ourselves. There it’s different. Those are extreme situations. In those kinds of situations, you learn a lot about people, and also about yourself.
The world is getting smaller and smaller – it concerns us all. A conflict in Africa today can be a European conflict tomorrow.
…and virtual reality will soon allow many others to have that experience.
That is my grand vision. I want the film that I am currently producing, 'Blended Isolations', to be distributed internationally and also passed on to the UN. I really hope that virtual reality, a technology in its infancy, can revolutionise journalism and make the world a better place – by raising funds and using them to create important content. Not just games and entertainment, but content that can change people and the understanding between people. Only by investing in the right content now, we can make this technology a unique instrument for true understanding among nations. What are we waiting for? It's our future. It's our world.