Anthony Suau's World Press Photo shot

This article is from 2009

Anthony Suau

A picture might tell a thousand words but sometimes you have to probe for the greater truth. Malcolm Jack talks to Anthony Suau about the shot which won him the World Press Photo prize and uncovered a disturbing vision of America

Wars, from Georgia to the Middle East, and the human suffering they cause featured heavily among the winners of the World Press Photo competition this year. American snapper Anthony Suau scooped the top prize for a shot that starkly and ambiguously captures a conflict which is going on right now not in foreign fields, but the front rooms of the world’s so-called richest nation. Depicting a man with a gun cautiously clearing a ransacked house, the black and white image looks at first, as one of the judges remarked, ‘like a classic conflict photograph’.

Yet it wasn’t taken in Iraq or Afghanistan, but Cleveland, Ohio. And the individual in the shot isn’t a soldier, but Detective Robert Kole of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, a man on the frontline of a story that reaches all the way to Washington DC, Wall Street and the global economy. Suau took the image in March 2008 as part of a feature commissioned by Time magazine on the credit crunch, which at that point had barely even begun to bite.

‘In looking for a way to document the crisis,’ Suau explains, ‘I ran across a situation where the police were going into homes that people had been evicted from, and clearing them. I spent a few days working on that aspect of the story, but then we got deeper into it and realised there was a lot of human drama playing out inside those foreclosed homes.’

Suau traveled for a day and a half with Detective Kole who would draw his weapon mostly in anticipation of meeting ‘junkies and squatters’. But stand-offs with disgruntled and occasionally armed residents were always a risk too. ‘America can be a very dangerous place,’ says Suau. ‘There are a lot of weapons here, and when you’re dealing with foreclosures, you can get into any sort of emotional situation. The fear that someone will pull a weapon on you is a real possibility.’

Suau is a veteran photographer, with a Pulitzer Prize, a Robert Capa Gold Medal and now a second World Press Photo award to his name. He has covered war zones in Chechnya and Iraq, and the Ethiopian famine, witnessing some terrible sights. But seeing a situation such as this unfold in modern America was harrowing too. Suau recalls meeting one entire family who had just been cast out from their rented home because their landlord had failed to keep up mortgage payments. ‘A family were thrown onto the street and all their goods placed on the street corner.’

He voices his contempt for the ‘predatory lenders’ responsible. ‘What they did to thousands and thousands of people throughout this country was tantamount to what happened on 9/11. What’s most disconcerting is that most people got away with it.’ To Suau, his prize-winning image is special because it makes people want to examine the issue. ‘People look at it and say “well, what’s the story?” Once you investigate the story, it goes very deep and tells the whole tale of the crisis. I like to make images that are a bit more complex than what appears on the surface.’

Suau has spent most of the last 20 years living and working in Europe, documenting former Soviet bloc countries. He moved back to America 18 months ago and found himself at the heart of the economic crisis, covering it for many of the foreign magazines he worked for while living abroad. ‘We have newspapers closing all the time. It’s a really hard time for this industry.’ Suau sums up the sense of punishing irony American press photographers and journalists are feeling right now. ‘We’re in the middle of one of the most amazing stories in our history. If only we could actually cover it.’

World Press Photo, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 473 2000, 7 Aug–5 Sep, free.