Tell us a little about how you decided to become a photojournalist…
After the Lycée, I went to the University of Chicago to major in Medieval History and started my photography career by working for local newspapers. I quickly got bored and decided to take a year off in 2001 to travel to the South Caucasus and begin my career in international photography. After graduation in 2003, I wrote a story on gangs in Congo, which was picked up by Getty Images, where I worked as a contributor until 2009. I then moved on to work for Polaris but recently left to go out on my own. For the past year, I have been covering the war in Ukraine and have also been on assignment in Russia and Cuba. I am now back in New York and teach a photography after-school class for the Lycée.
Looking at your work, you seem to focus mostly on sharing a political message through close up portraits of people from around the world (leaders, soldiers, activists etc.): what draws you to them and to share their story?
For the same reason I decided to become a photographer: to document historical moments, which are built by the people such as soldiers or leaders who have a direct influence on their environment at an international and local level. After covering the war in Syria, I gradually started documenting the war in Ukraine. I have never covered any other war as much as this one, perhaps due to the fact that my family is from Bielorussia. During my time there, I covered both sides of the war.
In February of this year, I documented civilian lives in a town with very heavy clashes. In May, I focused on the military troops of the Ukrainian army. In my work, I want to share a geopolitical understanding of the situation I am in and the effects of nations on one another.
Jonathan teaches a photography class with LFNY students once a week until January 2016.
What advice or truth do you follow when you are on the job photographing or working on a story?
It’s good to follow your gut feeling, which saved my life twice. When you are in the field, you have to be able to understand the difference between the fear you have of going and the gut feeling that tells you it’s a bad idea.
I also believe that “de temps en temps il vaut mieux prévenir que guérir.”
During your recent participation in the “Challenges for Journalism Panel” at LFNY Cultural Center, you said: “People who are reading the press today are becoming consumers… It is becoming a commercial platform.” Can you elaborate on this point & how is this affecting your work today?
The issue I have with the way the media works relates to the relationship between the press and its readers and viewers. The media seem to be driven by commercial ends today. Many media create the sense that people want superficial stories. Instead of writing about what people want, I believe journalists have a role to play in guiding consumers on topics of far more significance.
Journalists are here to report, bring back a story and share information of real consequence to society — geopolitics, the evolution of different nations, political life, and the environment. So instead of feeding people updates on celebrity lifestyles and paparazzi photographs, the media should focus on more urgent and relevant news to the nation. Great examples would be corporations and even countries buying up local water supplies or the drastic effect of the disappearance of bees on our ecosystem.
I think people today recognize the problem and seek alternative media that offers a different perspective or covers important news stories. Of course, you have to decipher what is good or bad. This is where the Lycée comes in: you receive a strong education by learning to read everything and differentiate what is true or not.
What advice do you give students who want to follow your path and become war photographers?
If you want to do this job, it’s because you believe in it. The profession is dying out in many ways. People don’t read the news in the same way they used to. Everyone wants it for free and on the web, which makes it increasingly difficult for journalists to earn a living as websites don’t have the kind of money magazines once had.
With this job keeping you very busy and active all the time, why did you decide to come back to the Lycée and start a photography club?
I started taking pictures at the Lycée. It felt like a natural continuity, and I wanted to practice my teaching skills. Back in my days, the Lycée was a different school, but I spent great years there. The school used to be extremely French with no sports: I was the only athlete. Today, it feels more American with the after school programs and opportunities: the combination of the French and American education is stronger.
For my photography class, I am working with 3ème and 1ère students on a project entitled “Tale of Two Cities.” Every two weeks I take them outside to places such as Wall Street, Time Square and Harlem. The idea of the story is for them to take pictures to show different social classes in New York City. In the city, we can see strong discrepancies in social classes that mingle everyday around us.
This allows the students to not only practice the technical side of photography but also get a reality check and capture the broad sense of these two extremes. This is a way for them to grasp something other than photography that is local and still speaks for the entirety of the world. I think New York is the perfect location for this.
Alpeyrie wants his students to practice photography on the field and is having them work on documenting economic inequalities in various areas in New York. Here they are on Wall Street.
How has the experience been so far to reconnect with your old school?
I enjoy interacting with the students and get smart questions. I don’t want them to become or think of themselves as consumers: you want to avoid making this world a giant supermarket. The question is: what direction will they take afterwards? You can only give them so much, then they have to make their own decisions.
How do you feel about students interacting with alumni from the Lycée?
I think it’s good for them to see that there is loyalty in this world and understand the notion. It’s good to remember where you came from.