12 Aug 2022

Kiwi photographer Simon Townsley: capturing history

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 12 August 2022

Establishing trust is key to documenting people in the most dire situations, says award-winning photojournalist Simon Townsley

"You have to be courageous enough to go and say to somebody who's in a lot of pain 'look, I really want to tell your story'," he tells Susie Ferguson.

Townsley, who left New Zealand for the UK in 1987, had a gentle start with his first-ever overseas assignment - a trip to Fiji.

“My first foreign assignment was a military coup in a tropical paradise. And I thought, this is great. I mean, this is the life I want.”

In the 30 years since, he’s witnessed a vast array of world-changing events from behind the lens, including the Tiananmen Square massacre, the siege of Sarajevo, and, most recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Nelson Mandela, both of the Gulf Wars, all of the Balkans, Bosnia and Croatia and Kosovo. It's quite a rollcall.”

Having a ringside seat as history is made can be seductive, he says.

“I think providing you can find a balance in your life and it's not destructive in terms of yourself and your relationships with yourself and your family and friends, then that's okay. I think that's all to the good.”

Establishing trust with people you're photographing - often without shared language - is a key skill of the photojournalist, Townsley says.

“I talk to them, even though I don't necessarily have any words. I certainly don't speak Ukrainian, for example, or Pashtoon in Afghanistan, but I still speak to people and explain myself, even though it's in English and tell them where I'm from, and act as if I'm supposed to be there, which I am, actually.

“So that inspires quite a lot of confidence. I think if you behave like you're actually part of the whole what's going on, then people respond pretty well to that.”

Most people are keen to have their story told, even in the grimmest of situations, he says.

“People, usually, absolutely jump at that chance. Once they get over the initial shock of you presenting yourself to them. You have to be courageous enough to go and say to somebody who's in a lot of pain, look, I really want to tell your story.”

Townsley covered the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996 when a gunman killed 16 pupils and a teacher.

“I went to cover that story and I was horrified, you know, having to do that. And the police extraordinarily gave us all the addresses of the families and so we wrote letters to all of them and put them through their letter boxes.

“And most of them that got in touch with us said they wanted to talk to us and tell us about their child. Most of them did.

“They really wanted people to know what they'd lost, and who their child was and what they were going through.”

Simon Townsley spent 14 years as a senior photographer at the Sunday Times and currently works for The Telegraph. He has twice been named British Press Photographer of the Year.