Q+A: Brian Atkinson

Photographer Brian Atkinson has documented countless Cuso International programs in eight countries over more than 10 years. We sat down to talk about his experiences, challenges and hear some amusing tales. Here is our full interview.

Cameroon, 2018.

How did you connect with Cuso?

Brian: It was almost so long ago I can barely remember, but it goes something like this: A woman (can’t remember her name) who I had travelled and worked with in Guatemala was now working with Cuso. This was at the time of the first communications brigade—extra funding had been found to send   something like 12 journalists and 12 photographers to visit and report on Cuso projects around the world.

Anyway, this woman knew of my work and sent the application forms to me. Funny though, when I read them, I thought they were just after journalists, so I let it slide. Later, I went over the forms again and figured out that they needed photographers too. After a thorough vetting process, I ended up in Honduras with an ex-BBC documentary producer for six weeks. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Describe your role and where you’ve been:

As a volunteer for Cuso International my job is to bring back images to highlight stories on the various projects Cuso is involved in. I have documented programs in Benin, Cambodia, Cameroon (twice), Ethiopia, Honduras (twice), Laos, Myanmar and Nicaragua.

Honduras, 2012.

You’ve covered some intense stories for Cuso. Can you share one that has really stuck with you?

From my first trip to Honduras in late 2009. We travelled to a remote community to interview a mother whose daughter was murdered in front of her house. Everyone in town knew who did it but nothing was done. After hearing her story, and that of other family members, we started to drive out of town. The man who allegedly committed the murder followed us out of town on his motorcycle, as if to say, “There is nothing you can do to me.”

What has been your biggest challenge?

Because all my postings are short, two to six weeks, I don’t think the challenges are anything like those who commit to a year or two. Mostly it’s trying to get over jet lag as quickly as possible, hit the ground running and make the most of each day.

That said, with so much time spent travelling between countries and regions, the real challenge is often just getting enough down time to recover for the next day. The days are long and intense and jump from place to place so quickly it’s hard to stay in the moment. But I like variety and I like travelling and I love the projects we cover, so a bit of disorientation is worth it. It really is the people we work with that help me make it past any challenges.

Cameroon, 2018.

What has been your most memorable experience?

There are too many memorable experiences to pick just one. Almost every day served up a memory to last forever. Days off might include trips to famous sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar or the Bale Mountains National Park in Ethiopia—which was especially interesting what with us climbing to almost 4,000 metres and catching views of eagles on the ground and the Ethiopian wolf as it stalked some kind of mountain rat. But on the ground, during workdays, if you don’t count the people we met, it was getting to the people that provided the adventure and the memories.

In Cameroon last year we were trying to get from the coast to a remote Baka community to report on their usage of traditional medicines and herbs. It was the rainy season and we had a late start. It didn’t take long before the forest road turned to mud, and then to deep mud, and then it was blocked by a large truck.

A crew showed up from somewhere out of the jungle with shovels and muscles. If it wasn’t for the mud and the heat, it could have been a winter scene in Canada when you try and dig your way out of a snow-filled ditch. Same idea, just 50 degrees difference. We finally got the truck out and then slid our way through the forest for a couple more hours before having to hike across a shaky bridge and then load ourselves into a very battered, very old, 4×4. But we made it.

Nicaragua, 2016.

Can you share an unexpectedly funny story? 

Not your normal kind of fun, but interesting to say the least. It was the end of a very long day in Nicaragua and we had arrived at a remote village where a women’s co-op was working with bees—I think they were a cross with the famous killer bees—and I thought, no problem, I have photographed many beekeepers and hives in Canada.

Everyone wanted me to put on the special gear but I said it wasn’t necessary. In Canada, as long as you aren’t directly in front of the hives when the bees emerge, all is fine. Eventually they got me in the suit with one glove on (too hard to photograph with two big mitts). We hiked to the hives. The women opened a hive and smoked the bees. Out they came and, yep, right for me without a thought for how Canadian bees would behave.

I got stung a few times on my hand before I got the other glove on. The women were using their smoke guns on the bees (this usually makes them take off), but these bees were having none of it and just kept coming at me while I tried to get some pics. A strange kind of funny: the women kept the smoke guns firing, I kept trying to get photographs and the bees kept trying to get me. I really had to keep my focus, so to speak, to get any photographs at all.

When I had enough, we started back to the village. Well, everyone else did. They didn’t want me bringing any irate bees back home. I and another woman had to walk in the other direction until every last bee had decided I was no longer worth the trouble. Ah, what a day.

See more of Brian’s work.