Nick Parisse in Maradi, Niger, during fieldwork for "On Whose Land?" DAWNING/Rafe H Andrews

The Wolf and the Loon

Nick Parisse reflects on five of his most memorable pictures.

April 2024

In this recurring series, the DAWNING team presents images with a look behind the scenes at how each shot came together. In this first installment, our Director of Photography Nick Parisse looks back at five of his photographs that mean the most to him.

The Running Man

This is Vu Van Liet, a North Vietnamese veteran whom we interviewed in January 2018 as part of our 50 Tets project. We conducted the interview in his living room, in a village in Hai Duong province, with his whole family watching quietly in the background as he recounted war stories that he had never told before.

After more than an hour of testimony, we all needed a break, so we stepped outside, where the conversation continued lightly. One of our team members asked: “What happened when you saw an American?” Vu Van Liet picked up a nearby log and said, “this will act as my AK-47.” And this 82-year-old man started running right by me, almost knocking me over, to demonstrate the combat maneuvers that he remembered so vividly.

It all happened very quickly, and my camera was still optimized for indoor light, so I had to guess at the exposure settings. I spun the wheel, pointed, and shot, hoping for the best. And I knew, the moment I took it, that it was good. But it wasn’t until later, while editing, that I realized what had happened.

With documentary photography, the image has to stand on its own. In this case, I got him head to toe, with no cropping. His military uniform is juxtaposed against a dilapidated wall that almost looks bombed out. And because the image isn’t tack sharp, there’s a sense of shared movement, almost like the viewer is running too.

A good photograph should present more questions than it answers–it should make you want to read the caption. In this case, we see a man in uniform carrying a log. Why? Only after learning about him, the image reaches its full meaning.

50 Tets is a very special project for us. Since 2015, we’ve interviewed and photographed over 100 North Vietnamese veterans, and we’re still at it. Even though this project got a lot of attention, including a major feature on The New York Times, this picture has never been published or exhibited. Within our team, we refer to it fondly as “The Running Man.”

I Think I am 100 Years Old

As a photographer, there are times to be a wolf and times to be a loon. Some situations require active maneuvering to get the right shot, reacting quickly when you find it. Others require being very still and patient, calmly assessing the situation and waiting for the right moment.

If “The Running Man” required being a wolf, this shot is the work of a loon. It was taken in Niger, which we visited in July and August of 2019 to investigate how rural communities were being affected by a major afforestation initiative known as the Great Green Wall.

One day, we met some women who were harvesting millet in the 103-degree (40 degrees Celsius) heat. It was a remote area in the region of Maradi. They were very welcoming and obliging, but clearly exhausted –as I was speaking to one of them, she dozed off on her feet. She had given her consent to be photographed, so I slowly moved the lens as close to her face as possible without losing focus, which is what allowed this level of fine detail. I took about half a dozen shots before settling on this one. I showed her all the pictures I had taken of her before we parted ways.

It’s a little unconventional because portraits are usually all about the eyes. Here, we don’t see her eyes, but it still conveys so much –the countless lines on her face give testimony of the life she’s lived, and the hand in the foreground tells the story of a lifetime toiling in the fields. She said, “I think I am 100 years old.” It’s a simple image, yet it’s very easy to immerse yourself in it.

Pipe Dreams

This is another shot that sparks interest in a first-time viewer and makes them want to learn more about it. It’s clearly an aerial shot, but what’s happening here?

The setting is Turkana, a remote and very poor county in northern Kenya that had been experiencing years of drought. While conducting research in the area in November 2021, we heard about a water cartel operating at a dry riverbed nearby, so our team went there to learn more.

Keep in mind that most households in Turkana lack running water and the region was in the midst of a chronic drought. The only way to ensure a steady supply of water is to dig a deep well, which requires special drilling equipment. Those with the means to dig these wells form cartels that monopolize the water supply. Water sellers come to the wells with jerry cans (these appear as clumps of yellow specks in the photo), which they fill and sell in communities around Lake Turkana.

On our way to meet the cartel, I was honestly a bit anxious. But when we got there and explained what we were doing, they readily obliged and even gave permission to be photographed. From their perspective, they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They saw themselves as providing an essential service.

I had a camera-mounted drone with me, so I sent one up. For me, drones usually act as a tool to help survey the surrounding area, but in this case, the resulting photo had something to it that I like. It will appear in our upcoming book Pipe Dreams, published by FotoEvidence.

Bride in Waiting

The girl in this photo was 10 years old at the time, part of an internally displaced family living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Niamey, the capital of Niger. She was just a child but wouldn’t be for much longer, because in another year or two, she was going to become a child bride, married off to a local tribal chief.

We started speaking with the mother. Generally, while interviews are taking place, I try to go off on my own and look for interesting context shots. I noticed the girl sitting off to the side, her mind clearly elsewhere.

From a technical standpoint, the contrast between the girl’s bright clothes and the background, as well as the mottled quality of the light entering through the walls of the hut, make it very memorable. But what really stays with you is the girl’s expression –especially once you learn about her background. The result is an image with a kind of haunting quality to it. It’s really stayed with me.

The Chief

One of our early DAWNING projects took place in Ghana, to research early childhood malnutrition. We titled the project 1000 Days of Hunger. During our interviews in the village of Bentum, we learned about the food crisis there: families, who depended on their rented plots to feed themselves, were being kicked off their farms by the village chief. You could stay in Bentum and starve, or you could leave, and a lot of families left.

Village chiefs in this part of Ghana have complete control over land decisions. We knew we had to speak with him, but it’s customary to bring a gift when visiting a village chief, so we stopped along the way to pick up some peach schnapps.

As we approached his house, we noticed these piles of wooden stakes along the side of the road. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but we later learned they had been used to mark off parcels of land. But now, they were pulled up and thrown to the side, which meant that farmers had lost their livelihoods.

We arrived to find him working in the field. After giving him the schnapps, we asked him about all the people who had been kicked out and couldn’t feed their families anymore. I will always remember his response: “Whatever you do for food, that’s on you.”

Most of the conversation took place under a tree, for shade –good for keeping cool, but not for taking photos. Then, he emerged to do some more field work, and I knew it was an opportunity. He stood up to answer a question, and that was it.

Article by Elliot Waldman, based on two interviews with Nick Parisse | Photographs by Nick Parisse | Picture of Nick Parisse by Rafe H Andrews

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