Renowned photojournalist Jehad Nga puts down his passport and goes binary
by Matthew Ross photography Mike Vorrasi
By any conceivable standard, the last week in June was an impressive one for New York-based photojournalist Jehad Nga. The New Yorker had just given one of his shots, a gorgeous, haunting chiaroscuro of a young boy posed eerily in front of a peace mural, nearly an entire two-page spread for Jon Lee Anderson’s story on Mali’s ongoing struggle against Islamic extremism. A few days earlier, the New York Times Magazine had published four of his images to illustrate Robert F. Worth’s exposé on the recent surge of sectarian violence in Syria. Meanwhile, his show at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in midtown had been up for nearly a month.
There was only one problem: Nga doesn’t especially care for photojournalism, especially right now. For this 36-year-old Libyan-American artist, the recent batch of blue-chip clippings only serve as further evidence of exactly what he isn’t supposed to be doing. “The two biggest stories of my career came out this week and I haven’t even picked up the issues yet,” he says between puffs of an American Spirit at an outdoor café in Chelsea. “I don’t discredit by any means any of the work that any photojournalist does out there with the exception of myself. I am my own judge and jury and I’m liable for my own actions. I don’t need anyone cutting me down. I’m fully capable of doing that alone.”
“I don’t discredit by any means any of the work that any photojournalist does out there with the exception of myself. I am my own judge and jury...”
Nga’s refusal to acknowledge even the slightest pleasure in the aesthetic quality of his conflict photography or the fact that the world’s preeminent publications are consistently throwing their most prestigious assignments his way is due in part to his natural creative temperament, which is largely defined by a compulsion for brutal self evaluation. (“Every year I have a crisis—I just want to sell all my equipment, reformat all of my hard drives and start at zero,” he admits.) At the same, his current disavowal of traditional photography does not appear at all to be temporary. That’s because Nga has immersed himself in a new method of image-making that has taken him out of the war zone and into a far more mysterious territory: the virtual universe of binary code, specifically the appropriation and manipulation of existing digital images, some of which are currently on display alongside his Mali work at the Benrubi show. With source material ranging in subject from historical events like Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring to amateur erotica discovered on various file-sharing blogs, the new images have all been manipulated to various states of distortion and pictorial abstraction with the use of open-source coding algorithms.
Nga’s fascination with digital abstraction began with his discovery of photography and subsequent realization that becoming an artist was the only way he could survive, psychologically or otherwise. It all started in the late ’90s on the Sunset Strip. “I was getting sober and didn’t really have any friends in L.A. who weren’t using, so I was really isolated,” recalls Nga, who has been clean ever since. “I started going into [famed book store] Book Soup and spending hours in the photography section. I didn’t own a camera and had no interest in photography as a pursuit. I was just really lonely.”
It was in Book Soup that he picked up Natacha Merritt’s Digital Diaries, now regarded as a seminal work in point-and-shoot erotica. “I went home and sat in bed and flipped through this book obsessively for three days. Eventually decided I wanted to try it out for myself. It wasn’t just the eroticism—it was the fact that those early digital cameras were producing very low resolution images in a way that really spoke to me.” Nga starting shooting his own brand of DIY erotica on a cheap camera, and intentionally reducing the resolution so that they were extraordinarily pixilated.
After 9/11, Nga began traveling around the Middle East taking pictures, eventually stumbling into a career in conflict photojournalism that really took shape during the Iraq War with his first assignment for the Times. But as his portfolio grew with some remarkable work in places like Liberia, Algeria and other danger zones in Africa and the Middle East, as well as gallery shows featuring other images from those areas, Nga’s desire to explore the dirtier side of digital (in both form and content) persisted. “I was in Baghdad in 2009, and I remember feeling like I wasn’t simply looking at photos anymore—I was seeing them as ones and zeros,” he recalls. “That’s something I just couldn’t ignore, but I couldn’t get my head around it at the time.”
The Eureka-moment happened accidentally during the most dangerous and harrowing experience of Nga’s life. In February 2011, while on assignment for the Times, Nga used his Libya passport to gain access to Tripoli during the early days of the revolution, which had just begun on the Mediterranean coast. For days, he was the only foreign journalist in the entire city until members of Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces arrested him. Prior to being interrogated and in fear of his life, Nga managed to erase the memory cards containing images he knew would only get him into deeper waters.
"I didn’t own a camera and had no interest in photography as a pursuit. I was just really lonely.”
Following his release after three days, Nga attempted to restore the cards using a software recovery program but was only able to save three or four images. The rest of the files were irreparably corrupted. A trove of expertly-composed glimpses of a city and a people in crisis had each been replaced by seemingly abstract arrays of pixels and color that bore little to no resemblance to the digital information that had passed through his lens onto the matchbook side card in his camera.
It was in those corrupted files that Nga discovered his way in to an artistic exploration of digital as a medium that had eluded him for years. “It was a godsend failure, the best moment of my life in a way,” he says. “That split-second decision impacted everything because it gave me the means to reconnect with this other discussion I’d been trying to have for so many years.”
While Nga is well aware that at this particular moment, his cache and earning power as a conflict photographer are at their apex, he still plans to focus on his digital artwork. “I would rather sacrifice myself than chase success or notoriety or sales,” he says. “This connection to my work, this passion, it’s like any other relationship I have. We talk and we love each other. It doesn’t cheat on me and I don’t cheat on it. I’m hyper-vigilant in protecting that at any cost. Fifty years from now there may be nothing left of me other than what exists on a slowly dying hard drive, but I have to maintain my integrity and the connection to truth and honesty. We want to die together, me and it.”
All previously unpublished images in gallery courtesy of Jehad Nga.