Within days of her arrival — and with barely a word of English to help her assimilate — Ašenbrennerová fell in love with San Francisco and decided to stay. She took up photography as a way to express herself without speaking while also studying English.
Since graduating in 2011, Ašenbrennerová has specialized in international reporting with a focus on minorities, the LGBT community, women, and religion. She is passionate about telling the stories of people she meets while documenting the efforts of various non-governmental organizations, freelancing for Reuters and working on independent projects. “Passion is a powerful tool,” she says. “It can make the impossible, possible.”
Jana Ašenbrennerová: I started doing some freelance work in 2008, but at that time I was still a full-time student studying towards my degree. I’ve worked full time as a photojournalist for the past two and a half years.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
JA: Since 2012, when I received a merit membership as a participant at the Eddie Adams Workshop.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
JA: Even though I have to do a variety of different photo assignments to be able to make a living and afford to do photojournalism, my main interest is social documentary reportage that allows for long-term projects. I dedicate most of my time to international reporting with a focus on minorities. I work with LGBT communities, which is a cause I care about personally, as well as stories about women and religion. I’m passionate about telling the stories of people I meet during my missions. I collaborate with a variety of non-governmental organizations (NGO) to document their humanitarian efforts while working on my independent projects.
ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
JA: Perhaps it’s my passion for what I do. I believe it can become contagious and inspire others to help or be part of the project. When I set my mind to get something done, the enthusiasm and determination that comes along with it seems to open even the most guarded doors. Also, I believe the transparency of my intentions enables me to gain people’s trust. I’m able to channel the sense of empathy I feel towards people and animals, to feel their pain and sorrows, which enables me to expose those feelings in my photographs.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
JA: That changes depending on where in the world I am at the moment. I’m a big fan of the iPhone — it has all the basics I need. However, when it comes to photographic equipment, I’d say my 5D Mark III and a 35mm f/1.4 lens.
ASMP: You’ve recently been based in San Francisco, but you grew up in the Czech Republic. How, when and why did you come to move to the US?
JA: I left the Czech Republic almost 11 years ago. I was invited to present one of my short films at the Tiburon Film Festival. I thought it was a great opportunity to visit the United States and see San Francisco, so I made that trip happen. I fell in love with the city within days and, despite the fact that I spoke barely any English, I decided to stay here. It was challenging at first, but I went to school and let things happen. It felt right at that time and I’ve never looked back or regretted that life-changing step. As much as I love my country, leaving it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
ASMP: Now that you are working internationally, do you ever feel inclined to move back to Europe?
JA: I do think about moving back home once in a while, but it usually doesn’t stick for long. Even though the Czech Republic is where my roots are and it’s the culture I most understand and identify with, I feel it would be very challenging for me to live there long-term, at least for now. I’m more interested in continuing to explore the world, visit places I’ve not yet seen, learn about new cultures, meet new people, experience more of what’s out there while pursuing my work. At this point I’m keeping my options open, but I’m leaving the United States for about a year soon, so we’ll see if and where I find new inspiration for possible relocation.
ASMP: Before coming to the US, you studied directing and script-writing at a Czech Film Academy and worked in the film and theater industry in Prague. In your opinion, how this background enhanced or added to your abilities as a photographer?
JA: It had a major influence on my early work in photography and in the process of creating. I was very conceptual when I was at film school. My work was dominated by form over content and I often used fantasy and dreams as an inspiration for my projects. Having that push for creative thinking at any moment and having my brain trained at film school to come up with interesting concepts and ideas was definitely useful preparation for what I had coming. This has changed rapidly over the years, as my main emphasis now is on the content. However I’m still quite particular about aesthetics and my love for concept hasn’t vanished completely; you can see that in my portraiture, I believe. I’d also say that the exposure to some phenomenal Czech filmmakers and artists, whom I believe are some of the best in the world, definitely made a permanent mark on me. Those school days, sitting in a pub with them over beers until 4 am to informally continue lectures, and watching them draw movie sets on the back of the restaurant bill, was something I’ll never forget. It was a fantastic time in my life. It taught me how to dream big and that passion has no boundaries. Passion is a powerful tool — it can make the impossible, possible.
ASMP: You’re currently freelancing for Reuters. How did you develop this relationship and how often and what types of work do you get?
JA: I stared freelancing for Reuters in 2012 and do mostly self-generated assignments, with some exceptions when I do get called for a job. The editor for my first several assignments was Bob Strong; he sent me on my first few assignments. It was his trust in my work at that time that brought me in. I remember having long conversations with him about work and how to manage to do everything well by the deadline. At that time I had little experience with this kind of work and was quite anxious before every shoot. He’s based in Canada, but he always had the time to talk before I went on a shoot. He was very supportive and seemed to have no doubt that I would return with what they needed. I’m grateful to him for that. I also remember Bob telling me once that if I ever felt in danger or uncomfortable when situation was getting out of hand, that I should just leave, it’s not worth the image. The fact that he mentioned my safety as a priority meant a lot to me. So far I’ve shot assignments for Reuters in the United States and some work in the Congo.
ASMP: How did you first learn about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and what attracted you to this area?
JA: To go to Congo was an opportunity that presented itself. I was interested in the country but never thought I’d go there as early as I did. After finishing a project in Nepal, one of my colleagues from the NGO I collaborated with there moved to the DRC for his next mission. He suggested they needed some documentation of this work and told me that I could work with them if I was interested. I had never been to Africa before and was thinking that I might be getting a bit ahead of myself by going directly to DRC but, intuitively, I felt that I should do it. I started making some serious preparations, and few months later I walked across the border from Rwanda to Congo for the first time.
ASMP: When did you begin photographing in the DRC and how much time have you spent there to date?
JA: I went to the Congo on two separate missions, in summer 2012 and February 2013, both of which lasted about two months. Each was with different NGO team. I’m currently planning my third mission for 2014, which will be for a longer period of time.
ASMP: How do you prepare for a trip such as your visits to the DRC? What are the most challenging aspects of the pre-trip preparation?
JA: I do a lot of research about the place. I talk to people who went, are currently there or who grew up there. When I go on a mission for a second time I’m in touch with colleagues and friends I already know in the area. I try to speak to experts and mentors to determine the best direction for telling the story. It’s a continuing discussion. Another big part of the preparation is about health — vaccinations, malaria prevention and so on. Getting sick in places like the Congo can become a challenge, so I want to make sure I can avoid that as much as possible or to be prepared to deal with it on my own in case I do get sick in a remote area. I don’t take antimalarial drugs, but I want to be ready with treatment in case I do get sick. I’m lucky to come from a medical family, so they usually help me prepare. I have quite a solid first-aid bag with resources I can even use to help with basic needs for colleagues or friends if needed. In general, I try to be overly prepared and not underestimate anything. In places like the Congo, a small mistake can easily cause huge, costly problems.
ASMP: What is your process for finding and securing trusted local contacts such as fixers, translators, drivers or security staff in locations such as this?
JA: That has been different for every country. In the Congo, specifically, I always start off with the team of the NGO I’m working with, knowing that their contacts are people I can trust. I always double check on given information, names and destinations, the current situation and the progress of any conflicts. I always tell at least one person exactly where and when I’m going, how long I plan to be there and contact information for the person with whom I’m traveling. This has been my basic process in the Congo. In Bangladesh, when I was working on a story about the Bengal Tiger with my colleague, we ran into some difficulties. The region of Sundarbans where we were working is known for pirates, and after spending some days in the jungle to do research it became known in the local community that we were there. Even our fixers became anxious about our safety and we couldn’t trust anyone new. We didn’t know who was connected with the pirates and might possibly kidnap us or who had reliable information. These situations are very frustrating and the consequences can be quite costly, so the default is usually to not trust. It’s important to listen to one’s intuition.
ASMP: What preparations or negotiations were needed before you could photograph subjects in the DRC such as the butchers or the gay community?
JA: The first step is to go the government offices to obtain paperwork, which costs quite a bit of money. This paperwork authorizes you to take photos in places that are noted and agreed upon. To get this paperwork is a story in itself, but it’s crucial because with some small exceptions — such as airports and government buildings — you are then authorized to shoot anything as long as you paid your dues. Once, I was nearly arrested for taking photos of a field that happened to be an airport. We landed there with a UN helicopter and I naturally took some photos. It was a big problem. I was grateful to our team, who managed to get me out of that situation. The other aspect of permission is to talk to the individual people I want to photograph. In the Congo people generally don’t appreciate being randomly photographed at all, and this can trigger a lot of anger and conflict. So I always talk to the people I want to photograph first, before I take out my camera. In majority of cases, people don’t mind being photographed, as long as they know who are you and why you’re taking their picture.
ASMP: How often do you confront language barriers during your travels, and what steps do you take to build rapport when you don’t share a common language? How do you deal with communication issues that arise when interacting with local residents?
JA: The language barrier can be very frustrating and this can slow down a project tremendously. I’m still learning how to manage this aspect of my work because obviously I don’t speak enough languages to avoid this issue every time. I work with fixers and translators, but in addition, my strategy is to get a language teacher if I’ll be in that country for more then three weeks. I won’t learn the language fluently, of course, but I’ll know the basics, which often can take me long way. When I plan to stay in a country for months I start learning the language seriously. For the past year I’ve been studying French, taking classes in San Francisco to ease the barriers for my future mission to the Congo. To know several languages is absolutely necessary when doing international work. I found that, even with a broken language, the intimacy in a dialog with your subject is something you can never reach through perfect translation with a fixer or translator.
ASMP: Did you have any equipment malfunctions or complications due to issues such as power supply, moisture or other elements during this assignment?
JA: In the Congo, I always have to think ahead when it comes to charging batteries. Power cuts are frequent and there’s no power available even for hours each day/night. I have extra batteries and back up, however with my computer there were times I’d just be siting around with candles waiting for the power to come back to continue my work. This seems romantic at first, but it becomes quite frustrating as days go on. I also have to protect my gear against dust, which is a big challenge as it just gets everywhere. The roads in the Congo are — if existent at all — in very poor shape and the dust can cause all sorts of trouble to everyone during the dry season.
ASMP: What story or situation has been your most challenging to date?
JA: I recently documented a family in San Francisco who was expecting a child they knew was diagnosed with the genetic disorder Trisomy 18. The mother reached out to me and asked if I would document the life of their daughter. At that time, none of us knew how long she would live, if at all. I met the parents two weeks before the birth. I got to know them a bit and was quite inspired by their faith and their way of coping with the pain they knew was coming. Children diagnosed with Trisomy 18 have a very small chance of living beyond even three days, if they survive the birth at all. I accompanied the parents to the hospital for the birth and we spent 24 hours together. Their daughter FiaJae was stillborn and the family chose to spend the following 12 hours with her to say goodbye. It was the most challenging day and the most difficult story I’ve ever documented. The amount of pain I witnessed and felt that day is something I cannot describe in words.
ASMP: What’s the favorite story or assignment you’ve covered to date?
JA: It’s the story about the Eye Bank in Nepal, which I worked on in 2010. This story was about cornea transplants and the dedicated men who work for this Eye Bank, who are often misunderstood by the society they help to save by returning people’s vision. This was the most fascinating story I’ve ever come across and was lucky enough to document. I followed the Eye Bank workers to a cremation site and watched them to try to persuade people who were about to burn their deceased relatives’ bodies to donate the eyes, to enable a person without vision to see again. The eyes donated at the time I was there belonged to a girl less than 10 years old, who committed suicide. Her father wanted her to live beyond her death, so he agreed to the extraction of her corneas. It was done right there, on the spot. These transplanted corneas saved the vision of a woman with an eye infection who came in for surgery. What I witnessed in this clinic was close to a miracle. People came in guided by their relatives and left on their own, seeing the world around them again. “Grateful” has an entirely different meaning here.
ASMP: The DRC, among other countries where you’ve photographed, is considered quite dangerous. Please talk about your experiences working, traveling and living in these types of environments.
JA: The DRC is certainly a country that presents multiple challenges, not just for foreigners but for the locals as well. There’s active conflict that is unpredictable and things can get out of control anytime without much warning. It’s crucial to be constantly aware of one’s surroundings and situation and to not underestimate anything, and to be in touch with others and always keep colleagues or friends informed about one’s whereabouts. The other challenge can be health-related issues, such as malaria or cholera, which are present in the region. Also, the Congo has a reputation as the rape capital of the world. Being considered one of the most difficult countries in which to be a woman brings even further challenges for everyone living or working there. Stating all these challenges next to each other certainly makes it sound to be quite a dangerous and difficult place, but there’s much more to the Congo than just that. Unfortunately, that’s not what we hear or read about much in the news and that’s also partially why this country has such a dark reputation. It’s also our fault for documenting the horrors of war while avoiding the rest of it.
ASMP: Please describe any strategies you use to connect with individual subjects and gain enough trust for them to allow you to make pictures.
JA: This is a process that naturally takes some time, especially when talking about longer term reportage projects. It takes time and lots of conversation to get to know a subject. Even though we’re taught at school to step back and let the subjects expose themselves and share their story, I sometimes find that difficult to do, especially in Africa. There is naturally a mutual curiosity. People gain trust when they feel they know you and understand your intentions, so just as subjects share their stories and answers my questions I’m ready to answer their questions if they wish to ask. I try to be transparent, to be honest, and I do tell them about my family if that’s what they want to hear about. I also like to define certain boundaries — rules we set at the beginning before I start a longer term project — so everyone is clear about what we’re doing and what it will require from all involved. We also discuss the consequences of publishing a story and how that would expose and possibly affect the subjects, as well as the ways it could help.
ASMP: Did you work with fixers for access to the various communities you photographed or did specific community members help connect you with subjects?
JA: Yes, I regularly use fixers; my work often wouldn’t be possible without their advice and expertise. I also rely on them for my safety. They know nuances of their community and know when to leave a situation and when it is worth it to stick around or fight for something. I did have a great fixer/translator for my first mission in the Congo who, in addition to other stories, worked with me in the gay community. What I didn’t realize was that he was not ready to hear some of the stories the gay men shared with me about their lifestyle and challenges. During one longer interview they shared some information that was noticeably shocking and disturbing to my fixer. My subjects became uncomfortable with him after that experience and asked me to work with them alone. I respected their wishes and, even though I still use translators for in-depth interviews, I honor their request for the translator to always be an expat.
ASMP: Please share the backstory to the pictures you made in the slaughterhouse in the DRC.
JA: The men from the “Butchers” portrait series work at the Elakat slaughterhouse in the town Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I needed a bunch of approvals to be able to shoot there, so I had to do some bureaucratic running around, after which I went to document there on two occasions. The slaughterhouse is open six days a week and the cattle are brought there mostly from Rwanda. The cows stand outside the slaughterhouse all day to be picked and brought in for slaughter. The number of cows killed daily varies, but on some occasions it can reach up to 40 per day. Most of these men are butchers; however some are veterinarians who check the meat for disease after slaughter. Even though the slaughterhouse is located in a deep valley on the border with Rwanda, transportation of the meat is done by women, who carry the meat on their back, about 50kg at a time, often up hills for miles to distribute it to the local markets.
The man in the image selected for the magazine cover is Zihalirwa Nyumpa. He looked all macho and tough, smoking cigarettes and holding a machete, and I wasn’t sure if he would even allow me to photograph him. But when I approached and greeted him with the one sentence I knew in Swahili, he smiled. After I took his photo we started talking, with the help of my fixer, surrounded by dead cattle. He shared his passion for Jamaican culture and his love for Bob Marley. The fixer I worked with at the slaughterhouse stopped eating beef after this work.
ASMP: What restrictions, either self-imposed or imposed by the subjects, have you confronted in your work? Are there any strategies you’ve employed to push these boundaries?
JA: The issue that often comes up with subjects is a request for payment for being documented. There have been situations when I did walk away from a story because payment in exchange was a requirement. I always try to explain what I’m doing and why a payment would be in conflict with the result of the work. Sometimes they understand, sometimes they don’t. I respect whatever they decide — it’s their choice.
However, there is one person I come back to repeatedly, as I hope one day he’ll change his mind. It’s a story about a man I’ve known since childhood, who lives as a hermit, away from society in my hometown in the Czech Republic. There are stories made up about him and many people treat him with a complete lack of respect. He’s laughed at and ridiculed for his looks, his lifestyle and his solitary life — he lives in on the edge of a forest. He has a complete lack of trust towards others and lives surrounded by his animals as his only companions. He’s in his 60s and has a very powerful, painful story to share, of which I’ve only heard small pieces so far. Over the years I’ve repeatedly failed to find a way to convince him allow me to share his story. Rudolf is the only person I’ve ever come back to repeatedly to ask the same question about documenting his life, even though he continues to give me the same answer. I’m convinced that his story must be told.
ASMP: Please describe the emotional impact your assignments have had on you. What particular moments or subjects have impacted you the most?
JA: By getting to know the people I document, learning about their stories, listening to their struggles and challenges, I can’t avoid taking part in it. By trying to understand my subjects’ situations, I absorb this over the period of time I document them. It certainly does affect me and, over the years, I’ve been learning how to balance myself so I can continue to do my work without becoming completely exhausted and juiced out emotionally. I do admit there have been moments when I’ve documented pain while shedding my own tears. Even though I try to do my work and be as rational, solid and grounded as possible, at the end of the day I’m only human and I can’t avoid feeling the pain my subjects are experiencing. I can’t avoid a sense of empathy towards my subjects’ situations. This is completely natural and I’d question myself if I didn’t feel that way. I don’t want to avoid this; that’s why I do what I do. I embrace these feelings rather than repress them, and I often process my feelings about difficult stories while editing.
ASMP: Please talk about any particularly uplifting or positive situations that you’ve covered during your documentation in the DRC.
JA: I met some local people who became friends and thanks to whom I was able to get to know a little bit more about the young Congolese generation. They shared their thoughts about their country, the conflict and how they see the future. Some were educated abroad and returned after many years to live in the Congo again. It was very positive and uplifting to see and hear that they don’t want to leave their home again. They want to work for their own people and see the change that everyone has been desperately awaiting for decades. They are motivated individuals and believe in a better future — they want to create that future. It’s inspiring to see this young generation, who have an opportunity to leave their country to live elsewhere or move to developed parts of the world, choosing to come back to the Congo and make their lives there. They have a desire to contribute to their society, work with their people, become part of their community and contribute to it. People like them, who are proud, patriotic, have dreams and the passion to work hard, are the hope for Congo.
ASMP: Please describe your post-processing workflow, especially when you are based in locations where Internet access, electricity or other technological basics is at a minimum.
JA: I have some self-imposed rules I’m quite strict about, which I follow regardless of where I am and how tired I am. I always upload my cards before I go to sleep, name folders, files and date everything to prevent from data loss or mistaken deletes. Years ago I learned the hard way by formatting cards that were not uploaded. That costly mistake made me super-organized. I’m often short of sleep and quite tired during some of these assignments, so it’s easy to make a mistake, forget and then loose valuable data. I also keep constantly backing stuff up. I give a friend in the same location one of my drives in case I lose everything — for example, if there’s a fire, an attack or some other disaster. It’s difficult to back up to the cloud in these locations, where it can take an hour to send an email. I often fall behind on editing while on location, and it’s common for me to do most of my editing and postproduction after returning home from a mission.
ASMP: There seems to be a repeating theme in your work of situations involving humans and animals, spanning diverse countries and cultures. Please talk about your vision or thoughts about this particular subject matter.
JA: Animals are vulnerable creatures, which are often completely in our mercy. They don’t have a choice and are often used for our entertainment, trained for fights, hunted for game or used for experiments. Animals also play big role in many religions, as part of sacrificial rituals or worship. I’ve watched how different societies treat animals and it’s become my interest to explore this further by documenting these interactions in different parts of the world. I’m taking a closer look at how different societies relate to animals, how they treat them and use them, whether for ritual, entertainment or dinner. I love animals to the point that I cannot eat them, so it’s often been a personal challenge to document some of these stories, which on closer look turn out to be quite violent. Over the years I’ve witnessed tremendous animal suffering while perusing these stories.
ASMP: Your work also focuses on religious themes. What, if any, significance does this subject have for you?
JA: I come from a place that’s considered one of the most atheist countries in the world. Not being exposed to religion at all when I was growing up has resulted in my strong interest in this subject now. I’m quite curious about the concept of religion, about the way it shapes individuals’ lives and whole societies around the world. I’m fascinated by faith and the meaning of this concept to people in different parts of the world. Where does this faith come from, why is it that people choose to believe and what is it like when it’s not a choice? Wherever I travel, I always talk to the locals about their religion and how they perceive other faiths. I’m curious to see and understand people’s boundaries in terms of tolerance towards other faiths, or no faith, and if they can imagine life without any religion. Over the years, I’ve visited countless churches, mosques and temples, asking these questions and having some quite fascinating discussions. Religion can be very powerful. It gives people hope at times when there is not any, a sense of community and belonging when they are alone. It can bring people together like anything else can, but it can also do the exact opposite equally well.
ASMP: Approximately how often do you submit your work to competitions or apply for grants and, generally speaking, how much time do you spend researching these opportunities and preparing submissions?
JA: I wish I could do more of this. I still try to submit my work to at least 15 competitions a year, but that number has been diminishing, as I’m very busy and I also often forget the deadlines due to my travels or work. I do like the process of submitting work however. It’s a time to sit down with all I’ve done in the past year and review things image-by-image, do edits and summaries and see what I’ve completed, look at all the places I’ve traveled. So, even though it’s time-consuming, I find going through this process to be beneficial to my overall work. It gets me somewhat organized. I don’t submit my work as often for grants, but there are a few I send proposals to regularly.
ASMP: In today’s world, do you feel that being a woman is more of a help or a hindrance to the job of photojournalist?
JA: There are some situations in which gender plays a role while trying to work. However, in certain situations I think we often self-impose the issue by giving gender more significance than it needs, by already expecting boundaries or challenges. To have one gender over another is not always the key to opening doors, even though we might like to think that. Sometimes, respect and understanding can go way beyond gender. Also, gender becomes secondary when others understand your intentions, feel your passion and see your determination.
ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in ten years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?
JA: I hope to keep improving my craft and growing by doing what I love. I want to remain independent and keep choosing my own direction based on my interests. I plan to continue to take the time to explore new countries and cultures, and I hope to soon find a place outside the United States to make my base. I’ll continue my focus on humanitarian missions with NGOs, which has been my main passion, and to pursue my work with LGBT communities. It’s also been important for me to regularly spend quality time with my family in the Czech Republic, to recharge my own batteries. Sometimes it can become a bit of blur to find one’s own roots after traveling as much as I do. It’s important for me to always know where I come from and where I belong, where my home is and the people I love — this is basic. When I’m solid on this, so is my work. And, even though I spend a lot of time and energy doing my work, I never disappear into it.
ASMP: Are you currently planning any future documentary projects?
JA: Yes. I’m always planning and dreaming — this is my default, that’s what gets me going. I’m currently getting ready for a big step of leaving the United States for almost a year. I want to dive fully into documentary work and see what happens if I just focus on my projects for, let’s say, eight months. I’ll continue to do missions with NGOs, which has been my special focus, and I’ll continue to pursue this concept of collaboration that has helped me to produce some significant work in the past. If all my plans work out as expected and my paperwork gets through, I should next be going on a mission to Pakistan. After that I’ll spend time in the Czech Republic to pursue some local projects I’ve started there, and then I’ll go to the Congo for several months to continue my mission there. This plan will also allow me to be closer to my family, after being away for 11 years.