Walter Astrada - Documenting Human Rights

13th Dec 2012

© Walter Astrada, Argentina, Winner, Current Affairs, 2010 Sony World Photography Awards

Please note, this article contains sensitive imagery. 

INTERNATIONAL - Argentinean photographer Walter Astrada began his career as a staff photographer of La Nacion (Argentina) in 1996.  Since 1999 he has travelled the world documenting violations against human rights.

He has worked with various news agencies, including Getty Images, Associated Press and Agence France Presse and is currently based in Spain, working freelance.

Walter's images have attracted international attention and won a range of prestigious awards and grants including the Sony World Photography Awards Current Affairs Photographer of the Year title in 2010 and three 1st Prizes at World Press Photo. 

How did your photographic career begin?

When I was thirteen I saw a photojournalism exhibition in my home country which showcased the best images of the year of Argentina. Democracy had come to Argentina in 1983 and many of the pictures in this exhibition were of the uprising of soldiers and the demonstrations which had taken against it in 1987.  I was moved by the photographs and thought that if someone else can make me feel this way with images, perhaps I can do the same.

I saw that photographs can be used to educate, increase awareness and document.  They could also be used as a tool to show the reality of what is happening.  This is what I wanted, and still want, to do.

© Walter Astrada, Argentina, Winner, Current Affairs, 2010 Sony World Photography Awards
© Walter Astrada, Argentina, Winner, Current Affairs, 2010 Sony World Photography Awards

Your series "Blood Bath in Madagascar" won the Current Affairs category of the 2010 Sony World Photography Awards.  Is it a challenge to get such graphic images printed?

The situation in Madagascar was a massacre.  The soldiers opened fire against a peaceful demonstration and it was bloody.  There is no way of not taking graphic pictures when there are dead people in the street.  People pay money to enter to a cinema and the same bloody images can be seen in the movies and there are no complaints.  In a movie, everything is make-believe.  My pictures are for real things.  The viewer might feel uncomfortable when looking at the pictures but I am sorry, this is reality and you have to confront it.

The question is not why the photographer took a graphic picture or why the magazine did or did not print it, but why the situation is happening.  I think we need to start being able to have empathy with something that is terrible even if it is not in our country.  If these pictures were taken in New York, Paris or Madrid rather than in Madagascar, they would have been far more widely published.

© Walter Astrada
© Walter Astrada, Violence against women in India, Sex selective abortion

Your latest projects documents violence against women.  Why did you choose this subject?

Violence against women is a violation of human rights.  It is not just a problem for women.  Although it effects women directly, it indirectly it effects everyone around them. 

When I photographed in Madagascar, the situation was only effecting those in that country.  It wasn't, for example, effecting people in South Africa.  In general, there is nothing shared between them, no relationship which can put the South Africans in danger.

For the issue of violence against women, the relationship between what happens to the woman and those around her is much stronger.  The consequences of the violence can affect the whole society.

When I started this project I thought that I could be working on it forever as the problem is present in all countries around the world.  Therefore I chose four countries across four continents - India, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Norway - to look at the different kinds of violence that exists. When we talk about violence against women, we’re talking about a global pandemic: it is the most prevalent and universal violation of human rights.

And also, you cannot say that a country has no human rights problems if women suffer from violence and you are not protecting them.

I had applied for a couple of grants, but I didn´t win.  So, the project started in Guatemala and it was made with my own money.  It focused on femicide, the killing of women.  I worked in 2006 and later I won a World Press Photo and with that money I went back to finalise it in 2007.

© Walter Astrada
© Walter Astrada, Violence against women in Guatemala, Femicide

Then, I was able to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo to photograph violence against women in context of conflict and post-conflict situations, where I documented victims of rape due to a Revela-Oleiros grant from Spain in 2008 and 2009.

In 2009 I moved to India to document the consequences of the abortion of girls thanks to a grant from the Alexia Foundation, and finally to Norway to concentrate on domestic violence using a grant from Getty Images.

The project photographs women at their most vulnerable.  How do you get access to your subjects? Did you shoot in different styles in the countries?

I get the women's trust because I don't lie.  I explain what I am doing and why.  For a lot of women, having their photograph taken is a way of them helping others to avoid this situation, it  gives them a reason to talk about what has happened to them.  It allows the women to stand up and say that they do not feel shame. 

Sometimes society tends to put the blame on the woman who suffers violence instead of to the man who was violent against her.

Generally, in Guatemala, the Congo and India because the state is not present in many places it is the women who have suffered violence who open and run the centres that help other women.

In Norway it was like this in the 70’s but now it is the opposite, these centres are supported by the State.  As soon as the Norwegian women enter the system, with the excuse of privacy, it is so hard to talk with them and be in contact with them. Their voices are taken away and instead you have to speak to the doctors or those in charge. Access to these women was far more bureaucratic so I met them by personal recommendation.  Some social workers and, in particular, a woman who is the director of one of the country's main shelter's helped me.  I made a net of contacts, one woman introduced me to the next. 

© Walter Astrada
© Walter Astrada, Violence against women in Norway, Shattered Myths

In Norway domestic violence is a taboo subject.  It is very difficult for those women effected to talk about the problem - it is a first world country and people don't imagine that this issue can exist. 

I chose to shoot in a different style in Norway because the problem was hidden,  the issue was not as exposed as in the other countries.  For example, in each county in Norway there is a State run centre which looks after victims of domestic and sexual violence.  I wasn't allowed to photograph a women in the centre but I didn't need to.  Just the fact that the centres exist shows that there is a problem.

Shooting just the empty room, clean, and ready to receive the next woman helped to imagine and start asking questions.

The four countries helps to reinforce the fact that violence against women is a universal problem.

© Walter Astrada
© Walter Astrada, Violence against women in Norway, Shattered Myths

Is this project now complete?

I think the four countries I have chosen work well for the context I want them to be seen in.  The photographs for each show different behaviours, religions, economical situations and political contexts. 

However, I would love to publish these images in a book.  With a book the images can be accompanied by text.  It can be studied further.  I want the photos and its words to educate and be used to inform about the situation.

Your work is hugely celebrated and has won many international awards.  Why do you think it is important to enter competitions and what advice would you give to other photographers wanting to enter the awards?

With the money I won with my first World Press Photo award I was able to go back to Guatemala and finalize the first part of my personal project. 

In the case of my 'Blood Bath in Madagascar' images, when I shot the images for the news service the pictures went all around the world but only ten newspapers published them.  Since those images won the Sony World Photography Award, Bayeux-Calvados Award and World Press Photo, they have been given so much more exposure.  Newspapers around the world who would not use them before have published them.  Competitions are a good way of keeping alive stories that nobody was cared about previously.

However, you can't take pictures just because you want to win an award.  You have to cover the issues you want, not the issues you think are going to give you an award. Lot of times is a second chance for your work to be seen.  More and more, photographers are becoming freelancers and the money from awards and grants can offer can be invaluable. Also the awards include exhibitions and publications, I think there are a lot of reason why competitions are important! 

What are your future plans?

I would love to publish my photographs on the violence against women in a book and to produce more multi-media pieces using video alongside my images.

For further information about Walter Astrada and his images please go to:


December 2012
Author: Jill Cotton