Dysturbing: “Putting Photojournalism Where It Will Be Stumbled Upon”

Photographers mounted a picture of protesters in Hong Kong in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while it was still dark Friday morning. Credit Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

 Walking along West 43rd Street in Manhattan on Friday morning, Serena Torres, 45, did a double-take at a jarring, life-size image of a raging man in white robes wielding a machete as he chased a fleeing mob.

“What is this?” said Ms. Torres, an accountant from Ridgewood, Queens, as she stared at the billboard-sized poster and its caption, which described the man as a Muslim shop owner in the Central African Republic chasing looters.

“It’s eye-catching, but it doesn’t give a full story,” she said, adding that she was further confused by the name of the poster’s sponsor: #Dysturb.

As it happens, #Dysturb is a group of freelance photographers who about eight hours earlier had hopped out of a borrowed Cadillac and, with the precision and speed of a racecar pit crew, slapped up the large poster in dim streetlight.

“We were frustrated we couldn’t get our best photos published, so we decided to take them to the best network in the world: the streets,” said Pierre Terdjman, 35, a freelance photojournalist who founded #Dysturb in March along with another photojournalist, Benjamin Girette.

While parked under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, photojournalist Pierre Terdjman gathers the posters that will be pasted on walls throughout the city. Credit Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

The two have recruited photo-graphers covering the many global crises, including wars, famines, epidemics and protests, and have posted them illegally in 10 European cities before coming to New York.

The guerrilla strategy is meant to draw more attention to urgent world events and make photojournalism accessible to a wider audience, said Mr. Terdjman, who has taken photos for publications including Paris Match and The New York Times.

“We see advertising everywhere, even if we don’t want to see it, so we’re using the same tactic,” he said, as he helped prepare a bucket of glue mixture in the cramped kitchen of a Bronx apartment on Thursday night alongside a crew of mostly French photographers.

The group posted the first two photos in the South Bronx, on a wall outside a bodega. One was a poignant image of Ukrainian children looking up nervously from a bomb shelter, and the other was a view between stretches of barbed wire of Syrian women and children crossing a military checkpoint.

The activity drew an audience of bodega customers and officers in a police car that stopped for a minute or so, then moved on.

Mr. Terdjman prepares to paste a poster-sized photograph on the wall of a bodega at Courtlandt Avenue and East 151st Street in the Bronx. Credit Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

Mr. Terdjman said he has asked group members not to run from the police, but rather to describe the project to the officers and offer to take the poster down, if requested. So far, he said, no police officers have stopped them. “We’re not trying to vandalize,” Mr. Terdjman said. “It’s pure journalism. It’s about things going on in the world.”

After the Bronx, the group headed to Manhattan, to Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, and began slopping paste onto a wall next to a Louis Vuitton store — that is, until a worker involved in a renovation project at the store stepped in front of them and said, “Sir, don’t do that here — it’s our property.”

The group left that spot and headed down Fifth Avenue to West 43rd Street and pulled out the photo of the man with the machete, which they posted quickly before hurrying back to their car.

They abandoned a plan to put up photos on Wall Street after seeing a heavy police presence. So they went to Brooklyn, where they stopped at Bedford Avenue and North Seventh Street in Williamsburg, and posted another war image.

It caught the eye of Daniel Weintraub, 31, a self-proclaimed “street art nerd” and owner of Succulent Studios art gallery in Greenpoint. “Whether it’s graffiti or advertising, it’s all marketing,” he said. “And for a political cause, it’s the same idea: using public space to forward your agenda.”

Isabel Rios studies a photograph by freelance photojournalist Bryan Denton that depicts Syrian women and children in Turkey. The image was pasted on the wall of the bodega at Courtlandt Avenue and East 151st Street in the Bronx on Friday. Credit Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

The group then headed down Bedford Avenue to North Sixth Street with Ashley Gilbertson, a freelance photographer for The New York Times and other publications, carrying the paste bucket. On a wall next to a late-night taco truck, the group put up a poster showing Ukrainian mothers and their babies seeking shelter from a bombing.

A few minutes later, on Wythe Avenue and South Sixth Street, Mr. Gilbertson took inventory and said, “O.K., we have Ebola, Angola and Hong Kong left.”

The group decided on the Hong Kong protesters and put up the poster as three women walked over from a nearby bar to watch.

Back at West 43rd Street in Manhattan on Friday morning, not everyone was enamored of the group’s methods.

Todd Truzs, 55, a construction worker from Yonkers, looked at the poster of the shop owner chasing looters and said, “Why do they have to break the law to make their point, instead of doing it through the proper procedure.

“They’re trying to bring public attention to something, but on someone else’s property — that’s not right,” said Mr. Truzs, as he pulled off a corner of the poster exposing a piece of paper bearing the order “Post No Bills.”

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What do you do when the usual outlets for photographic media choose not to show images you risked your life to capture? What is the next best way to make sure the world sees what is really happening?

It’s these questions that led French photojournalist Pierre Terdjman and his buddies to create something called Dysturb, a project that plasters ignored, hard-hitting and hard-to-swallow photojournalism all over the streets of Paris.

Terdjman explained the struggle that led to the creation of Dysturb in a recent interview with TIME:

Each time I finish a story, it’s the same struggle to get my images published. Magazines are rarely interested in showing what’s happening in Egypt, in Georgia, in Afghanistan. Sometimes they’ll publish one or two images, but that’s it. So, everything started from a very selfish idea. I wanted to show my photographs. I wanted to inform people, show them what I’d seen.

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And so, after returning home from a trip to Central African Republic, 34-year-old Terdjman reached out to a few friends and pitched them the idea.

They obliged, and armed with billboard-sized prints of photographs he had captured, a collection of brushes and a bucket of wheatpaste, the group started posting his work all over the streets of Paris.

This guerrilla publishing approach earned Terdjman a surprising amount of praise, so he decided to reach out to some co-workers of his, including Benjamin Girette. Together, they founded Dysturb.

Paris, France. 19 Mars 2014. Pierre Terdjman #dysturb

A different approach to exposing images that would otherwise be invisible to the masses, Dysturb goes beyond Terdjman’s solo project and invites all photojournalists to print and paste their unseen images across the walls of Paris.

“The goal is to raise awareness about what’s actually going on in the world,” Terdjman tells TIME, commenting on the possible destruction caused by these wheatpasted images. “We’re not looking to make a name or to degrade a city’s public spaces. It’s really about telling the story of what’s happening in CAR, in Egypt, in Ukraine.”

Paris, France. 19 Mars 2014. Pierre Terdjman #dysturb

Terdjman doesn’t claim to have invented or discovered this style of media distribution. He admits that such guerrilla advertising has been around for ages, and has even been done by other photographers.

The purpose of Dysturb is to continue the movement, and encourage photographers to take less conventional routes of getting their images published… to take measures into their own hands. But, of course, there are downsides too.

Paris, France. 19 Mars 2014. Pierre Terdjman #dysturb

This approach doesn’t come cheap. Given that each print costs approximately $40 and the entire effort is supported by volunteered time, the Dysturb movement is leaching more money than it’s bringing in.

To help further their endeavors, the Dysturb team will soon expand their efforts to other cities across Europe, eventually skipping the pond and making their way to New York City and San Francisco, where they’re hoping more international recognition will allow them to crowd fund future operations. However, for now, funds come out of their pocket and effort comes out of their free time.

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Their small operation still lacks the proper online resources, but as they told TIME, they’re working on a new website that, “will have a map of the different locations where we put up our work. On that map, you’ll find the name of the photographer, the caption, but also a link to the full edit of images. We want to create a link between the image, the photographer and the story.”

Not only will growth in operations help get more images seen and more resources raised to carry on the efforts, but as their global audience and connectivity continues to grow, Dysturb will more easily be able to react to current events.

Rather than days or weeks between events and the pasting of photos, they will be able to distribute and post the photos across the globe the day after events take place.

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“We want people to wake up to the news,” says Girette. “We want to spark a debate.”

And that is exactly what they did, albeit for the most gut-wrenching of reasons, when their colleague Camille Lepage was killed in Central Africa Republic two weeks ago.

Upon hearing the tragic news, the Dysturb team solemnly met in a local bar and set out a plan to make sure that over the coming days, weeks and months, her images will be seen the world over.

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