Photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien has travelled through Africa in an old car, spent a week documenting a violent white supremacist boot camp, and pioneered the use of VR in the Dutch media. The Canon Ambassador is determined to continue following her passion for long-term projects and dynamic formats – even at a time of shrinking editorial budgets.
When you watch Ilvy's multimedia project Afrikaner Blood, it becomes evident that the still image matters to her. Amid the shocking video footage of an underground boot camp called Kommandokorps, a man is seen in an apartheid-era South African Army uniform teaching young, impressionable boys how to fight while audio recordings echo the same man imposing his white supremacist views on them. Ilvy's decision to use still images within the video forces its viewers to stop and really take in what they are seeing. In 2012, not many people knew that such training camps still existed in South Africa. Had it not been for Ilvy and her partner Elles van Gelder's clever combinations of stills, audio and video, people may not have believed it.
The story was published in several international newspapers, and Ilvy and Elles won two World Press Photo awards for their work. The man behind the Kommandokorps camps was arrested, and the story sparked a debate in the South African parliament. Afrikaner Blood is a classic example of the type of project that drives Ilvy.
"I think when you combine these different elements – photography, audio and video – they can all make each other stronger," she says. "When you hear audio while looking at pictures, it gives you more depth and knowledge. You can actually hear the person you're seeing in the picture, but it's different from video because the still photograph gives you the chance to really zoom in and look at certain aspects of the picture while listening to the audio."
Since Afrikaner Blood, Ilvy and Elles (who set up a production studio together called Frog in a Tent) have produced a long-term multimedia project on high school youths who were going to school in an area filled with gang members near Cape Town. The pair documented members of the South African fringe group who were trying to escape their life of crime and gang membership by graduating from high school. But despite her relatively frequent use of different digital formats, Ilvy insists that the main objective should always be the story itself, not the multimedia technology.
"There are so many technologies now, but sometimes still images are the best way to tell a story," Ilvy says. "It's important that there is a good match between the technology you use and the story itself." One example is a virtual reality (VR) project that she recently undertook in a refugee camp in Katsikas, Greece. "I wanted to give people a sense of how big the refugee camp was, and how close the tents were to each other – there were endless rows of them. I thought VR would really help viewers to understand how cramped the space was. That was an example of a project where VR was useful, but you really have to see where it works and where it doesn't."
The project was <a href="https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2016/12/23/deze-tent-noem-ik-nu-mijn-huis-a1538230">published online</a> by Dutch newspaper NRC as an interactive article that also included stills and video. "It was quite a new thing to do in the Netherlands at that point and I noticed many people didn't really know what to do with it, which is one of the big downfalls of new journalism," she continues. "You always have to ask yourself, who are you making it for? Are you just doing it to show off to your colleagues? I make stories because I want to tell as many people as possible about a certain subject, and unfortunately a lot of people didn't really know how to use VR. I think some of the technology is now a bit ahead of its users and I'm waiting for things to catch up."
Since she won the World Press Photo awards, Ilvy has been courted by newspapers and NGOs for projects all over the world. Her office desk in Utrecht, Netherlands, is full of hard drives and she is quick to mention that the thought of losing her work fills her with anxiety.
It's not an irrational fear. Around 10 years ago, soon after Ilvy had started out as a photojournalist, she was robbed of most of the pictures that were supposed to make up her first big project. Having just completed an internship in South Africa, she and her boyfriend had bought an old four-wheel drive car and driven all the way from South Africa to the Netherlands, often covering 100-200 kilometres per day. On the way, they lent local people a camera and asked them to take pictures of their daily lives. They had envisioned and named this grand project Picture Your Life. But one night in Budapest as they were sleeping, thieves injected gas into their tent and stole all their valuables, including their cameras and most of their pictures.
"We were almost home and they stole everything, even a Canon camera. We had backups of about half the photos but the other half were gone, including the ones of the now-destroyed souk of Aleppo," Ilvy remembers. In an attempt to secure the safe return of her photos, she contacted TV stations and offered rewards – but to no avail.
Although Ilvy's first project ended on a disappointing note, it didn't take long before her hard work paid off in another way. She soon won an award and the prize was a Canon camera. On her way home, she discovered a picture she had taken in Mozambique with her Canon EOS 20D during the trip had earned her the Canon Prize for Young Talent. The reward was a trip to Cape Town, and with that Ilvy was back on the road and even more determined to keep going. "I've always thought, 'I'm going to push harder, I'm going to try harder, and I'm going to get there, and I don't care how,'" she says.
The same fighting spirit presents itself when Ilvy discusses the financial aspect of doing long-term projects. Unlike more pessimistic photojournalists, Ilvy denies the notion that photojournalism is dead. "What changed in the industry is that the assignments became different," she says. "It's now very rare to get a year-long assignment. I think what's more common is that people work on long-term projects themselves, then sell their projects to magazines and newspapers that want to publish them. That's how I do it at least."
Ilvy has successfully used crowdfunding as a way to finance projects, but she's not convinced this tactic will work forever. "Proper photojournalism costs a lot of money, and I think we have to find new ways to do it," she says. "I've done two crowdfunding campaigns and made about €60,000 but the people who pitched in money the second time were the same ones who gave money the first time. It makes me wonder if they're going to turn around and say, 'Yeah, right!' next time."
Instead, Ilvy is hoping that closer collaboration with other photojournalists will prove beneficial, and she has recently joined the VII Photo Agency. "I've noticed that being part of VII helps because you're actually sharing assignments and making group exhibitions that can generate money. I think being part of a group is one of the things that could increase your chances of survival as a photojournalist," she says.
Ilvy has recently acquired a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, and her most recent trip was her first chance to use it. "The images are so sharp, and the camera is way lighter than my previous body," she says excitedly. "I shot video as well, and I was just amazed by the quality." Ilvy's most frequently-used lens is the new Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. "When I got the new version of the lens, my other two lenses stayed in my bag. For a long time, I didn't get them out at all. It's so easy to just use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM because it's very sharp and it combines all the other lenses into one." However, she adds: "I think photography is about daring to get close, so I'd like to use my Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lenses a bit more."
As with multimedia platforms, Ilvy maintains the gear in her bag is a means to an end. She believes it needs to be durable and to work flawlessly, but ultimately needs to be used by a good storyteller. "Being a photographer is about being smart, connecting to people and being empathic towards your subjects," she says. "It's about working together, not just going somewhere to steal a story by grabbing images and leaving again. You need to really put your heart into this job."