Controversy, terror and death threats won’t keep him from the truth


Firefighters risk their lives to keep us safe. Braving searing heat, towering flames and suffocating smoke, they stand firm in the face of danger. Justin Sullivan is right there with them – armed with a camera instead of a hose. As a documentary photographer, Sullivan puts himself within the clutches of danger to reveal the experiences of the individuals saving our wilderness. And our cities.

Sullivan made a late start in photography. During a gap year in Germany, he worked as a data collector, a job that required him to take photographs of parking lots. Having never encountered the craft before, Sullivan was intrigued. But on returning to South Africa to take it up professionally he went after subject matter a little more exciting than parked cars.

His career so far has seen him document township life, protests and wild fires. And while these environments have put him in challenging positions, Sullivan thinks less of personal risk than of the capacity photographs have to influence public opinion. Whether he is in the midst of protestors or firefighters, his goal is to show the less obvious truth and represent people authentically.

Sullivan’s photographic journey is a project in awareness and education. The truth disrupts. Sullivan has received death threats for what he has published. But these stories need telling, because the people living in them have value. And they are not done justice by descriptions or compositions that miss the subtleties of a scenario. The truth lies in the nuance of honest exposition. He can’t tell South Africa what to think of the situations that he photographs, but he’s doing his part to give us the clearest means to make up our own minds.