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Northern Ireland photographer behind iconic images of surfers in Gaza, forgotten refugees in Algeria and cosmonauts arriving back on Earth in Kazakhstan

As a schoolboy in Enniskillen, Andrew McConnell knew he wanted to make a living behind the lens. Nearly three decades later he's won awards for his work all over the world. He tells Ivan Little why it's hard to detach himself from the heart-rending moments he captures

It wasn't just a shutter that clicked 27 years ago when a teacher in an Enniskillen school handed Andrew McConnell a camera in class to use for the first time. For almost immediately in that freeze-frame moment the idea of becoming a photographer started to develop in the mind of the teenager.

And now the 41-year-old Fermanagh man is one of the most highly regarded photographers in the world, a world which he travels regularly, taking pictures which more and more tell stories of the humanitarian crises of millions of refugees displaced from their homelands by conflict.

The heart-rending photographs have won Andrew a series of prestigious awards and are a must-see on his website.

His images have also appeared in top global publications such as National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Time, Der Spiegel, Stern and Le Monde who have used his pictures of everything from surfers in the Gaza strip to Russian cosmonauts returning to earth from Soyuz space missions in the middle of nowhere in Kazakhstan.

And now Andrew is about to add a new string to his artistic bow with a documentary about the 2014 Gaza war.

Yet it's all a far cry from what Andrew did as he tried to establish himself as a photographer back home in Fermanagh.

That Eureka moment over photography came at a time when a 14-year-old Andrew was fixated with art. He recalls: "A teacher gave out cameras to the class and as soon as I started to take pictures, I thought 'this is for me'.

"I loved the instantaneous aspect of photography, compared to sitting down and doing a drawing that would take all day.

"I revelled in getting into the darkroom and seeing the images coming alive. I knew right away that photography was the path that I wanted to go down.

"Initially I was doing nothing special. I was taking close-ups of flowers and landscapes. I wasn't visually literate.

"That only came when I began looking at photographic books in the library. I started to understand about people like Don McCullin who came to the north to take photographs of the Troubles.

"That was like a revolution to me," says Andrew, who after leaving school did a foundation year at university in Londonderry before moving to the art college in Belfast to study photography and visual communication for three years.

On graduating, Andrew knocked on doors of nearby newspapers and counts himself lucky that Irish News photographer Brendan Murphy took him under his wing.

"He was the champion of young photographers," says Andrew, who learnt a lot from Brendan during several weeks on work experience alongside him. Permanent jobs on newspaper picture desks were at a premium in Belfast and Andrew headed to the Bangor News in Co Down, but it was a short-lived job as the paper closed down.

Andrew was offered a job on the News Letter where another prize winning photographer, John Rush, was another huge influence.

"He introduced me to a whole range of people such as the Brazilian photo-journalist Sebastiao Salgado and he opened my eyes and my mind to new ideas. I started to get my own sense of style and direction," says Andrew, who found himself in Belfast at the time the Troubles were coming to an end.

But he still saw - and captured - plenty of action.

"Whenever a riot broke out in, say, the Ardoyne area I was the photographer who was invariably sent. But I wasn't complaining. The experience I gained on the streets was invaluable," he says.

"But it wasn't all violence. I was also sent to capture the usual round of 'ordinary' photographs and the challenge was to make them different from the rest, to stand out from the crowd."

Andrew won a number of awards in Belfast and one of his quirkier front page pictures was of Orangemen carrying surfboards along Rossnowlagh beach in Co Donegal, a beach that he knew and loved as a surfer himself.

But although he was finding a niche in press photography, Andrew had his sights set higher than the news beat.

He explains: "The work was getting a bit repetitive and because I had seen the work of photographers who were working on projects for years at a time, I came to realise that what they were doing was the best possible use of the medium.

"I wasn't achieving that doing press work. So I decided to leave and take off to explore new ideas. I went to Laos in Asia for three months to do a story on unexploded ordnance that had been left over from the Vietnam War.

"And then I went to China to do stuff on urbanisation there. I spent all my savings on that and came home broke. But I joined an agency in New York and sold a few pictures there."

Andrew's next stop was Africa. He says: "I flew to Cairo without a plan. I just travelled south looking for stories and after a month I got a well-paid job in Khartoum in Sudan working for Monaco magazine. Then I was in Ethiopia and there were commissions from German newspapers here and NGOs there.

"I ended up staying four years in Africa, based mainly in Nairobi in Kenya.

"I was in eastern Congo for four months. There were tens of thousands of displaced people and I think I did some of my best work there."

Andrew won the prestigious Luis Valuntena Humanitarian Photography award for the Congo pictures and picked up a World Press Photo Award in 2011 for his series of photographs the Lost Colony, capturing the plight of the forgotten Sahrawi people of Western Sahara who have been living for decades in refugee camps in southern Algeria.

"I did a series of night-time portraits of the people to bring across the issue of just how forgotten they are," says Andrew, who acknowledges that the awards were a major boost to his career.

He's been described as a humanitarian photographer, but Andrew is reluctant to categorise his work though themes of displacement, post-conflict and the environment have dominated his self-motivated projects of late.

"The medium of photography is a universal language and it's incredibly powerful," he says. "Images in themselves can't bring about change but they can be a crucial element in promoting change and providing an understanding, an insight into how other people live."

After Africa, Andrew went to the Middle East, basing himself in Beirut but a trip to the Gaza Strip was to be a game-changer.

He came across a group of people who surf there and the photos he took of them were to provide Andrew with some of his most famous work, and the chance to indulge his own passion for surfing too.

"From Rossnowlagh to Gaza was quite a strange journey. But it was a fascinating chance to change the narrative that comes out of Gaza where all anyone hears about is conflict," he says.

It certainly was a different aspect of Palestinian life but the reality of the conflict was all around Andrew.

"I was there for all of the 50-day Israel-Gaza war in 2014. And that was the most tense and difficult thing I have done in my career," says Andrew, who has made a documentary about the resilience of the people of Gaza in collaboration with Donegal director Garry Keane.

The film Gaza is to be premiered next month at the world's most prestigious documentary festival, the Sundance, founded by actor Robert Redford.

Andrew filmed a lot of the material on a DSLR camera which records videos as well still photographs.

"Garry and I are really proud of the documentary," he says. "And I think it has given me a taste for more similar projects because while my first love is stills photography, film is probably the most powerful medium of our day."

After the Syrian conflict escalated, Andrew went there and started documenting the refugee crisis in Homs and Damascus. He wasn't involved in frontline photography but the frontline frequently came close to him with bombs exploding and gun-battles raging nearby, though he wasn't hurt. Physically.

"It was heart-breaking to see how it all played out," he says. "The early predictions were that the crisis wouldn't last. And that was seven years ago. And in that time refugees have scattered to the four corners of the earth.

"Nobody flees their homes because they want to. They are forced to leave and I have an empathy with them. They deserve to be welcomed and looked after instead of being vilified in some places."

Andrew was one of the first photographers to record the start of the human tide of refugees arriving on boats on the Greek island of Lesbos in early 2015.

He followed one family of Syrians all the way over Europe to Holland.

"It was crazy the way that whole thing exploded. A few months after we were on Lesbos I was back home and watched the chaotic scenes on television as the beaches became crowded with volunteers, with media and with people who weren't so welcoming," he adds.

For the last three years Andrew has been working on a photography book which takes him to somewhere that's a world away from warzones.

He's been going back and forward to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to film landings by Russian cosmonauts on the Soyuz space programme.

"Every three months these humans descend from space in this remote sparsely populated Kazakh steppe which is inhabited by descendants of the nomads who roamed these lands for centuries," he says.

"Occasionally the steppe dwellers will show up at a Soyuz landing curious about the strange event taking place in their back yard. It's two polar opposites, the past and the present colliding in the middle of nowhere.

"It takes days for me to get into position. You leave the road and drive on grassland for another day. It's a perfect place to bring down a spacecraft."

The cosmonauts take off from Kazakhstan too but Andrew who speaks Arabic badly finds their return more interesting as they encounter their home planet.

Andrew was closer to home himself recently, working for the United Nations on a story about Syrian, Burmese and Afghani refugees who have settled in Ireland.

As a photographer thrust into the midst of suffering and slaughter, Andrew admits that it is sometimes difficult to detach himself from what is going on around him.

"The camera is a barrier of sorts," he says. "But if you spend a lot of time on a story it's often a struggle to walk away knowing that the people in front of you will still be struggling, poor and hungry once you've gone."

No matter where he goes, Andrew is always asked if growing up in Northern Ireland played any part in shaping his career.

"I think in some ways it must have been an influence, maybe a subconscious one, on the direction that I took," says Andrew, who had just passed the cenotaph in Enniskillen before the Remembrance Day bomb exploded in 1987.

"That was my first experience of serious violence. But I didn't know any of the victims."

Andrew always makes room in his jam-packed diary for two or three trips a year to catch up with family and friends in Fermanagh.

"I love nothing more than getting together with the lads for a few pints in Charlie's Bar," he laughs.

For more information go to www.andrew mcconnell.com

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