Through UNICEF I organised access to a secret camp. I knew before the job that it would not be possible to show the children’s faces. The challenge was to shoot strong images that accommodated the subject’s anonymity.
I decided to hide the faces with flowers, hoping to make the viewer question what they were looking at, and to make them think about the juxtaposition of lost innocence, beauty, war and the fragility of life.
All was going well until I was ‘greeted’ at the camp by an LTTE soldier. He did not understand, or like, my idea. Somehow my fixer persuaded him I should go ahead, but the soldier insisted that I could only shoot one frame per child. He had a machine gun pointed at me, so I wasn’t arguing. There were 11 children, and 12 frames in my Mamiya 6. I placed the kids in the shade, with light bouncing off the building behind me. I didn’t know whether I had anything until the film was processed after my return to England.
It was the hardest and most terrifying assignment I have ever shot. The subsequent publication in the glossy magazine – just one tiny image – left me feeling I had let the children down.
David White has worked for Guardian Weekend, The Sunday Times magazine, Elle, Marie Claire, Grazia, M magazine and the Times Educational Suplement. He proposes and researches all his own stories. The Sri Lankan child soldiers was an unusually dark subject for a photographer who normally seeks out life’s quirky and funny moments. White says, “I won a World Press Photo award with a photograph of a cosmonaut in his underwear – a small personal victory for me as I had wanted for a long time to get a daft picture in those awards.”
David White is photography director of duckrabbit, a company he and audio producer Benjamin Chesterton founded. To view Innocence, a duckrabbit photofilm about the child soldiers of Sri Lanka click here.
Photographer since 1989, EPUK member since 2001.
See more work by David White