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January 22, 2006
Section: Main News
Edition: 1ST
Page: 17A

Lens trained on world tragedies
Story LEON ALLIGOOD o Photos FRED CLARKE
STAFF

Nashville photographer documents those who suffer the wounds of conflict
Story by LEON ALLIGOOD o Photos by FRED CLARKE

In the process of finding himself, Fred Clarke took the long road.

The journey took him through locales most Americans shun: Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Liberia. These are places where protracted wars are misshaping the destiny of millions, leaving a generation of children orphaned and maimed and governments struggling to govern.

These are places an unarmed American would usually avoid. But as an official photographer for the International Committee of the Red Cross, it has been Clarke's job for the past seven years to document the pain and suffering caused by conflicts.

Or as he puts it, "I become invisible and take pictures of these people deep in the crap of war."

For now, however, he is far from the danger zone. He sits at the dining room table of the downtown Nashville townhouse he calls home, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He also maintains a small "flat" near Geneva, Switzerland, when on overseas assignments with the ICRC.

Surrounding him are the artifacts of two lives, lived fully. High on bookshelves are souvenirs brought home from his many overseas journeys: art from Côte d'Ivoire, a teakettle from Turkey, handcrafted statuettes from South Africa. Upstairs in his loft office are the tools of his trade, cameras, computers and a heavily stamped passport.

In contrast, a child's toys are scattered on the living room floor.

Clarke is now 51, happily married (he and his Belgian wife, Wendy, met six years ago at an ICRC function) and, while other men his age are sending kids off to college, he is the father of an active 2-year-old preschooler named Aiden.

Fred Clarke has traveled from Somalia to the Caucasus, from Russia to South Africa to document the effects of man's inhumanity to man in conflicts old and new. The experience has been both depressing and stimulating, looking through a viewfinder into the eyes of people who have lost everything, except hope.

"The one thing that it affirmed for me is the resiliency of the human race in conflict or dire disaster situations. People want to survive. They want their kids to have something better,'' he said.

Clarke's latest assignment was to show the plight of thousands left homeless by the October 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan. He stayed in the region for about six weeks. On many occasions he was aboard helicopters ferrying injured residents. Instead of taking pictures he often was recruited to carry stretchers to waiting ambulances.

"I cried a lot. The devastation is just so large, but even there you see the resiliency, you see the hope," he said.

Even Clarke has to marvel how his life has changed in the past decade.

He did not become a professional photographer until his early 30s, when he left a management position at an electronics store to become a freelancer for the Nashville Banner, the afternoon newspaper that ceased publication in 1998. Clarke stayed up all night photographing the city's darker side: shootings, domestic assaults and home invasions.

It wasn't that he came late to photography. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Clarke had his own darkroom when he was 8, but he was distracted by other pursuits, including a Vanderbilt degree in East Asian studies and philosophy. He also dabbled seriously in music promotion for a time.

"But I always came back to my photography,'' Clarke said.

A friend convinced him he had enough talent to give photojournalism a try. He went to pawnshops and bought new gear. He loaded up on film. Soon Clarke was getting photo credits in the afternoon newspaper.

"And I was hooked."

In 1988 he was offered a fulltime job at the Banner, a position he held until the newspaper closed in February 1998.

"I paid my dues there. It was a great place to learn and there were many talented photographers who taught me a lot," Clarke said.

It was a 1992 overseas assignment, covering Tennessee Army National Guard soldiers assigned to a relief effort in strife-torn Somalia that brought him in touch with the work he does today. While there he met ICRC officials and learned the agency often hired freelance photographers to document their humanitarian work aiding those displaced and injured by war. Their help is provided in many forms, from sending volunteers to rebuild conflict-damaged infrastructure to assisting civilians wounded in battle to working on behalf of fair treatment for prisoners of war. As the group's official photographer, Clarke is given complete access on assignments.

"I was really impressed with the organization and what it does. I thought then that if I ever got the chance to work for them, I would,'' he said.

The Banner's demise gave him the motivation. Through contacts nurtured after the Somalia trip, Clarke made inquiries about securing an ICRC photography contract.

"Six months later I was in Bogota,'' he said.

A year later he was in the Caucusus, gone for about 10 months. His work appeared in ICRC publications and books, including a massive "People on War" project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions' rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.

"He's been to some crazy places I wouldn't want to go to, but he thrives on it. Fred has a good eye and he's always excelled when he's under pressure,'' Nashville-based freelance photographer John Russell said.

"He called me once from Georgia, and I don't mean the state below Tennessee. He started telling me about all the craziness that he was seeing. I said, 'Fred, what are you doing there?' He's done good work in some dangerous places."

According to Linda Zeitlin of Zeitgeist Gallery, where an exhibition of the photographer's work is scheduled for early 2007, Clarke's images often produce an emotional response with viewers. "He focuses on the human spirit. He grabs you and makes you take in the image," she said.

Leon Alligood worked with Fred Clarke for several years at the Nashville Banner. Alligood can be reached at 259-8279 or at lalligood@tennessean.com.

Fred Clarke

Age: 51

Job: Photographer for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He documents suffering in areas of world conflict.


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