Joseph Shagra – Kuwait through the lens

Every photograph has a story to tell that was captured by the careful eye of a photographer. When it comes to the news industry, a single poignant picture could be worth more than a 1,000 words if it condenses a whole story through one image.

Joseph Shagra, a Syrian photojournalist who has spent nearly six decades in Kuwait is the man behind many of the iconic images that over the years have captured our attention, and haunted our imagination, from the pages of newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and abroad.

As a dedicated press photographer for the last 19 years with Kuwait Times newspaper, Joseph has witnessed many historic events as they unfolded, capturing those moments for posterity from behind the lens of his camera. In recent years, with Kuwait playing a pivotal role in the economic, political and humanitarian developments taking place locally, regionally and internationally, Joseph has been busy man recording these memorable events through his camera.

A trusted and well-known name in Kuwait media circles, he has won praise from his peers and the news industry for his images captured at the right moment and from the right angle. A silent figure happy to work from behind the camera, he allows his work to speak for his phenomenal photographic abilities.

As he prepares to retire and leave the country, The Times Kuwait had the opportunity to sit down with Joseph Shagra for an off-the-cuff interview on his views of the country and his work from behind the lens.

Speaking of his entry into the news industry, Joseph said, “After high school, my cousin and I applied for a visa to go to the United States. My cousin who was then working in a newspaper, helped me get a job at his newspaper, so that we could earn while waiting for our visa to arrive. Unfortunately, only my cousin received his visa and I ended up staying in Kuwait while he made his way to the United States on his own.

On his fruitful and vibrant career as a press photographer, Joseph says with his characteristic smile, “I have been in Kuwait since 1962, which is more than 57 years in this same country. I began my professional career as a press photographer by joining Al Yassela newspaper in 1979; I then worked with Arab Times and in the Arabic magazine, Al Majalis, before shifting to sports photography. For the next 13 years, as  a sports photographer, I shadowed the Kuwait national football team wherever they went, including regional and international matches.”

“In 2000, I took a job in Kuwait Times and have been working there ever since. Besides this job, I work with regional and international news agencies and newspapers, such as the Asharq al-Awsat, an Arabic international newspaper headquartered in London.”

Remembering his early days as a professional news photographer, Joseph recalls the way progress has swept through Kuwait and the news industry. “Earlier, there were only a few magazines and newspapers in Kuwait, to be more specific only five Arabic newspapers and two English ones. Now there are more than 30 magazines, and with the phenomenon of social media, people are constantly sharing photographs. It is not easy, like it was before. Social media has changed the way events are covered; often people who are present at any venue will deliver news faster than newspapers.

“When I first started off, the camera equipment was very heavy, you had a camera and flash, with the battery of the flash alone weighing more than 3kg. The weight of the camera with the flash was often more than 7kg. And we had to lug this weight around everywhere we went,”  he said.

“Today, everything weighs less and digital camera equipment is smaller, lighter and much more powerful. Before, as a professional photographer you had to know how to work on  a manual camera, where you had to do everything from aperture to speed adjustments. Now, anyone can be a photographer, you simply click pictures on an automatic digital camera,” he added.

“Before, you were given a roll of film, and you had to not only earn to take the best pictures, but  also develop them in the darkroom. Back then, all newspapers had a darkroom, where you had to develop the negatives, print out the pictures, and then select the best ones for publication. Nowadays, we don’t do much; just click the photo and download it to the computer.”

Speaking about his experience as a photographer, he is full of praise for the country, saying that he has enjoyed working in Kuwait. I consider this country my second home; Kuwait and Kuwaitis have been very good to me. I have also received immense support from peers, and well-wishers in this job.

Ambassador of Peru with the photographer.
Ambassador of Guyana with the photographer.

However, as a professional photographer, he is saddened by how the situation has changed from what it was before. to what it is today. “Before we could move around and photograph freely, now there are so many security restrictions. Previously, photographers could directly approach and take pictures of His Highness the Amir of Kuwait, or when foreign dignitaries arrived at Kuwait airport, but this is no longer the case. The security is very difficult and we cannot go anywhere close. All photographs are provided by the official Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), and the Amiri Diwan after their approval.”

Joseph, who finds his current work at the Kuwait Times very rewarding, has fond memories and appreciation for the newspaper’s founder and his family. “I enjoyed my experience at the Kuwait Times, my colleagues were friendly and gave me a lot of support for my endeavors. I have no regrets, I will leave with a lot of memories, especially of the former editor-in-chief and founder of Kuwait Times, Yousuf Saleh Alyan, who was a wonderful teacher and mentor. He was also a great inspiration, and his passing away was a huge loss to me personally and to the industry.”

Ambassador of Senegal with the photographer.

Asked about his future plans, Joseph smiles brightly and says, “I plan to return to my family in Syria, and simply rest. All these years, I was unable to bring my family here, so I am looking forward to enjoying the rest of the time with my wife and children. Nevertheless, I will miss all my friends here, and I have great respect for them. I hope to keep in touch and maybe see them sometime in the future when our paths cross again.”

By Christina Pinto
Staff Writer