War stories: dispatches from front-line photographers
Photographers in conflict zones risk their lives to capture stories of people caught up in violence. Who are these photographers, and how do they balance personal safety with taking incredible photographs in hostile environments? Amanda Copp finds out.
These days it can feel like conflict is everywhere. Splashed across TV screens and newspaper headlines are a procession of wars, military coups, terrorism, and human rights abuses. While most of the world shrinks away from this violence, a certain breed of photographer willingly jumps into the fray in pursuit of documenting the lives of people caught up in the chaos. Places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are just news headlines for most, but they have become workplaces, and even homes, for photographers who risk their lives to capture moments in the ravages of war.
I shouldn’t be alive
In conflict zones, close calls and near-death experiences come with the territory. In unstable nations, shootouts and bombings are just background noise to people’s everyday lives. Australian photographer Jack Picone is based in Thailand and goes wherever work takes him. A master of black and white film photography, Picone has covered conflicts in places like Israel, Gaza, Sudan, and Rwanda, and is also a co-founder of the photo festival, Reportage. “I conservatively estimate that I should have been killed at least five times over by now,” Picone recalls. “The three most intense of these five times are as follows: once at the hands of a machete-wielding mob in Rwanda; the second time was in southern Sudan, when a Sudanese government soldier put his pistol to my temple and screamed that he was going to pull the trigger; and the third time was during the Nagorno-Karabakh War [in Azerbaijan] when a sniper, and incoming mortar shells, pinned me down.” Picone says in each one of these moments, it was only chance intervention or some quick thinking that allowed him to slip away unscathed – an experience shared by many photographers in this risky business.
Something worse than bombs
The photographers interviewed tell tales of surviving suicide bombings, army crossfire, violent protests, and even helicopter crashes relatively unscathed. They have had film demanded from them at gunpoint, run out of petrol in ISIS-controlled territory, and seen people right next to them felled by gunfire. As a staff photographer for the Washington Post, Andrea Bruce lived in Iraq for eight years while documenting the Middle East. The American photographer is a member of the photo agency, NOOR and is currently on the road as she bounces between projects. She says despite having had close calls with bomb blasts and shootings, those things don’t scare her as much as the volatility of angry crowds. She recalls an incident after a multiple-suicide bombing in Karbala, Iraq, where she went to the scene and started taking photos, almost by instinct. “Then everyone turned on me because you’re there and you’re a foreigner and you’re taking pictures. It can go quickly from one person pushing you or holding you, to 50 people, and that is scary.”
Should I stay or should I go
Photographers in conflict zones manage to strike a fine balance between taking fantastic photographs and maintaining personal safety. But there seems to be no rules in this high-stakes game. Photographers often rely on sheer gut instinct to tell them when to stay and capture the action or when to run for their lives. According to Australian photographer, Adam Ferguson it is all about calculated risk. He has covered the US military intervention in Afghanistan, as well as geopolitical issues in places like Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Pakistan. “A conflict environment is inherently unpredictable so you can never really know whether you’re going to be safe or not,” he says. Ferguson has worked a lot with US and Iraqi troops and says sometimes things can go wrong, and no one can plan for it. “I don’t think an image is worth dying for. I think a life’s work is more important than one image,” he says.
Slovenian photographer, Matic Zorman has already covered conflicts in Gaza, the Arab Spring in Egypt, and the refugee crisis of Eastern Europe since his career began in 2008. This year he won first prize in the People category of the World Press Photo awards for his image of refugee children on the Macedonian-Serbian border. “Being a self-taught freelancer, I used to run on coffee, cigarettes, and adrenaline, not minding risks too much, and only wanting to get a good photo. But reading the dark news about colleagues dying, being wounded or kidnapped, I now believe that personal safety should come before great photographs. Always.”
On the front line
While there has recently been a trend towards media organisation staff and freelancers completing safety training, such as RISC, and first aid courses, the reality of conflict photography is that much of the time, you have to be on the front line. David Dare Parker is a Walkley Award winning photographer who was previously the official Australian War Memorial’s Middle East photographer and has covered conflict throughout Timor-Leste and Thailand. He says while safety is important, ultimately you have to be where the action is happening. “You can’t take pictures from a hotel room; you’ve got to be there. You have to be front and centre, and there are no half measures. It doesn’t always have to be frontline – there are stories in the back – but you need to show how people live under these conditions,” he says.
In war zones people see terrible things. While there are often times of hope, the worst of humanity can be revealed in times of conflict. Seeing death is inevitable, and pain and suffering is a constant presence. Questions of ethics begin to surface when taking pictures of such immense suffering and, on occasion, just outright blood and gore. Are there times when photographers will put down their cameras? Jack Picone says there have definitely been times when he has censored himself. “Intuitively, I knew what I was looking at was so horrific that it would never be published in mainstream media, but retrospectively I have regretted the decision not to take the photograph. Why? Because photography has a wider role to play in society and the world, especially in terms of being ‘evidence’ and a historical record,” he says. Picone believes the need for awareness is more important than shying away from confronting imagery. In his view, if a photo can spark change and debate, it overrides anything that might be classified as ‘too shocking’ for audiences.
Andrea Bruce says when it comes to shooting gore, photographers mostly “shoot now and think later”. She says that confronting scenes are just realities of war and expresses her frustration at publications that argue readers don’t want to wake up on a Sunday morning and see war scenes with their morning coffee. “I think that’s the most horrible argument… I think we have a responsibility to show people what they may not want to see… You don’t show gore just for gore’s sake. You show a good picture of something that honestly happened; I don’t think you should edit it.”
An influx of violent imagery raises the argument that these days people have become ‘desensitised’ to violence in the world. Yet Adam Ferguson points out that this desensitisation is nothing new, and says that people were warned of this phenomenon back during the Vietnam War. “It’s not just a saturation of war photography, it’s a saturation of information which makes it harder to get people’s attention on a single topic because we consume so much information and imagery every day,” Ferguson says. Andrea Bruce argues the concept of ‘desensitisation’ seems to exclusively describe the West. She says places where she has lived, like Iraq and Mexico, see more violence than the West and yet don’t have the same problem with desensitisation. “Their newspapers are full of violence; I mean like really gory, this-is-what’s-happening type pictures, and people are not desensitised. So it’s very much a US and Europe-based feeling… They just don’t want to see anymore of war or bad things, and I think that has less to do with being desensitised and more about feeling somewhat guilty about the things that are happening in the world.”
Anyone who works for a newspaper or television station will become familiar with meetings where images may be deemed ‘inappropriate’ for viewers. If footage is not censored, viewers who see horrific imagery will often write complaints to newspapers about how their breakfast was ruined by confronting photos on the front page. Born in Argentina, Walter Astrada has worked for various news organisations throughout his time covering conflicts. He thinks people have double standards when it comes to real-life conflicts. “It’s the same people that pay to go to the cinema and see a movie where a guy with machine gun is killing a lot of people, and they sit there and eat popcorn. I think it is a double standard in that way. We pay to see people killing each other, but we don’t want to see that it is real and that it is really happening somewhere, someplace.”
Giving it all up
Today, Astrada has left conflict zones behind and for the last 15 months has ridden a motorcycle around the world photographing stories. After covering unrest in Madagascar, Astrada became frustrated by audiences’ lack of response to what he was risking his life to document. “Basically, nobody was interested in what was going on there. It was really sad and frustrating in situations where I was really passionate about something, and putting my life on the line to cover it, and nobody really seemed to care. I really think that we need to continue to be there shooting, but it’s heartbreaking.” Currently in Southeast Asia, his passion still lies in covering social issues, but he has decided to focus on long-term, personal projects such as his documentation of violence against women.
Agnes Dherbeys is another photographer who has done her time in conflict zones, but has given it up to pursue other projects. Currently based in Paris, Dherbeys lived in Bangkok for 12 years and covered unrest in Southeast Asia, including the Red Shirts unrest in Thailand. “That is not the way that I want to work anymore. It’s not the danger, it’s just the imbalance of it all and how useless you feel witnessing these things and how little people care about it.” She feels that images from war zones focus too much on breaking news and don’t delve deeper to give audiences more information on people who live in those places. “I want to think more about my projects and my subjects. I want to go behind what you see.” Dherbeys warns younger photographers that reality often means they won’t always be published. “They may take great risks and for no publication. Then once you’re published, the picture may exist for just a day. I think if you want to work in conflict zones, don’t do it for the wrong reasons.”
A word of warning
The appeal of adrenaline rushes or career progression quickly fade in conflict zones and photographers need to be motivated by something much deeper than that. Ferguson gives a dark warning for those wishing to dive into conflict reporting. “Be careful what you wish for. Early in my career, I underestimated the way experiencing conflict changes you as a human, and while I wouldn’t make any different decisions now, I think every young photographer who aspires to cover war needs to understand that they are signing up to something that is going to change their life. I think people need to be very responsible, deliberate, and considered about making that decision, and not make that decision light heartedly. Because it’s no joke. Anyone can go into a war zone and risk their life and come out, but it’s being able to live with those decisions and the things you witness after war where things get complicated, and I think someone needs to have a huge amount of conviction to be able to do that.”
Focus on what’s important
David Dare Parker remains positive and says it’s not all doom and gloom. He says that some of the most powerful stories that come out of war zones are not from the frontline, but from the everyday people caught up in the violence. “There is grace in war as well – people rebuilding their lives. I think you focus on that. It brings the humanity back into these places, because you tend to forget there are people living amongst that. It’s their stories you try to tell.” Bruce agrees, saying that photographers must look at both sides of conflict – the action as well as people’s everyday lives. “People need to see the reality of war which is that life goes on.”
Many around the world prefer to turn away from confronting images that emerge from war zones, but these events are important parts of history and must be documented. These photos have the power to change public opinion, and, at their best, can spark movements towards peace. At great risk to their personal safety, photographers of war live with a conviction to capture perpetrators and victims of conflict and share their stories with the world. In places where every new day brings new and evolving dangers, these photographers manage to tell incredible stories through incredible imagery.