At the sharp end of the spear

2011-07-22 13:48

This has been a grievous season for the tightknit tribe of combat photographers.

For The New York Times, the sorrow began last October, when a land mine exploded under South African João Silva, the co-author of The Bang Bang Club, while he was shooting pictures of an American patrol near Kandahar, Afghanistan. The mine destroyed both his legs and shredded his intestinal tract.

Another South African, Anton Hammerl, was tragically killed in Libya earlier this year and his death was covered up by the Libyan authorities.

Three other photographers – Jehad Nga, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario – were among the numerous journalists who disappeared while in the custody of Libyan state thugs, where they were beaten and terrorised before their release was negotiated.

The darkness deepened by several hues last month when two admired lens men – Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros – were killed while embedded in Libya’s hapless rebel militia.

Covering conflict is perilous for any journalist, but photographers are most at risk. They need a sustained line of sight to frame their photographs, and they cannot avert their eyes as they have to let the images in, no matter how disturbing.

Robert Capa’s famous advice to younger photographers – “get closer” – translates in combat to “get more vulnerable”, both literally and emotionally.

Back in 2000, Silva and Greg Marinovich, a shooter who was my partner and guide on journalistic adventures in South Africa, published The Bang Bang Club, a book about four photographer friends who worked together during apartheid’s bloody death rattle. By the time Marinovich and Silva wrote their account, they were the only survivors.

Kevin Carter, a charismatic, talented, addled mess of a man, had run a garden hose from his exhaust pipe into his car and, while smoking a hypnotic mix of methaqualone and marijuana, composed a suicide note.

That same year, 1994, Ken Oosterbroek, the grown-up of the quartet, was shot dead in a crossfire in Thokoza township. Marinovich, who was standing nearby that day, took a bullet to the chest, but eventually recovered.

After chasing wars across the globe for another five years and being wounded thrice more, Marinovich retired from combat work. That left only Silva.

When I called on Silva at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in May during his recuperation – where he was getting accustomed to his new robotic legs and fighting off waves of infection – Marinovich was also visiting.

Most afternoons, Silva strapped on his prostheses and circled the physical therapy room for 90 minutes, clinging to a walker. At the time, he was months from being able to walk on his own, confined to a bed or a wheelchair, attached to a colostomy bag and a stream of antibiotics.

His attitude, though, was amazingly resilient. (The first time I visited Walter Reed, I remarked that he didn’t seem to be any older. “No,” he replied, “but I’m a bit shorter.”)

Still, the serial operations and infections have made him more sombre. As medics came and went tending to Silva’s gauges and nozzles, we spent a few hours discussing the various predicaments of the field, beginning with the obvious mystery: why do they do this crazy work?

They do it for the most mundane of reasons (to feed their families), the most idealistic (to make the world pay attention), the most visceral (it is exhilarating, it is fun) and the somewhat existential.

Silva said: “It becomes your identity in so many ways. This is my identity. This is all I’m known for. Nobody sends me out to go shoot beautiful pictures for travel articles, you know?”

Then Marinovich asked: “If this hadn’t happened or if you were in a position physically, would you go back?”

To which Silva replied: “If I was in a position to, yeah. Why not?”

Perhaps because they are the sharp end of our journalistic spear, combat photographers have long been subjected to mythologising.

The most common myths are that they are reckless and hard-hearted. Released on the local circuit this weekend, one of The Bang Bang Club’s failings is that it falls for both of these superficialities.

It shows the moments of cowboy exuberance – Marinovich, played by Ryan Phillippe, sprinting across a sniper alley to fetch Cokes for his thirsty comrades – but ignores the exquisite caution, the calculation of every footfall, and the patient diplomacy that is more the rule in conflict coverage.

Another scene has Marinovich, at the site of a massacre, carefully adjusting the lighting so he can photograph a dead child while his girlfriend breaks down in horror.

“Maybe you have to be like that to do what you do,” she tells him afterward. “Be like what?” the movie version of Marinovich asks.

“I think you have to forget that those are real people,” she says.

For most of the combat photographers I’ve known, the idea that they are unfeeling is exactly wrong. You can see the almost unbearable sympathy in the best of their work, and it is an adhesive that binds them to one another.

What people mistake for emotional distance, I think, is an intensity of experience that an outsider cannot fully penetrate.

“People just don’t get it,” Silva said. “You have to be there and you have to live it.”

The moral implications of their work are not quite so readily dismissed. Any photographer who has snapped memorable images has had the experience of being damned for it, and it is something the most thoughtful of them take to heart.

One familiar indictment, a moral corollary to their ostensibly hardened hearts, is that they are the “paparazzi of doom”, exploiting the misery of others.

Three months before he killed himself, Carter won a Pulitzer prize for a picture published on the front page of The New York Times, which showed an emaciated Sudanese toddler with a vulture lurking behind her.

Afterward, Carter was asked repeatedly what became of the girl. He stammered through a variety of answers, failing to comprehend that while his picture, by awakening the world to a famine, may have saved many lives, he was being judged as a heartless opportunist for not rescuing the one life that he had put at the centre of attention.

According to Silva, who was nearby, the child in the picture was within the perimeter of a feeding centre and not far away from adults – not quite so alone or menaced as the picture suggested.

The other knock on combat photographers is that they are cynics who have no values.

Silva, on assignment in Iraq for The Times in 2006, talked his way into a company of insurgents of the Mahdi Army in the battleground town of Najaf. For days, he accompanied and photographed snipers as they took aim at US soldiers. The coverage was vilified by some readers, for whom it was incomprehensible that we would show what the war looks like from the other side.

Silva said: “I do understand – if you have a son fighting in the armed forces or you might know someone who has lost his son – where that antagonism comes from. But from my point of view, I was just being a professional,” revealing the state, and state of mind, of the other side.

An altogether different moral dilemma falls on the editor: what is the obligation of those who send journalists to war? Editors pay these people to risk their lives and are literally their enablers.

After the CBS reporter Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Egypt and Addario was manhandled by her captors in Libya, some critics demanded to know how we could justify sending women into places where the threat of bombs and bullets is compounded by the threat of se

xual violence.

The women who do this work will tell you that the question is patronising, that they are capable of making their own choices and that, importantly, they have access to stories that men do not.

Addario recalls covering sexual assault as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Darfur. The victims were more comfortable entrusting their stories and showing their wounds to a woman.

In Muslim societies, Addario points out, female reporters and photographers have access to homes, women and girls that would be off limits to men.

For an editor, the obligation is to provide the equipment and training, to make clear that no story or picture is worth a life and, if they get into trouble, to do everything to get them out.

This formulation may be tested when Silva is ready to work again. If he asks to go to Baghdad or some other place where things blow up, what is the answer?

» Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times

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