Johann van Tonder

On being a war photographer

2004-09-30 10:40

Every September the who's who of photojournalism gather in Perpignan, Southern France, for Visa pour l'image, the annual photojournalism festival. This year it culminated in a screening of some exclusive war footage out of Iraq.

As one might expect of an exhibition by the big guns, the work is in a class of its own. Although classics aren't produced everyday, those photographers who understand the situation, and really care about humanity, make riveting pictures.

Most contemporary war photographs are so repetitive that only a tiny percentage makes it through the picture-editing process.

I've discussed some of the reasons for this in previous columns. The most hard-hitting photographs from Iraq have been those that have been captured by soldiers on their cellphones in Abu Graib prison.

The Perpignan exhibitions, accompanied by interviews with their creators, remind us that behind the coverage we've come to take for granted, dedicated men and women are putting their lives in danger.

Indeed, war photography appears to be a very attractive career. Pardon the cliché, but if I had to be paid R10 every time I was asked for advice on the subject, I'd be earning some money for a change.

"Like, how do I shoot wars?"

From ambitious students to drop-outs from life; people of all ages continue to ask me this question. An evangelist on the Grand Parade has also shown interest.

My reply, "Why do you want to become a war photographer?"

Responses show that all too few of them have thought much about the role of a photojournalist in a conflict zone. They view this vocation - and I use this word deliberately - as one of constant adrenalin, thrill, and fame.

Not that I can't understand the appeal: I spent quite some time in war zones myself. But, almost without exception, 'candidates' have not considered the less glamorous aspects of the job.

Oh, it looks great in the movies. However, being caught in cross-fire doesn't sound all that bad until you've seen someone literally crap in their pants in the heat of things.

Guy Tillim, a great South African documentarian, who apparently rode into battle in Afghanistan on the equivalent of a tank's bonnet, once advised two young friends of mine who were on their way to cover the ongoing conflict in the Middle East: "Don't go to Israel to commit journalism."

Hallelujah! The majority of war photographers generally have very little time to dig into a story. Circumstances force them to scratch the surface, to cover the obvious "bang-bang".

Cornell Capa, brother of the famous war photographer Robert, coined the term concerned photographer: He maintained that a deep-seated concern for humankind connected the work of successful war correspondents.

Exposing the elements in society that have to be changed or, perhaps more nobly, those that had to be appreciated. That, for Capa, was their mission.

It is exactly the kind of people with no assignment, no experience in photojournalism even, and with a misguided desire, void of true compassion, to expose themselves to a guaranteed life-threatening situation that we don't want covering these events.

James Nachtwey, probably the most recognised name in the industry at present, was once asked whose side he was on in a war. "The side of humanity," he replied.

Indirectly, when I question people who "like, want to shoot wars", I'm hoping to detect a genuine concern. However, I seldom give advice unless I'm sure their concern isn't fake.

Send your comments to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University. He is currently finishing a book on how to break into the exclusive industry of photojournalism.

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