Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Since prehistoric times war has been primal to the human estate. War is an integral part of our DNA. The simplest disputes have been settled by violence. These exploits become legend & generations have drawn pictures on cave walls, sung songs, written books to make sure nobody forgets.
"Blood alone moves the wheels of history."
When I was a boy, my friends & I used to play “war”. We dressed up as soldiers & fabricated weapons. We ran around the neighborhood shooting & blowing everything up, mimicking the sound effects of gunfire & explosions we heard on television. At the time, I am sure we saw it as romantic, heroic & exciting. We killed each other over & over but nobody dies in make-believe. Some of us never outgrow that illusion.
On my recent excursion to Perpignan, France where I attended the Visa Pour L’Image, which is the premier international festival of photojournalism, the prevailing topic was war. Photographers came from everywhere to celebrate & display news photography. Most of the pictures were about conflict. Lots of blood & guts. Not for the faint of heart. Their mission is to stop magazines & newspapers from continuing to sanitize the media & hide the images of suffering in the world.
War photography has been with us since the Civil War & the Crimean War. Roger Fenton, Timothy O’Sullivan & Mathew Brady have been attributed with revealing the realities to the general public. They portrayed lifeless, inanimate bodies where painters had previously only shown prancing horses & gleaming swords. The names of modern photojournalists are bigger than life: Robert Capa, Larry Burrows, Margaret Bourke-White, David Douglas Duncan, Nick Ut, Alexandra Boulet.
"They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force-nothing
to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident
arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could
get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind…The
conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those
who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves,
is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."
--Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
My personal theory is that some of the savvy leaders in many rebellions took a page from Che Guevara’s astute analysis, i.e., when you are the underdog & have no voice, you allow journalists access because, with so little control over your global message, any news about your righteous cause is eventually good news.
God is on our side.
Whatever the intent photography is rarely free of partisanship. With little effort it exposes the perverse energy of war & reveals the “original sin of mortality”. War is failure—the defeat of civilization. Any honor in war is a mirage. On the other hand newspapers increase their sales & journalists build careers chasing the fuss.
135 photographers of different nations are known to have died or
disappeared while covering the wars in Indochina, Vietnam, Cambodia
In the beginning I thought my colleagues who covered conflicts were the real heroes in photography. I am not so sure anymore. In stressful situations I met a lot of “adrenalin junkies”. I do not question their tenacity, just suspicious of their/my motivation.
War \ˈwȯr\ – n. an active and declared, often armed and hostile, conflict
between states, nations or entities. War is waged for many reasons
including defense, revenge, to extend commerce, to acquire territory
or wealth, and to display domination or superiority.
“Banana republic” is a pejorative with a hundred-year-old history. In the 1980s Central America was in turmoil. Considered the definition of banana republics, I traveled to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua & El Salvador on several COngressional DELegations (CODELS) with members of the US House of Representatives. Each country had its own unique State of Siege. Traveling with such august politicians gave me unprecedented access.
Approximately 57 photojournalists have been killed in the line of duty
Early on my tours I would skulk around the bars frequented by newsmen. Even the hotels became famous: the Camino Real in San Salvador & the legendary Hotel Intercontinental in Managua. Eavesdropping on conversations, stories were discussed in detail. I drank with people who generously allowed me to accompany them incountry. Lashed to a broken down taxi, we bumped through potholes on dirt roads to chase a new lead. The words PRENSA & TV were taped onto any open surface on the car with gaffers tape. The surrealistic accompaniment of static-filled radio music being broadcast from the USA was our soundtrack while we sped though the starless black night.
"War, n. A by-product of the arts of peace."
-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
History cannot judge war photography like it does so much other art. The language of composition & lighting & exposure are almost irrelevant. Just look at the picture & see the violence in front of the photographer. At any moment he/she is at risk.
A writer once interviewed me about James Nachtwey’s work & why a particular image was taken. I mentioned that she might be missing the point because at the time he was in great danger & that might have more to do with the aesthetics than anything else. “How do you know?” she asked. I told her the evidence was multiple dirt splatters at the bottom of the black/white frame that indicated automatic weapon fire striking at Nachtwey’s feet.
"In peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war the fathers bury their sons."
On a lonely road in the depths of Guatemala I was photographing a colorfully dressed woman carrying a huge bundle on her head, child in tow. She was passing under political graffiti painted on the side of a hill. At that moment I had an epiphany. No matter what effect my photographs might have, eventually I would be able to leave & the helpless I was documenting could not.
On my last tour in El Salvador, I was thrown into a guerilla stockade & stripped of all my cameras. Eventually my translator convinced the guard to let us talk to the colonel. After what seemed like an interminable amount of time he negotiated permission to photograph their stronghold. Every time I heard small arms fire from the firefight just over the hill, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. It just never seemed to end. In my nightmares it never has. My mother did not raise any fools. For the whole episode I was scared.
- Rules for Embedded Media, http://www.defencelink.mil/news/Feb2003/d20030228pag.pdf
- See Committee to Protect Journalists, www.cpj.org/deadly/index.php
- According to the committee to Protect Journalists, www.cpj.org/deadly/index.php