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."
-Benito Mussolini

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

War photography applied objectively is meant to bear eyewitness on behalf of the rest of the world. Each skirmish is a chapter in history. War photographers document battles & casualties. And they remind us that every combatant is compounded by those who hurt on the periphery. However, war photographs can also serve as propaganda intended to assuage guilt or obfuscate reality. Civic leaders who understand the damage that the media can promulgate on a campaign will try to control journalists’ access. President Ronald Reagan prevented the press from getting close when he invaded Grenada. George W Bush would only allow “embedded” journalists when he started the Iraq War, both were efforts to manipulate public opinion.

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
& Laos.

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
since 1992.

On advice from journalists who preceded me I bought & smuggled in a bulletproof vest, then returned numerous times. To gather information before critical votes in Washington, DC, the organizers arranged meetings with heads of state, captains of industry, parish priests, school teachers & war correspondents. Much of it was cloak & dagger. We would arrange clandestine meetings with guerrilla leaders across the border in neutral Mexico City so as to not put them in harm’s way.

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.

  1. Rules for Embedded Media,
  2. See Committee to Protect Journalists,
  3. According to the committee to Protect Journalists,


    rs,  October 22, 2009 at 7:39 PM  

    sos photos + stories = awe inspiring/heart pounding/mind racing/gut wrenching/heart breaking/timeless reality for so many...some are thrust into conflict, some have conflict thrust upon them; some enter into it cautiously, and others are drawn to it like moths to a flame...maybe we learn...maybe peace someday...on some planet...until then, stories + photos.

    Anonymous,  October 25, 2009 at 6:55 PM  

    taking photographs in a war is an important & powerful way to communicate the horrors of war...war is NOT an integral part of our DNA... it is a learned behavior... settling disputes through violence only leads to more violence... war is never the path to peace... war is terrorism...

    Michael P. Krupa,  October 30, 2009 at 8:33 AM  

    Again you write in the language of the photograph--light here, darkness here, foreground, backdrop. And you photograph with a journalist's eye. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a remarkable work--good, clear sentences, a detailed narrative tale, an enduring story of the role of perspective in the cast of history. Please keep posting these notes from the road...

    gloria hall,  November 1, 2009 at 12:56 AM  

    immediately struck by the beauty in the photos, the first image evoked the black panthers & us's 2nd civil war, the pink barrette in the woman child's hair... thoughtful narrative

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    blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.