Ideas

Beyond Words: Photographers of War

Think of any armed conflict and a still image springs immediately to mind. From the Civil War to Iraq, photographic images of conflict sear themselves onto our consciousness, and reside in a psychic space that lies beyond words. Yet we so rarely hear from the people who create the images of some of the most definitive events in modern history. This documentary features over twenty of the world's most prominent photojournalists and photo editors, and does so in their own voices.
In South Africa, photographer James Nachtwey works in the middle of a street battle between African National Congress (ANC) supporters and Zulu miners who are loyal to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) before the first free elections in 1994. Photographer Peter Turnley can also be seen taking pictures in the background. (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Think of any armed conflict and a still image springs immediately to mind. From the Civil War to Iraq, photographic images of conflict sear themselves onto our consciousness, and reside in a psychic space that lies beyond words. Yet we so rarely hear from the people who create the images of some of the most definitive events in modern history. This documentary features over twenty-five of the world's most prominent photojournalists and photo editors, and does so in their own voices. It was based on interviews conducted for an award-winning CBC television documentary of the same name.

Beyond Words: The Back Story

Back in my CBC TV days, I was worked on a program called CBC News: Sunday. In 2003, we'd produced a documentary called Deadline Iraq: Uncensored Stories of the War, for which we'd interviewed about fifty journalists from around the world and working in different media, TV, radio, print, photojournalists. And one of the producers, Eric Foss (who was also a career cameraman), and I noticed that the most surprising and gripping stories seemed to come from photojournalists. Maybe that stood to figure: photographers cannot do "rooftop" or "taxi" journalism. They have to be right there, so their stories tend to have the same kind of immediacy.

We pitched the idea to our boss, Stuart Coxe, who after about forty seconds said simply: "Do it". Eric and I then identified twenty-four photojournalists and proceeded to videotape what are called off-camera interviews, interviews in which the questions are designed to elicit complete, first-person stories and not be included in the final cut. 

After the first few interviews, Eric and I knew we'd struck gold. We were also mystified that so little media attention had been paid to photographers like them. After all, still images of conflict are the iconic ones: the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, the Saigon street execution of a Viet Cong, hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a Syrian boy's body on the beach. Yet no one seems to talk to them directly or at length, these image-makers. We soon found out why: securing the interviews was an ordeal. They were always traveling, often in chaotic environments where electricity and communications were in short order. And, truth be told, they're not exactly the most attentive to responding to emails and phone calls. Yet once reached, they were eager to talk.

"The biggest myth about photojournalists is that we're all cowboys." That's a paraphrase of what one French photographer told us right out of the gate. And then he later sent us some photos of himself on various assignments, and one of them showed him grinning, red bandana, sunglasses and both arms raised with an automatic rifle hoisted over his head. The photo didn't seem to mesh with his assertion. He also said something else to us, and while it's tautological, it's also insightful: "Within our own norms, I think we're quite normal people." After all the interviews were finished, what he said took on a poignant hue. He and the other interviewees are 'normal,' whatever that may mean. But their norms certainly aren't most people's. I could never do what they do. And that was one of the major reasons why Eric and I wanted to make our documentary in the first place.

1968, South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, fires his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem on a Saigon street, early in the Tet Offensive. The photo showed the war's brutality in a way Americans hadn't seen before. Protesters saw it as graphic evidence that the U.S. was fighting on the side of an unjust government. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams, File)


I'm not sure who said that the still image may well be the basic unit of consciousness. If that's true, then the importance of photographs is beyond dispute because its power lies, quite literally, beyond words. This holds true despite the obvious narrowing of opportunity for images to count in mainstream print media. Their work allows the mind to dwell on a focal point of time, culled from the stream of moments which collectively form history. In fact, it's impossible to think of a war since the U.S. Civil War without having an image spring to mind — it's the image that stays with us, and generally not a radio report, or print article, or a television piece. This isn't a new or radical observation: even the Bush administration knew enough to prohibit photos of American military caskets on their way back from Iraq.

What is radical, at least to me, is that the people who take the images which define the very contours of our consciousness about war are largely unknown even to a literate audience. The bylines are tiny, the photos are often not given the space they deserve, and one almost never hears directly from photojournalists in popular media. Perhaps the fact that they're a relatively isolated community explains the plethora of photography awards and competitions. Who else would pay as much attention to their achievements? The much-celebrated James Nachtwey told us that being a famous photojournalist is almost a contradiction in terms. 

Rwandan Red Cross workers carry a refugee woman at Gisyne transit camp, November 17, 1996. (Corrine Dufka/Reuters)

But prizes and recognition aside, we wanted to know one thing above all: what does doing this work mean to them? As you'd expect with such an individualistic, see-it-for-myself kind of crowd, their answers spanned the spectrum. Some felt they could do absolutely nothing else in life, that they were privileged witnesses of history in the making. When I asked Jerome Delay what he'd have done if he couldn't have been a photographer, he replied tersely: give me one reason why I couldn't do what I'm doing now. Others felt they'd maybe been in the game too long, and confessed they could very well die with their boots on. The venerable Don McCullin said, stunningly, that his career was a waste and that he believes his work had no impact on the world. And Corinne Dufka, who described herself as having been ultra-competitive and consumed by ambition for her work, said she eventually felt as though she were losing her humanity. So she left the profession altogether and doesn't miss it a jot. What other group of journalists would offer such a range of impassioned, disparate opinions and experiences?

We didn't romanticize their work, and for the most part neither did they. My production partner, Eric Foss, had a long-standing interest in photography and photojournalism, quite apart from his TV camera work. And after each interview with a photographer, he'd have one of two responses: one, that he should just drop everything to take his still camera into the field. And two, that he'd never give up what he has to pursue such a hectic life. All the interviewees admit that their work impinges on their personal lives. Some have cited it a direct cause for divorce: you can't have a long-term, healthy relationship if you're not around. I did glean, here and there from certain photographers, a sense that their lives, their real, emotional lives, would begin sometime soon, just around the corner, after this next assignment or this coming year, when things calm down, which they never do. As one of them said: "You have no life as a photojournalist… I take that back: your life is on the road."

U.S. award-winning photojournalist James Nachtwey, right, rides on the top of a U.S. Humvee during a patrol in central Baghdad in this April 17, 2003 photo. Nachtwey, known for haunting images of war and poverty, and Time magazine senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf were wounded Dec. 10, 2003, in Baghdad when a grenade was tossed into their Humvee, while travelling with a U.S. Army patrol. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

On this point of living an itinerant life, Gary Knight was brutally honest. He said that photographers who knowingly and willingly go into war zones do so because there's some wound, something troubled in their past, which compels them to seek out the danger. It's not necessarily a self-destructive impulse, although it could be that. Gary said that in his own case, he went to Cambodia to punish his parents because they were going through a divorce. Going into a war zone validated his fragile sense of himself. It was also cathartic, in that combat externalized the violent emotions he felt internally. He, and others, were also honest enough to admit how exhilarating the experience can be, perhaps even addictive. Nothing else imparts intensity to one's life as facing death squarely and surviving, and they'll all tell you that. Some live for that sensation; others see it as part of the working conditions of the job. But it's undeniably there.

In the end, I'm not sure I'd say that most of the photojournalists were happy. Of course, you could say the same about dentists, or athletes, or anyone. But I have to admit to that if for some unholy reason I were consigned to spend the rest of my life on the proverbial desert island and I had to do so in the permanent company of other journalists, I'd choose photographers hands-down. They're just not as consumed as print people often are with sounding smart. They're also not as obsessed with their own appearance as television reporters are, in part because no living creature on earth can match television reporters for vanity, except of course television hosts. There is a relational quality to photojournalists that brings them outside of themselves, whatever their temperaments and personalities may be. There is engagement with the world, and that in itself is intensely engaging.

Police officers detain Getty Images photographer Paula Bronstein during a confrontation between police and pro-democracy protesters at Mongkok shopping district in Hong Kong October 17, 2014. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

One photographer, off camera, asked me if I thought they were screwed up — I'm not quite sure why she asked me. For what it's worth, I don't think they are. But if there were one trait that I'd ascribe to all of the interviewees it would have to be this: they have to see things for themselves. They are the most interesting, original, independent, socially-conscious sub-species in the profession. They seem to be unafraid of life, and reflexively generous. And they're also often very funny, obscenely so, and very salty. Patrick Chauvel had us in stitches telling us tales out of school about other photographers and their love lives, as well as about his own labile love life. This uncanny ability, or maybe it's a gift, to reach for the light while working in the darkest of circumstances, this is what they offer the world. And we owe them our gratitude for that. 
– Greg Kelly, Executive Producer, IDEAS

Addendum

One day prior to the airing of this episode, Eric Foss, my production partner on the TV documentary Beyond Words, passed away from cancer. I'd worked with Eric over five years at CBC News: Sunday, and my time in television is unimaginable without him. He was a consummate professional, infinitely patient, extraordinarily creative, practical yet visionary, and unfailingly calm, decent and fun even in the most pressured and exhausting of circumstances. The loss is monumental. This episode is dedicated to Eric, and to his wife and two children.


The photojournalists featured in this progam:

**This episode was produced by Dick Miller with additional production by Greg Kelly.

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