Some time ago, I wrote an article about legendary war photographer Don McCullin in response to him stating that he had ‘wasted fifty years of his life’. His declaration forces us to really think about the true impact of decades of war reporting, in which photographers risk their lives on a daily basis. And they’ve been dying since the beginning – male and female. Gerda Taro is thought to have died (1937) from injuries sustained during a collision with a tank in Spain, during the civil war. Dickey Chapelle died in 1965, right at the outset of the US ground war in Vietnam. The most recent examples that come to mind are Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington (both killed in Libya, 2011). These are of course only a fraction of those who’ve died.
As I said in the linked Don McCullin article, I still believe that war photorgraphy (and other kinds of conflict journalist) is valuable. However, periodically I wonder whether the time has passed for the highest risk work. I’m unresolved on it, but here are a few thoughts floating around in my mind:
- Does it really take a photograph taken in the thick of the action, with bullets flying overhead, to understand the politics or human misery involved i.e. to inform the public?
- What extra does the public gain from that extra risk taken by the journalist in question?
- Is it really the public need for understanding that drives the risks taken by journalists, or are the risks determined by war photographers and agencies chasing shocking, attention grabbing images?
- If it is our appetite for real life horror that is driving the ever greater risks journalists take? Are we the public therefore in some way responsible for the alarming fatality rate among war photographers?
- Are we really asking these questions seriously? Are the sensitivities associated with death and respect for the dead obstructing a transparent and frank discussion of this topic? I see two aspects to this: 1) a photographers death is invariably politicised by one or both sides (it will likely be used to exemplify the barbarity/indiscriminate violence of the perpetrating side and to underscore the ‘liberty and heroism’ of the other. 2) respect must be shown for the dead; this means means that criticism of the decisions made by the individual/agency/industry is fraught with peril, especially when you consider the inevitable politicisation of the situation.
- To jump a few steps ahead, these issues make it almost impossible to explore the notion that (some) people ostensibly involved in matters pertaining to public good may in fact be serving a much narrower agenda. Is a photographer chasing ‘The Shot’ doing so because he/she knows it will make a crucial difference to understanding the issue, or is he/she doing it ‘to get ahead/make headlines’? Are the agencies pressuring reporters for more ‘Bang-Bang’ not also purveyors of death? After all, if such images are not needed to thoroughly understand the situation , what other conclusion can one draw?
The reason this comes to mind now has little to do with war photography and everything to do with an article I read on Steve Huff’s site: Undercover in Afghanistan with a Leica M10, by John Milton. Reading this article made me shudder. In fairness to Milton, he has not described his activities in Afghanistan as being for selfless reasons. His words suggest to me that he’s a self-admitted thrill-seeker, who visits dangerous parts of the world for the buzz and interest. This in itself is nothing unusual, but it does make me nauseous. (Digression: while working there, I regularly read about ‘tourists’ getting themselves raped/killed/kidnapped in Afghanistan through their own foolishness and it is hard to say much more on that aspect (the risk to them is their business). However, the matter does not end there; these people routinely suck other people into their mess, especially when they are kidnapped. Ransoms may be paid, putting more people at risk and undermining foreign policy. Soldiers and policemen die trying to rescue them).
Back to the main topic, what struck me most was reader comments following the John Milton article. Commonplace responses included commending Milton for his ‘bravery’ and thanking him for bringing these photographs to the world, as if some sort of public benefit has resulted from his risk taking. In general, when are images/stories rendered superfluous by virtue of the many images and stories already in existence? In this specific case, do Milton’s images add anything to our understanding of Afghanistan? What came to mind most quickly was this uncomfortable question: ‘how much of an overlap exists between what Milton did and what some war photographers do?’ How many are essentially caught up within a closed system of motivation and reward with no real reference to the public good to keep everything in perspective? How many have died chasing awards, or other forms of recognition? How many have died as a result of trying to ‘out-do’ another, or simply because the agency was pushing them for ‘more bang bang’? Does ‘the public good’ entail a large dose of blood lust that we feel uncomfortable talking about?
This may seem absurd, but I’m now going to mention Hollywood; more specifically Saving Private Ryan. If a person needs to understand what firefights sound like, it has few peers. The real impact of various weapons upon the human body are exemplified very well. Do photographs taken in firefights really compare in terms of exemplifying the horrors of combat or simply the mechanics of metal meeting human flesh? Has our ability to simulate reality so well negated the need for the highest risk images?
Is it also possible that a thirst for gore is actually (and horribly ironically) impeding public understanding? One can’t go far reading war photographers’ accounts of their field work without reference to the stories they wanted to shoot but were pulled away from due ‘insufficient bang-bang’. There is little doubt in my mind that violence has become a commodity and it is something I have experienced personally in responses to my own photographs. A New York curator, who’d run an exhibition including my Afghanistan images (which are not combat photographs), told me that to really grab attention in the current setting one needed to do two things: 1) shoot colour and 2) show more violent, graphic images with real ‘shock value’. I found this rather sad – pathetic even – but an undoubtedly truthful assessment from a man with vast experience.
Here’s a Petapixel article by war photographer James Nachtwey, who is well known to take high risks. I’m very much in agreement that war photography is important; however, there is a huge spectrum of risks that can be taken under this title. Once serving, most soldiers don’t have many choices with regard to the risks they face, but photojournalists do. Perhaps this alludes to one of the roles of in-combat footage. Rather than evaluating the resultant images in terms of their ability to inform and bring about change, we should instead look at what the presence of the photographer means. By sharing risks and providing images of that experience with those people and sharing the risks, it is more an act of solidarity than one of education. The photographs, whatever they show and however much or little they bring about change, is the only real connection between the public and those most affected by the violence of war. It shows that we, the public, at least have that interest and the photographer is effectively our proxy. For me, the least resolved, most important and most uncomfortable question remains what we’re most interested in seeing.
What do you think?