Bill Pierce - Nuts & Bolts

Between the
Battle Lines

Dirck asked me to read his editorial, thinking I might want to make some comments on his perspective of photographers who cover the violence of war. "I agree." is not a very stimulating or exciting comment, but it's true. In fact, in describing the actions of these photographers, he is often describing himself.

Let me give you an example - not a war example, but certainly one in a life-threatening situation. When the world press turned its attention to Three Mile Island, the most public U.S. nuclear disaster, Dirck and I were assigned to cover it by Time magazine. A week into the event, word came that the reactor was about to melt down. When that word arrived, Dirck had just ordered dinner for himself and assorted cronies at one of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's best restaurants. Pushing aside his appetizer, he called for the check, signed the bill and headed for Three Mile Island.

If I remember correctly, there were only two cars on the highway heading towards Three Mile Island. Every person in them was a photographer. There were a lot of cars heading in the other direction. Those were the sane people, part of a very large, high-speed exodus from the area.

Let me ask you a simple question. How do you get your film back to the office when you have just photographed a nuclear explosion up close?

Having agreed with Dirck, that news photographers are nuts, let me not disagree with him, but add to the reasons that photographers cover disaster and violence.

In his last paragraph, Dirck mentions a sense of duty and commitment and, quite accurately, the adrenaline rush and "the return to sanctuary - the food, the drink, the friends, and perhaps - yes, perhaps even the sex, that comes with the sweet aroma of just, still, being alive."

Let me add another element, covering something really important and doing something really useful - sending word back to the people who aren't there, saying, "Don't do this."

I had covered violence in my own country, but the first "official" war I ever covered came after I had just finished photographing three self-proclaimed non-virgins who were doing a dance on a rock in Central Park to celebrate the first day of Spring.

My next assignment was to fly to France and do a story on low-calorie gourmet cooking.

I was spending the night in London when Northern Ireland went nuts. I called my editor, said I was the closest person, and was off to cover the events. My editor reassigned low-calorie gourmet cooking and called our N.I. stringer (the managing editor of the Belfast Telegraph), saying I was on my way. I stayed there for six weeks during which my magazine did not run a single picture of the events. But I learned the turf, made some important contacts, and educated myself on a story I would cover off and on for the next twenty years. And, thank God, I managed to get one exclusive picture on another story, so my photo editor didn't have to eat total crow over my assignment.

The editor was John Durniak. He had a reputation as a great photo editor. He is, to me, the man who allowed me to do what photojournalists start out in this racket to do - something worthwhile. So, for me, he is the greatest.

Since I am supposed to be a grouch, though, let me give you the ugly update on the situation. Those days are over. For me, it has made no difference since the day my doctor said they didn't have to shoot me, just take away my pills. But there are young photographers who are getting hosed because they want to do something decent and important with their craft.

Worst case scenario: there are young photographers covering violence for less than one fifth of the day rate I made. I had complete medical coverage from my magazine - they don't. I had camera replacement - they don't. I had, as long as it was justified, an essentially unlimited expense account - they don't. Much of the time, I had a driver who was translator, expert on the local turf, and watched my back. In the Gulf War, one young photographer who lost his rental car when he was captured had to reimburse his magazine.

In part, because of this, there are very few experienced journalists who hang around to teach the newer folks. I used to get cursed out regularly by the older and wiser. "Only an idiot would do that." "Don't ever do that again." "That's the first smart thing you have done all week."

No more. I had one friend who on his second war assignment was the most experienced photographer in the group. He was wounded. I had an acquaintance killed on his first assignment. When under attack and imminent capture, no one stopped him from seeking shelter with the rebel commander. Once captured, everyone in the room with the leader was killed.

In his editorial Dirck talks about how wonderful it was for all of us. He's absolutely right. However, the current crop of photographers face greater dangers with less preparation and support. And then it really gets bad. Because their pictures are "ugly and offensive," they often lose out to pictures of starlets with large breasts.

Bill Pierce

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