Morality Plays

By Peter Howe

I'm not exactly sure how I ended up doing a monthly column for the Digital Journalist. Dirck never asked me, and I never volunteered. Like much of the rest of my career it seemed to happen without a lot of input from me. I've never written a column before, although I have worked with people who did, principally at the New York Times when I was employed there as a picture editor, another thing that I never planned. To equate my efforts with the stalwarts who fill the column inches of that worthy journal is like comparing Welch's Grape Juice to a fine burgundy; the ingredients are the same, but the result is quite different. However, I've learned that there is one thing that we do have in common, and that is an abiding fear that when deadline approaches we'll have nothing to write about. So far I've manage to struggle by, but this month nothing. If anything noteworthy happened in the wonderful world of photography in the last four weeks nobody told me. To the best of my knowledge Corbis didn't do anything silly or Getty anything greedy. There were no strikes, no lawsuits, no celebrity attacked any paparazzi; there were no copyright violations out of the ordinary; in short, nothing caught my attention that put ammunition into the breech.

There's an old joke about an actor overly fond of talking about himself who ends one monologue by saying: "But enough about me; what do you think of my new play?" So in that spirit let me tell you about this book that I'm writing. It's about combat photographers, and of course the one subject that you can always write about is combat photographers. They have both the best and worst job security in the world inasmuch as there's always work for them to do provided they don't mind getting shot at. I interviewed ten of them, ranging from those who have made this work their life careers, as well as those who became involved in combat in much the same unplanned way that I became involved in picture editing. It's a book of the stories that they tell about their experiences in the field, and these can be harrowing, heart wrenching and hilarious, sometimes all at the same time. Don McCullin describes a Captain in the Biafran Army giving a patriotic lecture to one of his dead soldiers; Catherine Leroy relates how she lived in a brothel in Saigon for many months and didn't realize until the MPs raided it one night; Chris Morris talks frankly about the breakdown that he had in Sarajevo; Patrick Chauvel chillingly tells of the conversation that he held for four hours as he lay grievously wounded in Panama, chilling because it was with a dead colleague killed in the same firefight.

I've always loved listening to photographers' stories. One of the best parts of working on the Day in the Life series of books was getting together with fifty or sixty shooters and just listening to the anecdotes flow. It's the greatest entertainment in the world, and also belies the stereotype of photojournalists that too often surfaces of them as semi-articulate, partially domesticated animals. I don't know if they still are, but on Fleet Street photographers used to be known as monkeys, the implication being that what they do any trained simian could adequately accomplish. The stories that my interviewees told me were certainly not idle chatter between banana breaks; they were passionate, intelligent, articulate and aware. Without exception, each photographer was also deeply concerned with the ethics and morality of their profession and of the world around them.

Morality seems curiously old-fashioned at the beginning of this new millennium where Enron expediency appears to have taken over from ethics in almost any profession you can name. The Pentagon press briefings that accompanied the recent operations in Afghanistan sounded more like the shareholder meetings of a large corporation than descriptions of mortal combat. The euphemisms of "collateral damage" and "friendly fire" are designed to make us feel more comfortable with military screw-ups in the same way that AOL-Time Warner executives will explain to investors why the financial destruction of that conglomerate isn't really that much of a problem. Contrast such newspeak blandishments with these statements:

"I used to go to war as a communicator, as somebody with a conscience. I'm not so sure that what I achieved meant anything to anybody because the war's still raging and they're getting even more violent, but my intention was to discourage people from committing violations against other human beings." Don McCullin

"It's too easy to be cynical and say there's no point. That way, everybody's off the hook. You can turn your back. Nobody's responsible. No one has to put anything on the line. I don't think that's right. I think we do have to put ourselves on the line and keep going out there, because it does make a difference. Each one of us is only a grain of sand on the beach, but all together we have an impact. There's no divine intervention. At the end of the day, all we have are each other." James Nachtwey

"It's a life job, because you will change; war makes you change. The more war you experience the more professional your work becomes and the people you photograph need you to be professional. They don't care about your emotions. They have their own emotions. You're just the messenger. You have to be able to put all your emotions behind you, and it's not easy; it takes time." Patrick Chauvel

"I lost a lot of friends in El Salvador, but it didn't change my sense that something horrific was happening there, something that had to be documented. My own life wasn't that important to me in comparison to the idea that somehow the war would be stopped if the insanity of El Salvador could be seen. I needed to scream about it - and the photographs attempted to be my scream, in a way." Susan Meiselas

These are the clear statements of professionals motivated by a high sense of morality, and if this sounds pompous, or tedious, or makes you feel bored or uncomfortable then don't become a photojournalist, because a sense of morality is the most important lens you'll have in your camera bag. It's always been so. Look at the work of Matthew Brady showing the American public for the first time the true cost of war, corpses on the battlefield of Antietam. Look at the images produced by Lewis Hine or Jacob Riis; study the work of Eugene Smith of Eugene Richards; try taking the morality out of Margaret Bourke White's pictures of Buchenwald. We talk a lot about bearing witness, and this is an important act, but it's only the starting point. The chimpanzee with a point-and-shoot can bear witness, and I recently read on about a robotic war correspondent that someone has developed. Presumably this could bear witness too, if it ever worked. A true photojournalist is a witness with a conscience, someone with a clear sense of right and wrong, and a burning need to communicate his or her moral position. It may not even be your sense of right or wrong, but it is their motivating force.

Like I said, if all of this morality talk makes you feel uncomfortable then that's your problem, not photojournalism's. It only becomes photojournalism's problem if its practitioners agree with you, because then we end up with just the thrill seekers, the voyeurs and the manipulators, and we turn documentary photography into a hollow shell. That morality is the core ingredient of photojournalism may mean that it's out of tune with the times, but not out of touch with humanity or history.

Peter Howe © 2002

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