A Multimedia Production By

© Peter Howe

Photos by
Patrick Chauvel
Philip Jones Griffiths
Ron Haviv
Catherine Leroy
Don McCullin
Susan Meiselas
Christopher Morris
James Natchtwey
Maggie Steber
Laurent Van der Stockt

Why Would Anyone Do That Job?

BY Peter Howe
December 2002

I was born during the Second World War. After making my very hazardous entry into this world my mother took one look at me and decided it was time to move from London. Anyone as sensitive and precious as I obviously was even at that young age clearly shouldn’t be subjected to the nightly bombings that she had experienced. We moved in with relatives who lived in the industrial midlands of England in a town called Wolverhampton. Unfortunately this turned out to be the Luftwaffe’s next target, and after a couple of months of sleepless nights provided through the teamwork of me and the German pilots she took us both back to the relative sanctuary of the capital. By the time we returned the resourceful Germanic people had invented an early intercontinental ballistic missile called the V-bomb, and so it started all over again. By this time my mother was so tired I don’t think she cared if we lived or died, so we defiantly stayed put and survived.

Whether or not this early experience was a cause for my fascination with military history I don’t know, but it was certainly a factor in a long-term desire to author a book on war photographers, and their experiences in combat. I’m not one of those military buffs who pour for hours over diagrams of the Battle of Waterloo. My eyes slide over any map with arrows and blocks on it, because it’s not strategy and tactics that fascinate me; it’s the experience and emotions of combat. Combat is arguably the most intense experience that a human being can face. It is also one that is virtually indescribable to anyone who hasn’t shared it. Most of us expect to survive to the end of the day/week/month, and so survival is not something we savor. This is very different to the men and women who fight or photograph warfare. Survival takes on a precious quality when it is no longer assured.

During my thirteen years as a photographer I photographed two conflicts, both were civil wars, one in Northern Ireland and one in El Salvador, although I didn’t notice much civility in either. I also hated being there, and couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t find it exciting to get shot at, and although I worked in both regions on several occasions, I did so because they were important stories, not because I had any burning desire to be there. These experiences increased my respect for those who do have the courage and commitment to keep coming back year after year to tragedy after tragedy, and also gave me a level of understanding of and empathy for the hazards that they face. However when I came to interview the ten photographers featured in the book I was surprised and humbled by how little I did know, and how limited my war stories were compared to true combat photographers.

When family and friends found out that I was writing a book on war photographers the first question that they asked was: “Why would anyone do that job?” The answer is often multi layered. One thing that cannot be ignored is that war produces “good” photographs. It is dramatic, elemental and often monumental. One of my favorite military historians, J. Glenn Gray in his book The Warriors puts it this way: “War as a spectacle, as something to see, ought never to be underestimated. There is in all of us what the Bible calls ‘the lust of the eye.’” At best though this can only be a partial answer; there are many other aspects of human society that produce dramatic photographs without the added disadvantages of death or disablement. The adrenalin factor also cannot be discounted. Several photographers in Shooting Under Fire speak frankly about the energy produced by the body when working under these intense conditions, and the almost giddy feeling of relief that beating the odds can bring. But the overriding reason that comes through loud and clear in their stories is the conviction that this work is important, and that there is a fulfillment as a journalist to be a witness to history unfolding before your eyes, even history of the darkest kind. This is the motivation that keeps them returning to the earth’s most hellish places. Even those who feel that their work will make no difference whatsoever to the course of warfare and man’s predilection for aggression hold the belief that the value of witness is to prevent revisionist historians in the future from denying the unspeakable acts that are a regular feature of war. In fact Ron Haviv’s work from the Balkans was used by the War Crimes Tribunal in indictments that arose out of that tragedy.

When you embark on a project that is as time and energy consuming as a book you really have to know why you’re doing it and what you hope to achieve through its publication. Who will read it and what do you think they will get out of it? I hope that Shooting Under Fire will achieve the two goals that I set out for it. The first is that it will appeal not only to photo fans but through the narrative of the photographers interviewed it will also be engaging to readers who are interested in military history, or indeed history in general. Secondly I also very much want it to bring home to the reader the reality of war. This book is neither pro- nor anti-war. Its job is to underscore the fact that war is not romantic and not a John Wayne movie. I remember watching the movie The Green Berets sitting next to a very tough and taciturn colonel in the officer’s mess of Thule Air Force base in Greenland. As it ended he said to nobody in particular: “The only thing they got right about that war was the Jack Daniels.” I think that as we are poised once again to send young men and women into battle to fight on our behalf we need to make sure that we get more than just the Jack Daniels right. Information is the fuel that fires democracy; we need it to be accurate and compelling to help us make difficult decisions as a nation.

I realize as I write this that there is also a third goal, and that is to give the reader an appreciation of the risks taken and hardships suffered by war photographers to bring home this information to the front page of a newspaper or magazine. I don’t think many people think about how difficult survival is under many of these circumstances even without the bullets and shells. Take Grozny as an example. There are no hotels, no restaurants, no potable water or electricity. What do you pack to stay there for a week, a month or maybe three? The list that one of the photographers gave me was: A change of trousers, two shirts, socks and underwear, a shortwave radio, a flashlight, a medical kit, a wash kit and a water pump with a filter. The entire outfit is unisex and should weigh less than twenty pounds. It doesn’t leave a lot of space for sunscreen and John Grisham novels.

As you read the excerpts that follow from just a few of the stories in the book I hope that you will be as impressed and moved as I was by the frankness and honesty that the photographers display, and also the thought and commitment that has gone into them choosing this hazardous profession. These are not adrenaline crazed cowboys seeking one thrill after another, but intelligent and dedicated journalists who know exactly why they do this, and also exactly when to stop.

© Peter Howe

Shooting Under Fire - by Peter Howe

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