The Digital Journalist
David Leeson Has Seen Hell
March 2005

by Dirck Halstead

David Leeson was sitting in front of his computer at his home in Dallas on a balmy spring day last year, browsing the Internet. Clicking onto The Digital Journalist, a Web site he had contributed to in the past, he began watching a video interview with David Douglas Duncan, in which the legendary photographer describes shooting the funeral of a Marine five decades earlier. Suddenly, Leeson started to sob. His wife happened to be watching through the window, and she ran to his side.

Different people have different names for what happened to Leeson that day: an emotional breakdown, or that all-encompassing term "exhaustion." It might also be called PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by Leeson's coverage of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 for his newspaper, the Dallas Morning News. Embedded with the Third Infantry Division, Third Brigade Combat Team as it fought its way across the desert to Baghdad, Leeson made shattering images of American men and women in the heat of battle. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The accolades came with a price, though. According to a study by the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 16 percent of U.S. soldiers and Marines who served in Iraq are victims of PTSD. No one has done similar studies of the journalists who have covered the war. Recently, Leeson decided to talk about his experiences with American Photo contributing editor Dirck Halstead, who is also the editor of The Digital Journalist. Leeson hopes his story might help other photographers come to grips with their own memories. Moreover, his extraordinary account paints a vivid portrait of the life of a war photographer grown sick of the sight of war.

Tell us about your experience covering conflicts.

Well, when I started out covering conflicts I was as green as they come. I was maybe 25, 26 years old. My first conflict was Nicaragua in the 1980s. I was covering the FDN Contras-the Freedom Fighters, as President Reagan called them at the time-who were fighting a war against the communist Sandinista government. These guys were based in Honduras and would make regular forays into Nicaragua to conduct raids, then come back. So I went to Honduras and I sat around for three weeks waiting on an opportunity to get with the Contras and take off to Nicaragua. I met Jim Nachtwey at that time. I just knocked on his door. I said, "Hi, I'm David Leeson with the Times Picayune States Item in New Orleans. You're Jim Nachtwey, and we're here to do the same story." And it was so funny, because Jim's response was, "What story?" You see, it was a very secret type of thing that you were going to go in with the Contras-I mean, nobody spoke a word about it. And I said, "Well, the Contras." And he said, "C'mon in." And that's how we got to know one another. He was just starting his career, and I was just starting mine.

How did you feel about what you were doing?

I was intensely nervous about it. I had an attitude at that time that said that you have to be prepared to die. Over the years that changed. My attitude today is, "No, I'm prepared to come back home alive." I was so immature when I first started out that every time I went through the emotional and mental exercises of saying, "You will not come back home-you will die." And I thought, "That's what the assignment takes: You have to be okay with that. If you're not, then why are you getting on the plane?" But it's interesting, because I also took so much survival gear with me. I had learned a lot from John Hoagland, who was an early mentor of mine. And, of course, John died in 1986 in Suchitoto, El Salvador, caught in the cross fire during a fight between the leftist FMLN rebels and the Salvadoran army. But at any rate, I went really prepared. Early on, I was hiking on a mountain with all this gear, and I came back and dumped half of it. By the time I ended up with the Contras, I had almost nothing with me.

What were your goals back then?

I was just simply doing a job. I was known as the kind of photographer who would do anything. And maybe that's true. As far as why I wanted to do it, that's a lifelong question. I don't know why. I still don't know why. I want to say, "Well, because there's a story to be told and somebody needs to tell it. And it's an important story. And you have the opportunity to change lives." I think probably at the height of my career covering conflicts, I truly believed, deeply and passionately believed, that there existed a series of photographs, or a single photograph, that could end war. I wanted to find that one photo. I thought, "If that one photo could stop war, what is that photo worth? It's worth my life. It's worth anyone's life." Even today I ask people-I'm sure some people would shoot me for this-but I still ask them, "If you could find that photo, is that worth your life?" I still really believe there's a photo that's worth dying for. But can you find it? I never did. And that was probably the hardest part of it all, that I never found it.

After Nicaragua, then what?

After Nicaragua, I covered elections in El Salvador a couple of times. The first time I went there with the full intent that I would likely die. I think that's really immature and ridiculous today. I hate that I was like that at one time, but I was. I can't explain to you what it feels like when you leave your home and you say to yourself, "I will not return. If I do my job right, I will not return." But you think in terms of the search for that one image that can stop all this madness, stop this evil. And if it's worthy of your life, then it's not as crazy as it sounds, is it? I mean, would you sacrifice your life to save a busload of students careening over a bridge if there's one tiny act you could do? Would you do it for ten lives? How about five? Would you do it for one? That was my attitude. And so it may sound outrageous and crazy, but in some sense, not really. It's belief. It's desire. It's ambition. It's wanting to find that one thing that could stop all of it, to say, "No more." Maybe that's prideful to think that I could believe that I could be the one to find it. But if not me, who? Why not me?

How did that attitude affect your work?

I really gave the job my all, took risks. And because of that I had a lot of problems. I ended up held captive by the FMLN rebels in 1984 in Comalapa, El Salvador. It's right at the border near Honduras. My parents had to be notified that I was missing. My father and my mother were visiting my grandmother at the time in Gatesville, Texas, near Waco-about three hours from where I now live in Dallas. My father drove home as soon as he heard about me, and along the way somewhere a state trooper stopped him, because they had found me. I had returned safe. And these are the things that chill me, the knowledge that my father got out of the car, and my mother wondered why they were being pulled over. And she looked in the rearview mirror, and she saw my father drop to his knees because his son was safe. You know, I have to live with that for the rest of my life. When I go someplace where there's a risk-well, there's a risk for my loved ones as well.

When you were captured, did you think you'd survive?

I truly believed that I would die. They put us in front of a firing line-me and a photographer who was working for the Washington Times at the time, Dana Smith. Dana and I were together at that time. So, why do you do this? I don't know why anybody does it. I don't think anybody does it for money. I hope not.

How many conflicts have you covered now?

Ten or 11. It depends on whether you're talking about real wars or not. You know, once I covered the Sendero Luminosa, the Shining Path rebels in Peru, and they held me too. There wasn't a declared war there, but that was probably the most dangerous thing I ever did in my life.

Can you describe the kinds of risks and decisions you have to make as a photographer covering war?

Recently I said to someone, "If I told you that this space between you and I, 20 yards, was filled with land mines, and you really believed it, would you cross it?" And that's what news photographers face. Is it really mined? Are there really snipers there? Are you going to meet an RPG round? Once, in El Salvador, I was headed to the town of Tenancingo, and the Salvadoran army stopped me and said, "Don't go down that road, it's mined." I did it anyway. It took me two-and-a-half hours to travel 17 kilometers because I stopped at every nook and cranny investigating every tiny deformity in the road, any possible glint of anything unusual. Anyway, I didn't die, but others did in other places, like my colleague Richard Cross.

You were married previously, right?


How did your work affect your relationship?

Well, for years I denied that any of this made any difference. I mean, I knew it made a difference to me personally-you're seeing atrocities, things no man should really see-but I didn't think it would make a difference in my life as a whole. Because, you know, I'm a strong guy and I'm tough and I can take it. I mean, that's part of the whole survival aspect, isn't it? You can go through difficult circumstances in life and pull through a winner. It wasn't until a divorce came after 19 years of marriage that I stopped to reflect upon those things. It's funny, but at one point I couldn't even talk about my past and my job without stuttering. When I spoke I would be, t-t-t-like that. It was hard as hell to talk about stuff. You know, c'mon. All photojournalists know that going is the easy part. Coming home is the hard part. Come home and suddenly you're, like, the dad again, the husband again. You've got bills to pay, a yard to mow, a wife to love, a boss to make happy. There's no decompression time. There's no chance to sit back and say, "What just happened to me?" I did the best I could. I wanted to just open that closet door up and just shove the memories of what I'd seen in it and lock it as quick as I could. The best thing to do was just simply not talk about it. I don't want to talk about it. And a lot of people around me didn't want to hear about it, either. I mean, c'mon, think about it. You're at a party or you're with friends or you're having a nice dinner or you're socializing, and suddenly something reminds you of some horrible event that just occurred to you maybe a month before. Who wants to hear about it? Once, I came back from El Salvador, and a week later I was assigned to cover an Easter egg hunt in Plano, Texas. I was at the Easter egg hunt and I looked down at my watch and I realized it was 3 p.m. Well, that was the same time that a week earlier I had been photographing dead FMLN rebels, young boys. One of them couldn't have been more than 10 years old. I mean, he was shot to hell. And here I was a week later watching children at another event. I turned to a lady next to me and I said, "Wow, last week at this same time I was looking at dead rebels in El Salvador, just children." The woman took about 10 steps away from me. I mean, nobody wants to hear about that stuff in the middle of an Easter egg hunt.

When military people come back from war, unless they leave the service immediately, they are still surrounded by their colleagues, by the people who can understand what they've gone through. They can talk and they can get it out. Journalists, on the other hand, come back, and there is no way you can go to a party and start to talk about this stuff.

That's the reality of what it is to do this kind of work, especially if you work for a daily newspaper. You go and you shoot these things. And you come back and you have obligations. And you have to get back to what your life was as best you can. And that's not that easy. So, I ended up divorced after 19 years of marriage. I can't blame it all on my job. I made a lot of mistakes, a lot of bad choices. But I began to really think about what had happened to me. Because the man I had become wasn't the man that I was when I got married. I didn't have these thoughts. I didn't have these feelings. I didn't have this struggle. That's what happened. It's stupid. A kindergartner could have told me I was heading for trouble-seeing a man crushed underneath a tank is enough to change your life. Seeing starving children is enough to change your life. Seeing dead 10-year-olds in a cemetery in El Salvador is enough to change your life. But I never thought about it as doing that. And I think that cost me. What I should have done when I got home-I should have just spent a week crying.

Jump forward to 2003. What was it like when you went to Iraq for that war?

I felt more prepared than ever when I went to Iraq in 2003 to come home. I felt bad for the photographers with the embed program because so many were new, brand new to this experience. They didn't know what to expect. I knew what it would feel like, but maybe that increased awareness also made it worse in some ways for me. Because I paid attention to it for the first time, I noticed it. When I came back from Iraq, when I got off the plane in Dallas and stood on the curb waiting for my wife to pick me up, I just wanted to run. I just wanted to go back to Iraq. I mean, I wanted to see my wife, and I wanted to get back to normal, but what the hell is normal anymore? I was freaking, just standing there like that. Everything was just too much. I was really nervous-about coming home, about having to get back to my life.

How do you look back on that period-the war-now?

You know, I didn't even want to go to Iraq in the first place. I'm glad I did, and not because of a Pulitzer Prize. That's a great honor, sure, but I'm glad I went because of the people I met and the friendships I made and the experiences I had. I felt enriched by my experiences but terrified at the thought that I was going to have to come back. And not that coming back was a bad idea. I love my home. I didn't want to leave my home. I was a happy person. Prior to leaving for Iraq, I had been working for three years to get my life back in order. The last foreign assignment I'd had was covering the conflict in southern Sudan. It was typically as horrific as any other I'd been to. I just didn't want to go anywhere anymore. I wanted to be done with it. I had a new life, a new bride, and I didn't want to sacrifice another marriage. I didn't want to lose myself again, breaking down in the middle of the night. I just wanted to be like a regular guy. Like I am. Then after 9/11 the newspaper asked me to go to Afghanistan, and I was prepared to go, like every other time. I had my visa ready. And at the last minute, I just told them, I said, "I just can't do it. I just don't want to do it." So they sent someone else. And then I worried about the guys from my paper who did go. What if they die? Then it would be because of me in some way because I didn't go. I mean, I have the experience. I have the skills. I know what to expect. But I just couldn't do it, so I backed out. And then in 2003, they're giving me the phone call saying, "We'd like for you to go to Iraq." I did something unusual, for me. I actually asked to have time to speak with people and to think about it. So I said, "Give me a week." I called my parents. I called my sister, brother-in-law. Of course, I spoke with my wife, spoke with my children. I spoke with close friends and told them what was facing me. And to my surprise everyone said I should go. They had seen a young photographer grow through the years, and they knew that I had the skills to do it. They knew if anybody could go out there and tell this story, I could do it. And I knew it too, deep down. I knew that this could well be my story, because I've worked so hard to get to that place. Here it is: your chance to use all that experience, all those tough knocks you've had over the years, all those close calls, and put them to practice. It's funny, because I once heard Jay Dickman of the Dallas Times Herald, who won a Pulitzer for his work in El Salvador, I once heard him say that. He said that when he was doing that assignment, every single skill and experience he'd had came to play in that one story. And I would say the same is true for Iraq for me. I'd always sought for the perfect story-perfect, meaning that I didn't make a mistake, I didn't miss stuff. Although I did in Iraq, I missed something pretty big. But I got enough.

What did you miss?

I missed the death of a soldier, a U.S. soldier, during a firefight. We were in a firefight all day long on April 6, 2003. It was the most intense battle I'd ever seen in my life. I'd never seen so many things exploding and so much ammo and firepower being dished out on both sides. There were a lot of close calls. Seven soldiers were injured that day. Two of them died. It hurts because you identify with these men when you're embedded-you're experiencing the same things they are, taking as much heat as they are. I stood up at times I didn't need to stand up because I believed that I should. I mean, if they're taking fire, I should take it too. I'm here with you. My life isn't worth more-I can't sit down behind armor and hide. I mean, a 19-year-old kid dies, how do you deal with that? I'd almost rather say, "Take me, God. I'm 46. I've lived already. I've had great experiences." But a 19-year-old kid who doesn't make it home-it was really hard. I met his parents. I asked the Army if I could visit with them. I didn't know what the hell to say. The parents showed up whenever all the other soldiers were coming home, but their son wasn't coming home.

Let's talk a little bit about the regimental colors that you were awarded by the unit that you were with.

That's the greatest honor I ever received in my life. A Pulitzer Prize pales in comparison. I enjoyed getting the Pulitzer: It was my fourth time to be a finalist; I had pretty much given up on winning one. But nothing compares to the regimental colors. It was out of the blue. It was the first time in the regiment's history that a civilian received the colors-they are normally given just to commanding officers when they leave their command. As I look back and think about this honor, it symbolizes my role in Iraq. I had a role that was a greater role than being a photojournalist. It was just being a human being, being a citizen of this country. It was about caring about people. It's sort of what we do all the time. I hope we do.

Can you talk about your experience watching the interview with David Douglas Duncan on The Digital Journalist?

Well, my experiences over the years have affected me in some profound ways. I've come to realize that. And I think that's a good thing to know that, yeah, these things do affect you. But it's not as though I'm a wreck. I do have coping mechanisms. My faith in God helps me a lot. Also I simply avoid discussions about those experiences, and I avoid watching other people talk about their experiences in war. But I watched this interview with David Douglas Duncan, whom I deeply admire. And I was struck by the knowledge that those experiences are shared over the generations, that the pain is the same. It hurts as much. And I was watching it all by myself, because I have times where the memories are just too much. Well, this time I was watching and it was too much. But I didn't know my wife was watching. She came in and asked me about it. And what's disgusting is that I felt bad about that. Like I'm not supposed to show this vulnerability.

What is your advice to people who want to follow this path?

My best advice is to develop a strong sense of mission. I talked about how early on in my career I wanted to find that one image or series of images that could stop war. That is a sense of mission. If you have a strong sense of mission about who you are and what you're doing, almost nothing can stand in your path. And again, it's not popular-I could be crucified for saying it-but there are images worth dying for. That doesn't mean you should go foolishly into conflict. You should do everything you can to get home alive, safe and sound, and tell the story. You have to find that fine line between foolishness and courage.

You can't screw around....

I tell young photographers to get in, get out. Know your story. Move in. Get it done. Don't dillydally around. Don't mess around. Don't ever hang out in those bad places. And never let a crowd form around you. I did that years ago. I made a lot of mistakes. And I nearly paid the ultimate price for it. In South Africa in 1985, I was shooting pictures of a riot, probably about 100 or 150 protesters coming towards me with knives and tires that they would soak in gasoline and put around the neck of victims and burn them to death. I got out and stood on top of my rental car with a lot of bravado, because I was just so confident of who I was. But I didn't pay enough attention. And I had no one watching my back, no writer, no other photographer, and I didn't see this other gang coming from behind. They grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me down. I smashed into the hood of the car. They started choking me and trying to take my cameras. I managed to get out of it. But barely. If I didn't I was going to die.

The risk can come at any time in that kind of situation.

The camera does act as a shield. When you put it in front of your face, it's not going to stop a bullet. But it does act as an emotional shield. During one of those riots I actually dropped my camera down to my waist so I could just stand there and experience that moment. And I thought, "This isn't real. This isn't real. What the hell am I doing here?" But, you know, I put the camera back up to my face and I had a sense of purpose again. In Iraq, one of my most terrifying moments had little to do with the fact that I came so close to getting killed. It had everything to do with the loss of mission. There was a mortar attack that hit within the kill zone, within 30 kilometers. I dove on the first round that hit. I dove into the back of an armored vehicle. I narrowly escaped a second round that just ripped the ground up behind me. I just barely made it. You know what was terrifying, though? As a photojournalist, we all-well, I shouldn't say we all-a lot of us have these nightmares that something big is occurring and we can't find our cameras. I was lying there with my hands over my head, because I didn't have my helmet either, and I was saying, "Oh, God, I hope it stops." And I started hearing the yells for help. And I started hearing people say, "Is everyone okay?" And there's dust everywhere. There's confusion. I grabbed for my camera and it wasn't there. I was horrified. I started screaming profanities. Later, I thought about that. I thought, "Why did that bother me more than the fact that I nearly got killed?" Because there's only one reason why I was in a place like that, and that was to take a photograph, to record this moment in history. The camera didn't leave my side after that.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist