If the photojournalism community can be said to be a network of extraordinary witnesses, it is interesting to see one of those individuals rise to prominence within the community itself. Such is Getty photographer John Moore, who in his second decade of international work has emerged as one of the finest photojournalists of his generation.
Moore, with a team of Associated Press photographers, was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in Iraq. He was named 2007 NPPA Photographer of the Year and POYi (Picture of the Year International) Magazine Photographer of the Year, also for 2007. On Dec. 27, 2007 he recorded the final moments in life, the death, and aftermath of the assassination of recently repatriated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during her appearance at a rally before an adoring crowd in Pakistan. Moore, the only photographer close to the site of the explosion, was less than 20 yards away from Bhutto as she stood waving from the escape hatch of her armored car at the terrible moment of the assault that ended her life. His photographs of her shortly before the incident—believed to be the last known images of her in life—and the chaotic scene that followed her death won awards from World Press Photo, the Society of Professional Journalists, and earned Moore the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa Gold Medal for exceptional courage and enterprise in photographic reporting.
It is not uncommon for a photojournalist to experience a meteoric rise to fame by his or her coincidental presence at a world-changing event. However, this is not the case with John Moore. That he was present and captured exclusive images during an event that leveled the political landscape in Pakistan was not just by luck or chance for Moore, who is based in Islamabad. He began that day like all other days, on self-assignment, pursuing a methodical and well-established pattern of thorough record keeping of perceptions captured through his lens. A small sampling of Moore's images from 17 years of international work shows a persistence of focus, consciousness and preparedness, the same as evidenced on that day. His Bhutto images are stunning, but so are all the rest. His rise has not been meteoric, but a steady flame grown brighter and brighter over time.
His photographs are each one powerful, whether of the earth-shattering events in Pakistan, crisis and casualty in Iraq, or comparatively mundane scenes along the Panamerican Highway. Moore's every image indicates an eye for beauty and a contemplative composure in the mind of the photographer even in the face of ghastly upheaval and swirling events. We cannot look at his portfolio without marveling how he somehow manages to merge empathically with his subject while maintaining an utter objectivity at the same time, and on a consistent basis. In the tradition of Zen and the Art of Archery, Moore becomes the archer, the arrow, and the target. His is a meditation in motion.
The acclaim accrued to John Moore for his stunning and sensitive work is only in part what makes him exceptional among his colleagues. He also has a genuinely engaging personality and seems modest to the core, exhibiting a complete absence of the kind of vanity or self-aggrandizing ego that is sometimes displayed by those involved in important work or stellar events. His life is anything but normal, but he seems to be completely balanced and sensible, and to top it off, is a family man. He is married to Gretchen Peters, who shares the realities and dangers involved in his type of work because of her own assignment as producer and bureau chief for ABC News in Pakistan. It is in fact because of Peters' job that Moore bases himself in Islamabad, where together they are raising their two young daughters, Isabella, 3, and Sophia, 1.
Moore has been a photographer since his teens and became a working photojournalist even before graduating in Radio, TV and Film from the University of Texas at Austin in 1990. He has lived overseas for the last 17 years, starting when he joined The Associated Press in the summer of 1991. Thus began a fruitful relationship that during the next 14 years placed him first in Nicaragua and later in India, South Africa, Mexico and Egypt. He worked both as a full-time photojournalist and photo editor during his years with AP. He became embedded with the military in Afghanistan and also in Iraq as part of an AP team of 10 photographers who together won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Since joining Getty that same year and moving to Pakistan, Moore has worked throughout South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In 2007 alone, he reports he was on assignment in Iraq three times, was once in Afghanistan, and spent the rest of the year covering Pakistan's slide into instability, which culminated just before the New Year in the assassination of former Prime Minister Bhutto. To date, he has worked in over 80 countries, and after almost two decades working abroad, he will rebase with his family to Denver, Colo., in July of this year.
On Memorial Day in 2007, shortly before their second child was born, Moore and Peters and daughter Isabella visited Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects to those who have fallen in zones of conflict, something both understand on a first-hand basis. In spite of the many poignant scenes he has photographed, Moore was profoundly touched by the presence of a young woman stretched out at the grave of her fiancé, who had been killed in Iraq. This iconic image of grief expresses in a single image both the sacrifice of war and tragic permanence of the absence of those who do not return. Moore wrote a moving personal account of that day on his blog for Getty that you can read by clicking on the image.
There have been many stories published on the Web about Moore in recent months. Of course I read all that I could find, and in preparing this feature, he and I communicated using e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger between Austin and Pakistan, then Dubai, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. What impressed me was his same dedication, responsiveness and attention to detail that is evident in his photographs, and a tenaciousness and availability that nearly defied my imagination, since I knew him to be doing at least a dozen other things such as his own correspondence, a birthday party for his daughter, editing photos and captions for our galleries, answering my questions, last-minute details of organizing himself for Africa, and then physically traveling, all performed with a time difference that varied and at times spanned 11 hours. I understand from my own encounter with John Moore why his place is now secure in the ranks of the very best of the very best, because he is exactly that.
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Moore in a written exchange over half a world away, but he was as present as if he were sitting across from me on the other side of the table in the teahouse pictured to the left. You likely will find him, as I did, to be as articulate and verbally gifted as he is visually—another rare combination worth noting. Here is John Moore in conversation.
TDJ: When you studied at UT, you were in Radio, TV, and Film (RTF), and you now shoot multimedia. Did you expect to become a still photographer—a photojournalist per se? Or did you think you would be a videographer?
Moore: I studied in the Radio Television Film department because I hoped it would compliment what I was doing in a field as a photojournalist. At age 16, I took a Photo 1 class in high school because I thought it would be fun and easy. It was so I stuck with it. These days it is not always easy, however. I never thought seriously about working internationally until the end of college. I graduated in December of 1990 and took a post-graduation internship at the now-closed Albuquerque Tribune. The summer of 1991. I was offered a stringer position in Nicaragua by The Associated Press. It did not pay much, but it was a great opportunity to go to a new place and work internationally.
TDJ: And what did you envision your career would be like? Hard news? Soft news? Sports? Arts and Culture? War?
Moore: While at UT, I paid my tuition shooting sports events. I covered any and all sports for whoever would pay, including the university athletic departments, the college newspaper, the AP and some minor publications. I lived and breathed sports. After graduation I stopped photographing sports entirely. I can count the number of sporting events I have covered on one hand in the last 17 years.
TDJ: You have become an award-winning war photographer of the first class. Did you conceive that your career might evolve in the direction that it has, and has it surprised you? If you miss something other that what you are doing, what is it?
Moore: I would never have known that my career would bring me to this specific place in time. On one hand I am here in Islamabad sweating over the keyboard because of the power cuts that last 7 hours a day. On that same hand, I cannot take my children to public places in Islamabad because of the threat of suicide bombings. That said, there is another hand. We have enjoyed living abroad and I would recommend everyone experience it, at least for a while, at some point in their lives.
My career has certainly not followed any pre-determined path. With the AP, my postings in recent years usually had me in charge of certain regions—Photo Editor for the Middle East, Photo Editor for Mexico and Central America, before that Photo Editor for South Asia. Fortunately, I was also able to shoot, but it's fair to say my administrative duties somewhat limited the time I could spend on photography. Still, I very much enjoyed hiring and helping to mentor younger photographers. When I joined Getty in 2005, they gave me the opportunity to shoot full time, and it's been a pleasure. They also have been very generous in allowing me to choose most of the projects I work on.
TDJ: I am interested in how winning the Pulitzer in 2005 affected/affects you personally and professionally.
Moore: I was very proud to be part of the AP team that was given that honor. The other members of that team were outstanding and I was especially happy for our local Iraqi staff, who work in unbelievably dangerous conditions and in many ways are heroes in this profession.
TDJ: I read that you do not really consider yourself a war photographer—that these are unusual times—i.e., for the U.S. to be involved in two wars at once, and so you have felt a kind of calling to witness these conflicts (I'm putting words in your mouth, which I don't mean to, but that was what the article suggested.) And you indicate you expect to return to your non-conflict-photographer mode at some point, that you will willingly give it up.
Moore: I enjoy doing stories that challenge me. Wars are by their very nature very challenging environments, physically, emotionally, photographically, so there is a natural attraction there for me I suppose. But that aside, I feel strongly that we should cover the events that shape our world. In this point in history, the United States in fighting two wars, which is very rare. Regardless of how noble or disgraceful these national endeavors may be, I feel I should do my share as part of a rather small but dedicated group of journalists who continue covering these conflicts. And there are many others who are pulling a much heavier load and doing a much greater share of the work than I am, trust me on that.
TDJ: I find it interesting—that we become what we don't necessarily expect to become—that we evolve in an interplay between what is inside us with the outside world.
Moore: Adapting our photography to the events around us is one of the attractions that drew many of us into this career in the first place. Some would say I have taken that to the extreme, but these are extreme times. Hopefully the future will not be so.
TDJ: When I attended your presentation to the journalism community at the University of Texas recently, I perceived a terrific sense of meaning and purpose in your demeanor. Yet, you seem completely unhardened, which is an extraordinary combination for a photojournalist who has witnessed some of the things you have. After an event such as the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad where you are based and not so far from where you and your family live, and being at such close proximity on a typical day to an unexpected but not completely unsurprising event, you seem still to have nerves of steel. As the world erupts into relative instability, we know that shocking and unexpected events can and do happen even where civil unrest is usually absent. How do you suppress or sublimate your fear in dangerously unstable conditions or conflict zones?
Moore: We all sense fear in dangerous environments, but I try to calculate the risk in all that I do. In war zones there are many photos that I miss because I've decided the risk/reward ratio was unfavorable. That said, you have to accept that such situations occasionally provide some unhappy surprises—the Bhutto assassination for example.
TDJ: Your wife Gretchen and two daughters are with you in Islamabad—in fact, you are with Gretchen in a sense rather than the other way around because of her assignment there with ABC. Is it helpful to be with your wife and daughters in handling the emotional aspects of doing the kind of work that you are doing?
Moore: Naturally having my wife involved in roughly the same line of work helps, when it comes to understanding what I do. She has spent a fair amount of time covering war zones, although usually not in as close a proximity to the actual fighting.
TDJ: I remember when you showed your work at UT, you said your in-laws were visiting in December of 2007, when Bhutto was assassinated. How did they respond to the event—and your involvement in it—and, what about your parents?
Moore: My mother and mother-in-law were both visiting us in Islamabad for Christmas and were here when Bhutto was killed on Dec. 27. After the event, I returned to the house and my clothes were bloody, which was startling to them, although they were relieved that I was not injured. I believe, however, that it was better that they were here when it happened. I think the TV coverage back in the States made it seem like Pakistan went into total state of anarchy. While there was rioting in many areas for several days, where we live in Islamabad was quiet and they could see our children were safe. That would have been hard for them to believe from afar.
TDJ: Several questions arise at once: Does your work frighten your family back home, and is it possible for you to truly give them a sense of the reality of your life? And are your daughters old enough to understand what you do? Is Gretchen involved in the same sort of news that you are for ABC? Is her job demanding, and, is it ever dangerous?
Moore: When we arrived here to the region in 2005, we were traveling from Islamabad to Kabul frequently and took our young daughter and nanny with us. The suicide bombings had not yet started there, so Kabul was a safe environment at that time, believe it or not. That of course is no longer the case. And as a producer and correspondent, Gretchen organizes much of ABC's coverage from here in Islamabad. With two children under the age of 3, she has been traveling less and doing more work from the bureau here at the house. She has also spent a lot of time in the last year writing a book about the Taliban and the opium trade, which was very demanding.
TDJ: You said you had been robbed at gunpoint (actually, you said it was armed robbery). Can you tell me a little more about that? Were you by yourself? Did whoever robbed you threaten to harm you?
Moore: I was robbed of my gear by Somali gunmen back in 1992 in Mogadishu. As it turned out, our head driver Ali was from the same sub clan as the thieves, and working through the clan elders, he was able to get all my gear back. A week after I left Somalia, he was shot in the back and killed while trying to protect two AP colleagues in a marketplace. I still feel that Somalia was the most dangerous place I ever worked, 16 years and many conflicts later.
TDJ: What is your advice to anyone who is working in the field and encounters a similar situation—i.e., robbery?
Moore: Let them have your gear, give them what they want, save your life. Besides, cameras these days are like computers. They become obsolete quickly.
TDJ: You have said you've never been seriously injured. Have you ever been injured?
Moore: My injuries have been minor and not worth discussing, considering what many of my close colleagues have dealt with.
TDJ: You've noted that the fear of kidnapping is probably the worst in conflict zones, but, how about in Islamabad? Does the specter of Daniel Pearl's death in Pakistan loom over Americans working there, and especially, do you feel personally affected by what happened to him?
Moore: Daniel Pearl's death was a horrible incident, but has, so far, been an anomaly in Pakistan. Up to this time, the "miscreants," as the Pakistani government calls them, have not engaged in kidnapping internationals, although we are very soft targets. We all suspect, sadly, that will change at some point.
TDJ: This is a hard question that you don't have to answer: Do you ever feel pressured in any way not to reveal the fact of what you have observed? That is, have you ever been interrogated or thought to be or accused of being a spy or agent of some sort, or do you have concerns about being misunderstood by a population in which you are working?
Moore: Representatives from Scotland Yard, who did an investigation into the assassination, came to my house to look at the photos I had taken of the event. I was very happy to help them in any way possible. Still, there was never an autopsy done on Bhutto's body, so the actual physical cause of her death may always remain a mystery.
TDJ: You say that Somalia was the most dangerous place you ever worked. I understand that you are embedded when you go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you find the process of being embedded helpful and supportive or limiting and prohibiting? Or both?
Moore: I am a strong supporter of the military embed program. Yes, of course it is sometimes limiting, but you can respect and obey the military rules, and yet push that envelope quite a ways. While the military would love us to put out pro-American propaganda, they certainly don't require it and are often respectful of our critical stories, if we get the facts right. The military has not always been happy with my coverage, but often they are. The main thing is that while embedded with the military, we get access to incredible situations that we would otherwise never be able to report on.
TDJ: Do you think the general public, both U.S. and abroad, has an adequate understanding of what is going on in the world? That is, do you think your work has been fairly edited and had good exposure, and has it had a fair chance to give an accurate representation of reality on the ground where you are? Bhutto's death was certainly extraordinary, and were you pressured to give your observations about who might have been responsible and how her death might actually have occurred? There was a lot of talk about shots, then the explosion.
Moore: Most people in the world are more concerned with news that affects them personally, than they are with abstract events in distant lands. This is probably generally the case with Americans more so than Europeans. That said, many Americans were closely following the Bhutto story. She was charismatic, well spoken and struck a chord with many people around the world. Everyone paid attention when she returned from 8 years in exile and especially after she survived that first suicide attack in Karachi. From then on there were hundreds of media around her constantly. And yes, I am frequently asked how she died, whether it was the gunshots or the bomb, and I can't answer that. It doesn't matter much though, as it is clear that the gunman and the bomber were the same person, and he did what he set out to do. Who was he really and who sent him? That is the question.
TDJ: In the pressure and time-warping events surrounding Bhutto's death, many of your photos were full of movement, action, odd angles, etc., which I personally loved. In a New York Times multimedia slide show with your voiceover, you apologized for blur and the rush of not being able to change speed, etc. But I thought those in particular were extremely powerful, because they were so honest, and it was what could be done in the circumstances and chaos that ensued. Obviously, the photo world has honored you with numerous accolades for this work. Personally, I prefer to see the movement, the motion, the blur, and would have it no other way. You may want to comment, or not.
Moore: Probably, on balance, the blur of the photos improved the sense of urgency in many of the images. Of course, there were some pictures, which I did not send, which were made unusable by the blur. While we sometimes use slow shutter speeds intentionally for effect, that was not the case here. At that moment, I wasn't thinking much about technique, but rather about the subject material in front of me.
TDJ: Do all of you who work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and surrounds know each other, and are you able to be of support to each other? And, Pakistan has become a much more active place in the last year or two. Are you are completely on your own there? You said in one article that your stories are self-assigned. How closely do you work or associate with reporters, etc., and do you go out every day? You feel support from Getty, but do you feel it from the photo community?
Moore: I have found that in war zones, most journalists, even strong competitors, work together for reasons of safety and support. This is very much the case with photojournalists. Naturally, I worked much closer with reporters and television colleagues when I was with the AP. This adjustment was a hurdle when I first left the AP, with its vast international support network, but I quickly put together my own network of contacts. Since I have been working internationally for a long time, I have friends in many countries to help out. When colleagues come to Pakistan, I have always tried to do the same. I have always felt support from the photo community. Reporters and photojournalists are some of the finest people I know.
TDJ: What made you decide to move to Getty, and did you find Getty was flexible when Gretchen found herself with a new assignment and you wanted to be in the same place?
Moore: The original Getty post I currently have was a Cairo-based position. Getty was flexible in allowing me to move the post to Islamabad, because this is where my wife was offered a position with ABC. As fortune would have it, Pakistan turned into a much bigger story.
TDJ: Yours and Gretchen's work is quite complementary. Do the two of you have a chance to have normalcy in your family life with your daughters?
Moore: I would not say that we have a sense of normalcy, but this is the life we have chosen. With that in mind, we recently, as a family, decided to relocate to the States, after living for 17 years abroad. Getty has been very supportive of the move, and I worked closely with Pancho Bernasconi, Getty's DOP in New York, on deciding where we would go. For my family and me, Denver will be a great city with a fantastic quality of life. From Getty's perspective, its geography is good our staffing purposes, and it has a great international airport, so I can continue to do much of my work outside the country. There are many socio-economic issues in the U.S. that interest me as well for photo projects. I will continue occasionally traveling both to Iraq and Afghanistan (I will be spending much of September with the Marines in Helmand), but the new location also brings Latin America back into play for me, which I miss covering.
TDJ: Is there any reason Getty leaves your travel arrangements up to you instead of handling them from the U.S.? Do you find that difficult or better than having it done for you?
Moore: It would be very difficult for Getty to take care of my travel arrangements from the other side of the world, for various reasons, including the 10-hour time difference between Islamabad and New York. That will change soon with my move to Denver. Still, I will probably schedule most of my travel.
TDJ: Do you have a blog on Getty, a sort of dispatch where you can write the stories behind your stories for the public?
Moore: I have only done two blog entries for the Getty site, but I plan to do more. I am very involved in also doing multimedia for Getty, so my time is often stretched. Here is the link to my blog: http://blogs.gettyimages.com/news/author/john-moore/
TDJ: When you look at your entire career, what do you think is your most important work so far, and which is your favorite? And are they different from one another?
Moore: It's hard for me to say what work has been the most important for me. If we are fortunate, our careers are long and we have the chance to touch many people, and, hopefully, be touched by them as well. In the case of 2007, the Bhutto coverage received the most international attention, but the most touching and haunting scene for me came at the Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day weekend. A single image I made there of a young woman stretched out over the grave of her fiancé seems to have touched many people. It continues to be a very emotional moment for me as well.
TDJ: Everyone has his/her private philosophical story that evolves on a daily basis—something we usually don't share—but sometimes it feels good to speak it. Is there anything you want to say philosophically about your life, your career, and what you are doing or what is happening in the world?
Moore: It's stating the obvious that the world has gone through a very dark phase in the last seven years. Some of this was unavoidable but much of it was not. Many people in the world really believe that the United States is the most dangerous country on the planet. As an American, that is very painful for me. I think there is reason now to be hopeful, and I'll leave it at that.