Photojournalism War Stories
Dirck Halstead 


WASHINGTON D.C.   February 1, 1997

I had a dinner last night at the home of Rolf Behrens and Penny Staples.

They share what used to be two one bedroom apartments that was merged into one spacious aerie ten stories above Washington's Wisconsin Avenue near the National Cathedral . . . From their balcony you can look out to the East across all of Washington, the Washington monument, the Capitol, across the river to National Airport, and to the West towards Arlington and the hills of Virginia.

Rolf has recently taken an assignment as a television photo journalist for Britain's Sky News in the Washington bureau. Since 1986 he has been a top cameraman for ITN and Sky, most of the time based in South Africa, from which he covered twenty-two African countries.

His lens has recorded the epic struggle of South Africa from the riots in the townships, the jailing and eventual triumph of Nelson Mandela, and the wars and tragedies in Angola, Somalia and Rwanda, some of which he was lucky to escape from with his life.

Their guests for dinner were Bill Gentile and Joanne Levine, who were in Washington to finish editing a project for ABC's NIGHTLINE that they had worked on in Africa for the past five weeks, a story on the women who had been raped in Rwanda during the genocide that had occurred in 1994

Bill for most of his professional career was a still photojournalist, who had made his reputation as a contract photographer for NEWSWEEK, covering Latin America and the Caribbean. His coverage of Nicaragua won him top awards. In 1995 he was lured to Philadelphia as one of several still photographers who had been selected to receive training as a "videojournalist" by a start up company named Video News International.

The concept that VNI had was to turn print, radio and photo journalists into a new breed of television reporters using the new high 8 broadcast-quality cameras.

Bill flowered into this new hybrid, and went on to cover documentary subjects such as Trauma and heart transplant for the Learning Channel, the anti-terrorist driving school for National Geographic Explorer, and last year won an Emmy for his documentary work on the Ebola virus.

After dinner, over port and cheese, they turned to the subject of where their professions were taking them.

I told them about the discussion that had been taking place these past few days on the NPPA list about what the proper name is for what they do.

Rolf, who had just returned on Christmas Eve from covering the siege in Lima, Peru, leaned back with a smile, and said "I'm a television news cameraman . . . but I'm also an editor, and a producer . . I provide a lot of input into the story".

Gentile responded, "I'm a videojournalist . . . a journalist whose primary tool is a digital video camera."

Rolf often works with a reporter who knows his style and his abilities. "Hell, he lets me go shoot . . . he knows me, and by the time he has to write, he knows instinctively what I've got in the camera"

His main complaint with his profession is the tendency of television crews to follow the pack instinct.

"Peru was the perfect example. Here was a great story, with a chance to cover the peripheral angles. Why were the Tupac Amaru holding those hostages ? could get to that story just blocks away from the Japanese embassy in the slums of Lima. But instead, we were all lined up, twenty crews abreast day in night staked out at the gates of the embassy. The reason is that everybody wants to see their reporter doing standups in front of the gates. All the networks want to cover their ass, so we all get into this tunnel vision. The problem is this copy cat instinct."

"I want to get out there and shoot the story...all of it, but what takes the wind out of my sails is that I'm shoulder to shoulder with twenty other guys . . . everybody is attuned to the needs of the networks."

At this point, Joanne Levine who had worked with Gentile in Rwanda, interjected, " it's the system . . . you can't beat it, you have to work within it."

Joanne had been a producer at NBC Evening and Weekend News before joining VNI because she wanted to be able to try to reshape this kind of thinking.

"I don't believe this crap that this is the kind of news that people want. Look at NIGHTLINE. They don't always produce the kind of Journalism we would like to see, but they hit it often enough to make a difference, and people respond. They don't want to look at this junk . . . it's just executives at the networks covering their ass."

I was curious what was the main difference that Gentile had discovered in his transition from still photographer to television documentary work.

"With still photographers, the camera is a companion . . . a video camera is a tool. For all those years I loved the way the camera felt, the sound of the shutter . . . it gave me a thrill."

Rolf agreed, saying "I still have the first still camera I ever owned . . . it was a Zeiss, and I loved it."

"But you know, I think one of the things that has created the way our profession has developed was that it sprang from the days when the video tape deck was a separate unit, that was heavy, and had to be carried by another person. It immediately defined what we did as a collaborative effort."

"If we had started with the small digital cameras that exist today, I would have been much happier. I was always intensely jealous of the snappers. . . that sense of mobility, that allowed you to work alone"

You know, I look at this change to the digital camera as similar to what musicians went through when the recording industry went from vinyl to tape. In the days of Vinyl you needed a recording studio, but once we had tape recorders, people could start recording in their garages, and suddenly rock and roll started to appear.

Television has always been an enormously expensive medium, but now people can suddenly use these little cameras to do broadcast quality video. With a computer and a firewire they can produce high production value work . . . so anybody can tell a story and put it out there.

"And I guess that if you really want to know what I call myself, I think it is a story teller, because that's what I want to do . . . to make something that has a great beginning , a big fat middle, and a nice ending."

Gentile nodded in agreement.

"We just spent five weeks in Rwanda for NIGHTLINE telling the story of what happened to all these women . . . ninety percent of them were raped . . . it was a crime, and we were able to tell that story.

I am very grateful to Michael Rosenblum who created Video News International . He allowed me to learn a new kind of media. It's hard sometimes because we often have the lack of an outlet, but I want to tell stories, and it's a wonderful medium for's very creative, but it's a question of what you do with it.

As a photographer, once you learn the basics of composition, light, shape, and form, the constant variable is movement. So it's how you use these cameras to create a signature that defines your talent.. You can make still photographs with either tv or stills, but it's how you make it move that is your signature."

"It's also how you edit it, " Rolf interjected, "how you make it seamless. The challenge is how you cover the shots so you have enough of those moments so that you can go into the edit suite knowing you have the stuff."

Gentile agreed. "You have to have God-given talent, and you have to have technical ability, but you also have to have physical and mental stamina.

When I was a journalism graduate student, my professor used to say, 'Good writing is thinking made visual' and that translates into still and television journalism . . . it's the thinking processes that we are making visual. The essential thing is to be alive to the moment."

"It's that moment that I need, but also the moments before and after." Rolf said, "that gives me what I need to cut." "It's knowing when to roll, and that's instinctive, you can feel it in your gut."

"Jim Nachtway used to say it's a blend of intellectual and physical challenge," Bill added, "it's a challenge of instinct to be able to understand at a visceral level what people are going to do."

By now it was after midnight, and the taxi was on the way, but I had to ask Bill Gentile how he felt about himself now as opposed to the days when he was a still photojournalist.

"I'm better off in physical satisfaction about being able to tell a story, but I have to say that it's not like being young and in Nicaragua, riding in a jeep with your friends, and covering the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly . . . it doesn't get any better than that . . . that's the best it gets."