The Battlefields of Christopher Morris
Appreciation by Grazia Neri
The essence of American photojournalism, as it is taught in American universities and academies like The International Center of Photography in New York, has its basics in photography as "historical testimony." In this view, the picture of an event, of a social change, a historical or casual step of our becoming, is meant to witness and forge our visual imaginary of history. For this reason it is loaded with an ethical responsibility often difficult to bear and to manage by those who chose to be "photographers concerned in delivering history." This is the reason why only few "war photographers" manage to fulfill this utopia in their career.
Photography, seen as the direct and dry communication of an event that puts in evidence the photographer's ability to catch the decisive moment of his vision, has become part of my agency experience and now that the millennium has come to its end we can say that American photography has always been on the front-line to witness all the historical events of the last 50 years, thanks to this "faith" in which anyone is free to believe or not.
Christopher Morris was born in Tampa, Florida in 1958 and has been interested in photography since he was a twelve. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Photography in 1980, won a scholarship from ICP and entered the small, yet, mythical team of photojournalism. Black Star Director Howard Chapnick who has been credited with discovery and development of such famous photojournalists as James Natchwey, the Turnley brothers, Steve McCurry, Donna Ferrato, and Anthony Suau, brought Chris in to become a "runner," taking pictures to the publications.
By 1984, Chris decided he had spent enough time filing other photographers work (and Howard Chapnick was getting frustrated with how much time Chris was spending looking at the pictures) and decided to go to the Philippines., where he had grown up on a U.S. military base. He was immediately plunged into the chaos of the rebellion against the Marcos regime. For the first time his pictures began to appear in major magazines. He never thought he would become a war photographer, he never planned it, and he had the impression that everything just fell into his arms without him going after it.
After the Philippines he started working in Central America, Colombia and Chile and produced several photo essays for Time or Newsweek. In 1988 he made his first trip to Afghanistan; there he discovered "real war" and he learned what the term "shell shocked" really meant.
In December 1989 he found himself in Panama during the American invasion. It was then that Time magazine offered him a contract to work exclusively for them and became their new conflict photographer. He was sent to Liberia and then Iraq, where he was deployed with the U.S. Marines for 7 weeks during the Gulf War (in the sadly famous DOD pools). Then he spent the next five years of his life covering the war in Yugoslavia.
It was in Yugoslavia that the daily exposure to the war on civilians started to weigh heavily on him, on his person, on his soul, and on his photography. He was becoming a casualty without realizing it. But the editors at Time wanted Chris back on the battlefield. Reluctantly, he found himself back amidst the shelling and dying. He documented civil war in Yemen and the conflicts; in Chechnya, Russia, and Kosovo.
"It is very difficult for me to try to describe why I do this type of photography," Chris says. "Emotionally it's been very trying on myself and my loved ones ... Some of the assignments I've been on have brought me quite close to death... When you come back from a heavy day of shelling or any other type of close combat, you walk on air, you can smell it, taste it, feel it... I'm alive!!! I have my feet, my legs, my arms, my soul, my life... It's a feeling of life not death... every step you take, every daily thing you do, from opening a door, to shaking someone's hand comes alive... It's a very rare and special moment in your life."
"On top of this you have the pictures, real pictures, life at its most tragic. You're not a fashion photographer or a sport photographer. This is reality, reality at its worst time... There is nothing for you to create; you just have to find the courage to put yourself as far forward as physically possible without getting yourself killed. I have covered 18 conflicts over the last 12 years."... "I can't stomach the idea of returning to Yugoslavia, be out of fear or out of hatred for the place... maybe a bit of both." "I will continue with photojournalism. But with a little more caution and a lot more compassion." ... "I have a beautiful wife and daughter...They are my life."
I have been distributing Christopher's pictures, through my agency in Italy, since the beginning of his career in 1984. After a couple of years I started to be aware of the extraordinary skills of this photographer whose work was very different from others. No more than thirty photographers in the world are ready to sacrifice their lives, their privacy and all ideals of tranquil middle class life to be at the right place in the right moment. He was different not just because he chose danger (he immediately became a legend for his lack of fear): but also for his choice of the contents in his pictures. What did Morris choose? To closely photograph "the action," the thirst for war, the cocky determination of the killers, indifference towards death, the power of the arms (his pictures of soldiers with machine guns cannot be forgotten), war as a "job," death and pain as a historical fact, and as a logical consequence of this "compulsion to repeat": produce deaths, blood, violence, orphans, widows, tears, horror. Christopher travels all continents, he doesn't choose a special crusade, where a war calls, and he runs. What he finds is always the same: at the beginning, a sort of "war games" with soldiers that look like they are coming out of a film scene and then blood, pain, devastation, tears and what is worst, the soldiers' furious compulsion.
In 1990 I was in the World Press Photo jury and Christopher received an award for one of the most daring sequences that was ever photographed: the American intervention in Panama. In this sequence you can see war as a job: first they kill, then they try and help and rush to the aid of the wounded. He also managed to shoot video with a Hi-8 camera during this occasion. This historical footage was broadcast on CBS News, as well as Italian RAI.
I wanted to underline the photographer's role in representing war; if we hope in a world of peace, we have to face the troubles and horrors of war. We are now at the beginning of a new millennium, in which the conflicts have grown instead of diminishing. They are not worldwide wars, but perhaps they are more threatening. They reveal delusions and revenge and show that to ignore and suffocate someone else's ways of life and religious creed is often the reason for conflicts. If you consider the situation of South Africa and Zimbabwe, dangerous countries where a white person cannot go out at night without great risk, you can immediately view the consequences of the past blindness of colonizers and invaders. Revenge for the mistreatments of the past will finally find its realization.
After 35 years of agency work, my archive is painfully full of all the world's conflicts of the past century and I can say from my visual experience of history that repression, then revenge and desperation are usually the causes for war: Evil economic interests at such high levels that no common citizen has the power to control, or prejudice of all kinds: racial, religious, cultural, social. Hate, humiliation, violence create fields of hatred and revenge.
But how can we prevent this blood, this violence? Perhaps in the simple, courageous, professional and harsh panoramic view of Christopher Morris. I think there is this message: 20 years of war are the sacrifice of one's one private life. Christopher must have asked himself: Does this have a reason? Why did I do it? Why have I lived the terror that soldiers live? Those soldiers that seem so strong and determined when they shoot and kill, but the photographers themselves tell us, in private, how much drugs and despair exist among the mercenaries as well as the young recruits forced to fight.
Christopher gives us his testimony and tells us "this is war. It's not a film, it looks like it, but it's real. I documented it for you. Can we do something?"
Peace to me means prevention. Prevention has its base in early school education, in the family's attention in explaining diversity and not keeping it far away, out of sight, in making the children feel, while learning and playing, an ethic towards the world and its demands, to make them come out at least once in a while of the false Disney-like world; to come in touch with the reality, the essence of things. Often we think we are saving our children by keeping them away from every stress, or knowledge of pain; I don't think this is the right way. Fear, pain, poverty are part of life, real life, and, in exchange, life gives us joy, passion and love.
The Vietnam War caused: 2.000.000 deaths, 2.000.000 refugees and I cannot remember how many victims caused by dioxin and napalm. More recent wars have added mine victims. In Chechnya people die every day for this reason.
How do you read a photograph? In the last two or three years there has been a growing interest in the university fields towards the study of image and its significance. New technologies, available for everybody to use, are invading all fields and pouring on the world of communication an enormous amount of images (provoking, shocking, as well as elegant and refined) that need acknowledgement and culture to be analyzed and understood. I believe in the necessity of visual education: learning New Media will not eliminate the need for meditation typical of the written word, but an appropriate and correct use of the image shall make it easier to understand the past and the present.
Christopher Morris' photographs remind me of the Russian proverb: "Consider the past, you lose one eye; forget the past, you loose both."
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