The Digital Journalist

Some Truths About
Photographers in War

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

In his interview for this month's cover story on Stars and Stripes, John Olson recounts his remarkable odyssey as a 19-year-old draftee in Vietnam - from winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal, after his first year there, to becoming - only a few months later - a staff photographer for Life Magazine.

He had to fight to be sent to Vietnam by the Army; once there, he had to fight to be sent to the battlefields. He was probably one of the few people in the American military to set foot in all three of the biggest battlefields during the Tet offensive in 1968. He was cocky, manipulative, and brave.

His story tells us a lot about what photographers in combat are like. In many ways they are counter-intuitive, venturing into the most dangerous situations, when everyone else - who possibly can - is trying to get out.

Many photographers develop their own particular ways of dealing with the chaos and death surrounding them. Some become detached from the reality of the battlefield by using the viewfinder as a way to block and immunize themselves against the madness. Others develop weird and bizarre behavior patterns. The medics in M*A*S*H, or the mad photographer played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, come to mind. People like these characters really did exist.

In some ways, from the journalist's perspective, the wars have gotten a lot tougher since Vietnam. The siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo offered few creature comforts for journalists covering them, unlike the Sodom and Gomorrah atmosphere of Saigon to which one could always retreat from the combat zones. Africa could be a horror, as photographers like Don McCullin can attest. However, during some of the worst shelling in Somalia, TV cameraman Rolf Behrens developed a reputation for his sangfroid, being dubbed the "Chef of Mogadishu," as he prepared barbecues on the roof of the press hotel during fire fights.

Given this history, we were a bit perplexed when some photojournalists reacted with outrage to the column by Jim Colburn last month, in which he lampooned these idiosyncrasies. To his suggestion that some photographers have used their experiences during these episodes of war and tragedy to enhance their libido, some photographers, who had actually been on these battlefields, cried foul. A few went so far as to contact Jim's regular employer, Time Magazine, to complain. As a result, Colburn asked to have his column withdrawn. We honored his wishes, but at the time we indicated that we were very uncomfortable with the idea of photojournalists censoring other photojournalists.

Photographer Tim Page was seriously wounded in Vietnam while on assignment for Time Magazine - sustaining a horrific brain injury. He survived, and several years later filed suit against Time Inc., claiming benefits he felt were due him.

Legend has it, that in its argument, Time's lawyers tried to make the case that Tim Page was totally responsible for what happened to him. They said that if any normal, prudent, human being were going to engage in life-threatening activities for an employer, he or she would make sure there was a written contract defining the employer's responsibilities. In their case, it was Page's neglect that made him responsible. Page's lawyer's response was that among photographers in battle it was considered "unlucky" to niggle over contracts defining the responsibility of the parties involved. You just went out and covered the battle. The Time Inc. lawyers then countered that anyone who would do that "would be crazy." "Ah Ha!" responded the Page team. In their view, photographers were indeed crazy, that they would put themselves into life-threatening conditions deliberately. That they would do what no normal person would do. Therefore, they argued, since Page was clearly "crazy," it was not up to him to make sure that he had come to highly specific and detailed understandings with the magazine about their responsibility. The court found for Page.

In today's buttoned-down, litigious corporate world, it seems hard to believe that photographers would still go running off into deadly situations without their lawyers having reviewed every possible consequence and detail. But amazingly, it still happens.

Some go out of a sense of duty and commitment, others go to enhance their careers - or to start them, and still others go because they love the adrenaline rush, the charge into danger, the intensity of watching and photographing mankind when the starkest realities occur. Then, the equal thrill of escape, the return to sanctuary - the food, the drink, the friends. And perhaps...yes, perhaps even the sex, that comes with the sweet aroma of just, still, being alive.

Dirck Halstead