Commentary: Coming Home
June 2003

by Dirck Halstead

The photographers are coming home.

Hundreds of photojournalists found themselves on the battlefields of Iraq in the past few months. They took some of the most remarkable photographs of combat ever seen. The Digital Journalist has been proud to presents many of them in our pages.

Although there were many combat veterans, such as Jim Nacthwey, Bob Nickelsberg, Jerome Delay and David Leeson covering the war, there were also scores of newbies, who had never seen a shot fired in anger.

One minute they were under intense fire, watching people die around them, and then in what seemed a blink of an eye they were home, catching up with family and friends, paying bills, and cutting grass.

Some of them, even the veterans realized that something was wrong.

David Leeson, of The Dallas Morning News writes, "It's tough to enjoy the beauty of dinner with friends, or simple tasks like mowing the yard, when the week before you saw and smelled dismembered and decomposed bodies. And those around you cannot understand-nor should they be expected to-so you retreat and bury your struggles in a thousand different ways. All is well as long as the memories remain buried."

I have often been interviewed, especially during the Iraq war, about what it is like to cover combat. Generally one of the first questions is "tell me about your close calls." Like most photojournalists who have actually been under fire, this is one place we won't go. We don't like to even think about those times, and certainly won't share them with people who have never been there. It's just bad joss.

In fact, most photographers who have covered conflicts rarely talk about their experiences. Anyone who invites us to cocktail parties expecting to be regaled by war stories, find we are boring guests. It's only among colleagues who have shared the experience that the stories emerge.

The transition back to normal life can be wrenching. After covering the Vietnam War in 1965 and 1966 for UPI, the months after returning to New York were traumatic. I nearly quit on a daily basis. It just seemed to me that the things that people talked about, whether it was politics, demonstrations, or worst of all expenses and the budget, seemed utterly trivial. More than once after spending a few hours at the bar, I started to hail a cab to take me to Kennedy airport so I could get back to Saigon.

War is defining experience. Faced with life or death around the next bend, life becomes very simple. Adrenalin rushes through your body. There is nothing that makes a person feel more alive that the imminent prospect of death. The experience gets mixed up with many other basic things, such as friendship and love and the process of maturation. Author Michael Herr put it best in his book on being a war correspondent in Vietnam in the 60s, "War is what we had instead of a happy childhood."

It is common among journalists who covered war to go into a deep depression weeks after returning from the battlefield. Soldiers are often faced with the same thing, called "PTSD", but it is different with photographers. The reason is that we are actually creating our own art during combat. Individual decisions are made on a minute-by-minute basis that can then be shared with millions of people around the world. These decisions in retrospect seem to be the most significant of a person's life. Covering a movie opening, or a society event, or even the World Series, can become flat and meaningless.

The danger is that to compensate, we turn to alcohol and drugs, while our relationships crumble.

We become "difficult" to our friends, employers, and families.

This is when we need to remember that we have been privileged to cover that war, and to recognize that we did our best, and have had an effect on many minds. We were not just indulging our desire for adventure, but serving. Once put into that perspective, it may help to realize that you have grown, and have a responsibility to live up to the person who has emerged.

In the last minutes of "Saving Private Ryan", the character, standing over the grave of the Ranger who had given his life to save him, turns to his family and says, "have I been a good person? Have I lived my life the best I could?" That is what should be the question we ask ourselves in the years to come.

© Dirck Halstead


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