The Digital Journalist
Beyond Words: Photographers of War
April 2006

by Greg Kelly

"The biggest myth about photojournalists is that we're all cowboys." That's a paraphrase of what a French photographer told me when I interviewed him for a CBC television documentary, "Beyond Words: Photographers of War." He later sent me some photos of himself on assignments, and one of them showed him grinning, red bandana, sunglasses and both arms raised with an automatic rifle hoisted over his head. The statement and the photo didn't seem to mesh. Now it was my turn to grin, and I then thought of something else he'd said to me: "Within our own norms, I think we're quite normal people." When he said that, it seemed like a total redundancy. But after having interviewed 24 others photojournalists for the documentary, it has a poignant meaning. He and the other interviewees are 'normal,' whatever that may mean. But their norms certainly aren't mine. I could never do what they do. And that was one of the major reasons why my colleague, Eric Foss, and I wanted to make this documentary.

I've been fascinated by war photography and war photographers for a while, although I couldn't take a picture to save my life. I seemed to have inherited my father's DNA, and am biologically predestined towards aiming straight into light sources, putting my fingers over the lens and dropping the camera. But photojournalists interest me profoundly. On the one hand, I simply don't understand why anyone would sign up for such dangerous assignments. But on the other, the images are so haunting, so unforgettable and so important.

I'm not sure who said that the still image may well be the basic unit of consciousness. If that's true, then the importance of photographs is beyond dispute because its power lies literally beyond words. This holds true despite the obvious narrowing of opportunity for images to count in mainstream print media. Their work allows the mind to dwell on a focal point of time, culled from the stream of moments which collectively form history. In fact, it's impossible to think of a war since the U.S. Civil War without having an image, or set of images, appear on one's mental viewfinder. Korea, WWII, Vietnam: the observation holds true for any and all conflicts. It's the image that stays with us, and generally not a radio report, or print article, or a television piece. I'm not saying anything new or radical here. Even the White House knew enough to prohibit photos taken of American military caskets on their way back from Iraq.

What is radical, at least to me, is that the people who take the images which define the very contours of our consciousness about war are largely unknown even to a literate audience. The bylines are tiny, the photos are often not given the space they deserve, and one almost never hears directly from photojournalists in popular media. Perhaps the fact that they're relatively isolated community explains the plethora of photography awards and competitions. Who else would pay as much attention to their achievements? I remember smiling when James Nachtwey told us that being a famous photojournalist is almost a contradiction in terms. But there's also reason to frown, because the public should hear more from photojournalists. My reasoning is based on my experience in the making of a previous documentary called "Deadline Iraq: Uncensored Stories of the War" -- a project inspired by the conviction that the Iraq war was the most shoddily covered war in the history of electronic journalism. We had reporters, usually from television, joyriding in Abrams tanks. We had "Shock and Awe." We got a stage-managed statue falling down. What we didn't get was what journalism was supposed do as a matter of course: give us a picture of what was going on.

We interviewed about 50 international journalists for the documentary, and asked them to tell us stories that didn't get "out there" during the war, but should have. The standout interviewees were almost exclusively photojournalists. What impressed me most about them was their candor. They spoke the same way off camera as they did on, albeit with slightly more cursing. They were wonderful storytellers, and had such stunning, heart-wrenching, funny stories to tell. I don't know why this is so. My theory is that it has something to do with their physical proximity to the subject matter. The scene they capture is often directly in front of them. Maybe that's why they're also direct in conversation. Their conversation mirrors their working relationships. They also can't lie about their work, as the very nature of what they do makes it impossible for them to lapse into rooftop journalism. They have to be there, and sometimes they lose their lives in the process.

So it seemed a natural outgrowth of "Deadline Iraq" to make "Beyond Words: Photographers of War." Our focus was simple: what does doing this work mean to them? Of course, there was a spectrum of response. Some felt they could do absolutely nothing else in life, that they were privileged witnesses of history in the making. When I asked Jerome Delay what he'd have done if he couldn't have been a photographer, he replied tersely: give me one reason why I couldn't do what I'm doing now. Others felt they'd maybe been in the game too long, and confessed they could very well die with their boots on. The venerable Don McCullin said, stunningly, that his career was a waste and that he believes his work had no impact on the world. And Corinne Dufka, who described herself as having been ultra-competitive and consumed by ambition for her work, said she eventually felt as though she were losing her humanity. So she left the profession altogether and doesn't miss it a jot. What other group of journalists would offer such a range of impassioned, disparate opinions and experiences?

I don't romanticize what they do. The work bears a striking resemblance to T.S. Eliot's characterization of the modern condition: that it involves long stretches of boredom punctuated by bursts of absolute horror. Still, I see why they find it so meaningful. The co-producer of the documentary, Eric Foss, has a long-standing interest in photography and photojournalism. In fact, one of the hats he wears in television is that of a cameraman. And after each interview with a photographer, he had one of two responses: one, that he should drop everything to take his still camera into the field. And two, that he would never give up what he has to pursue such a hectic life. His ambivalence was mirrored by the photojournalists themselves. All the interviewees admit that their work impinges on their personal lives. Some have cited it a direct cause for divorce, an observation that makes intuitive sense: you can't have a long-term, healthy relationship if you're not around. I did glean, here and there from certain photographers, a sense that their lives, their real, emotional lives, would begin sometime soon, just around the corner: after this next assignment or this coming year, when things calm down and they'll be traveling less. But of course, things never calm down, ever. It's very easy, while catching plans to cover geopolitical realities, to postpone confronting and dealing with one's own realities.

On this point, Gary Knight was breathtakingly honest. He said that photographers who knowingly and willingly go into war zones are doing so because there's some wound, something troubled in their past, which compels them to seek out the danger. It's not necessarily a self-destructive impulse, although it could be that. Gary said that in his own case, he went to Cambodia to punish his parents because they were going through a divorce. Going into a war zone validated his imperiled sense of himself. It was also cathartic, in that combat externalized the violent emotions he felt internally. He, and others, were also honest enough to admit how exhilarating the experience can be, perhaps even addictive. Nothing else imparts intensity to one's life as facing death squarely and surviving, and they'll all tell you that. Some live for that sensation; others see it as part of the working conditions of the job. But it's undeniably there.

In the end, I'm not sure I'd say that most of the photojournalists were happy. Of course, you could wonder the same about dentists, or athletes, or functionaries. But I have to admit to that if for some unholy reason I were consigned to spend the rest of my life on the proverbial desert island and I had to do so in the permanent company of other journalists, I'd choose photographers hands-down. They're just not as consumed as print people often are with sounding smart: photographers are smart, many are highly educated, and the best absorb all that can be absorbed by what they've seen and done. They're also not as obsessed with their own appearance as television reporters are, in part because no living creature on earth can match television reporters for vanity, except of course television hosts. While it's true that some photographers create their own 'uniforms' with bandanas, shades, vests and so on, at least the uniform tends to fit.

One photographer asked me if I thought they were screwed up -- not quite the same question as being happy or unhappy. For what it's worth, I don't think they are. But if there were one trait that I'd ascribe to all of the interviewees it would have to be this: they have to see things for themselves. It's not that this trait makes them endearing. In fact, it can make them a little crusty sometimes. But it also makes them compelling. They are the most interesting, original, independent, socially-conscious sub-species in the profession. They seem to be unafraid of life, and reflexively generous. And they're also often very funny, obscenely so, and very salty. Patrick Chauvel had us in stitches telling us tales out of school about other photographers and their love lives, as well as about his own sinusoidal love life. No one need worry, though; the tape has since been erased. And all parties concerned can now go on living, and working, within their own norms.

© Greg Kelly

Greg Kelly is the Senior Producer of "The Story" with Dick Gordon, a National Public Radio program produced by WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio. View the "Beyond Words" Web site.