So, I have to apologize for not coming back to this blog until now. There have been some extenuating circumstances that may seem strange beyond my usual lack of sleep.
As you may know, I am a fervent believer in the need to speak truth to power and in the role photography and photojournalists play on the international stage—those people who bring us images from the ordinary scenarios of oppression through neglect or malfeasance or from more violent and more remote places, war zones in Afghanistan, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. These are the people who charge to wards the guns where everybody with a right mind would run away. They are those who are there before the battles begin and who remain in the refugee camps.
It is a very tough job that calls for intense dedication. I worked for World Press Photo as a freelance writer for two years writing profiles of photojournalists who set examples in the profession. Some of them, like Robert Capa, Larry Burroughs, Henri Huet, and Bernard Fall, had gotten killed in Indochina. It somehow seemed easier before then, not the getting killed part, but the way wars were understood especially in the West: just like in a cowboy movie—good guys v bad guys. People still talk about World War Two as the last clean war, a war against German Nazism and Japanese aggression. As if things were so simple!
What followed, those really nasty wars of re-colonialization and then of independence across Africa, Asia, and Indochina, were followed by wars against the oligarchs and dictators in Latin America… There were no more clean frontlines anymore. These new wars were guerrilla-style because there was no way an independence movement or a troupe of revolutionaries could stand up against the firepower of standing armies… Wars were fought without geographical frontlines and for the hearts and minds of cowed populaces.
In these circumstances, photojournalists found themselves in uncertain and often extremely dangerous territory. If Vietnam was lethal—and anybody who saw the legendary exhibition Requiem organized by the recently deceased former AP Station Chief, Saigon, Horst Faas, and the still active and no less legendary Tim Page will attest, it was horrifyingly lethal—Vietnam marked the beginning of wars without frontiers, wars where danger could come from any direction and from anybody including one’s so-called allies.
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made clear, there are often no such things as one side fighting another side—there are many sides many of which fight against each other even as they ally with one side or the other in a brutal “Game of Thrones” mash up. The previous concept of “Red” v “Blue”, “us against them”, has now incorporated “Green” v “Blue” or nominal allies attacking each other.
In the course of these horror shows, as in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Central African Republic, “Truth” is not the only first casualty. Civilians and journalists have become easier, softer, targets than combatants. Indeed, it is sometimes very hard to determine who the combatants are and for whom they are fighting.
I am writing this in this fashion for a couple of reasons that I find extremely important First off, I want to call attention to the incredibly dedicated people who go off to take pictures that tell stories of people enduring incredible horrors. As a member of Reporters without Borders and Amnesty International, and as a frequent attendee of World Press Photo’s Awards Days and Visa pour l’Image’s annual events, I have had the great honor to meet many of the people who do the unthinkable and then bring us back stories from places where the powers that be would rather we know nothing.
Unfortunately, many of these messengers get killed.
It is now, as I write this, the 60th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, an event that marked the end of French power in Indochina and the beginning of the American involvement in a continuing terrible war that would last another 20 years and cost the lives of millions of Vietnamese and some 58,000 Americans. It was also the first war that was fought on television and directly in the press. It was a war where photography made a serious impact on the conduct of the war and had great consequences for the politicians who directed it.
When I was a graduate student, I spent quite some time looking at that terrible and terribly conceived war, and one of the people whose work I thought most important to the analysis of that war was the French-American academic and reporter, Bernard Fall, a veteran of the Resistance, a reporter at the Nuremberg trials and one of the foremost experts on both the French and then the American involvement in Indochina. I just came across on Youtube the video of his last reportage from 1967 when accompanying the US Marines on the legendary Rue Sans Joie, was killed in an ambush while making a tape. I had read the transcript before in his posthumous book, Last Reflections on the War, and I later became close to one of his daughters, herself a very talented photographer, but this was the first time I saw, essentially, a person I later knew (after the fact), get killed before my eyes.
It is one thing to read a transcript—it ends with the incomplete sentence, “I believe we could be stepping into an amb— [BANG]!” I have also seen the last images on his camera—they are in Requiem. To experience this from so far away is horrible, of course.
This is however how most of us receive images from war zones whether “clean” or “dirty” wars.
And yet and yet, the killings and the horrors go on. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, I knew them. Remi Ochilik, I did not know. Anja Niedringhaus, I knew her. Camille Lepage, I didn’t. The list goes on.
We in the West seem to have now gotten used to the idea of “Drone Wars” where “smart bombs” or missiles launched from unmanned aircraft somehow promise a clean war against bad people that results in no collateral damage—read, civilian casualties. The truth on the ground is usually very different, and the likes of the above died in the process of bringing back pictures and stories from the front lines where there are no front lines, the places that are at the very heart of wars today.
This I write now is just a small tribute to those who go out to bring back the stories we need to see, the stories that demand we do not look away, the stories that demand we do something, the stories that make us ashamed that we did not help prevent these horrors, the stories that say they and the people whose stories they told did not die in vain.
Look on their pictures and demand change! Do not simply accept cheap clothes from Target or H&M built on the backs of Bangladeshi girls who die in factory collapses or mobile phones built from coltan mined from Congo and Ruanda where international companies pay militias to protect their interests (see Marcus Bleadsdale’s The Rape of a Nation).
Look at work by Jodi Bieber and James Nachtwey and all these people who go to incredible lengths to bring back stories that most of us prefer to ignore for the next episode of “American Idol” of “German’s Next Top Model”!
Go vote this weekend for tolerance in the EU!
Vote for peace, but stand to power!
Celebrate your storytellers!
They are dying to bring you the news.
If only we could do something about it all…
By the way, go look at the dozens of shows related to the outbreak of World War One (the German Historical Museum here in Berlin has such a show) but also to all of the other commemorations of man’s inhumanity to man (and woman!), and remember your, our, responsibilities to wage peace.