Mélanie Light, thoughts on Photojournalism
From left: Yuri Kozyrev; Tyler Hicks; Michael Kamber; Lynsey Addario, Ashley Gilbertson; and Alan Chin. Photo by Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos courtesy of New York Magazine, May 2011
Melanie Light is an American writer and former co-founder of Photovision, a non-profit organization devoted to promote documentary photography. She also teaches. Her last two works are Night at the Met with photographer Larry Fink, Mad Day Out, on the Beatles’ photographs (Stephen Goldblatt). She has sent us her text on photojournalism today, which we find remarkable, and are publishing it in La Lettre.
“The deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in April sent a bolt of lightning through the media world and beyond. It was inconceivable that an Oscar nominated filmmaker like Tim would be killed on the front lines of a civil war. Many photographers are swearing off conflict photography forever, now. As Capa said, “War is like an aging actress, more and more dangerous and less and less photogenic.”
I am not a member of this tribe, but I have observed them for many years, most recently as the executive director of Fotovision, an organization I created with Ken Light to create a forum for documentary photographers. In 2004, we were invited to show our work “Coal Hollow” at Visa Pour L’image in Perpignan. It was really the first time I had been in the center of the photojournalism culture. We met Tim there at a private lunch for exhibition participants. He was showing work about Liberia. He was absolutely one of those people that you know they are gifted the minute you meet them. As a bonus, Tim was also very real, engaging, interested in others, tall and handsome. In addition, he bore a frightening similarity to my own brother both physically and with his mannerisms. Except my brother was like the dark twin of Tim — a jingoist Republican who wanted nothing more in his youth than to emulate my West Point, warrior father. So I kept watching him – perhaps a bit obsessively. In any case, I invited him to let us know if he was ever in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In the warm summer evenings at Perpignan, we attended slide shows in the magnificent ruins of churches and Roman amphitheaters. Given that it was the “professional week”, most of the audience were photographers, editors or agents, so it was like a religious experience, but one of “preaching to the choir”. All of us together watching a fifty-foot wide screen showing tales of horror set to music.
As we walked the streets, I noticed a certain type of photographer that stood in contrast to the sophisticated, mature practioners like Tim or our other luncheon mates, John Stanmeyer, Ami Vitale, David Strick, Jack Picone and others. It seemed to me this group was like a pack of roving jackals. There was a certain aggressive energy, wildness and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. This subset of photographers spoke about wanting to change the world, but their words sounded somewhat disingenuous. They wanted the thrill of danger, the clarity that comes when Life faces Death; the hunt, the kill. Their giant cameras slung around their necks while strolling around the peaceful streets of this French city were like bazookas, and shooting was an act of aggression for them.
But the day-to-day world of these people who endlessly circle the globe is hard. They attach themselves to the UN, Medicin sans Frontiers, and other NGOs but never really belong to anyone or anything but their own kind. It is hard for them to be in a long-term relationship, be married, have kids, or pension plans. As the media industry disintegrated, most have become freelance and travel to these god forbidden places on their own dime. In his online piece inspired by the deaths of Tim and Chris Hondros, Teru Kuwayama describes this ragged bunch:
“I wonder which one of us dies first?”
It was 2003, and a stray, morbid thought crossed my mind one night in a hotel in Iraq. I was in a room full of twenty and thirty-something photographers and journalists, in the Al-Hamra hotel in Baghdad. A few miles away, the grown-ups from major label news organizations had filled the Sheraton-Palestine hotel – the Al-Hamra was the low-rent downtown spill over tent. I used to call it Melrose Place Baghdad, and in the evenings, after day trips to bombsites and mass graves, the pack would convene at the poolside for blurry nights fueled by bad Lebanese wine. In retrospect, those days felt like the proverbial fun and games that preceded the losing of eyes.
As it turned out, the first to die from the Al-Hamra scene was Marla Ruzicka, a 28-year-old aid worker-activist. I’d first met her on another drunken bender in Kabul, a year earlier. She was killed in Baghdad by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber who plowed into the military convoy she was driving with.
Many more died in the years that followed.
From the outside looking in, it looks like the career path of a crazy person. How do these gifted, intelligent, artists and journalists end up making so many sacrifices for their work? It’s not clear if they are people who have come to this job because they have wounds of some sort that have moved them to the outside of mainstream society or that being in a conflict situation is their path to experience all the horror, humor, love, hate and mystery that the rest of us accrue through our mundane lives. Or, perhaps they start out with a full emotional repertoire but are seduced by the intensity of being the only person to witness, and thereby own, a given atrocity or battle. For independent photographers, bringing back images of violence, atrocity and war is a way to get paid, and that hyper-real quality of life in extreme danger is attractive; people find God in foxholes. The regular world is so boring after war, and no one understands you anymore, except your colleagues. It makes sense to go again and before you know it, you’re a conflict photographer.
All together, between the young Turks, the sincere and mature master storytellers and the hardboiled journalists, the practice of war photography is celebrated as a noble and glamorous undertaking. And it is pretty cool — people taking risks for a higher purpose. This has been true all the way back to Capa, the granddaddy of glamorous war photographers. And, in fact, there is nothing wrong with noble glamour – I love it too. But over the years I have observed this culture, the glamour has been like a pair of dark sunglasses that is preventing certain very unglamorous aspects from being discussed within the industry. And, most are working all the time to make it in this harsh and unforgiving business. No one really has time to step back until now.
Tim’s “Restrepo” partner, Sebastian Junger was quite shaken by Tim’s death. In a recent LA Times article, (LA Times article here) he says “I thought it couldn’t happen to me, and I’d never known anyone who had got killed —couple guys that got shot. You know, there’s a lot of denial. I mean, denial works.” But, he also touched on an aspect of war reporting seldom mentioned. “I’m not going to do any more front-line reporting, because I don’t want to put my wife through what I went through with Tim,”… “It was a very obvious thought to come to in the wake of all this. Tim’s death made war reporting feel like a selfish endeavor.”
As it happened that year in Perpignan, Médecins sans Frontières had a trailer with a fabulous, experiential exhibition that described the work they do. I joked to Ken that they should have a trailer to treat the conflict photographers who all seemed to have PTSD. I asked photographers I met about their experiences in violence and what it was like to come back home. Tim said he didn’t really have any problems with it then, but I suspect he, like so many of them, had a difficult time processing what they witnessed. Tim’s video piece, “Diary”, (Watch this video here) describes that internal state of disruption very well. I remember Ami Vitale said that when she was home, sometimes images of violence would flash when she would be brushing her teeth. Let’s face it, when it is your job to SEE the horrific parts of humanity, you are going to be affected. And to really get the shot that an editor will pay you for, you’ve really got to be vulnerable. And to go out there and be that vulnerable you have to make a pact with yourself that it’s OK if you die and you’ve got to embrace danger. And when you come back you’ve got to face your demons alone because there is precious little support for journalists with PTSD.
There is a huge irony, though. The reason most photojournalists give for going to conflict zones is that they want to bring back these stories so that those of us back at home will be inspired to do something to stop the unjust violence. The media pays for and publishes what sells: celebrity nonsense and images of horror. So, that means all of us at home are complicit in sending these men and women into danger. And yet, all of us are so media saturated that we are not inspired to do much of anything. We are entertained by the horror, the shock of it, but very few of us do anything to stop the violence. In an odd way the horror of war and Snookie’s latest antics are just one giant blur. And really, what is there to do? War has been a constant of the human condition for millennia. Sadly, these stories might mitigate the carnage of war but they will not stop current conflicts or prevent more in the future. True, the stories do become the record of our time on the planet and I believe they serve as a reminder and mirror to the governments and their corporate supporters the governments not to let things get too out of hand.
Don McCullin sat in our living room a few years back talking at length about his career as a war photographer. He suffered for many years from the trauma of following conflict around the globe: Congo, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Vietnam, Biafra, Guatemala, Pakistan and so on to report on the wars and violence of his generation. He said, in the end, it had been a waste of time because those images he took didn’t do a damn thing. In his book, Unreasonable Behavior, he concludes with this on the battle of Hue, “Those men who died, and those men who were maimed for life, went through all that, and it was totally futile, as all wars are known to be. Without profit, without horizons, without joy. I remember there was a street in Da Nang called the Street without Joy. They could have called the whole country after that street.”
Actually, Don was wrong. His images and those of the other greats that came out of Vietnam did propel a generation to stand up to the government. Those images did have a role in ending that travesty. It was an exception that occurred in an exceptional time, but it’s the outcome that many fantasize will happen. Peter Magubane and his peers were also instrumental in ending Apartheid in South Africa. When the Bang Bang Club appeared a bit later in the process, that racist system was being actively challenged, so while that group provided a critical record, it’s not clear their images really were pivotal in ending Apartheid. You really have to wonder — do good men like Tim, or Chris Hondros or Joao Silva have to be on the very edge of the front lines when there is heavy shelling and no military support like the day that Tim and Chris died? You have to wonder, even though some of these guys are freelance, shouldn’t someone in the industry bear some responsibility for preventing excessive risk taking? What is excessive risk?
Kuwayama’s piece, mentioned above, points out that the industry is not only negligent toward the journalists, but completely irresponsible to the all important “fixers” that are the key to getting a story: Those people constitute a vast, grey, undocumented labor force that the international news industry is 100% dependent on. They face the highest risks, and almost invariably, they pay the highest price…I have yet to find a major news organization with a clearly articulated policy on what happens in the worst case scenarios – when the people it hires are killed, wounded or abducted. I don’t believe that’s an accident. Until this black hole is confronted, more people will disappear in the grey area.
When photographer Lori Grinker emailed us that Tim and Chris had been injured in Misrata, both Ken and I were distraught. We had been communicating with Lori that morning about donating to a fundraiser for The Dart Society, which is dedicated to addressing the issue of trauma induced through reportage. We didn’t know Chris, but we both instantly conjured our memories of Tim’s visit to Berkeley when he stayed at our home. We spoke about everything and certainly the atrocities of war, the difficulties involved in creating and getting the work out. I arranged for a screening of his film about Liberia, “An Uncivil War.” He was so vehemently opposed to war and really wanted to make the world less violent by helping people to see and understand the cost and waste. He was a fully committed man.
Most disturbing to me is that I think this media cycle actually perpetuates the culture and cult of war among both the military and journalists. No matter what a photographer’s intention may be, young men are bound to read war photos as beckoning them to valor, status, and the military as a certain path to manhood and a meaningful life.
As I reflected on Tim, I reached for his book, Infidel. It is designed to look and feel like a Bible, and I’m sure the symbology of the title and the book design can be discussed at length. The idea was to illustrate the multi-faceted world of a soldier in the field, but honestly, it is more of a Rorschach to be interpreted variously. On the one hand, it is a powerful way to bring home the intensity and suffering that we ask of our young soldiers and the vibrant, pop-up culture they create in a barren outpost. Though it feels sacrilegious to say this at a time when people are filled with love and mourning for this beautiful man, it can easily come off like a memory book of Camp Rambo. This book can be an inadvertent recruiting tool for young men across America. I know that’s not what you wanted, Tim, but that’s how my brother would read it and he is legion.
War is troubling. Reporting on war is equally troubling. Is there any sane way to report on insanity?"
Meditation on the Death of a Hero
Read about Valley of Shadows & Dreams
To Be Published 2012 by Heyday Books
Photographs by Ken Light & Text By Melanie Light
Foreword by Thomas Steinbeck