Photographing Conflict for the First Time
When scores of young and inexperienced photographers descended on Libya this year to cover the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government, many seasoned conflict photographers were shocked.
“There are an unbelievable number of young kids running around Libya with cameras,” Tim Hetherington, the conflict photographer, said upon his return to the United States from Benghazi in March. (Mr. Hetherington returned the next month to Misurata, where he and Chris Hondros of Getty Images were killed.)
We spoke about it for a few minutes and his words betrayed an equal mix of concern for their safety, unease about their ability to get the story right and irritation that they might end up in his frame. Other veteran photographers came back telling the same story — groups of unseasoned photographers, most without flak jackets, helmets or medical kits — running through Libyan streets as shells fell around them.
Though there are no hard numbers, the Libyan war appeared to draw a large number of unprepared and inexperienced photographers to the war zone. Anecdotal evidence suggests hundreds of photographers from around the world flocked to the cities of Ajdabiya, Benghazi and Misurata in the spring of 2011. Many of them were under 30 and under fire for the first time. Many paid their own way.
“A lot of young photographers showed up without assignments,” said Ben Lowy, a 32-year-old photographer, of his time in Libya this year. “I would say there were at least 20 young, fresh photographers there with me.”
Lowy, whose career was jump-started by his 2003 work in Iraq, said that the equation was quite simple: Libya offered the unfettered access that photojournalists crave.
A generation ago there was fierce competition among photographers, newsweeklies and agencies. But the go-to list was smaller and limited to those who could keep their wits while taking pictures, process film in the field and work out the tricky logistics of shipping film from a war zone to stateside.
To me and some of the older crowd, there was a nagging suspicion that these packs of “green” photographers were not taking war seriously — that they were joyriding, with all the casual privilege the term implies. We’d spent years at this — months working the streets of Baghdad and hiking the mountains of Afghanistan. Year after year, I had lugged Pelican cases crammed with gear, spent countless hours trying to sneak bags of film past airport security and now these young photographers were showing up in T-shirts and shooting with iPhones!
The idea of a 20-year-old running around Libya with a cellphone and no flak jacket is, frankly, quite disturbing. It conveys a disrespect for the profession and for the civilians involved and it incorporates a certain callousness, at least in my opinion, toward the gods of war.
One disrespects the war gods at one’s own peril.
Ty Cacek has wanted to cover a war since he was 15. This year he got his chance in Libya. He’s now 20. Though he went to cover the humanitarian crisis, he got within two kilometers of the front.
“There was lots of outgoing fire,” he said. “No one tells you how dramatic massive amounts of machine gun fire is. In photos you just see the puff from the barrel. But when you are there, it’s incredibly shocking and dramatic. I realized that, as someone who was very green, I could not handle the outgoing, much less the incoming. So I decided it was best to leave it to the guys who know what they are doing. I thought, ‘I should leave this to someone with insurance and a guarantee to publish the pics.’ As a freelancer, I just could not do it.”
Michael Christopher Brown was also among those who felt compelled to venture to Libya, where he came under fire for the first time in his life.
“I was living the past couple years in China, I saw Libya on TV and I wanted to go see it for myself,” he said. “I went because Libya was somewhere exciting and visually exotic.”
Mr. Brown, who had worked previously in Russia as a photojournalist, was wounded on two separate occasions in Libya. Once was in April, when Mr. Hondros, 41, and Mr. Hetherington, 40, were killed. The other time, however, he was riding in the back of a truck with Libyan rebels in the middle of a raging battle.
“I knew it was stupid but I wanted to have the experience and see what it felt like,” Mr. Brown said of his decision to go to Libya. “I didn’t feel invincible — I was just living moment to moment. I was thinking, ‘Can I survive this kind of thing?’”
I can count 10 or so colleagues lost to combat — and that was before the deaths of Tim and Chris. We’ve been around long enough to have seen bodies blown apart, burning corpses — to know that it’s not always going to be someone else. And for some of us, conflict photography is a calling weighted with a certain gravitas, something to which we’ve devoted a large part of our lives. Many have missed their own children growing up, lost marriages and relationships because of the grueling schedule and attendant emotional fallout.
But everyone — even a conflict photographer — has to start somewhere. I first covered combat in Haiti during my early 20s. Many of the finest photojournalists of my generation started in their mid-20s, too.
I was 23 working in the railroad darkroom in Grand Central in 1987 when I stopped over one day to visit my counterpart, Les Stone, who worked in the subway darkroom. I vividly remember Les saying: “Hey man, you want to go to Haiti with me? There’s an election coming up.”
I don’t recall my exact thought process, but certainly it would have been a chance to explore Haiti, to build my portfolio, to become a real photojournalist. And it would be more exciting than working in a darkroom.
I thought I was up on current events and had been following the news and knew all about the clueless Baby Doc, his free-spending wife, Michele, and the brutal Tonton Macoutes. But honestly, I had only the vaguest idea of where Haiti actually was — somewhere south, off the coast of Florida.
Is it any different for today’s generation?
Christopher Morris, one of the leading combat photographers of the past two decades, isn’t cynical about the motivations of the young.
“I don’t think most young photographers know the risk,” he said. “But you can’t deny them their chance. Jim Nachtwey and Don McCullin had a first time. Patrick Chauvel had a first time. You don’t get experience until you are under fire. You don’t understand how to protect yourself until you stand behind a wall being shot at.”
As a photographer at Black Star in his mid-20s, Mr. Morris chafed at the bit, trying to get assignments in El Salvador and Beirut. His boss, Howard Chapnick, told him he wasn’t ready.
So Mr. Morris set out for the Philippines on his own.
“I covered the revolution and that kick-started my career,” he said. “I got work from Newsweek, then Time. I got a contract and I got on the wheel as a conflict photographer. The problem is, it’s hard to get off the wheel.”
Mr. Morris believes younger photographers will always flock to war zones. What is important, he said, is for older photographers to mentor them.
Ron Haviv was one such shooter. Though he has covered conflicts from Panama to Darfur to Iraq, he recalls that he was “green, as green as you can be,” when he started out. Today, he credits Mr. Morris’s tutelage as critical to his development.
“We label photographers by conflict,” Mr. Haviv said. “We had the Vietnam generation. Then the Central America and Lebanon generation, then my generation who started in the former Yugoslavia. Then there was nothing until the Iraq and Afghanistan generation. Now we have photographers from the Arab Spring.”
Besides, it’s only natural that as the veterans age, newcomers step in.
The way Mr. Morris sees it, many of the young photographers in Libya were smart, particularly the ones who were with Mr. Hetherington and Mr. Hondros when they died.
“My advice is for new photographers is to find more experienced guys when they arrive someplace,” Mr. Morris said. “That group that went to Misurata did the right thing. They hooked with up with Chris and Tim.”
One of those photographers in Misurata was Nicole Tung. “I was 24-years-old, I was totally clueless,” she said in a recent interview. “I did not know anything about Libya, aside from Qaddafi. I’d never been to a revolution.”
Arriving late and missing most of the Egyptian revolution, Ms. Tung took a bus to the Libyan border and ran into Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. “He said to me, ‘You’re very young, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m here to see the revolution.’”
He suggested she shoot for his group, and gave her a ride from the border into Libya. She spent the following months working for HRW and the International Organization for Migration and made contacts with writers and news organizations. She began selling her photos around the world. She also began to work closely with older photographers, and with Mr. Hondros from whom, she said, she learned a great deal.
“The first time I was under fire was with Franco Pagetti,” she said. “It was March 2. We went forward to Brega and we were being shelled. There was almost no cover at all. We were near the beach with these tiny dunes. I had no combat training and Franco was pulling me around, telling me to stay down in the sand. He guided me through it.
“I’d never seen dead bodies until Libya,” Ms. Tung said. “I just followed Franco’s instructions and stayed calm. Shells were landing 20 to 30 meters away. Civilians were firing weapons. People were going haywire with weapons.”
The flood of photographers into Libya is also a measure of how technology has changed photography over the past 20 years. Before, only a small circle of people could be relied upon to cover combat using film. Today, digital cameras have made it easier to get the picture and send it home.
“Before, we had serious logistical problems: we couldn’t transmit our photos, we had to develop our film in the field,” Mr. Morris said. “So we were a smaller group. Today, you can put two iPhones in your pocket and do a phenomenal project. The technology has just opened it up.”
Mr. Brown did, in fact, use an iPhone. He dropped his full-size camera and broke it, then decided to use his camera phone for the next seven weeks. Still, Mr. Brown said he was able to sell photos to Fortune magazine and National Geographic.
Whitney Johnson, a photo editor at The New Yorker, said that as the news media has changed, the goals of young photographers have, too — goals that make a self-financed trip into a war zone seem more reasonable.
“They seem much more intent on pursuing their own projects — their own vision — as opposed to trying to work for a newspaper or magazine,” she said of the young photographers who went to Libya. “All those traditional opportunities are diminishing in front of their eyes. It’s a much different landscape today.”
What has not changed are the dangers. Many new conflict photographers in Libya were unequipped to deal with the physical dangers around them — going into the field without helmets, vests or medical kits. That lack of preparedness among young photographers in Libya shocked Sebastian Junger, a close friend and colleague of Mr. Hetherington. In response, he started a journalist medical training program, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues.
“By and large, the photographers are very brave and realistic about the risk,” Mr. Junger said. “But they are fatalists in terms of ‘I might get hit, I might not get hit.’ They hope for the best. But they don’t take care of their medical needs. Tim bled out and no one around him was trained to react. There are procedures that they need to know. Many are very simple. We can teach them to deal with a lot of injuries long enough to get them to a hospital.”
Though the methods and details change, the danger is ever-present, Mr. Morris said.
“In Iraq, it was car bombs, Sarajevo was random artillery shells,” he said. “They are all different situations, but when you are photographing man trying to kill another man, you are at risk.”
Many of the young photographers have shown since Libya that they are, in fact, serious. They have proven that they were not simply war tourists.
In the end, there has to be a first time for every photographer.
“You have to do it,” Mr. Morris said. “No workshop, no classroom is going to do it. If you survive your first war, you get some experience, if you survive a second one, you get more experienced in warfare and how to act. The young photographers with Tim and Chris were inexperienced. Now, they are very experienced.”