Bang bang

I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with war photography. Not so much with the battlefield stuff in which someone like Robert Capa documents the horrors of war at their most intense and chaotic moments. Rather, I’ve always felt conflicted over war photography that happens in more controlled settings. In particular, things like executions and torture, such as when a captured prisoner is quickly “dispatched” out of convenience, revenge, or merely sport. Robert Capa

A case in point happened about ten or twelve years ago, when a young photographer found himself in the jungle of either El Salvador or Nicaragua (I don’t remember which), tagging along with a patrol of soldiers or guerrillas from one side or the other (I don’t remember which side). The patrol captured a prisoner who they accused of giving intelligence information to the other side, an act which had resulted in a number of their compatriots being killed. According to the photographer the evidence was clear and undisputed. The sentence for this crime was death, but they couldn’t shoot him because enemy patrols were nearby and they would hear the shots. Apparently, dragging him back to a place where a proper trial and sentence could be carried out was also out of the question. So they killed him there, in the jungle, with a knife.Robert Capa

I remember hearing the photographer on CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” describing the scene. It was chilling. They tied the man up, threw him in a shallow grave, and knifed him in the gut a few times. They stood around while he died slowly in the dirt. All the while, the photographer was taking pictures, which he later sold to Time magazine.

The easy question is “how can a photographer stand by and photograph such a thing and not do anything to stop it.” There are two answers. First the ideological one: it is not the photographer’s job to affect a situation, merely to record or document it. Then there is the practical answer: a photographer in a situation like that cannot defend someone because of the risk having the aggression turned on him or herself.

Having once studied photography and its history formally, I’ve been through most of the arguments. Once I even presented a paper and slideshow on war photography. Most of the rhetoric revolves around the argument that the photographers are performing a valuable service by documenting these horrors � that the victims deserve to have the method of their demise known to the world. Anyone who survived the Central America of the 1980s will attest to the value of witness given the number of “disappeared”, in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatamala. These photographers also say that there are many times when their presence has prevented atrocities from taking place because the men with the guns didn’t want anything recorded on film.

Still, there are times when one has to wonder.

Don McCullinFor me, the question has never been “why didn’t they do anything.” It has always been “how does one step into someone else’s terror and grief, walk away with a piece of it, but not be effected personally?” Very few war photographers admit to any ill effects beyond stress and cynicism. However, in the current issue of the print edition of Photo District News (PDN), respected (and retired) war photographer Don McCullin answers that exact question in an interview. In his case, the answer is “I can’t”. The following excerpt is the most elegant statement from that side of the discussion I’ve ever read.

Don McCullin-BeirutPDN: Didn’t you take a hiatus from war photography at one point?
DM: Yes, I did. I was in Beirut in 1982. I photographed a woman whose house had been bombed by the Israelis. Her family was trapped inside the building. I miscalculated and took this quick picture of her while she was running toward me and screaming. She kept coming like a locomotive and then her fists started flying, and I just had to take this beating. I went back to my hotel and I sat down and thought, “This is it. I can’t do this anymore after twenty years of this.” A man came to the hotel and said to me, “You know that woman that just attacked you; she’s been killed by a car bomb explosion.” That was really the turning point in my life.

PDN: But what was wrong with taking her picture in the first place?
DM: I realized I was stealing from her deep, deep grief. There has to come a time when we say, “Look, we’ve been photographing dead people, people being executed and what have you. What good has it done?” You have to ask yourself, “Do we have the right to steal these moments?” You cannot be a just and honest man if you don’t ask yourself these questions before someone else asks you. I’ve found it very difficult to live with myself after doing the work I’ve done. I’ve made a name photographing someone else’s demise. Can I live, justifiably comfortable with this? The answer is, No, I can’t.

PDN: Are you saying you feel that you misspent your career?
DM: Yes and no. My career has not been 100% war photography. I’ve done a lot of other things, and I’ve invested the twilight part of my life in landscape photography. I’m looking at the most beautiful scene tonight in my garden, which is full of mist and golden trees. I look at the last day’s light with some poetry. I know the quality of life that I’m clinging to, and war photography will not bring you a quality of life. It will bring you a bad dream forever.