Monday, May 2, 2011

The cost of photographing war and tragedy

I have not blogged in a long time. Balancing a demanding job and a home life have drained me recently. Today, given many recent world developments, I simply felt compelled.

While chronicling Statesboro and Bulloch County is my primary role as a photojournalist , I still feel a strong kinship with those who choose a larger role on the world's stage.

I probably will never be able to change the minds of those who see some photojournalists as nothing more than paparazzi who choose to cover tragedy instead of celebrity – vultures preying on human suffering for the sake of personal recognition and awards. Or appealing to base, morbid human curiosity.

However, I firmly believe there is a higher calling abided by many, if not most, photojournalists who chase human conflict all over the world.

There will always be a debate about the value of photographs depicting tragedy. It's a necessary and healthy debate, in my opinion. Amongst the photographers who make them. Amongst the editors who choose to publish them. And amongst the audiences who view them.

This recently became the topic at a photography conference in Italy, and photographer/writer Enzo dal Verme blogged about it: Misery Is Photogenic.

However, I feel compelled to share some thoughts and links about those who have recently suffered imprisonment, horrible injuries, or even lost their lives in order to enlighten us.

The conflict in Libya, especially, has been costly for photojournalists. Numerous journalists have been captured by pro-Qaddafi forces or have gone missing. Academy Award-nominated photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist Chris Hondros of Getty Images were killed in Libya on April 20th.

"I wanted to photograph their lives as fully as possible."
Photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Heatherington on American troops in Afghanistan for his book "Infidel" and his film "Restrepo"

Especially the deaths of Hetherington, a true pioneer in "multi-media" story-telling, and Hondros have given many in the profession reason for pause.

Others, on the other hand, are more committed than ever. War photographer Joao Silva, who lost both legs and suffered internal injures in Afghanistan, has displayed the same indomitable spirit in his recovery that made him so effective on the front lines, and is excited about sharing his personal story. Not to mention itching to get back to work.

Perhaps photographing tragedy is an adrenaline rush for a few photographers. It's not about an addiction to danger, for most, however. There is something much more profound in the hearts of most of these individuals. These folks have little desire to tell sterile "objective" stories from the front lines. They are so moved by what they see and feel, they are compelled to keep sharing, over and over, regardless of the personal cost. In fact, more than once, I have heard photographers describe this kind of work – to photograph people in the most private, vulnerable kinds of situations – as a privilege not to be taken lightly. I feel their kind of courage should be recognized.

These folks stalk the front lines, often shoulder-to-shoulder with military combatants, or amongst those caught in the crossfire – the "collateral damage." Their only weapons? A camera and a conscience. This gallery, Photographers in Peril, gives us a few examples of  the search for humanity contained within often inhumane conflicts.

We Americans laud our military. Rightfully so. Those individuals make incredible personal sacrifices, put their lives on the line, do their duty and carry out orders without question. We owe them much, much more than gratitude. But what of those who risk their lives to tell us the stories of our soldiers and those they fight on behalf of? Stories spun by compassionate souls, not spun for the purpose of "official" agendas, that sometimes painfully reveal the true cost of conflict?

What is your opinion of the men and women who make images, still and moving, of human conflict and tragedy? Are they simply the bearers of bad news? Or do you see value in their chronicles? Is it worth the cost?

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