War stories, part one

For the last few months I have been carrying around a copy of a commentary written by the National Geographic photographer, turned university professor, Steve Raymer. It appeared in the March, 2010 issue of the magazine, News Photographer (which is published by the National Press Photographer’s Association.) He talks about the photography of Haiti’s earthquake/disaster as well as the ethics of students going to places like Haiti in an attempt to develop their portfolios as they photograph that horror. All of this, and last week’s “bandh,” here in India, prompted me to tease out some of my own “war stories” and put them down in type.

One thing I like about blogging is that it requires me to think about what I have done (or what I believe) and then write that out for others to understand. Knowing that I have to blog twice a week is of course, a challenge. It also helps to know that if some idea bouncing around in my head is not fully resolved one week, it may be resolved next week and will merit a whole blog entry of its own. One of the most interesting parts of the whole process is seeing exactly what happens to push a given idea from intangible neurons in my gray matter to text actually on my computer.

A week ago, just such a triggering event happened. Last Monday, July 5th, India was largely paralyzed by a nationwide “bandh” or strike over higher fuel prices. According to Wikipedi:

“Bandh” is originally a Hindi word meaning ‘closed.’ It is a form of protest used by political activists in some countries like India and Nepal. During a Bandh… the community or political party declaring a Bandh expect the general public to stay in their homes and not work. The main affected parties are shopkeepers who are expected to keep their shops closed and the public transport operators of buses and cabs who are supposed to stay off the road and not carry any passengers.… Bandhs are powerful means for civil disobedience. Because of the huge impact that a Bandh has on the local community, it is much feared as a tool of protest.

A bandh is similar to a “Hartal” (also hartaal)which is the term in many Indian languages for strike action, used often during the Indian Independence Movement. It is mass protest often involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, courts of law, etc. In addition to being a general strike, it involves the voluntary closing of schools and places of business. It is a mode of appealing to the sympathies of a government to change an unpopular or unacceptable decision.

I have experienced both “bandhs and “hartals” in India as well as in Bangladesh. I have also photographed the unrest that usually accompanies protests like these. (Let me say that between my responsibility for the two teenage girls I am with and my aging well into my 50’s, I had no interest in going out and photographing amidst this recent Indian “bandh” with its potential violence.)

Though I did not go out photographing, I thought about my various attempts at being a “war photographer,” at covering different kinds of conflict. Then I thought about the particular way that I developed the skills I needed to cover conflict. Then my thinking finally circled back to Raymer’s commentary piece.

Raymer and a number of other commentators/bloggers took issue with things like “… an online offer of a $4,000 workshop in photographing disaster in Haiti – or for dozens of students and freelancer photographers to travel to Haiti to build their portfolios and make dramatic pictures in hope of winning contests.”

I could not find a web version of Raymer’s commentary but plenty of other people have written and talked about the issue. You can read some long, interesting discussion threads on the topic starting at:

http://duckrabbit.info/blog/2010/01/have-100-eyes-lost-the-plot/

http://www.zoriah.net/blog/2010/02/photojournalism-workshops-haiti-earthquake-intimate-group-workshop.html

http://www.dvafoto.com/2010/01/more-perspectives-on-haiti-and-crisis-journalism/

(Make sure you follow each thread out to its end to appreciate the extreme diversity of perspectives.) In the various commentaries, most notably Raymer’s piece, experienced photographers suggested that aspiring conflict photographers build their skills, locally, regionally, nationally then internationally, ideally with the mentoring of an experienced editor or photographer (or both.) Others suggested working in the developing world with non-governmental organizations to develop some of the needed skills. It is hard to argue with those ideas.

Still, I read all that commentary and I started to wonder if and exactly how a young photographer acquires the skills needed to cover conflict, to be a “war” photographer. I myself tried to do that kind of work using a few different strategies with some, limited success. I will write about MY experiences in future blog entries.

After thinking about that, my history of photography training kicked in and I started to wonder how, historically, war photographers have developed their skills. Some of the best practitioners of that specialty have worked their way up, from small to large newspapers then going overseas, first for newspapers as staffers and later for magazines as freelancers. That is arguably the ideal career path to pick up the requisite skills needed above and beyond the skills in photography. These include working with a wide range of people, thinking on the fly, improvising in tough situations, etc. Language skills and expertise in first aid probably can help too. The problem is that historically, some of the best war photographers of the last seventy-five years have generally had little or no training before immersing themselves in the middle of humanity’s most horrific places. In no particular order, note that:

Donald McCullin went to war at age 26, with little formal training though some basic photography training and lots of experience with wide range of people from socio-economically challenged groups. Robert Capa started photographing war at about age 24 with no formal training. James Nachtwey started later, at 33, with some experience working at a newspaper but little other formal training. Catherine Leroy went to cover the war in Laos at the age of 21. Philip Jones Griffiths went to Algeria at the age of 25. Tim Page arrived in South Vietnam at 21 as a free-lance photojournalist with no training. Alfred Yaghobzadeh was a19-year-old when he started photographing the revolution in his homeland of Iran. I can go on but you get the idea.

Having tried to do some conflict photography, I learned many things, including that I was not cut out for that kind of work. (For more, see future blogs.) An equally fascinating thing I learned as I tried that was how many hundreds of other photographers were doing the same thing I was. This makes sense because photographing conflict is perceived as a glamorous line of work and so it attracts a great deal of aspirants. It is also a market for photography that is remarkably Darwinian, economically, as well as in terms of the violence, where reality pretty quickly sorts out the talented from the unskilled.

I am not sure that a workshop or a college class in conflict photography is any more likely to equip aspiring photographers with the skills they need. What I am sure of is that conflicts will continue around the globe and we will continue to need people who can prick our consciences with their images.

Whether they should be formally trained or learn what they need via the “school of hard knocks” is an open question. I do wish the commentators agitated by what happened in Haiti with the aspiring photographers would spend more time thinking about how the next generation can gain the skills they need, rather than simply condemning them for trying to get those skills.

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