Shooting Shooting: Photographers at War

James T. Phillips’ description in CounterPunch of photographing war presents an odd picture of combat photographers. I can’t argue with his general line that the war in Iraq is going to leave a generation of Iraqis with some terrible mental images — who can? — but the idea that “[t]he ranks of front-line photo-journalists in Iraq are now filled with native-born Arabic-speaking men, women, and children” is just plain wrong. At least as far as the images recorded on memory cards rather than retinas are concerned.

Agencies like AP and Reuters might employ local photographers to take spot shots — images of the aftermath of explosions or of demonstrations, for example. They’re paid between $75 and $200 a day for these assignments; not a huge amount for a photo that could get you killed. But pictures that document the situation — that tell a story — require a professional photojournalist who can do research and understand the big picture. Those photographers are still doing it.

And if they’re doing it by embedding with American troops and avoiding the dangerous streets outside the Green Zone, that has to do with the both the changing nature of war and the new photography environment.

I remember when we were covering the Moscow coup, a photographer asked me to help him get him to the scene. I spoke to a photo editor, and she asked me a question I hadn’t thought of. She asked if the photographer had ever been hurt.

“Yes,” I said. “He was shot while working in Sudan.” I thought my answer would show that the photographer was strong, daring, a go-getter.

“We don’t want a photographer like that,” the editor told me. “It’s too dangerous.”

She wasn’t wrong. War photography today is more dangerous than ever and magazines are reluctant to send freelancers who could get injured or worse. As Benjamin J. Chapnick, president of Black Star (and Black Star Rising contributor) points out, there are no front lines any more. Shooting can come from any direction and photographers have no more protection from armor-piercing IEDs than the soldiers they travel with. If the problem in the past was to get close enough to the action, the problem for embedded photographers today is to get far enough away from it to take the picture without getting killed. You can’t get any closer than over the shoulder of the marine firing the rifle.

That’s why when photographers come to me and say, “I want to be like Christopher Morris,” an award-winning war photographer who used to be with Black Star, before I even look at the pictures, I check whether they have any personal ties. And if the photographer has never been to a war zone before, I don’t encourage them. Of course, if they have drive and really want to do it, they’ll go anyway.

The photographer who wanted to cover the Moscow coup did get to go to Russia. We sent him on an assignment for Newsweek. He was talking to us when the coup leaders hung a white flag from the parliament building and he told us that he wanted to get closer to take the shot. We told him that it was too risky. We were right. He ignored us, ran forward — and got shot in the butt.

(Photographs: Iraq roadside and helicopter photos by Harald Henden. Somalia and Moscow coup by Enrico Dagnino.)

[tags]photography, war photography, war photographers, Enrico Dagnino, Harald Henden, Anh Stack[/tags]

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