Sunday, May 08, 2011

Bill Keller: The Inner Lives of Wartime Photographers

The Inner Lives of Wartime Photographers
The New York Times

This has been a grievous season for the tight-knit tribe of combat photographers. For The Times, the sorrow began last October, when a land mine exploded under Joao Silva while he was shooting pictures of an American patrol near Kandahar, Afghanistan, destroying both of his legs and shredding his intestinal tract. This spring, three other photographers working for The Times — Jehad Nga, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario — were among the numerous journalists who disappeared into the custody of Libyan state thugs, where they were beaten and terrorized before we could negotiate their release. The darkness deepened by several hues last month when two admired lensmen — Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros — were killed while embedded with Libya’s hapless rebel militia.

Covering conflict is perilous for anyone — reporters, local stringers, the drivers and interpreters we depend on — but photographers are more exposed, in at least two senses of the word. They need a sustained line of sight to frame their photographs; a reliable source is never enough. And they cannot avert their eyes; they have to let the images in, no matter how searing or disturbing. Robert Capa’s famous advice to younger photographers — “Get closer” — translates in combat to “get more vulnerable,” both literally and emotionally.

Back in 2000, Joao and Greg Marinovich, a shooter who was my partner and guide on journalistic adventures in South Africa, published a book called “The Bang-Bang Club,” about four photographer friends who worked together during the bloody death rattle of apartheid. By the time Greg and Joao wrote their account, they were the only survivors. Kevin Carter, a charismatic, talented, addled mess of a man, had run a garden hose from his exhaust pipe into his car and, while smoking a hypnotic mix of methaqualone and marijuana, composed a suicide note. That same year, 1994, Ken Oosterbroek, the grown-up of the quartet, was shot dead in a crossfire in Thokoza township. Greg, who was standing nearby that day, took a bullet to the chest but eventually recovered. After chasing wars around the globe for another five years and being wounded three more times, Greg retired from combat work to write and do less hazardous photography and video documentaries. And that left only Joao, wedded to the life and seemingly invulnerable.

When I called on Joao at Walter Reed Army Medical Center last week — where he is getting accustomed to his new robo-legs and fighting off waves of infection — Greg was also visiting. Most afternoons, Joao straps on his prostheses and circles the physical-therapy room for an hour and a half, clinging to a walker. He’s months from being able to walk on his own, and until then he’s confined to a bed or a wheelchair, attached to a colostomy bag and a stream of antibiotics. His attitude is amazingly resilient. (The first time I visited Walter Reed, I remarked that he didn’t seem to be any older. “No,” he replied, “but I’m a bit shorter.”) Still, the serial operations and infections have made him more somber. As medics came and went tending to Joao’s gauges and nozzles, we spent a few hours discussing the various predicaments of their field, beginning with the obvious mystery: Why do they do this crazy work?

They do it for the most mundane of reasons (to feed their families) and the most idealistic (to make the world pay attention) and the most visceral (it is exhilarating; it is fun) and the somewhat existential.

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