A few months ago I got an invitation to talk on a panel in a symposium in Turkey, bringing together a number of women photographers. I looked at the proposed topics, and although I refrain from making public speeches, I saw Susan Sontag’s name, and I caved in. Sontag and her Regarding the Pain of Others was quiet special for me. No, I never had the stamina to read the whole thing from beginning to end. It goes like this: I start, and then something she says translates my feelings, hits a chord, I get distracted and close the book, only to pick it up sometime, somewhere, later… But when I saw the title, I felt like I should have a few words to honor the author. While being pressured to title my talk, I thought, how about something a little personal, something on being the person behind the lens, and doing what we do, in the field, day in day out..
Well, just as Sontag struck a chord in me every time I picked her book, I believe I struck a chord in the audience who showed up for the panel, all eager to see the “pain of others”, the corpses, dead bodies, destruction, violence and war, as well as a tranquil yet psychologically disturbing story about elderly Korean women who were once used as sex slaves. But not what I had to say about photojournalism and being a photojournalist. Corpses were OK, but talking about our profession was taboo.
My biggest critics were the photographers among the audience, as well as a couple of hardcore feminists (accusing me of using male lingo) And then there was a small but very special group of people who could understand what I am saying below. Posting this piece here in my blog, I do it in hope that the few that were among the audience, are in greater number out there…
On Being a Photojournalist
Sometime ago I made a personal resolution not to attend panels on photography. The discussion, along with the inevitable labeling, categorizing, making attempts at defining the indefinable are futile and a waste of time for most of us, photojournalists. Our job is to relay what takes place in the field, without manipulation or touch ups, to you, the reader. To try to make sense of what we do is the mission of the philosopher who has way more time in his hands than us.
In the field one hardly has time to think. We rush from one major story to the next. When in the morning we are photographing human remains plastered on the pavement, in the evening we find ourselves in the same room with close relatives of the victim. Our camera becomes a shield between us and them. But regardless of how much we try to distance ourselves from the event, sounds of devastation creep into our ears. There is very little distance between one’s ear and one’s brain. So in the field, one has no choice but be pragmatic, or else they fall.
This pragmatism helps us adapt to different situations. At times it makes us deft to the car bombs and explosions around us as we insist on enjoying a hookah outside in the midst of a Baghdad sandstorm, and at times it frees us to leave the cozy confines of our bulletproof vehicle to hopscotch around the demarcation lines of countries on foot.
* * *
Back when I was in college, living in a city, in a far state of a far country, a local TV news channel was looking for a camera person. I needed a job. So, I applied.
I already was working as a photojournalist on a small but legendary local newspaper then, but what the weekly paper paid me, one assignment here, one there, was hardly enough to cover my living expenses.
I was doing my masters on broadcast journalism at the College of Communication, and I had a self-assigned minor: photojournalism. Later, as I would start working for Newsweek, my colleagues would kid around and call me “the photojournalist with a diploma”. Little did I care, plus I knew they were proud of me. But deep down lies that insatiated itch which the newsman feels towards the philosopher. However in those days coming out of a school in which I would learn all the nicks and the crannies of the profession was more important than being mocked. So I didn’t mind being laughed at. I had great teachers. All came from the heart of the profession and they had broken legendary stories in distant lands: Nicaragua, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan…
Wait, I have digressed, so let us backtrack a little bit: I am applying for a job at a local TV station in a distant country and I am asked two questions during my “job interview” :
1. do you have a driver’s license?
2. is your neck thick enough?
What the burly man who would soon be my editor-in-chief meant by his second question, in his own words, was this: “They will not like you, in fact they will hate you. Do you have the stamina? Or will you run behind your mommy’s skirts every time someone hurts you? If you will, this job is not for you.”
The 21-year-old me told him, I wouldn’t run, that I would cover any story he would send my way.
Let me toss in a few more details for your mental picture: I am the skinniest, shortest and the only female camera person working for the channel. Yet cameras then do not come in different sizes as now. They are all big, and they are all heavy.
I worked for that channel all the way through my graduation. My colleagues had “done it all” way before my time, and they were bored, impatient to retire. Yet once they had been the best of their time, and in my eyes, they were still the best of my time. At the beginning they couldn’t have cared less about me. However my rookie motivation would soon get under their skin, and wake up the journalism bug in them. We were a great team.
* * *
This profession is an addiction of sorts. Anthony Lloyd, in his book My War Gone By I Miss It So, tells us just that: Bosnia, mid-90s, a young freelance journalist is stuck in the midst of a crazy, violent war, torn between that and his drug addiction.
Some call our bond with what we do and our continuous revisits of that bond adrenaline addiction. Some even see us as cool, calculated, bordering merciless, devoid of any human feeling, sterile forms of life. To them we have buried our humanity to do our job. I figure it is because they cannot fathom how someone who holds a conscience can put up with so much daily pain and suffering, so much death and violence.
Little do they know that a world awaits the photojournalist in which we wake up every other day to the news of the death of a colleague, a friend, a subject. It becomes so routine that we stop going to funerals. We only go to those that has news value, to cover them, not so much to attend. We do not do this on purpose. We feel their passing may be delayed by a few more days if we ignore it altogether. Death is a part of everyday life for us. More than it is for you.
This profession starts with a little curiosity, until that curiosity kills you. A little curiosity, and a little wish to be present as history takes form. To be there, to stare at the naked truth straight in the eye. Now that is addiction. One that is so fierce that it frees you may be the first time ever, from your daily worries, your ambitions, your troubles. And that sense of freedom is what we return to every time.
Pain of others frees you.
It makes you callous.
It makes you indifferent to small charades, to quibbling.
If you were a person who pondered too much on the small caprices of life in the past, you now turn your back on them and walk away.
* * *
I had a similar walking away upon returning from Chad in 2005. I was covering the Darfur conflict. We were staying out in the desert for days, weeks, months on end. There was no water, hardly any electricity. We were sleeping in tents without zippers, living exposed to elements. When we got the chance to shower every 20 day or so, colonies of insects nested in our hair would wash down to our toes. Still we knew we are getting five-star treatment. We had food, a not-so-bad shelter from the sandstorms. Yet there were hundreds of thousands of refugees outside that had access to neither of these amenities. Small children died of simple bronchial infections in a matter of days. There was no food, hardly any water. The aid agencies were trying to set up water bladders in camps but the terrain made their job impossible. And there was malaria.
In one of those rare instances when I returned to Istanbul from the desert, a friend of mine called me up. She wanted to meet. At the time I had very little patience for dinner gatherings where small daily troubles were blown out of proportion. So she came over to my apartment. And she talked. She started a long monologue on her botched relationship. After she was finished, she managed to slip away from her troubles for a moment to look at my face for the first time since she came in. Then she said, “you have been very silent since you came back from Chad.” I told her I couldn’t eat, and that every time I sat at a dinner table donned with the best of Turkish cuisine, I saw faces of hundreds of people, women and children who touched my life, and who probably had nothing to eat that very day, except the sand that creeps in everywhere in the Sahel.
“I feel guilty,” I said. I told her that everyday I ask myself: “what am I doing here?” I said I wanted to go back.
And I did. I couldn’t stay away. My life was out there, not in here.
* * *
Us photojournalists are colors of our friends’ gatherings. You may have guessed, my social relationships are no more very “social”. I like to keep it that way. What I saw, what I haven’t seen, and what I plan to see make me indifferent to people’s small ego-trips, their bias, and their educated ignorance.
Ah, and then there is this: to how many of your friends’ spoiled children who pick food at the dinner table can you tell the story of the little boy who picks lentils off the dirt in a refugee camp in Pakistan so he can take some extra food home to his family? For me that number is not more than 1. But what has the wise man said? If at the end of our lives the names of our friends written as a list fills the inside of our thumb, it means we lived a good life. On the inside of my thumb there is hardly a free space.
* * *
So, back in 1997, I left that distant land, my friends, my editors, my teachers, all those that shaped me into the person I am now. I came back home. However I didn’t stay for long. After a few days in Istanbul, I flew off to cover the Kosovo conflict, alone as always, following my nose for a juicy story.
Yet, covering the Balkans was different from covering drug addict single mothers in poor neighborhoods, or aftermath of an execution in a maximum security men’s prison for the likes of AP, the New York Times, Boston Phoenix or Newsweek. I was in a different geography, one in which I did not speak the language, one in which a violent civil war was taking its toll on the people, and I was there to touch that pain of others. Yes, pain is universal. But to stand outside, alone, under a night raid, in a time without mobile phones and the internet, now that is special.
* * *
Photojournalism is a solo profession. Especially if you choose to work out of conflict zones. Put on top of that the singularity of freelance work. Being a freelancer frees me to do what I want when I want it. Besides, you cannot exactly go to war with your fiancé, your boyfriend, your mother or your brother. That would be tourism. Journalism is about being able to stay spontaneous, flexible and, well, quiet solo. At least good journalism requires that much, away from distractions, focused on your work. You owe your subjects your undivided attention. No less, and a lot more.
At least most of this was still true around the ’90s. Now things are a bit different. In 2001, as we waited in Northern Pakistan to enter into Afghanistan we killed time photographing large demonstrations following Friday prayers. In one of these protests, right in the center of all the mayhem, I spotted two young westerners, wearing the traditional shalwar chemises. They were stuck, scared, but cannot get out. I helped them clear off the crowd, and once we did, I asked them, out of breath, who they work for. Their answer: “Nobody. We are here to build our portfolios.”
* * *
In her book Pictures at an Execution, Wendy Lesser talks about the bordering necrophilliac curiosity which people have towards death, through the pictures of one of my favorite photojournalists of all times: Weegee. The book and the photographs search for an answer to the question, “which is more chilling: the sight of a corpse lying on the ground, or the sight of people around it, shoving each other aside to get a closer look?”
A few years ago, on invitation from the European Union I took part in the jury of a photography competition. One of my fellow jurors was a photographer from France who, upon hearing what I do for a living, told me of his documentary project on agencies who specialize in war tourism. An industry that is a bit morbid, bordering grotesque. You may have already heard about the Japanese truck driver who takes pictures on the front lines in Syria. This all takes me someplace different: War tourism is not only a thing for the civilians. For several professional journalists, that is a way to make a living: The expense account, the few mediocre shots serviced from the field.
A lot of photographers who couldn’t embed themselves in with the NATO troops, back in the 1990s, found it easy. Show up at a military maneuver, shoot a few stills of soldiers in camouflage, and service it as combat shots. You cannot service these kind of set up, posed and manipulated shots to big agencies, or newspapers. But there are so many small publications out there eager for a low-cost cover story, and they will not bother – or at times even choose – to verify the accuracy of images.
Ethics is a must for the photojournalist, as much as it is for the reporter. The caption of the photograph is equally, if at times more important than the contents of the photograph. Otherwise you end up with lots of “editorial crops”.
These mock shots may fool those that know nothing about war. But the editors and photographers who know the front lines, also know that if a bunch of foot soldiers are lying on the ground around the corpse of an enemy soldier with their rifles positioned to fire, then 99 percent of the time they are not in direct combat, and the scene is posed. The remaining, actual one percent, is something for Pulitzer to consider.