PHOTO-JOURNALISTS WHO CHOOSE TO WORK IN DANGEROUS ENVIRONMENTS, ARE JUST IRRESPONSIBLE, UNETHICAL, RUBBER NECKED, AMBULANCE CHASING, MASOCHISTIC, ADRENALIN JUNKIES, WHO SEEM TO SUFFER FROM A MORBID FASCINATION OF TRAGEDY AND VIOLENCE – DISCUSS
I was at a dinner party recently, just a small one, but the host was asking me about my photography at the ‘March Against the Cuts’ on 26th March in London. I was busy describing the whole day and how ‘artistic’ I felt one my shots was, but he zeroed in on the violence that had occurred and seemed more interested as to what my motives were for getting myself involved. Maybe I was wrong, but he appeared to think that Russ and I had gone along purely because we ‘hoped’ that something would kick off that was exciting to photograph and that we got some kind of ‘buzz’ or ‘rush’ from the whole affair.
Whatever he actually meant and looking back, he was probably not deliberately trying to be challenging, I found myself feeling mildly irritated. Having one’s motives questioned was, as usual, not pleasant nor comfortable. I felt like he was classifing me with the feel of the statement above. Tarring me with the same brush!
I forgot about this minor episode fairly quickly after, but the whole issue was triggered off once again with the death of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya. Now I didn’t know either of them, so far be it for me to postulate on what their motives actually were for being in a war zone with real flying bullets, but I have read at least a few of Mr Hetherington’s comments and then there is the body of their work that can perhaps reveal something about their intentions. What I am fairly certain of guaranteeing, to the sceptical reader, is that they both will have felt that it was extremely important to them, for them to be doing what they were doing, whilst facing the dangers of a conflict zone.
I sympathise with that. I can identify with that. And I applaud that.
However, I am dealing with the ‘sceptics’ in this blog. The ones who if asked to discuss the above statement, would merely shout, “Absofu**in’lutely true!” – And be sure about it, there seem to be plenty of those out there.
So to all of you who would doubt the motives of anybody who takes part in any occupation or pastime that appears irrational and dangerous, on behalf of all of them, I would like to say, “We don’t really care what you think and we don’t need to explain why we do it, to you!”
I’ll tell you where I happened on to this nugget of enlightenment that has been very releasing for me. I was reading a book entitled, ‘Mind Over Matter’ by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. This book is his record of the crossing of the Antarctic continent with Dr. Mike Stroud in 1990. The thing that set this trip apart from several other previous trips, was the fact that it was a totally unsupported trip and they had to man haul sledges loaded with all their supplies, (their only supplies) for the whole epic crossing. Difficult and dangerous eh? Life threatening in a hostile environment eh?
But you may be asking, why am I using this book on polar expeditions in a blog to explain and justify hostile environment photography? I’ll let Sir Ranulph set the scene and you draw the analogy.
“Why do people wish to risk their necks pursuing dangerous, uncomfortable goals? Most of us face daily obstacles but there is a great difference between having to, and wilfully choosing to.” (Mind Over Matter. Page 23. Line 1)
There he has asked the question which is really the kernel of this whole blog. And in considering the question further, he goes on to consider the motives on this issue, of his predecessor explorers.
“There is a great difference between the explanation that a person chooses to give (especially in autobiographies) and the truth. I have studied the stated motives of many of our predecessors and believed but a few.” (iBid. Page 23. Line 14)
He then examines the motives of a few, such as the likes of Scott, Shackleton and Messner. – Messner’s comment I find particularly enlightening.
“From the beginning I was against placing our adventure under the mere cloak of environmental protection. Just as I didn’t like vindicating my doings as a mountaineer with scientific aims, I found suspect those expeditions which needed an ecological justification [here Messner is having a dig at the stated motives of Swann and Steger] . . Go to the North Pole for the environment’s sake – what a laugh! A slogan but not sincere.” (iBid. Page 23. Line 20)
Then Fiennes continues on with this:
“I am not introspective and find it awkward having to dig within myself to produce pat replies. Jean-Louis Étienne was asked why he went on polar expeditions and replied, ‘Because I like it. You never ask a basketball player why he plays: it is because he enjoys it. It is like asking someone why he likes chocolate.’” (iBid. Page 27. Line 22)
“Of Scott’s men and their motives, Elspeth Huxley once wrote: ‘What persuaded these men to seek out hardships so extreme that most ordinary mortals would give all they possess to avoid them? . . . Fame and fortune . . . also love of country, lust for adventure, devotion to a cause, and more obscure forces like an urge towards martyrdom. Certainly there is a curiosity: desire to know what lies over the next hill . . . on the moon and beyond the stars. All such motives are mixed together and the analyst who tries to sort them out and label them is generally wasting his time.’” (iBid. Page 28. Line 7)
I loved the whole book, but this particular chapter’s beginning really resonated with me, when I thought about the times when I have felt that I needed to justify why I do some of the things I do. I like for instance photographing protests, where violence can potentially come from every side. Police and Protestors alike. People find this strange and demand explanations. People wonder at my aspirations to travel to various types of hostile environment, including conflict zones, in order to take photographs.
Well, people let me tell you now – I cannot explain! Why does someone like crossing the Antarctic? They just do. Why does photographing in dangerous situations appeal? It just does.
Having said that, I do have a set of goals whenever I set out to photograph anything. I also feel that every photograph I take is personally important. Of course, not to you maybe, but to me . . . to me, the inner person, each one is vital, because it makes up part of my legacy as a human being.
Think of it this way. Whilst I am here on the earth, I have a relatively short life-span, in which I could choose for instance, to spend my time in pursuits such as, sitting in front of the telly for 30 odd hours a week. But, whatever I do, I will only affect and touch relatively few people while I am alive and roughly number the same after I am dead. And that remembrance, will die out with the demise of one or two generations of family members if not sooner. Yet spend my time wrapped up in photographing ‘emotion’ . . . and ‘events’ . . . and ‘people’ . . . and ‘places’ well, you may then get my point. All of a sudden, the potential to reach and to matter for longer and to more people becomes possible, even after my death. This is not personal hubris and a vain search for immortality, but a humble, desperate need to make the life I have count for something and if that is being instrumental in giving people some kind of voice, maybe the only one they’ll ever have, then I think it’s worth it.
Tim Hetherington said he wanted to reach as many people as possible with his journalistic creativity. He has achieved that, although not to his full potential, but what he has done will continue to achieve that reach, long after his death. I want to be able to do the same. This doesn’t mean that I will deliberately place myself in the path of flying bullets, but if my journey takes me there, in the pursuit of something I believe needs to be captured and reported, then I will not hesitate.
It may seem shallow to some that one would risk so much in order to take a picture, but do not underestimate the power of a photograph. Look at Ron Haviv’s photograph of a Serb gunman about to kick a bleeding, dying woman in the head. Taken in 1992 under circumstances where he could have been immediately shot, Haviv managed to get the one photograph that epitomised the heinous atrocities perpetrated in the Balkan war by Arkan’s paramilitary group, nicknamed the Tigers. Haviv then managed to get it out of the country for publication and chillingly spent the rest of the Balkan war on Arkan’s death list
This then highlights just one of the undeniable facts about a photograph. It is an item to be feared by those engaged in dark deeds and who are subsequently illuminated by its penetrating gaze. Sounds dramatic, but it’s definitely true.
In Tony Blair’s recent autobiography, ‘The Journey’ 2010, he refers to the power of a photograph several times. The gist of one of his comments about transgressing high profile figures goes somewhat as follows;
“They want the freedom to do what they want and the freedom to do what they want to without being photographed doing it.”
I get the feeling that he was more regretful than philosophical when he was writing this, but I may be wrong. The thing is he hits the nail right on the head and by so doing has probably just recruited a new league of budding photographers who will keep their ‘glass’ eyes on the shady, dim lit areas of the world.
In what might seem a tangential change of subject, but isn’t, I also like one of the scenes in the film ‘A Knight’s Tale’ starring Heath Ledger. Paul Bettany plays the character Geoffrey Chaucer (yes the famous writer) who has (in the film) an unfortunate gambling habit and subsequently loses his clothes after a game of chance with some shady crooks. Ledger’s character pays off said crooks and Chaucer get’s his clothes back. There then follows this wonderful speech by Chaucer.
He tells them that he is going to exact his revenge. To which they scornfully reply, “What on earth could you possibly do to us?”
“I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every last pimple, every last character flaw. I was naked for a day. You will be naked for eternity.”
If you get my point, the dark powers that be, definitely think that they are beyond our reach and our ability to ‘affect’ the lofty heights on which they sit and yet there is great power in all of us to bring about change if we just think carefully about how we can use our individual skills and assets. It is in my photography that I feel that I can best express that power, however small that contribution may turn out to be. Photographers can illuminate dark areas and condemn those that seek to keep them dark. They can damn with pictures, the corrupt, self seeking, destroyers of society, human rights and true democracy, to a long lasting ignominy and infamy.
Pretty cool huh?
Of course it may prove dangerous at times, but look at what has been happening in North Africa! Who would have thought, who would have considered that such a thing could happen? Revolution against tyranny in the face of many, many flying bullets! Now that is inspiring! Thank whichever god you pray to, for their bravery in fighting oppression and the other souls who photograph such events for posterity, risking all, to honour the ones without a voice.
Anyway, I am rambling, the short answer to the premise of the above statement is, there may be some photojournalists who fit that description, but not the majority. Not the ones I know and definitely not me. I just like what I do but I can’t explain fully why. OK? But as a parting thought, beware all of you who are exploiting the peoples of the world; I will eviscerate you in photographs. Every last pimple. Every last character flaw. You will be naked for eterntity!
If I can get the exposure right of course!
Mind Over Matter; Ranulph Fiennes (1993) Sinclair-Stevenson, Mandarin Paperbacks.
The Journey; Tony Blair (2010) Hutchinson
A Knight’s Tale; (2001) Columbia Pictures