Photojournalists On War is the result of five years of interviews with some of the world’s leading photojournalists. However, finds Gwen McClure, it’s also the fruit of Michael Kamber’s frustration over the harrowing images that were never shown or published before
The longer that photojournalist Michael Kamber spent covering the war in Iraq, the more frustrated he became. His position on the frontline meant he and his colleagues were closer to the war than anyone, other than the soldiers and Iraqi civilians, yet the photos in the Western media didn’t reflect what he saw happening. “They look like sports pictures to me. It looks like a quarterback limping off the field, being helped by his buddy,” he says. “It’s not what these wars look like.”
With his commitment to accurate reporting shortchanged by what he saw as censorship, Kamber began working on Photojournalists On War: The Untold Stories From Iraq in 2008. The book is a compilation of interviews with 39 photojournalists from around the world, accompanied by some of their most poignant and definitive photos. The aim of the book, which will be released on 15 may in the US and later this year in the UK, is to tell the uncensored story to the general public, an audience that hasn’t been privy to much of what went on there.
The photographs in the book are at once stunning and arrestingly graphic. In one shot, by Eros Hoagland, the severed head of a suicide bomber lies in the middle of the frame, surrounded by the crumpled bodies of doves. Other images show the bodies of American contractors strung from a bridge across the Euphrates, children maimed and bleeding, or grieving and covered in the blood of their family members. Until now, many of these images had never reached the general public.
“We’re fighting these wars, we’re funding these wars, we’re sending our kids off to fight these wars, but we don’t want to look at these wars. It just really troubles me,” says Kamber. “People have to want to see the images, the newspapers have to want to publish them and the politicians have to stop censoring them.”
The book’s interviewees – Kamber’s colleagues and often friends – saw the war both while embedded with Western troops and also from an Iraqi perspective, and their stories give a comprehensive view. as the conflict progressed, British and US military commands cracked down on regulations and made access for photographers more difficult – and Iraqi police followed suit. The US military, for example, required that injured soldiers sign waivers allowing them to be photographed, in effect preventing those photographs from being taken.
Journalists embedded with British military faced different guidelines, but they were similarly restrictive. In his interview with Kamber, Peter Nicholls talks about ‘the green book’, a compulsory document for journalists to sign when working with British military, which clarified what they could and could not photograph. Images were also subject to review by the British military before they could be published. Nicholls experienced this censorship first-hand when he was prevented from publishing images of a wounded soldier who had survived his injury and given permission to use the photos.
“It seemed to me that the powers that be are hiding behind or using the privacy issue conveniently for their own political ends because of the lack of popularity of the war, and because they don’t want to see casualties in the British press,” Nicholls said to Kamber in his interview.
If journalists broke these rules, they risked losing their visas and press credentials to continue working in Iraq. Even when they managed to take the photos, the Western media continued to censor the images further, since publications, too, risked the revocation of credentials for their entire organisation.
The concept for the book grew from conversations Kamber had with his colleagues as they covered the war together, and many of the interviews were late-night discussions that occurred while still in the midst of covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These journalists often had little more than a lens between them and some of the bloodiest, most gruesome, scenes imaginable. most have suffered emotionally and psychologically, and sometimes physically, for their craft.
João Silva, who first gained recognition for his work covering the end of apartheid as part of The Bang Bang Club, lost his legs to a landmine explosion in Afghanistan. “Some of us have visible scars and some of us have invisible scars. I think it’s the price you have to pay, regardless of whether you walk away physically in one piece, or if you walk away missing a limb or two. We want to tell the story,” Silva told Kamber in an interview that appears in the book.
Hoagland knows what it is like to lose family to conflict, because his father, photojournalist John Hoagland, was killed in El Salvador. For him, the issue is not simply leaving others behind, or even dealing with his own death. “you can risk your own life but, typically, if you’re working with a fixer, a translator, a driver, you’re talking about three other people. Is it worth it? If you want to go out and get yourself killed over some pictures, that’s fine, [but] it’s not just you,” he told Kamber.
In the US, there has been an increase in the media coverage surrounding services for returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, but there is rarely discussion of what the conflict journalists experience themselves. In the interviews, photographers discuss nightmares, difficulty sleeping and substance abuse. many of these journalists have had difficulty readjusting to civilian life and feel uncomfortable being a part of normal interaction. Some also experienced a decreased ability to calibrate the level of risk they faced while making decisions in the field.
“I left Iraq because I realised I couldn’t see the danger anymore. I couldn’t evaluate [whether] what I was doing was crazy or not. Every time you would go and come back, you would have to reset your level of security, your level of understanding. When you push the reset button and it doesn’t work, you’d better stop,” photographer Karim Ben Khelifa told Kamber.
While Kamber’s story is rarely mentioned in the book, he worked alongside these photographers in Iraq and has reported on several conflicts – from the Ivory Coast to Afghanistan. He has also lost friends. The book is dedicated to the 150 Iraqi journalists who died covering the war, and to Kamber’s close friends Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, who died covering the uprisings in Misrata, Libya, on 20 april 2011.
The first time I met Kamber, we sat in his New york apartment above the Bronx Documentary Center, which he opened in late 2011 with the same goal as the book: to educate. In the corner of his living room, in a glass-front cabinet filled with camera gear, was a white flak helmet with ‘TV’, the worldwide code used in conflict zones to denote press, in red lettering.
Three floors below, a large print of a similar helmet hung in the centre of the room, this one army green and abandoned in the dirt among clothing and debris, and punctured with a single bullet hole. This photograph, and the rest of the collection that constituted the first exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center, were some of the last shots taken by Tim Hetherington in Misrata in April 2011.
When Kamber spoke about the friends he lost, it wasn’t with raw feelings but rather an emotional exhaustion, with a palpable dullness to his physical energy. Since he started covering conflicts after 9/11, he has lost colleagues again and again, watched troops die in combat, and shot photos of grief-stricken families and wounded children, and he has not been immune to the effects.
Kamber’s daughter, Sara, has seen a change in him. While she says that she’s a staunch supporter of his work and she bristles at the suggestion that she doesn’t like what her father does, she has seen the toll it has taken on him over the years. “It’s not some drastic change, where he doesn’t laugh anymore, or he’s a zombie; he’s still my dad,” she says. “I can’t quite explain it except to say that maybe where there used to be a little bit of softness, there’s now a little bit of hardness.”
He hasn’t returned to Iraq or Afghanistan to work since January 2012. Instead, he has chosen to stay home and focus on his book and the development of the Bronx Documentary Center. Whether it’s the slow accumulation of losing friends to these conflicts or the changes in the field, he too is in transition. While his commitment to the dissemination of information hasn’t changed, the landscape of the media world has. “The degree of visual white noise out here is just extraordinary today,” says Kamber. “I’m not sure that I want to continue to risk getting killed or getting my legs blown off for pictures that are competing with Twitter feeds.”