War stories, part two

In the first part of this series of blog entries, I wrote about recent ethics controversies spurred by student photographers going to places like Haiti in order to develop their skills and their portfolios, as they photograph the horror of that nation’s earthquake/disaster. I appreciate the ethical issues raised by such actions, but my overarching question was, and still is, how do aspiring conflict photographers develop the skills required for covering war/disaster? In this blog entry, I will talk about how I developed my own, limited skills in that area of photojournalism and what I learned in the process of gaining those skills.

Right off the top, it should be noted that there are definite, predictable ways to learn many of the skills required for covering conflicts. Some of that training would be focused on the study of political science, geography, geology, economics, first-aid, foreign languages, etc. These are specific skills that can (and should ideally) be acquired in a formal academic environment and/or in formal training sessions.

Also, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Several companies offer “hostile-environment training” tailored for journalists; hundreds have taken these courses in the last few years, and many who finish the week-long sessions say they are extremely valuable.

Centurion Risk Assessment Services is the oldest private firm to offer specially designed security training courses for journalists. Since the 2002 murder of Daniel Pearl, several more firms based in the United Kingdom and the United States have begun offering security training courses specifically for journalists.

The Rory Peck Trust, which was established in the name of the free-lance cameraman killed in cross fire while covering the October 1993 coup attempt in Moscow, offers a limited number of grants distributed through the Rory Peck Awards. The grants are available to free-lance journalists and subsidize about half the cost of security training. Also, the Reuters Foundation has in the past helped subsidize the costs of such training for some free-lance journalists, and it continues to do so on a case-by-case basis.

They have an excellent set of very useful resources, starting at:


Whether aspiring photographers will think, in advance, about what skills they need and logically plot out how to get those, that is an altogether different question. Historically, some of the most successful conflict photographers have NOT taken such a deliberate path. If my own experience is any example, the short answer is “don’t get your hopes up.”

Like thousands of other young, naïve photographers I saw conflict photography and war photographers as the pinnacle of the profession. This was not a particularly well thought out perspective, but what would you expect from a young man in his early twenties? As I worked my way up the ladder from small to medium to large newspapers, a few things did became clear. Overseas work, with a fair amount of danger, yielded great imagery and it was the surest way to reach the top of the business. That’s what it looked like from the outside. Over time I would get to understand the reality of the business from the inside and then, ironically, with skills in hand, I would then move on.

When I was barely twenty-five, in 1982, during a summer trip to Israel with an old friend, I detoured from our travel plans and spent a few (quiet) days touring around Lebanon (notably Beirut) with the assistance of the Israeli military. While it was not a formal propaganda tour, I had no idea what I was really seeing and I was sure that what I was being shown was nowhere near the whole story. The first lesson I had stumbled upon was, keep in mind the motives of who ever is securing your access, no matter which side of the conflict you are exploring. The corollary to that “rule” is that whatever someone helps you access usually means that there is something they are keeping you away from.

In the mid to late‘80s, I worked in Israel often, sometimes on assignments and sometimes on my own. As time went on I spent more and more time in the occupied territories, almost always photographing alongside photographers with much more experience. The second rule I learned was that covering conflict is usually not done alone. There is safety in numbers, which is generally a good thing, even if it can sometime lead to a herd mentality.

At the beginning of the time I was covering the first Palestinian Intifada (Uprising,) that ran from 1987 to 1993, I was the neophyte. I ended up standing in the wrong place, getting in the frames of other photographers pictures and generally being clueless. By the time I stopped working in the Middle East, in the late ‘90s, I was closer to a veteran with many of the skills needed to survive and even do well as a photographer. I eventually became someone with enough experience to pass on to the next generation of the innocent students.

The third rule that I learned was about the fiercely competitive nature of the business. The ever-diminishing amount of publication space (and shrinking number of paid assignments) forced photographers to take more unusual measures to find more unique approaches to the conflicts they were covering. I briefly researched a couple of independence movements, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (a Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines) and the Free Papua Movement in Irian Jaya (promoting secession of that half of the island that also contains Papau New Guinea from Indonesia.)

In the case of the MILF, I went so far as to make contact with their representatives in New York City and I even traveled to the Zamboanga in the southern Philippines, in a lukewarm pursuit of that story. When I got there, I was overwhelmed by the poverty in the Philippines and I was appalled to see what a former American colony looked like. Manila, in particular, was overrun with the worst examples of American commercial excess with none of more positive values that make up American culture. I hope it has changed, but in the mid ‘80s it was one place where I was embarrassed to be an American because, as the one-time colonial power, we had left them with only the worst aspects of American life.

Dispirited, I simply could not bring myself to make contact with the MILF as I had been directed. I was supposed to go to a particular small island and check in to a particular hotel where I was then to be “kidnapped.” I was warned it would look like a real kidnapping and to be prepared. Once that happened, I was supposed to make my photographs and do my reporting. Then I was supposed to be freed and somehow get my film and notes out of the country and back to the U.S. Frankly, I choked, and I learned the fourth rule, which is that the work required stronger nerves and more initiative/innovation than I could muster.

The fifth and final lesson I learned in my own personal, on-the-job training as a conflict photographer took place during what became the closing act in my own stutter-step career as a war photographer. That drama ran from the autumn of 1990 through the spring of 1991, starting when Saddam Hussein Iraq invaded Kuwait. The final curtain fell a month after the end of the first Gulf War. For a few glorious months, I was a real, live, credentialed war photographer. In fact, I was arguably at the top of the game, working under contract for the monthly version of the now defunct Life magazine. It turned out I was pretty good at it and my editors in NYC were very happy with the work I did during these few, fascinating months.

I took away a number of small but useful sub-lessons from that experience. First, if you must go to war, do so with people who have been to war and sadly, Israelis have been to war often. They did a remarkable job of “normalizing” what appeared to be a potentially hellish situation. Also, most of the skills that I had learned in covering spot-news for small to medium size newspapers in California, Texas and New York served me well in photographing the damage caused by the Scud missiles launched at Israel by the Iraqis.

The larger, fifth lesson in war photography was given to me one Friday when I was on assignment for Life Magazine, when I was working with a group of other photographers in the northern part of the Israeli occupied West Bank. Among our group was James Nachtwey, arguably the greatest living war photographer of our time. Because it was a Friday we were expecting “trouble,” which usually meant a dual between stone throwing Palestinians and armed Israeli soldiers. As we arrived at a site of such trouble, I think it was in Nablus, we all piled out of our cars and started to work. Though I cannot remember the location exactly, I remember my experience distinctly.

After prepping my cameras and slinging one over each shoulder, I tightened my waste pack and the group of us started to walk towards the “incident.” As I looked up I saw Nacthwey right in the middle of that same incident. He moved with a grace and speed that can only be described as wondrous. While the rest of us were just “warming up,” he was well “in the zone.” In fact, by the time I was in place and starting to work, I could see Nacthwey out of the corner of my eye and it was very clear he was largely done. He had seen the photograph he wanted, he had proceeded to get it and he was ready to move on. The fifth and final lesson I had learned that day was that unless you are among the very best, unless conflict photography is something you have mastered, you will never make a living at it. The corollary to that rule is that lacking mastery, you will likely not survive the conflicts you would be working among.

The weird irony was that I actually had learned the lessons I needed to be a war photographer. I acquired those skills mostly through “the school of hard knocks” in a kind of on the job training. The editors at Life magazine thought so when they contracted me to work for them. Yes, I was also “geographically desirable” because I was living in the Middle East at the time and I had NOT gone to Kuwait like most of the other photographers had done to photograph that aspect of the war.

But, once I had the “job” of being a conflict photographer on assignment, I no longer had the passion for the work. Covering the first Gulf War for Life magazine was one of the ten best assignments I ever had. I am glad I learned what I needed to get there, I am glad that I did that work, I am glad I live to tell this story and I am happy to never do that work again.

To circle back to the starting point for these blog entries, exactly how will the next generation of aspiring conflict photographers get the skills they need? I am not sure, but I can say that with newspaper photojournalism on the decline and the magazine market no better, those two potential learning routes are disappearing.

Is going to Haiti to photograph after a disaster in order to gain skills as a photographer an ethically complex endeavor? Without question! Is offering a workshop there built around that same idea potentially a better way for students to learn? Maybe, maybe not! (Full disclosure here – I teach workshops so I am prejudiced though I have never taught a class in the midst of a conflict/disaster.) Is telling people what they should not do without offering them a viable alternative pointless at least and hypocritical at worst? What do you think?

2 responses to “War stories, part two”

  1. imho there is a fine moral and ethical line that can get crossed at some point when it comes to workshops or classes that are based on events involving people’s pain and suffering from civil strife, war, and/or various disasters.

    I’m not sure where that line is but I know its there. For example, while there were teachable moments for rescuers and first responders after the WTC collapse of 9/11, the idea of a workshop for photographers teaching the craft of photographing events in the aftermath of a terrorist attack would seem be lacking in sensitivity or morality or at least good taste. The idea of workshops about photographing the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti leave me with that same bad taste.

    What’s next? workshops on photographing civil wars? workshops on photographing auto accidents? workshops on photographing mass murder scenes?

    It seems to me that elevating the practice of acquiring tradecraft for specialized scenarios of that tradecraft can trivialize or it or smack if insensitivity and inhumanity.

    I wonder if US prison death chamber guards have an annual trade-show and seminars? Perhaps a trade show for members of prison firing squads. (e.g. in Utah).

  2. The background of my blog was that I have always abhorred critics because saying what is wrong is easy.  Saying what is right and/or what to do instead, that is hard.

    Also, disaster management specialists, building engineers, pathologists, ER doctors, trauma counselors, etc. all held workshops in or around the WTC site in the wake of 9/11. Some formally and some informally, but legions of people used that as a teaching moment, which is what it was.

    If we want photojournalists to be serious, thoughtful contributors whose work helps frame the debates that are spurred by a free and vibrant press, then they are an important component of our society and they need to be treated (and trained) as such.

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