Photo: Sebastian Meyer
Photo: Chris Hondros' photo on the cover of the Washington Post about a week before he was killed.
When I finally left Libya at the end of April, I’d been covering the war for six consecutive weeks. The conflict was still ongoing and there was absolutely nothing I wanted to do more than stay and report it. Nothing.
But, months earlier I had agreed to give a talk back in the U.S. It seemed cringingly mundane as a reason, but the flights were paid for and I knew the organizers had gone to great lengths to arrange everything. I hated the idea of leaving and thought more than once about canceling.
I was jealous of my colleagues who were staying in Benghazi and even more jealous of one particular friend who was staying in Misrata, the most terrifyingly dangerous place I’d ever been in my life. That’s where I wanted to be more than anywhere. Misrata.
Why on earth would I want to return to such a place? It’s counterintuitive. Stupid, in fact.
The reason lies in a dirty secret about reporting conflict that no one wants to admit.
After the tragic deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, there was a lot written about conflict photographers, their lives and their communities. Everyone, including veteran photographers like Michael Kamber, made sure to put in a line about how photographers “are not thrill seekers.”
But the truth is covering conflict is thrilling. Addictively so. Nothing else on earth opens you up to the full gamut of human emotions — excitement, fear, tragedy and humor — the way war does.
The day before I left Misrata, I stood in the triage tent, leaning over the body of a boy who had been gravely wounded by shrapnel. His bloodied face was contorted in pain and he screamed and cried even as the doctors tried to comfort him. It was horrible and heartbreaking to witness. My friend, Sarah, was disgusted by it and stayed outside the tent. But there was something pulling me toward it. I could have just walked out, but I stayed. I wanted to see this.
I wasn’t attracted by the adrenaline of the situation; there was none there. I was attracted by the extreme realness of it. Reporting the horrors of Misrata to the world was only one part of why I was there. Experiencing something so tremendous that it dwarfed me was the other. Chris Hedges puts it brilliantly in "War is a Force that Give us Meaning": "Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent."
This is a troubling thought. We prefer to imagine that photojournalists and war correspondents risk their lives for noble reasons — to make the world pay attention — or even just for the paycheck, rather than think they actually enjoy it.
And you, the audience, are complicit in this. You share the thrills of war with the reporters. In fact, it’s often the audience that demands it, finding your own excitement in the articles, videos and photographs of frontline reports. Think of Goran Tomasevic’s photograph of the exploding ammunition dump that was splashed on newspaper front pages across the world.
Why was it so popular? Because it was exciting to look at.
But it’s more than that. It’s not just exciting; it’s manageable. Thrilling, without being overwhelming. Exhilarating but not terrifying.
About a week before Chris Hondros was killed, he took an image of fighting in the east of Libya. In the photo, a rebel thrusts his bayoneted gun into the air in the foreground as Katyusha rockets launch in the background. The photograph is wonderfully constructed and gorgeously lit, bathed in golden evening sunlight. It’s stunning and full of action and excitement.
Not surprisingly, it made it to the front page of the Washington Post the following day.
But there’s a serious flaw in this image: Beautiful as it is — and it certainly is — it gives a dangerously false impression of what war is like.
A week after taking that photograph, Chris Hondros died from severe head trauma. Shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade entered his forehead and passed through his brain, exiting the back of his skull.
What is beautiful about that?
War is nothing like beautiful photographs; it is neither well-framed nor elegant. War is tedious, chaotic, indiscriminate, violent, unfair, heart-breaking, lonely, and tragic beyond anything you could imagine.
But as I was discovering as I drove out of Libya, once you’ve had a taste of it, it’s very hard not to go back for more.
For another take on the ethics of photojournalism, read Chantal Anderson's Capturing Tragedy: The Story Behind the Photograph.
Sebastian Meyer has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, among other countries. His work has been published in Time magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Guardian and others. He moved to Iraq in 2009 where, in addition to his own work, he has helped create Metrography, Iraq's first photo agency.
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