Burdens of a war photographer

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Shell-shocked US marine, Hue, Vietnam, February 1968. Don McCullin

War photographers have a thankless job to be sure.  Gaining entry into some of the most dangerous parts of the world armed only with a camera and their intuition they experience life on the raw edge.  They have that rare position as an impartial spectator, neither unlucky civilian caught in the cross the fire nor rebel, nor soldier armed to the teeth, the war photographer is a rare breed.  Is it narcissism, to enter such a world for own your kicks?  To advance your career and win a Pulitzer Prize, to make money at the expense of man taking his last breath, or a rotting corpse stuck to the roadside?  Is it the ultimate sacrifice to brave an interminable amount of pain and suffering to deliver a message to the outside world, let them know what a war is really about – and see if they can stand it?

This weekend I watched the documentary ‘McCullin’ about British war photographer Don McCullin.  Growing up in blitz devastated London in the 40’s and 50’s McCullin was born into a landscape ravaged by war, and he began by taking photographs of gangs and slums, the impoverished and hard working.  After successfully selling a few photographs of gang members he had grown up with to the Observer McCullin went to Berlin to watch the wall go up, and then on to Biafra, Vietnam, and Northern Ireland.

His photographs capture the essence of all it was to be at war in the late twentieth century.  The shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam, who looks as if he has his eyes fixed permanently on a horror he cannot forget.  McCullin said the soldier never moved, or even blinked, while he was taking the photograph.  It has been observed that in Vietnam almost none of the most well known photographs were posed – a poignant fact from a televised war.

It wasn’t the corpses or smashed in faces that affected me most while watching this documentary, but brief footage of some kwashiorkor bloated bellied, toothpick legged children of Biafra struggling to climb a single step.  The kids were naked, anonymous, just hours from dying in the dust – and it was painful to watch.  When there are so many it is difficult to remember one individual, but Don McCullin spoke of one albino child who approached him out of the crowd and tried to hold his hand.

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One face in a crowd. Albino child in Biafra, Don McCullin

Biafra brings me on to my next point – following the theme this weekend I also watched ‘The Bang Bang Club’.  This film is based on the true story of several young photographers in South Africa who captured images of violent clashes between the ANC and IFP in the early 1990’s.

Amongst them was Kevin Carter, the first photographer to capture the gruesome execution method of ‘necklacing’ whereby a tire is placed around the victim’s neck and set alight.  However, it is Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a little girl dying in the Sudan while a vulture looks on that really caught my attention.  I first became aware of this photograph in a round about way while reading Mark Z. Danieleweski’s ‘House of Leaves’.  One of the main characters is a photographer based on Carter who took a ‘similar’ photograph of a dying girl.  In the book, the character is haunted by thoughts of the little girl he did nothing to help and when he becomes lost in his labyrinthine house it is not the Minotaur, but the girl who stalks his uneasy mind.

In real life Kevin Carter too was stalked by his subject.  He was unable to answer questions about what happened to the girl, although he later claimed to have picked her up and carried her to a feeding station.  It’s possible to argue that there were two vultures present – the one in the photograph, and the one behind the lens.  In the moments that Carter was photographing death, could he have been doing something to prevent it?  Or was exposing this scene to the world enough?  Undoubtedly the weight of this debate contributed to Carter’s suicide in 1994.

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Dying girl, vulture and photographer. Kevin Carter, 1993 (Pulitzer Prize 1994). ‘And the viewer is in the same position as the lackey behind the camera; the experience is sickening’ – Susan Sontag ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’

Don McCullin also mentioned being criticized for merely profiting from the pain of others, although he attests that he did help of course – as any human being would have.  Moving around from atrocity to atrocity must surely take its toll though.  Like that story of a girl little girl walking a long a beach covered in hundreds of starfish and throwing them back into the sea one at time – it’s impossible to save them all.  Don McCullin comes across as a very calm, measured and somber person on film and I’m inclined to think this is a temperament either developed as a result of exposure to war, or else well equipped to deal with it.  Nevertheless he openly states that he was a ‘war junkie’, chasing the immediacy of life and that it eventually wrecked his marriage.

In ‘The Bang Bang Club’ the photographers are constantly drinking, smoking, chasing girls, attempting to make the most of every precious second of life, and blot out the atrocities of the day.  The photographers chased ‘bang bang’ until it took away everything they had.  Ken Oosterbroek was killed in Thokoza township fighting in 1994, Greg Marinovich was received a gunshot wound in the same clash and has since been shot several more times, Joao Silva lost both legs below the knee in Afghanistan in 2010 – and Kevin Carter never made it that far.  Whatever fame or glory a war photographer receives, he certainly pays his dues – one way or another.

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Burning man being attacked with a machete, Greg Marinovich, Soweto, 1990 (Pulitzer Prize)

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6 comments

  1. atikahamalina

    My heart just broke looking at these photos. I can only imagine how it must be like for these photographers to carry the burden in their day to day lives post-assignment. </3

    Thank you for this poignant piece!

    • Angela

      Thank you for commenting – it’s an interesting subject that had been on my mind for a while.

      Also – I’ve been meaning to actually comment on your blog for ages instead of just ‘like’-ing! it has been lovely to read about your adventures in England (and Manchester) as seen through ‘fresh’ eyes. I’m so terribly bored here as it’s where I’m from and I’m desperate to get away (again) and I don’t make a lot of effort to see the positive . . . it’s nice to hear a different perspective!

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