The New York Times contacted me a couple of days before the WikiLeaks report was going to come out. They didn’t really tell me what the report was about, they just contacted me and asked if I could look through my archive and send them some pictures that would represent the madness and uncertainty of those years, especially 2007 and 2008. They were very careful not to tell me what the stories about. I think they contacted other photographers who were there at the time. I sent between fifteen and twenty pictures. Then on Friday night they told me what it was about.
How do your recent trips to war zones compare with earlier trips?
My first trip was in 1999, and I went in the summer to Kosovo. I had just finished an internship at Newsday and I was in my mid-20s. I was just starting to get into photography in a serious way, I didn’t know anybody, and I wasn’t affiliated with any news organization. I basically just made my way there and spent about a month traveling through Kosovo taking pictures but really not knowing what I was doing. I completely self-financed the whole trip and I didn’t sell a single picture afterwards. You might call it an exercise done to see if this was what I really wanted to do or not. When I returned to New York after that trip I was offered a staff job at Newsday. They really gave me a lot of chances to travel soon after I was hired. After 9/11, all I was doing was covering the wars.
What did you learn as you continued to visit war zones?
The hardest part about this job is figuring out where to be and when to be there. A lot of it is pure luck and a lot of it is trying to trust your instincts, which takes time and experience. You also have to have a very open approach and personality, particularly when you are traveling in places where there is a conflict going on. And another important thing is to try to be as informed as possible. You have to be super careful just by being informed and knowing what you’re getting into. And with every assignment you have to try to get some experience and apply it to the next conflict you go to.
Dealing with people, you have to be very dignified in your approach, for example, by not jumping in front of people in an unsettling way. Especially when you’re dealing with death, it’s a sensitive subject matter and you have to approach it that way.
I’ve definitely made mistakes in the past; you want to make sure you remember those so you don’t make the same mistakes twice. I’ve learned from very experienced colleagues, too. Early on in Afghanistan, back in 2001, there were several incidences when everything was chaotic. A couple of times myself and some colleagues ended up in places that probably weren’t the safest. If you do this long enough, you will eventually find yourself in a bad situation, unfortunately.
Did you read the stories on WikiLeaks stories that went with your photographs?
I’ve read some, but a colleague of mine at the New York Times, João Silva, was severely wounded in Afghanistan on Saturday and I’ve been just dealing with that—not reading the papers very much, to be honest with you. João is a good friend of mine and a colleague. The people in this business are devastated about what happened with João; it’s very unfortunate. It’s part of war, but it’s a very, very sad feeling and we’re all trying to deal with it at the moment.
Is it hard when you work in places that are so dangerous and so different from day-to-day life here, to come back?