Nicole Tung, a freelancer who’s covered the conflicts in Libya and Syria, says the constraints of war imagery that inspired Kamber’s book cross into the conflicts she’s covered, too. Tung specializes in documenting the effects of violence on civilians’ lives but argues that even the most celebrated pictures of these places “have been really monotonous. The pictures that get awarded are the bang-bang pictures, the ones with guys with guns. It’s been a little bit frustrating, because the wars and revolutions have been so much more complex than that.”
Even guys with guns can be more complex than the media treatment they usually receive. Robert Nickelsberg has been covering Afghanistan since 1988 and lived in the region for 12 years. His own photo work begins on film, with the Soviet Army’s withdrawal from the country in the late 1980s. The withdrawal, and the Cold War that followed, are universally recognized as critical historical prologue to the American war in Afghanistan, but it’s virtually invisible in contemporary journalism about US involvement there.
“The majority of working journalists went [to the region] after 9/11,” says Nickelsberg. “I could see how precarious and superficial that approach is, often reinforced by embeds and inexperienced embassy people…who didn’t know their ass from their elbow, even though they had various advanced degrees. If you didn’t know South Asia or Pakistan pre-9/11, good luck with a complicated conflict like that.”
Nickelsberg’s new book, The Distant War, is a visual chronology of conflict in Afghanistan, stretching back before American involvement and featuring Afghan voices. Making the book “was also clarity for myself, breaking it down year by year…[I] happen to catalog more than 20 years,” says Nickelsberg (who will be discussing his book in New York City on November 11 at 7pm).
Though this was a story that hadn’t been told this way, with visual resources no one else had, Nickelsberg couldn’t find an American publisher. He brought the book out with German publisher Prestel. In fact, visual journalists say, there’s a presumption that books like Nickelsberg’s or Kamber’s won’t sell. “And they are correct about that,” says Kamber, who raised some of the money needed for his 5,000-print run, with a small university publisher, by selling signed and numbered limited editions in advance. Nickelsberg’s project had support from Queensborough Community College; Erin Trieb, founder of “The Homecoming Project,” a photo project about veterans, used Kickstarter to raise the first round of funding for Homecoming (her second Kickstarter begins this week).
American book buyers may have more tolerance for words about war than for pictures of it. David Finkel’s two narrative nonfiction books about Iraq have been more easily received. The Good Soldiers won critical acclaim and shortly thereafter, Finkel won a MacArthur “genius” award. That book, Finkel says, “did very well” in sales, well enough that he had no trouble getting a contract for the sequel, Thank You For Your Service, published last month. But Finkel points out that his subject, especially in the second book, isn’t, in fact, the war. Instead, he chronicles “what happens to young men sent into war at a particular time, when all seems lost…to use war to write about the character[s] of young men.”
The changing lives of young men (and women), especially when they return from battle, are at the heart of Trieb’s “Homecoming Project.” Trieb’s documentary effort collects not only her photographs from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the photos and writing of veterans and their families, with a particular focus on the expression and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike many journalists, who interpret their role as documenting without commentary, Trieb wants to engage her audiences for action.
“For me to photograph and document a story on post-traumatic stress disorder and have it published in major news magazines, and then to see the lives of the veterans in my story have not been altered in the least … it definitely was disheartening,” she says. “I wanted to initiate change, even if it was just for a few families.”
But Trieb doesn’t believe that photojournalism as traditionally understood offers those tools today. “This isn’t the age of [James] Nachtwey, where your picture might run on the cover of Time magazine and then millions of dollars are sent to Somalia in aid,” she said, by way of example. “As journalists, what’s our social responsibility to the people we cover or photograph?”
Though not every war-journalist-turned-documentarian shares Trieb’s desire to prompt action on behalf of veterans, the need to make visible the human cost of war, in a way that engages the public, rings nearly universal—and not just in the moments journalist are on the job.