behind the news

Who will bear witness?

Photojournalists share their experiences of covering the Iraq War
July 11, 2013

Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Brewery, Steve Hindy, former war correspondent for the Associated Press and founder of the microbrewery, looked back at the Iraq War and discussed the state of photojournalism with Michael Kamber, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist who covered Iraq for The New York Times from 2003-2012, and recently authored Photojournalists at War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. Joining him were Pulitzer winners Todd Heisler, who reported for the New York Times and the Rocky Mountain News, and Carolyn Cole, a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times. Both contributed their own accounts to Kamber’s book, an excerpt from which can be read here.

There were several major takeaways from the conversation, which was followed by a Q&A.

“Nobody gets away for free.” Kamber was paraphrasing fellow phtographer Khalid Mohammed’s observation that inherent in war photography is the accumulation of sharp, strong memories and images, both good and bad. “You don’t really get to decide how much or how little [of the war] you get,” Todd added.

The most important moments to document aren’t necessarily the most obvious. While being in the middle of the gunfire is dramatic in the moment, the resulting pictures were often quite boring. “Just a guy pointing a gun,” Kamber pointed out. Marc Santora of the Times, who worked with Kamber in Iraq, echoed this idea. “Death is easy,” he said. “It’s those moments…that aren’t the bang-bang,” that good photographers know how to capture effectively.

The military often stood in the way of–and outright censored–photojournalists. As the war intensified, so did the restrictions, to the point that photographers were not allowed to photograph memorials for dead soldiers, prisoners of war, or even wounded American soldiers.

Embedded journalism was sometimes the only way to closely cover the war. Despite these restrictions, Kamber stressed that during a combat situation, for an un-embedded journalist to go into the middle of the combat would result in being “killed by both sides.” In the chaos of battle, no side’s soldiers would know you were a journalist.

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Digital photography changed the war into a real-time experience. Unlike wars in the past, when photographers were sometimes long gone from the front-line by the time the photos appeared in print, soldiers and their commanders were able to react to photos taken in the morning by that very afternoon. Oftentimes they would criticize the pictures. In some cases, they even used them to target insurgents.

Television news was detached from much of the actual war. Television crews, who were encumbered by insurance regulations and traveled in the sort of large convoys that made them easy targets for insurgents, generally stayed in the “Green Zone”–the fortified diplomatic zone in Baghdad–and relied on rooftop shots, removed from much of the real risk of covering the conflict. News photographers, meanwhile, were, by necessity, “in the streets,”seeing the war at ground level on a daily basis. At times, footage was staged just for the television cameras.

The media, as a whole, lost interest rapidly. The kickoff of the Iraq war in 2003 was essentially a “circus,” in Kamber’s words, with over a thousand journalists there in the early months. Once the going got tough, especially in 2004 post-Fallujah, many outlets–major outlets, he stressed, simply up and left, or left only a reporter and a translator.

As a photojournalist for one of the outlets that stuck it out, Kamber was keenly aware of the importance of his own role–his pictures were “just one slice of the war,” one slice of something that was happening elsewhere.

Danger, destruction, and death were both predictable and completely random. Staying alive required a mix of luck and caution. At the start of some days, Kamber said, “There was a real sense of dread … it would be seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and you would hear the car bombs going off in the distance.”

This ever-present danger required rules. Good reporters–those who knew what they were doing and never got complacent–made you safer. Bad reporters–the arrogant ones–could, and did, get people killed. One of the things that helped him make it out alive, Kamber attested, was that he was “terrified the whole time … I checked myself all the time, I was watching myself the whole time.” Blending in with the locals and making oneself as inconspicuous as possible was vital.

The industry has changed, and not for the better. The final question of the Q&A was about the future of photojournalism, in light of the recent layoff of the entire Sun-Times photography staff. Kamber argued that while photojournalism itself would always exist in some form, the media industry that had funded professional journalism was essentially gone.

“If you were a 29 year old photojournalist, what would you do now?” responded the questioner.

The audience, which included a fair number of journalists, burst into grim laughter. What could you do? The shift in the industry was total. As if to underscore this reality, the Brooklyn Brewery’s Steve Hindy pointed out that in his day, most of the journalists he worked with had staff jobs with benefits. Today, he said, quoting an estimate from Sebastian Junger, perhaps 80% of the journalists in war zones were freelancers.

Audience response to the talk was uniformly positive. When I talked to him afterwards, Todd Heisler pointed out that the talk was only the tip of the iceberg–just a small window into the reality of war photography. Carolyn Cole characterized the changes in the industry as a double-edged sword: the rise of the Internet has increased the potential audience for photography and journalism, but also eroded support structures for journalists.

Wednesday’s event was the third in a series of discussions with war correspondents at the Brooklyn Brewery, produced in cooperation with the nonprofit Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) and Togather, a platform that helps authors facilitate similar talks. Proceeds of the ticket sales went to RISC, which trains freelance correspondents in the administration of first aid to injured colleagues.

Abraham Moussako is a former CJR intern. Follow him on Twitter at @AMoussako.