I became a photographer in order to be a war photographer, and a photographer involved in what I thought were critical social issues. From the very beginning this was my goal.—James Nachtwey
Some jobs are tougher than others. Surgeons, Diesel mechanics, coal miners; those are tough jobs full of stress and hard labor. Generally speaking, when one tells someone that they’re a photographer, people think of a life of fun, beaches, pretty girls, and wild parties. But for some of my colleagues, nothing could be further from the truth. Dodging bullets and improvised explosive devices, risking your life, being considered a burden, and editors demanding more are just a few of the things a war photographer endures on a daily basis. War photography is the most dangerous, but also the most necessary way to wield a camera. Without these pictures, we give ourselves over to despots.
Now, Paris ad agency BETC takes up the cause of war reporters and photographers on behalf of Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) at a time when both are in short supply and those who are in the field more directly in danger than ever before. The 80-second ad makes a stark comparison between nationalistic propaganda, all pretty and shiny as armies march on parade, versus the harsh realities of war: mass graves, bombed-out buildings, and homes, children crying for lost parents, troops struggling to survive.
The timing of this ad, which is meant as a fundraiser for the non-profit supporting and protecting war correspondents, is important. This is an election year in the United States and of the massive group of presidential contenders, only one, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has any actual military service. Yet, when the topic of terrorism is raised, out come the verbal swords with Senator Sanders the only one of the group not advocating an over-the-top military response. As someone else has said, it is easy to send troops to war when it’s not the asses of your own children you’re putting on the line. Politicians can make war sound really attractive when all we’re seeing is state-manufactured propaganda.
War photographers, however, keep it real and that is exactly why their work is so very important. They show us the reality of war; the pain, the suffering even for our own troops. Thanks to war photographers, we come closer to understanding the horrors of concentration camps such as Auschwitz. War photographers remind us that war is something to be avoided at all costs, not something to be embraced.
The late photographer and poet Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding The Pain of Others:
“As objects of contemplation, images of the atrocious can answer to several different needs. To steel oneself against weakness. To make oneself more numb. To acknowledge the existence of the incorrigible. ”
We need war photography, even though they unquestionably risk a society that is increasingly desensitized to pictures of skulls being crushed by tanks or the bullet-ridden bodies of children lying in the streets. And we don’t see the worst. Editors at the Associated Press regularly tag some of the most violent images as “Not for US release.” The thinking is that if we saw war at its most grotesque we might turn away from the images completely.
As a photographer myself, I am also aware of the number of photographers who have been outright murdered by terrorists over the past several years. Few photographers are hired by the military anymore, and they really don’t like embedding them with troops. Many of the images you see are taken by freelancers who willing put themselves at risk in order to tell the truth. They have little protection should they be captured. Governments are rarely willing to risk any resources to save their lives. This is where Reporters Without Borders steps in and does their best to provide mediation and assistance. Their work is invaluable. War photography is critical to keeping us informed of what is really happening around the world.
War photography, in my opinion, is work best left to those who don’t have familial responsibilities here at home. The risks are severe and the lives lost are too many. Part of my admiration for these colleagues is the fact I don’t think I could ever take the pictures they do. The pictures you see here were taken in the relative safety of visiting my Marine son at his graduation from boot camp; downtown Indianapolis is more dangerous. So, take a look at the ad. Notice, especially, the very last image. This is real. This is important. And to all those who risk their lives to keep us informed, thank you.