The days grow rapidly short this time of year in Anchorage, losing nearly five minutes of daylight every day. On a recent morning, as I was setting up a shot for the film “Everybody Loves Whales” on the exterior ice field set that doubles for the North Slope town of Barrow, waiting for enough open skylight to get an exposure, a visiting photojournalist came up to me. His name is Jehad Nga.
I had been introduced to Jehad the day before. He was here to shoot special promotional coverage for our film. He was soon to leave with the second unit crew for Barrow. Jehad is a photojournalist for the NY Times who spends much of his time working in poverty and conflict areas of the world. He lives mainly in Nairobi and works often in Somalia; a location set of a Hollywood film is not his normal venue.
Jehad is a tall, lanky man, about thirty, with a scraggly beard and distinctly non-Aryan features. Some of the crew had already been teasing him that with his name and appearance he seemed a likely target for special airport security screening. Coming up to me, he asked, “John, do you know Joao Silva?” Silva’s name was familiar to me as a photojournalist, but I did not have strong recall of his work.
“He was severely injured by a land mine in Kandahar province today,” he began. “He will likely lose both legs.” As I talked with Jehad, I began to recall details of Silva’s work. He was one of the four members of the Bang Bang Club, a group of photojournalist friends and rivals who had covered the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the early nineties. They were not any kind of de facto “club.” Such a moniker would have been anathema to them. But the label persisted. Two of them, Silva and Greg Marinovich, had co-written a book about their work during these years of struggle for independence in the townships.
The “club” consisted of Silva, Marinovich, Kevin Carter, and Ken Oosterbroek. James Nachtwey was an unofficial fifth member who came and went depending on his other assignments. The four friends were embedded in the South African freedom struggle documenting the unfolding events day by day for the international press.
On April 18, 1994, a short time after Carter had received a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of a dying Sudanese child
Oosterbroek and Marinovich were shot during a firefight outside Johannesburg in the township of Thokoza. Silva took a photo of his wounded comrade, Oosterbroek, who died shortly afterwards.
And here is a photo of the injured Marinovich being attended to by Nachtwey.
Carter was deeply distraught by the death of his friend and, possibly suffering survivor’s guilt, took his own life a month later. There is film footage of the township shooting incident; it is included in the documentary about James Nachtwey, War Photographer.
I have written several times here about James Nachtwey. It is impossible to discuss the subject of war and conflict photography on the world stage today without often encountering his images. Here is a video that includes Nachtwey’s black and white work from his major book, Inferno, as well as less well-known color photographs from Central America, Afghanistan, Palestine and 9-11.
The October 24 print edition of the NY Times ran a brief story by journalist Dexter Filkins about Silva’s injury. It is on page 18, just under a story about a UN compound attack in Afghanistan.
The print edition has a one-sentence paragraph, “No American soldiers were wounded in the explosion.” This terse line reads almost like a movie disclaimer. The subtext seems to me to suggest a certain minimalist damage report, as though journalists’ injuries were somehow of a lesser order. This is not meant to denigrate Filkins who is one of the most respected conflict journalists working today (I have written about his book, The Forever War, where he was embedded along with photographer Ashley Gilbertson in Iraq in the battle for Falluja.)
What seems to lurk in the article is a tacit acknowledgement of the inherent vulnerability to injury and death for the journalists and photographers who have chosen this risky profession. They are here, after all, on their own call. An edit in the Times story online later corrected the text to read, “Three American soldiers sustained concussions.”
A few days after this chat with Jehad, I had breakfast with him at the Captain Cook Hotel the day before he flew up to Barrow. Nga is no stranger to difficult locations, nor in “bearing witness” in the violent hellholes of Africa and the Mideast. Even before he had decided to become a photojournalist he had worked as an EMS technician in Palestine. I was curious how he came to his mission as a photographer of poverty, pain, and violence. One would never guess by looking at this exotic man that he was born in America’s heartland, literally, in the small town of Smith Center, Kansas, the geographic center of the lower 48 states and the hometown of silent film star “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Jehad’s parents took him to Libya a mere week after his birth. He subsequently grew up in the Mideast and in London. Though he considers himself an American and votes as such, he is a true citizen of the world. Parochialism is not a trait one finds commonly among conflict photojournalists. A common but true cliche avers that travel expands one’s tolerance of human diversity. The men and women who chose this career path may have extended assignments, even embedded ones among warring factions, but a phone call may yank them overnight to anywhere else on the globe. Jehad’s website offers a glimpse into the diverse assignments and subjects he has experienced. Somalia is a frequent one and it is there he will be returning later this year—from Barrow, Alaska to Mogadishu, Somalia.
Travel to remote locations is also stock in trade for we filmmakers, perhaps today more than ever before. Rebates, incentives, and cheaper labor in many states and foreign lands have lured producers and the studios to far-flung locales that have no established film community, often for reasons unfathomable to those of us who are actually making the films. But our peregrinations are nothing compared to those of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to documenting the world’s travails– and our travels are made in indulged comfort. I asked Jehad how long it had been since he had been at his second residence, an apartment in Tribecca. “Eight months,” was his answer.
I asked Jehad about Joao Silva and the other photographers of the Bang Bang Club. He told me that Silva has long had a reputation for not only being calm under fire but positively glacial, as though the danger itself draws his mind and body into an intense quiet focus where others might experience accelerated vital signs. It may be the reason why he alone of the four had, until Saturday, October 23, 2010, been spared injury or death. According to Filkins, the area where Silva was on patrol with an American unit, already had been swept by minesweepers and bomb-sniffing dogs—but many of these improvised explosive devices contain little metal. The last Jehad had heard was that Silva had lost both legs below the knees. He was confident that Silva would be back photographing. It is his lifeblood. Bill Keller, executive editor of the NY Times, said in a statement to his staff:
Those of you who know Joao will not be surprised to learn that throughout this ordeal he continued to shoot pictures . . . he is extraordinarily strong and indomitable of spirit.
A more recent email from Jehad told me that Silva is recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital, but will likely be there for months.
A gallery of Silva’s photos can be seen here:
Some of Silva’s more recent work is coverage of the March and April drawdown of American troops from Iraq. Its look of an almost tame industrial reportage is stark contrast to the action and chaos most often seen in his conflict photography. There is deep irony that having come unscathed through several decades of war-torn assignments and having made almost mundane images of American withdrawal into Kuwait—that he should face near death a few months later. But such is the common currency of this work.
Before he left Anchorage Jehad gave me his copy of a new book of photos by another conflict photographer, Tim Hetherington, titled Infidel. This is the abusive term given to American soldiers by the Jihadis and Taliban of Afghanistan.
Infidel is Hetherington’s account of a year spent in the Korengal Valley embedded with a US platoon at a firebase outpost named Restrepo, after one of the soldiers killed there. It is also the name of a documentary co-directed by Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Surprisingly, unlike the film Restrepo, Infidel depicts little conflict and few firefights, but is a day-by-day intimate record of life and struggle at this isolated hilltop firebase. Much of it records the soldiers of the platoon at leisure, even roughhousing with each other. One photo shows a soldier standing in formation for inspection, yawning. Another section is a gallery of soldiers asleep.
In his introduction to the book, Junger writes of watching Hetherington photograph the sleeping men:
“You never see them like this,” he said to me later. “They always look so tough, but when they’re asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them.”
The section looks as if it were an interlude montage from a feature film, the deceptive quiet before the coming big battle.
I have sometimes wondered why it is that one of the longest surviving genres in dramatic features is that of the war film. Even with the venerable Western genre on life support, the war film continues to command our attention. Last year’s best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, is only the most recent example. Our culture’s enduring interest in the war film seems to me to be not just because of its visceral excitement as an action vehicle, nor even the more laudable reason of using war as a metaphor for the extremes of life itself, of the desperate will to live in the face of ever imminent death.
This ongoing fascination with life and death conflict abides in fiction filmmakers as well—for the waging of war in the movies is for many a kind of tame but exciting simulacrum for the filmmaking process itself. The historic image of the film director as a general commanding his troops is one of the great clichés of cinema history: the production of the film itself seen as a battle, with the crew as (sometimes expendable) front line troops. It does feel like an inch-by-inch fight to take the high ground when a crew is embedded in some remote, even alien location battling difficult logistics and weather to reach its goal.
But there is another aspect in this comparison to filmmaking and it is reflected, I think, in the very best of conflict photography that is offered to us today. The highest level of this work rises way beyond the literal litany of firefights and bombings, the blood and guts that constitute an ever more graphic pornography of violent images, of dismemberment and disemboweling. It is the vision captured by the most humane and sensitive of these artists, those who look behind the grim face, the dirt and death of war—to the humanity, to the innocent victims, yes, but also to the combatants on all sides, to the messy factionalism and chaos where there are seldom only two perspectives. These photojournalists are not interested just in the bloody surface of war, or even in its more abstract political, ethnic and religious ideology. Like filmmakers of dramatic, fiction movies, it is the challenge to find the human narrative skein within, the complex ambivalences of survival, that compel them to continue their work.
I felt this deep kinship talking with Jehad Nga over breakfast. We are both image makers of the human condition though, of course, I feel mine are of a much lesser order. I have never been in the military nor experienced real life and death conflict. My work documenting such events has always been within the mantle of a written screenplay, and a hotel room to retire to after wrap.
But speaking with this gentle man over morning coffee or when I dine with James Nachtwey, I realize that there is, in fact, a common link among us photographers. Certainly, it would be sophistic for me to compare the luxurious conditions and money afforded us filmmakers, to the hardscrabble life of many photojournalists, but there is a connection. Fiction and non-fiction imagery have been cross-pollinating for years; their stylistic tics refract on each other.
I believe there is a brotherhood among us, one of image making, in the very best work we do, each from our differing perspectives and circumstances. They are both glimpses into the overarching narrative of the human story, one that evokes flashes of recognition, emotion and empathy with our fellow man. It is an end toward which we all strive.