I think the very word ‘war photographer’ seems to conjure up romantic images of a profession that is actually far from being romantic. The image of a grungy, unshaven and cameras slinging photographer maybe immortalized by real personage like Robert Capa and Ernest Hemmingway and portrayed in film by Dennis Hopkins (Apocalypse Now) and James Wood (Salvador). The truth, however, is much more and much less than that.
Covering a conflict is never glamorous and very often dangerous. The number of local and foreign journalists/photographers that has died since men took pens, notebooks and cameras into places that has experienced armed conflicts and civil war is a testament to the danger involved. The Iraq war saw the highest number of journalists killed in a single conflict and that doesn’t even take into consideration those who were wounded during combat action, kidnapped by insurgents and arrested by the military. The worst outcome would be a beheading by your kidnappers. The case of Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and later executed by his captors in Pakistan is one unfortunate example. There are journalists and photographers who would go to great length to get their stories and pictures but the price one pay can be very high. And we have yet to touch on the mental aspects of the job.
Why do journalists and photographers deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for stories is anyone’s guess but for each and everyone you ask, you will hear a different answer a different truth. For those covering conflicts that bear a connection to their homeland, things will and must take on a different meaning than for others. As a Singaporean in Afghanistan embedded with the US forces, I tend to have a less emotional link to it: none of my fellow countrymen are dying everyday from combat action in a foreign country that isn’t really welcoming us with open arms. However, forging a bond with the troops you are embed with is somehow unavoidable and that becomes painful when you hear about or even actually experience the loss yourself. The fear of being wounded or killed while doing your job becomes plausible and real. The look I’ve seen of some men who has survived combat while their brother-in-arms didn’t is something that words cannot describe adequately. One can’t help but think of how the families of fallen men cope with their loss and the time they will need to heal from the emotional wounds.
Being a photographer or journalist covering conflicts can be exciting, dangerous, strenuous, and perhaps, rewarding but it can never a ‘dream’ job. Because there is nothing dreamy about the death and destruction of the land, the people, and most of all, the body, mind and soul of those involved.