April 18, 2024

The Media Equation: War, in Life and Death

When I met him last summer, he had finished co-directing “Restrepo,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about United States soldiers fighting in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan.

For all the coverage of America’s war in that region, it was a subject he thought needed more investigation. “If we weren’t there, filming, reporting, it is as if it didn’t happen,” he said about making the film. During his time there, he broke his leg on one hike when the unit came under fire and walked back four hours on the busted limb.

“That was not a very good evening,” he said, smiling and looking down at the scar. He looked like Superman and seemed just as invincible.

That proved not to be the case. He was killed last week in the Libyan city of Misurata on the same day another photojournalist, Chris Hondros, was also killed; two others, Guy Martin and Chris Brown, were wounded.

Because we were nominally in the same business, I had met both men. Mr. Hondros, who preferred a tweed blazer with elbow patches to fatigues, no matter how hot it became, was an award-winning photographer for Getty who had covered Iraq (seven tours), the West Bank, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Afghanistan. He was also an opera buff and an avid chess fan who never had the profile of a swashbuckling war correspondent.

His portrait of a young Iraqi girl, spattered with the blood of her dead parents after they had failed to heed warning shots at an American checkpoint in 2005, is an image that carried the full freight of war and its collateral effects.

In the spring of 2008, Chris and I talked about why he continued to return to Iraq, a war that had dragged on so long that many had simply stopped looking.

“Unless it happens right in front of you, you can’t make a picture of it,” he said, although he acknowledged being frightened by the prospect of returning. “It is getting horrendously bad.”

He went back anyway. Tim and Chris were very different men who died because they had something in common: each thought it important to bear witness, to make images that communicated human suffering and send them out to the world.

The loss is large, akin in some ways to the 1968 helicopter crash in Laos that ended the lives of Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto, four of the best photojournalists of their generation.

Many people have died in the recent wars the two men covered, and we should not make the journalist’s error of elevating the deaths of Tim and Chris above those of others. But beyond the personal loss for their families and friends, there is a civic loss when good journalists are killed. Most news organizations have retrenched and many overseas bureaus have been closed.

Tim came to his craft in part because of his interest in human rights. He had previously worked as a United Nations investigator documenting looting in West Africa.

Sebastian Junger, a war reporter and co-director of “Restrepo,” said that even after all the accolades given to the film, Tim still felt moved to finance on his own a trip to Libya to cover an insurgency that seems to be having trouble finding its way.

“We are all ambitious,” Mr. Junger said. “The Arab Spring was intoxicating to him, he was moved by it, and he saw the potential for improvement and a dramatic combat situation. He went because he wanted to see it unfold.”

“Tim wanted to change the world,” he added, “but he also wanted the world to change him.”

Chris was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his work in Liberia, and he won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Robert Capa Gold Medal award in 2006 for the “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.” But the people in his pictures were more than subjects. After the conflict in Liberia ended, he found the militia commander who was the subject of one his more celebrated photos and paid for his tuition to become educated in something besides waging war.

They were adventurers, but not daredevils in the way war photographers are often portrayed in movies. When I asked Tim how he kept marching while his leg was broken, he said, “There was very little choice at the time, because you don’t want to be the person that is slowing down the platoon and putting others at risk.”

Sgt. Brendan C. O’Byrne was one of the soldiers whose work — our work, really, because we all sent them to Afghanistan to wage war — Tim chronicled in “Restrepo.”

“Tim was the pinnacle of his job,” he said on the phone. “He was the kind of guy who did not make mistakes. But you can’t hide from bad luck. Bullets and artillery always seem to find the best. It drives me crazy to even think about it.”

Although the current cohort of American combat photographers has been mostly spared until now, artillery and bullets have found many journalists in the last few years. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the business of war picked up and the bloody consequences have landed hard on people who bring cameras, rather than guns, to a firefight. In Iraq alone, 36 photojournalists have died since 2003.

Even as warfare has changed — becoming in some cases more remote and more distant — the job of covering war has not. Missiles can be guided from great distances and drone aircraft can be commanded by a joystick, but journalists still have to go and see where the bombs landed.

Information has sprouted from all manner of new tools, including Facebook, Twitter and cellphone video. But no one has perfected the journalist drone.

“There is no machine that is going to do this, because at its core, you are trying to capture the humanity of what is under way,” said Michael Kamber, a veteran combat photographer for The New York Times. “You need someone there who is not just brave, but has the empathy to make images that help the rest of us understand.”

After I heard the news last week, I called Joao Silva, a veteran photojournalist for The New York Times. Last fall, he lost both of his legs to an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., in southern Afghanistan, and he is still recovering at Walter Reed Hospital, working his way through dozens of operations.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to set the cameras down because of what happened to them, and I think that is not right,” said Mr. Silva, who wants to return to the field once his recovery is complete. “There is no way that Tim or Chris would have wanted us to walk away and leave a black void.”

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=a5d20160faada9d065cad6d3a6677158

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