The thoughts and feelings that compel someone to become a war photographer are beyond my comprehension. I recognize the journalistic value in documenting the realities of combat, to create a record of the carnage, suffering, and insanity of mankind at its worst (and sometimes its best); but inserting yourself into the most hostile environments on Earth, where everyone is holding a weapon except you, still seems like a death wish to me. This conclusion was only reinforced after reading the article titled “The Inner Lives of Wartime Photographers,” written by Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, in The New York Times Magazine yesterday.
In the article Keller recalls visiting Times photographer Joao Silva at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Silva has been there since October, after a bomb exploded under him in Afghanistan, “destroying both of his legs and shredding his intestinal tract.” Silva is being outfitted with robotic legs that will allow him to walk again, but “He’s months from being able to walk on his own, and until then he’s confined to a bed or a wheelchair, attached to a colostomy bag and a stream of antibiotics.”
And what’s Silva want to do as soon as he’s capable? He wants to head back to a war zone to take more photographs.
“I wish I was in Libya right now,” said Silva, who has a wife and two young children.
Keller asks why photographers “do this crazy work” and Silva helps him arrive at a partial answer: “It becomes your identity in so many ways,” Silva said. “This is my identity. This is all I’m known for. Nobody sends me out to go shoot beautiful pictures for travel articles, you know?”
Keller says the moral conundrum for him is whether he should send men like Silva back into combat. “If [Silva] asks for that posting to Baghdad or some other place where things blow up, what do I say? To him? To his family?”
Even photographers in top physical shape—like Tim Hetherington (see Times war photographer Michael Kamber’s tribute to Hetherington, which ran here at GMPM last week, and this ABC News interview), who was killed by shrapnel from a mortar in Libya last month—are at grave risk. Sending a man into combat equipped with fake legs and a camera? Is there really a question here?
Keller should say “no” if Silva asks to be assigned to a war zone again. Are soldiers in his condition sent back into combat? No, of course not. And if they asked to be sent into combat, their superiors would dismiss idea. Why? Because it’s irresponsible. At a certain point, if photographers (or soldiers) can’t recognize what’s in their best interests, superiors must step in and make these decisions for them.
Silva may not be able to see himself as much more than a war photographer. But hopefully his loved ones and colleagues can help him see otherwise; hopefully they can help him see that he’s a father and a husband, too.
(Photo: Michael Kamber for The New York Times)
[UPDATED: This post was updated for clarity.]