War sees many heroes. While some receive medals, military recognition, and fame, others remain more distant, their lives condensed to a single sentence in a textbook or a simple epitaph on a headstone. And then, there are those, who, like shadows, lurk in the back of men’s minds but never surface as more than a statistic. Others still are forgotten all together.
Flipping through the pages of a history book, googling famous wars and conflicts, walking through war museums… We find ourselves surrounded by images. We see hundreds of photos featuring brave men and women. Wounded, tired, dying, we see them struggle to stay in a fight whose end result only we know- as viewers of the past and members of the present. The images before us stir our hearts causing the word “hero” to surface in our minds.
We stare into the eyes of a GI. Behind the glazed look of shock, we see a man who is willing to give his life so that others may live. He is willing to die for the next generation, a generation that may never know his name. But how do we know his story? We know it through photos.
Pick a war. Look at a photo taken during that era. For a moment, don’t focus on what is featured in the image, but rather what is missing from it. Let me help. The photo before you was taken with a camera, right? Think about what lies be
hind the lens of the camera. If you guessed something like, “aperture ring” or “shutter release”, you’re over thinking this. Let me give you a second clue: Who bridges the gap to our understanding the concept of war and the importance of freedom? Who, not what.
You guessed it. A photographer. In this case, a war photographer, also known by the titles: “military combat cameraman” or “journalistic photographer”.
War photographers should not be viewed as “unsung heroes”, but rather heroes deserving of equal recognition to the man in uniform.
War photographers take many risks. “In addition to the dangers inherent to a war zone, war photographers are sometimes deliberately targeted, abducted or executed.” (War Photography and Combat Photography). A photographer by the name of Morris was captured by Iraqi soldiers and held prisoner during the Gulf War. After accidentally detonating an anti-personnel mine, photographer Joao Silva lost the lower half of both his legs. In 2011, war photographer Lyndsey Addario was captured in Libya.
Combat photographers are placed in equally dangerous situations to that of our troops. Dozens of them have been killed in the field of action. During World War II, over sixty-five cameraman lost their lives. Between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, seventy-five photojournalists were reported killed. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two modern-day war photographers, were recently murdered in Libya while covering a story.
The awesome action shots displayed in that history book you are holding, were not taken from inside a quite restaurant far from danger. Instead, the war photographer was close enough to touch the soldier next to him, to taste the spattering of another man’s blood on his face, to feel the shrapnel penetrating his own skin. Strapped inside helicopters, riding in the back of jeeps, and trudging through waist-high rice patties, the photographer focuses on his responsibility of capturing the emotions of war. While M4 Carbines shower them with bullets and IUD’s explode around him, he faces the heat of the battle armed only with a DSLR camera and 200mm zoom lens.
Photographers in this field, make many sacrifices and face many personal struggles. Feelings of guilt, regret, and depression linger with them long after they hang up their camera for the day. Many suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome and other psychological disorders.
People react differently in times of crisis and war photographers are no exception. Some stare into the face of danger, blood pounding at their temples, adrenaline surging through their veins, and fingers rapidly pressing against their camera’s shutter button. Minds focused on capturing the perfect shot, they tune out their surroundings. In it for the thrill and excitement, they can take in the graphic sights of war, of innocent people dying, of children screaming in terror and of bodies being mutilated inches from them, and after they take their photos, they simply walk away from it all. It is as if their minds and hearts accept these horrific sights as a teen might a scary movie or an adult a bad day at the office. Others have learned to master their emotions and thought processes, in order to create focused and determined shots. They are attentive to the task at hand, but not consumed by it. An then there are those whose hearts long for justice. Those who bring images home so that others might see the ugly truth. They are the ones who stop to mourn alongside the suffering, who aid the medics, and who risk their own lives for the soldier standing near them. Many of these men and women, live with re-occurring nightmares, feelings of helplessness, regret, and suicidal depression as a result of their efforts. Trauma junkies are not the only ones to suffer internal conflicts. The hero must also sort through his emotions and grasp hold of the “why” behind his job.
So what is the “why” behind what they do? What makes their job so important that they are willing to risk everything to see it through?
Photography reveals the faces of war. We think about the Holocaust and instantly we picture the dark, deep set eyes, the shoulder length black hair and smiling face of a young Anne Frank. Or we see the short-mustached face of the enemy: Adolf Hitler. Maybe, when we think of the second World War, we picture a man in a tan, military uniform, hands in either pocket, a pipe protruding from his lips: the focused expression of Douglas MacArthur comes to mind. Whether the face of a President announcing the declaration of war, or the comforting look of a nurse, when we consider people, we do not think in terms of words. We think of them in pictures.
Images bring back memories and stir emotions. From the cannons of the Civil War to the gas-masks of World War I, from the Japanese flags painted on the sides of the kamikaze bombers, to the medevac choppers flying low over Saigon rice patties; from the tanks of Desert Storm to the twin towers of New York. These are the images that shape our conception of war.
Reading the statistic, “ten million Jews were killed during World War II”, only succeeds in stirring mild feelings of regret, anger, and disgust. But, to see the faces of emaciated children peering from behind barbed wire, to see the thick steel doors of a crematorium, to see for ourselves the stack of naked corpses carelessly discarded in open pits,our hearts are moved.
This is why the photographer does what he does. So we might see. So we might know. So we might remember.
Photojournalists have gone where no man dared to go in order to draw the wars, darkest, deepest secrets into the light. Combat cameraman have given us a unique inside view which reveals military protocol and procedures, training, airbases, and a personal look into the life of a soldier. Because of these images young man have felt the urge to join up, women have been motivated to become doctors and nurses, individuals have chosen to stand behind America in an effort to protect what they know to be important. Through photos, the old can remember and the young can learn.
War photographers are responsible for capturing images that will remain etched in our minds and our hearts for decades.
Although done in different ways, both soldier and photographer should be viewed with equal distinction due to the risk they take, the sacrifices they make, and the message they provide. Long after the soldier is laid to rest beneath a flag-covered coffin, the images provided by the war photographer will continue to be viewed by generations to come.
War photographers deserve our respect. They deserve equal recognition to our soldiers. War photographers are heroes and they should be viewed as such.
When you think of war, don’t overlook the man behind the lens.