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May 06 2011

The month in photography

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – including works by Tim Hetherington, Bruce Davidson, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Herb Ritts

April 22 2011

'Telling the unadorned truth'

Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed while shooting the war in Libya. The Guardian head of photography explains the unique challenge of war photojournalism

In a closely controlled, PR-led media world, war remains the last frontier of raw reality. To the photojournalist, this has to be the ultimate attraction, even if it means facing the kind of dangers that normally only soldiers are exposed to. This grim game claimed two more victims this week, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, when they were hit by fire from government forces in Misrata, Libya.

The escalating civil war is drawing in experienced and not-so experienced photographers from round the world. In some ways it's the ideal war for photographers – colourful, anarchic rebels taking on a professional standing army. Compared with Afghanistan, the access to this conflict is easy. To cover the Afghanistan conflict in any meaningful way, photographers have to be embedded with the western armies, which means applying to and working with defence ministries and their press minders. In Libya, if you have the dollars and the guts, you just follow the road into Benghazi and from there to the ever-moving frontline. The inexperienced learn quickly in these situations, but they also know that, like bomb-disposal soldiers, they have to be near the action. Sometimes too near. As the most revered of all war photographers, Robert Capa, put it: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

But war is getting more and more difficult to cover. Battles are fought at longer distances, with long-range missiles, drone bombers and IEDs placed by fighters who melt into the landscape. Photographers are reduced to documenting the soldiers on one side or another. Many images of the Libyan conflict so far have been of extraordinarily dressed rebels posing with over-sized guns, which have lent a slightly misleading carnival aspect to the uprising. The news of Hetherington and Hondros's deaths has refocused this war on the blood that has quietly been spilling into the desert sands.

The Guardian's picture desk received a strong image last week of two rebel fighters posing with a gun. One had a lemon-coloured jumper on and big hair blowing in the wind, when body-armour and a helmet would have been so much more appropriate. This glamorisation of the combatants has always been a part of the documentation of war. Roger Fenton, sometimes thought to be the first British war photographer, went to the Crimea in the 1850s to take location portraits of the officers for their families back home. He soon realised that there was more that he could do with his camera and took some stark pictures of the aftermath of the battles. The glamour inevitably rubs off on the war photographers themselves and leads to the stereotype of a hard-drinking self-obsessive in a keffiyeh scarf. But the painful pictures, shot by their colleagues, of medics fighting to save Hetherington and Hondros strip away that sheen and reminds us of the high price some pay.

It's sometimes said that war photographers are driven by the need for the adrenaline fix of the ultimate gamble, but the best and the most successful seem pretty stable people. They recognise that the conflict they want to cover is probably the only current event that might yield truly memorable hard news images. They also know that they need to shoot pictures that have an urgency to get them published by war-weary editors back home, who are desperate to cheer up rather than depress their readers. In a recent BBC interview, Goran Tomasevic, a Reuters veteran, said: "I don't have any problem stepping back into my normal life; not at all. I just go out, eat a couple of steaks and drink a lot of beer. I check out the football and I'm happy." Tomasevic's attitude is typical of the leading news photographers – he knows he is taking risks, but he also takes precautions like any professional. Capa again: "The war correspondent has his stake – his life – in his own hands, and he can put it on this horse or that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute." The world (and not just its media) needs these people: we need to see and have conflicts recorded. The rest of us are lucky that we can tap into their enthusiasm and bravery however misplaced it sometimes may be. In the end, motives are not important, it's the image on the page or screen telling the unadorned truth that counts.

Hetherington and Hondros were working very differently. Hetherington had left a successful stills career behind to follow up his Oscar-nominated film documentary about the American Marines in Afghanistan and was shooting more video. Hondros was filing a daily stream of pictures to his agency, Getty Images. Indeed, the Guardian received more of his photographs just hours before he was killed. War photographers are increasingly expected to shoot video – and without the back-up that a TV crew might expect. But this is leading to a new sort of moving visual journalism that is more immediate and personal, without the reporter between the viewer and the action. It feeds off the strengths of the photographer, the need to get in close, the need to create a relationship with the fighters he's working alongside. All of the skills that are traditionally that of a war photographer; all those skills that Hetherington and Hondros had. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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War photographers are not addicted to danger

A Guardian war photographer explains the risks and rewards of working on the frontline

I'm not surprised Tim was in Misrata on Tuesday. A writer can be 60 miles away, in a completely different town, and still get something out of what's happening. But as a photojournalist, if you're half a mile from the action, you might as well be in a completely different country. You actually have to be there.

The first fighting it was possible to cover followed one road from Benghazi along the coast to Tripoli, backwards and forwards as Gaddafi's forces advanced and retreated. Journalists and photographers in cars followed rebel fighters in four-by-fours and drove towards the frontline. But because a lot of the fighting was in the desert, away from homes and schools, it was difficult to give a sense of the people involved in the conflict other than as men with guns. It was hard to get any humanity out of what was going on.

Misrata visually encapsulated the story better. The people there were surrounded by Gaddafi's forces very early in the civil war, and now they're trying to live their life in the middle of a conflict. So if you're covering Libya as a photographer, it's the most valid place to be. You're trying to explain the experience of people who don't have a choice about being there, including the combatants. People who are stuck there, suffering.

War photographers don't do this because they're addicted to danger. They're just like any journalist who wants to do their job well, and they see no romance in it. You certainly think about the risks – last year, Sunday Mirror photographer Phil Coburn lost both his legs and reporter Rupert Hamer was killed in Afghanistan – but ultimately you decide that it's more important to examine the world we live in. When you've got a camera in front of you, you focus on the work.

I last saw Tim a few weeks ago in Benghazi. He seemed happy and relaxed. It's his work that speaks most loudly and clearly about him. It shows a man who consistently invested in first-hand reporting over a number of years. He is remembered particularly for his film, Restrepo, and his World Press Photo award, but he had a long struggle to get there. It wasn't like he went out there and immediately it all happened. He had for a long time been telling the stories of people in war zones.

We need to continue to send reporters to places in conflict. The amount of war photojournalism being published by news organisations has shrunk dramatically over the years, but we should remember that we stop being news organisations when we stop going to the frontline. Other forms of journalism are important, but without someone actually going and talking to and taking pictures of people in these situations, our take on the world becomes more and more distorted.

Interview by Patrick Kingsley © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 21 2011

Chris Hondros - a retrospective in pictures

Award-winning photojournalist Chris Hondros has been killed in Misrata, Libya. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers all over the world

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