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August 08 2012

Clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo – in pictures

Award-winning photographer Goran Tomasevic has been covering clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where fighting between rival factions appears to have reached a stalemate

August 03 2012

Letter: News photography – no snap judgments

When Tom Hopkinson (my father) rescued a man being lynched in South Africa (The bystanders, Weekend, 28 July), he was no longer "editor of Picture Post" but of Drum magazine, on which he was the only white staffer. Rescuing black photographers and journalists – in as beaten a state as the man in the story, but almost always thanks to the forces of apartheid – came with the job, as he relayed in his autobiography Under the Tropic.

Ian Berry, however, is too modest in claiming "It never occurred to me to do anything" in like situations. While he may not have directly intervened in this instance, he was there at Sharpeville in 1960, acting with considerable courage in warning as well as photographing victims during the massacre. Berry's impressive body of work played its own part in documenting and thereby strengthening the campaign to end the apartheid regime.

As Berry's fellow Magnum photographer, Abbas, told me when I interviewed him and put the familiar question regarding the "humanitarian" responsibilities of a photojournalist in a conflict zone: "If I wanted to be there to save lives, I'd join Médecins sans Frontières. As it is, I am a photographer, and my first responsibility is to show what is actually happening to the rest of the world."
Professor Amanda Hopkinson
City University, London © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 28 2012

The Bystanders: photographers who didn't step in to help - in pictures

What's it like to witness a mob attack, a starving child or the aftermath of a bomb, and take a photograph instead of stopping to help?

'I was gutted that I'd been such a coward': photographers who didn't step in to help

What's it like to witness a mob attack, a starving child or the aftermath of a bomb, and take a photograph instead of stopping to help? As two journalists are under fire for recording rather than intervening in a sex attack in India, we ask people who know

In pictures: the photographers who stood by (contains some graphic images)

Mob attack, by Greg Marinovich
'I was gutted that I'd been such a coward'

It was my first time in a conflict situation, and I was quite unprepared. I was on my own inside a migrant worker's hostel in South Africa. Suddenly all the men started picking up spears and sticks and clubs, and racing off. So I followed them. They were trying to get into one of the dormitory rooms, and there was someone inside pressing against the door. Eventually, the door was flung open and this guy with a scarf tied like a turban around his head came dashing out. He looked me straight in the eyes, and then took off.

All these other men started chasing him, and he hadn't gone far when he was brought down. About 15 or 20 men were all around him, hitting and stabbing and clubbing. And I was right there, photographing it. On the one hand, I was horrified, and at the same time I was thinking: what should the exposure be?

It was the old days: analogue, manual focus, crappy cameras. I felt torn between the horror of what I was seeing and trying to capture it. I was also thinking, how am I going to survive this? Because sooner or later these people are going to say, "There's this guy taking pictures of us committing murder." I was 1km from my car and the nearest outsider.

They killed him. And then one of them turned and said, "The white guy's photographing." Everyone leapt away, and I said, "No, it's fine, it's fine. Why did you kill him? Who is he?"

I was thinking, "I'll spit on his body, I'll kick this corpse, I don't care – I'm going to survive this." Thankfully, I didn't have to do that. They pulled his ID out of his pocket: he was from another tribe. Then two of the killers posed and said, "Take a picture of us." So I took a picture and walked away. All the time I was expecting somebody to say, "Wait, that guy musn't leave." But I walked off, got into my car and got the hell out of there.

It was my first exposure to such a thing. And although, as a journalist, my reaction was fine, as a human being I felt I'd really let myself down. It wasn't how I'd expected I'd react – I thought I'd try to intervene, or do something more noble. Yet I hadn't. I was really quite torn up about that. I was gutted that I'd been such a coward. From that moment, I was determined that, no matter what, I'd try to intervene and save someone if I could.

Domestic violence, by By Donna Ferrato
'I saw that he was getting ready to hit her and I took the picture'

I try to get into real people's lives and tell their stories. I'd been photographing this couple for a while. I was in their home, sleeping down the hall with my baby daughter, when I heard the woman screaming. It was about 2am and I could hear things crashing and breaking in the master bedroom. I put my little girl in her basket and put her in the closet, because I knew the husband had a gun. And then I grabbed my gun – which is a little Leica M4 – and went running down the hall. As soon as I walked into the bathroom off the bedroom, I saw that he was getting ready to hit her and I took the picture. I thought, if I don't take this picture, no one will believe this ever happened. That's the first picture I took that night. His hand was in the air and I was shocked out of my wits. I had never seen him do that. I saw him being a little rough with her, shaking her up earlier in the day, but he wasn't beating her. That was the first time I saw him commit an act of violence, and my instinct was to get the picture first.

But after I got that one picture – because I knew I had it – I didn't just keep shooting. I wasn't like those war photographers who just stand there: bang, bang, bang. When I saw his hand go back to hit her a second time, I grabbed his arm and said, "What the hell are you doing? You're going to hurt her!" He threw me off and said, "She's my wife and I know my own strength, but I have to teach her a lesson that she can't lie to me", but from that point on he didn't hit her again.

When I was taking other photographs for I Am Unbeatable, my book on domestic violence, I was there first as a photographer, not as a social worker. Yes, I would always be divided about whether to take a picture or defend the victim, but if I chose to put down my camera and stop one man from hitting one woman, I'd be helping just one woman. However, if I got the picture, I could help countless more.

For more information on Donna Ferrato's project on domestic violence, visit

Pro-hunting protests, by Graeme Robertson
'He said, "Help me, please help me", and I didn't do anything'

This picture was a taken on quite a violent day. The police were really up for it. The demonstrators were really up for it. Everybody was getting hit hard. I was flung to the floor by a policeman. I was lying there, dusting myself, ready to give the policeman a bit of my Scottish abuse, when I saw a man being wrestled to the ground for not doing what he was told. He hadn't done anything wrong, but as he was lying on the ground, the policemen were abusing him and being really aggressive with him, hands round his neck, that kind of thing. I picked up my camera and he said, "Help me, help me. Please help me." And I didn't do anything. I took a picture – and he got dragged off.

When I got home that night, I felt a bit uneasy. I thought, "I didn't really do anything there. I didn't really help." But is it the job of a photographer to get involved in this sort of thing? For five years, I covered an awful lot of conflict – Baghdad, Afghanistan, all across Africa, the Middle East. The stuff that I saw there… On my first assignments in Iraq, I really struggled with it. It caused me so much stress, I got alopecia and lost all my hair all over my body. Just from thinking about all these things. The first time I experienced it, it actually stopped me taking images I really wanted to take or should have taken, because I was so mixed up and thinking, "Should I be doing this or not? I found it very difficult. But through experience, it's sad to say, you get immune to it. And then you can concentrate on your photography, and you feel that is your power.

If you manage to get a picture that shows the scenario, that is you helping them. I'm not in this situation to help them physically, but that is what I'm on this planet to do.
I know of photographers who have thought, "I can't not help this kid" and taken the kid away. And they've got themselves into so much trouble. Because they don't know the situation or how things work. They have a different culture, different views, different medication, and often in a situation like that you end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

Stoning, by Ian Berry
'It never occurred to me to do anything'

I was travelling around Congo with Tom Hopkinson, the editor of Picture Post, and a couple of other photographers. I was in the front of the car and I spotted a crowd coming down the street, chasing one man.

We discovered later that the only sin this man had committed was being in the wrong tribe and in the wrong area. The crowd chased him and threw rocks at him; children and adults beat him with sticks. Finally, he was totally exhausted and fell to the ground quite near where I was standing. And I went on photographing.

To my shame, it never occurred to me to do anything. To start with, we were white. On our own. The other two photographers didn't get out of the car. Suddenly I realised that Tom had walked into the crowd and stood over the guy. People were so amazed, they just stood back. The man was able to stagger up, around a corner and escape. It was an amazing thing to do. Tom undoubtedly saved the man's life. And, frankly, it had not for a moment occurred to me to intervene.

When you're working with a camera, you tend to disassociate yourself from what's going on. You're just an observer. We were there to record the facts. But there are moments when the facts are less important than somebody's life.

Stabbing, by Oli Scarff
'I don't know if I would have had the bottle to put myself in mortal danger'

I'd been assigned to cover the Notting Hill carnival, so I'd been down there early, capturing the colours and the floats and the jerk chicken. The carnival was winding down, there were a lot more police on the streets, and I noticed a group of about three or four start running. There was nothing else to do, so I ran after them to see what was going on.

It was a chaotic scene, and my first instinct was to take a couple of photos immediately, to record what was happening. It's something I've conditioned myself to do: to get a shot in the bag before you can fully assess the situation. After that, my attention was drawn to a man who had been stabbed, and who was bleeding profusely. I photographed the police and paramedics treating his wounds and trying to keep him conscious, which thankfully they did. It was only after that when I noticed that the two pictures I shot at the beginning included this scene of the man with the knife and a guy attempting to trip him up. I'd manage to capture that in a split second. From the trajectory of the two images I have, it looked like he was just about to run past my left shoulder. He would have passed me in an instant.

To be honest, even if I had been aware of what was going on, I don't know if I would have had the bottle to put myself in mortal danger. It's hard to know, though: those decisions come down to a spur-of-the-moment instinct. But, fundamentally, my role on that day was to document what was happening. In the corner of the picture is someone else taking a photograph. I think, perhaps, there is an innate human desire to record these kind of things. And the facility to do so has now been put in everyone's pockets.

Bomb aftermath, by Hampus Lundgren
'I became a photographer and not a person'

I'm a freelance photographer and I had my first summer job working at a newspaper a block away from the government offices in Oslo. Up until then I'd been doing feel-good stories, following a group of male synchronised swimmers, that kind of thing. When the bomb went off, I saw a fireball in the air, then a shockwave came towards our office, knocked people to the ground and shattered all the windows. We had to evacuate, so I grabbed the camera on my desk and started running towards where the bomb had gone off. I knew there was the possibility of a second explosion and I was afraid the buildings would collapse, so I gave myself 10-15 minutes to take pictures and then get out.

This was one of the first things I saw. My mind shut down a bit, I think, because I don't remember taking this picture. I just felt adrenaline. I became a photographer and not a person. It didn't cross my mind to talk to them. The man was being held up by his wife. He was badly injured, and getting help from other people nearby, including an off-duty policeman. The others I could see were already dead. I don't know first aid, so I thought the thing I can do, and what I do best, is to document this, show people what happened.

I met the couple a few months later to see how they were doing. He was severely injured by shrapnel, and had had his right leg amputated. They told me they were really angry at the time, because the first thing they noticed when he was lying on the ground was a photographer taking a picture of him. That made me feel guilty, but later, when I showed them the image and spoke to them, they said they were pleased these pictures were taken because it helped them to remember. That helped me a lot, to feel I hadn't used them.

London riots, by Kerim Okten
'I wanted to shout "Stop!"... but I was frightened'

It was 8 August, day three of the London riots. I was in Hackney, and I watched this group approach a line of shops behind shutters. They obviously knew which shop was the newsagent because they went straight for it, breaking the locks on the shutters, then smashing the door, breaking in and looting anything valuable: money, alcohol, food, cigarettes. Dozens of people began queuing up outside, chatting and waiting for their turn to loot. It was darkly funny: they almost looked like a normal line of people waiting at the checkout.

Suddenly one of them turned to me. "Why are you taking pictures? Did you ask my permission to take a photo of my premises? This is my shop and this is my street now, so fuck off." They became aggressive, and so I backed away with the other photographers.

Of course I wanted to stop them. This was somebody's shop, and what was really sad and silly was that these kids probably lived on this street. This was probably the newsagent where they bought their bread and milk. I wanted to shout, "Stop! How can you do this to your neighbours? Have you lost your minds?" But I didn't say anything. I just took photographs, and talked to the other photographers and onlookers. We were all saying, "Somebody should tell them to stop." But nobody did. We were all waiting for the police to come, and they didn't come for a very long time.

I feel bad about it. I was frightened, so I just stuck to my professional duty. But life as a photojournalist teaches you that during this kind of violence, getting involved won't end it; it will just lead to more people getting hurt. With the lootings, you're dealing with group psychology. A looter won't act like a person, they'll just go with the wave of action. You feel powerless, but the power you hold is in your job: to tell the story.

Famine, by Radhika Chalasani
'To this day, I think I didn't necessarily do the right thing'

Some photographers and journalists have a very absolute point of view that you never interfere, because your job is as an observer and you can do the most good by remaining one. I decided a long time ago that I had to do what I could live with in terms of my own conscience, so when it felt appropriate to try to do something, I would. There are certain situations you struggle with. We're interfering with a situation by our very presence, and that automatically changes the dynamic. At one point, I was photographing a woman carrying her son into a feeding centre. He was extremely malnourished, and I was photographing her as she walked along. All of a sudden, these Sudanese people started directing her for the photos. They had her sit down and were indicating how she should hold her child. I ran to get a translator, and said, "Tell her to take her child to the feeding centre. She should not be stopping because I'm taking a photograph."

Another time, there was a family sitting under a tree just outside the feeding centre, about 10 feet away. But they couldn't walk, they were so emaciated. And there was a group of photographers all around them. I took a few pictures, but then I walked into the feeding centre and asked a nurse, "Is there anything you can do for this family?"

I've been in situations where it's been a hard call, though. On one occasion, a group of photographers went into an abandoned refugee camp and found a massacre site. There were some children who had survived. There were two baby twins in a hut: I tried to get one child to take my hand and realised it had been chopped off. We didn't know how long they had been there. And it's in the middle of a civil war, so you're not sure how safe things are.

Myself and another photographer wanted to take the kids out of there in the car. Several of the other people didn't think it was safe, in case we got stopped at a checkpoint, and they wanted to get back for their deadlines. In the end, we didn't take the children. We found the Red Cross and reported the situation to them, but I found that another photographer went there the next day and found another child who was a survivor. To this day I think that I didn't necessarily do the right thing.

I do believe that our main contribution is trying to get the story understood. And sometimes, when you think you're helping, you're actually making a situation worse. But, for me, you try to do what you can live with. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 01 2012

Brave witness: Tom Hurndall

Peace activist Tom Hurndall died at 22 after being shot by an Israeli sniper. His images and articles, that grew in intensity as his journey became more difficult, are published in a new book

Tom Hurndall was a peace activist and an aspiring photojournalist. His photographs, alongside his journals, bear witness to the often terrible, sometimes uplifting, events he saw and experienced while living among families in Iraq, in a refugee camp in Jordan, and in the Gaza Strip. It was there on 11 April 2003 that he was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier while attempting to rescue a child who had been pinned down by gunfire. He died nine months later in hospital in London. He was 22.

It is difficult, then, to look dispassionately at the photographs in The Only House Left Standing: The Middle East Journals of Tom Hurndall, which is published by Trolley Books this week. They are a mixture of reportage and citizen journalism of the most intense kind; a visual record of struggle and conflict left by someone who comes across as extraordinarily committed and fearless. As his writings show, though, Hurndall grappled with his fear every day. He travelled to Baghdad in 2003, one of a group of "human shields" who arrived just before the invasion by American and British troops, determined to protest the war in the most direct and dangerous way. In a series of articles emailed to Manchester Metropolitan University's student magazine, Pulp, he wrote honestly and without self-pity about his constant doubts and creeping fears. One sentence stands out: "When a man must lie to himself to do what he knows he should, that is when you know he is terrified."

It is hard to equate these words, this kind of self-knowledge, with the handsome, short-haired, unshaven young man who smiles out from the first photograph in the book, cigarette in hand. He looks like a student about to begin a gap year, having just landed in some faraway country where adventure awaits. Like the emails and articles that punctuate the book, the photographs grow in intensity as his journey becomes ever more difficult, ever more dangerous.

He took photographs inside a power station in Baghdad, on the streets of Amman, and in the Al-Rweished refugee camp just five kilometres from the Iraq border. He had an eye for light and shadow, for the snatched portrait, and for capturing a mood, whether joyful or sombre. By April 2003, he had arrived in Israel and, as the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk writes in his foreword, was heading "inexorably towards Gaza where he was confronted by the massive tragedy of the Palestinians".

In Jerusalem, on 3 April, he wrote of the death of Rachel Corrie, who had been crushed to death by an Israeli defence force bulldozer while acting as a human shield near the Rafah refugee camp. "I wonder how few or many people heard it on the news and just counted it as another death, just another number … "

In the final section of the book, Rafah, Gaza, 06-11 April 2003, there is a series of Hurndall's photographs from the frontline of the protests against the Israeli tanks and D-9 bulldozers demolishing Palestinian houses. They are both dramatic and oddly intimate, a view from the ground of dirt and destruction, chaos and violence as well as the strange sense of calm determination that comes from the civilians in bright orange jackets who line up before these massive and intimidating machines.

In his journal, Hurndall describes that day's events: "It was strange. As we approached, and the guns were firing, it sent shivers down my spine, but nothing more than that." The entry ends: "Any one of us could be watched through a sniper's sights at this moment. The certainty is that they are watching, and it is on the decision of any one Israeli soldier or settler that my life depends …"

The last picture that Hurndall took was a black-and-white shot of a street in Rafah at 1.30pm on 11 April 2003: a burnt-out car in the foreground, two children in the middle distance. The final picture in the book was taken by someone else. It shows him being carried unconscious by two local youths, both of whom are shouting for help. To the left, another youth is clutching his head in horror and despair. What looks like a camera bag is hanging from Hurndall's waist. Beneath it, the dusty street is stained with blood.

In the frantic few minutes before this picture was taken, according to a first-hand account by the local co-ordinator of the International Solidarity Movement, Hurndall had rescued a young boy "trapped under fire behind a sand mound". Having carried the boy to safety, he went back to the same spot to rescue a young girl and, "as he was attempting to carry her, he got hit in the forehead by an Israeli sniper bullet".

Hurndall's journals, as Fisk puts it, "show a remarkable man of remarkable principle". His photographs, too, are testament to the strength of his commitment to the cause of non-violent protest, and to his courage. He caught the world around him in all its uncertainty and, as it grew more dangerous and threatening, his eye grew keener. The images he produced became, by turns, more unflinching and reflective. They tell their own story of a brief life lived to the full.

Now see this

To celebrate the publication of a photobook called Lyrics of Love, the first solo show of the work of the great Lithuanian photographer, Algirdas Šeškus, runs at London's White Space Gallery from 1-10 March. The exhibition brings together some of his iconic images from the 1970s. His style is impressionistic and centres on the everyday in keeping with his idea that photography should remain true to its origins. Lyrics of Love is a break with his more recognisable work, and presents often-romantic glimpses of a country that is part-real, part a product of his rich, visual imagination. A long overdue acknowledgment of a photographic pioneer. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 29 2011

'Half man, half camera'

From Britpop and fashion in the 90s to prize-winning reportage, British photographer Giles Duley has had a remarkable career. Here he talks about the landmine that left him a triple amputee, the love that saved his life and the reality TV 'star' who finally tipped him – and his camera – over the edge

On 7 February this year, Giles Duley, an independent 39-year-old British photographer, was blown up by a landmine in Afghanistan. He became a triple amputee, losing his left arm and both legs. His life is a miracle – most soldiers with similar injuries do not survive. It is his suggestion that we meet at London's Charing Cross hospital, where he is recovering from an operation to ease ossification of muscle at the end of one of his leg stumps.

I am not used to combining interviewing with hospital visiting but it is obvious that this is typical Duley. He has stoicism and spark, wants to get on with things, is more than willing to answer questions from his hospital bed. And this is not the half of it. As soon as he is fit enough, he plans to return to Afghanistan to photograph the medical treatment of injured civilians in Kabul. He has it all worked out – even down to the tripod head (his innovation) that will attach to what remains of his left arm and on to which a camera can be affixed: "My friends love this idea of me as half man, half camera," he says and laughs – as if this metamorphosis had always been on the cards.

Our reason for meeting is, in part, Becoming the Story, a retrospective of his work. His pictures are tremendous. He has taken former Unita soldiers in Angola, acid-burn survivors in Bangladesh, a Nuer woman giving birth to a stillborn child (for which he won an award in the Prix de la Photographie, Paris in 2010).

I tell him his images would do nothing to calm the primitive anxiety that photographers steal souls: he has an ability to see through people. And yet what shines out of the work is, above all, his respect for the uniqueness of each human being. He does not see himself as a photojournalist. He is aiming for the "universal". Empathy is his gift. It should be me putting Duley at his ease – but it is the other way round. He looks alert and owlish in his specs but is easy, bright and talkative. His girlfriend, Jen, is at his bedside and we chat about the marathon she is running to raise money for him, then she heads off to the canteen, promising to be back soon.

Duley returns toAfghanistan as soon as she has gone – as he must repeatedly in his own mind; it is the story that has to be told in order to move on. He was with the 1st Squadron of the 75th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army, a "small unit from the midwest", and studying the "huge impact" of war on soldiers (some no more than 20 years old). His plan was also to photograph civilian bomb victims and the work of an Italian charity, Emergency. He was into his fourth week but not making much progress. It is his pattern to get frustrated and send friends despairing emails ("I'm a rubbish photographer… I don't know why I am here"). But he knows himself well enough by now to recognise this as a staging post: his pictures come gradually: Trust, he says, is key. Often, a project comes into focus only as it is ending.

They were in Sangsar, in rural Afghanistan, nicknamed "Heart of Darkness" by the Americans because it is where Mullah Omar, one of the founders of the Taliban, had his mosque. "Imagine the most basic of combat outposts with sandbags, mud, ramparts, no proper electricity, no running water. To go out on patrol, you went through a wire. You could be under fire within a hundred metres of the base." And they had been fired at, only the day before, from a small, abandoned compound.

On 7 February, the plan was to search that compound. What was it they were searching for? "It's a question that sums up the war. I don't think anyone knew – chasing shadows." Although, he adds, they were checking on a sniper to see where he had been shooting from.

The compound was a mud hut with a small wall around it. The patrol consisted of six Americans and six Afghani National Army soldiers. The Afghans were supposed to be taking charge but a disagreement had broken out about who was to do the searching. "The Afghans were refusing, saying the compound would be full of booby traps." For about 15 minutes, the soldiers had been standing about and walking across a "little bit of flat ground". It felt, therefore, like a safe spot. While the sergeants were chatting, Duley turned to talk to an American soldier. And, at once, he felt "a click in my right leg" – the pressure plate that set off the landmine. "It is pretty instantaneous from click to explosion. And yet everything seemed to go into slow motion. I was tossed by the blast but there was not much noise – just bright, white, hot light. I remember seeing myself from outside my body. Not a religious experience but intense heat and fire and the strangely calm sense of flying through the air."

He did not pass out: "You go to a place that is beyond pain. It is funny how it is almost more painful to fall over and scrape your knee than to be blown up. Your body goes into incredible protection mode." What he saw, after "landing with a thud" was beyond his comprehension. His left arm was ripped to shreds. "There were white bones where the fingers should have been, the skin was peeled back off the hand and smouldering. It was like a horror film. I was terrified I might be paralysed because I tried to sit up but could not move." He did a "stocktake" of his body. "I could see clearly, I had my right hand. I could think. And what I thought was, I can still work as a photographer." (The first thing he would later say to his sister was: "I am still a photographer" – he "needed that goal".)

A different sort of stocktaking ensued, as each soldier shouted his name to ascertain who had been hit. "And I was letting them know it was me." But nobody could come to Duley until they had checked for secondary devices. Minutes seemed to last an eternity: "You just want somebody there." When Sergeant Chris Metz, leading the patrol, reached him: "He was fantastic. He asked questions about American football and whether I had a girlfriend. He kept me grounded. I felt very light-headed. My initial thought was that I was going to bleed to death quite quickly."

People are said to review their lives in flashback when they think they are about to die. For Duley, it was a flash-forward. He remembers: "I thought about Jen and how I knew she was the person I had been looking for all my life. I remember thinking I wasn't ready to give up on that. I thought about kids and how much I wanted them and about work. I knew how much I wanted to carry on work. And I kept shouting at the top of my voice, 'I am not fucking dying in Afghanistan.'"

The tourniquets were the first things that really hurt. He remembers asking: "Am I dying?" And there was a moment of reckoning: "The stretcher wasn't fully unrolled, it was ending way too soon. I could see bits of clothing and flesh in the tree above me." He saw a soldier's face turn grey at the sight of him – that frightened him. The sergeant offered him a cigarette and, although he had given up years before, he took it. "There was a strange Marlboro man moment when they propped me up against this canvas thing and the guy fed me a cigarette. It was calming and enjoyable – normality in the total abnormality of the situation."

Duley remembers being lifted into the Black Hawk medevac helicopter and the pain of it. He describes the down draught from rotor blades blowing dust into his face and the heat and people all around. But his will to survive was absolute: "I remember thinking: that's the first stage done… I've made it to the helicopter."

He is still in touch with medics, Cole Reece and Mo Williams, who flew with him on the 20-minute flight to the Nato military hospital at Kandahar airfield. They were used to heavy fighting – if Williams looked "befuddled" on the flight, he explained in a recent email, it was because he was astonished: every other triple amputee they had tried to get back to Kandahar had died. "And you were chatting away, asking pertinent questions…" At the time, he told Duley: "You are a fucking hell of a fighter."

What Williams did not know then was how much Duley had to fight for. And this is the bit that – if it were made up by a scriptwriter – you'd dismiss as an unfeasible subplot. He tells me about Jen. He had known her for a couple of years – the friend of a friend. She had been interested in photography. They had become familiar through letters – were pen-pals, e-friends. It was not until they met, face to face, not long before he went to Afghanistan, that he fell in love: "My heart leapt – I was absolutely sure she was the person for me." They went on several dates before Christmas. And he wrote from Afghanistan: "I told her I was in love with her and absolutely sure and wanted us to be a couple." But here is the twist: he never saw her reply. "She wrote a letter to say she felt the same way. It arrived the day I got blown up."

Duley was at the Nato hospital for two days before being flown to Birmingham, where his brother, David, and sister, Sarah, put everything – families and careers – on hold to be with him. He had, right at the start, given out Jen's phone number and his brother dutifully rang her but "no one in the family knew who she was". Duley was in intensive care and worsening: he got a lung infection, his kidneys packed up and, on 26 February, the doctors summoned the family to his bedside because they thought he was not going to pull through. For two months, it was touch and go. Visitors were kept to a minimum. Jen wrote every day and his sister read her letters aloud.

"Just to hear that she loved me and that it didn't matter what happened, that it made no difference to her. I mean, the whole thing was a shock because I didn't even know she felt that way at all." And he stops, his voice breaks and he needlessly apologises. He tells me how he would ask his sister to reread the letters. He couldn't talk (because of a tracheotomy) but would "tap" emphatically.

His sister got the message in every sense: "Do you want Jen to come?" she asked. And, in mid-March, Jen did. Duley was "terrified" of how she might react to the sight of him. But from that moment on, Jen's steadfastness has sustained him. His family, too, he says, have kept him going: "It has brought us closer." And he clearly has many friends, who have reacted with relief on discovering that he has retained his "dark sense of humour", that he is the person he always was.

Then he tells me a bizarre fact: his career as a photographer started in a hospital bed. He grew up in East Coker, Sussex, the youngest of five children, the son of an engineer (his father is now in his 80s and has been "wonderful"). He was keen on athletics and American football and, at 17, had gone to the US, hoping to attend college there. But he was involved in a car crash that smashed his knees and his plans. He spent six months back in England, in hospital. ("My surgeon said I would need operations on my knees later on. I have proved him wrong. My right knee is completely cured.") During this time, his godfather died and left him his camera (an Olympus OM10) and Unreasonable Behaviour, the autobiography of war photographer Don McCullin. Duley was bowled over. He ordered every teach-yourself-photography book he could and read them in hospital. As soon as he was home, he set up a darkroom in his bedroom: "I was obsessed from the moment I took my first photograph. I wanted to make photography my career."

At that point, many of his school friends were in bands. Duley played an "uncool" violin and bassoon; his camera gave him "credibility". In a sense, it was his instrument: "Everyone in a band has a big ego – they love having pictures taken." He felt he was in a band himself. He studied at Bristol and Bournemouth, but it was on the strength of his portfolio of photos of friends that he found his first jobs in London. It was the early 1990s, at the birth of Britpop – "a brilliant time". And his career went from strength to strength.

It was not long before he was getting commissions from GQ, Esquire and Vogue. He remembers a shoot with Mariah Carey where he realised "the image is bigger than the person and what I was photographing was the image". He took pictures of Christian Bale for Disney, was paid a small fortune but felt uneasy about the "corporate" portraits he had taken. He had moved into a world of high gloss and laboured at it. He was getting work as a fashion photographer, telling himself he must aim to be the new Mario Testino. But success and disillusionment were, all the time, growing together. In 2002, there was a turning point. He was taking pictures of a Big Brother star in a Soho hotel when a sordid argument broke out about whether she had agreed to do a topless shot. "I remember thinking, how have I ended up here? This has nothing to do with my love of photography."

He completely lost his temper and threw his camera down on the hotel bed and – to his dismay – watched it bounce off the bed and out through the window into Charlotte Street. It was not just the end of his camera. It was, for a year, the end of his career. He moved to Hastings and became severely depressed: "I hardly left my house. I felt I had let myself down." Yet it was during this fallow year that he started to think about what he could do in the world. He had always been "moved by the news and by people's stories". And he began to think how photography could be a way to "record events for posterity".

It was the beginning of the idea behind the quarterly photographic journal he still plans to launch. Document will "tell unheard stories of those caught in conflict and economic hardship around the world and record their lives as a way to better our understanding".

Duley was not under any illusions. He knew this was no commercial initiative. He would have to fund himself. What he did was "quite radical". He put everything into storage and got a job as a carer, looking after someone with multiple sclerosis. He would work 24-hour shifts, seven days a week for six to eight weeks, continuously. He could not go out of the flat, so would see nobody else for that period. It was hard – he doesn't pretend it wasn't –but then he could go on photographic trips for four weeks.

In 2009, something extraordinary happened. He was photographing Bangladeshi refugees who had no access to medical support. Dying people were lining up in front of him, as if expecting him to cure them. In consternation, he took the village elder aside: "These people have to understand I am not a doctor. I can't help them." The village elder replied that they knew he was a photographer: "But it is important to them that people see what is happening to us."

It was a moment of validation and public recognition followed. In 2010, Duley was nominated for an Amnesty International media award: "Most of the photographers had ITN or BBC or Al-Jazeera after their names. I was the only person with just my name. I had done it from my bedroom, funded everything, commissioned myself."

I have kept the difficult question until last: why go back to Afghanistan? "Because the story I was working on is unfinished business. Because going back may be a way of making sense of what happened. And because it is nice to think that, just maybe, some kid who had had his legs blown off might look at me, see me back at work and be inspired."

His hope is that his plight may also put an end to his moral ambivalence – his guilt – at photographing, for whatever reason, other people's suffering. "Now I am going to feel much more comfortable," he smiles. "I'll be able to say, well, look what happened to me… we can have a laugh about it."

Duley is also a realist, however. He admits he is "terrified". He insists he is a coward. I can think of no better definition of courage than returning to Afghanistan in spite of being afraid. But in the end, he explains, it is all about independence: "I want my life back. I want to be where I was a year ago. I am desperate to take photographs again." Sometimes, he catches himself in a full-length mirror and can be reduced to tears. He has phantom pains from missing limbs and he worries about being "defined by my injuries".

He is not going to let any of this stop him. He has already achieved many "small victories" at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey. He can sit up (weeks of physiotherapy, because you don't have the counterbalance of feet and legs); he can roll himself into a wheelchair unaided (a formidable feat) and he has taken his first steps on prosthetic legs (Herculean strength required). What's more, he has always felt: "If you believe you can do something, you can make it happen." As I say goodbye, I tell him I know he will make it happen, that he is already working on it. On the way out, I glimpse Jen waiting to go up. "What an amazing man," I call out and catch her reply as she disappears into the lift: "Isn't he just?" © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 05 2011

July 06 2011

War photography? Isn't there an app for that?

Two war photographers have used camera-phones and a simple app to record stunningly personal images of soldiers and locals in Afghanistan

Hipstamatic, as its name suggests, is an iPhone app more associated with dilettantish hipsters than hardened war photographers. But the application, which allows iPhone users to take digital "Polaroids", has become the camera of choice for two experienced photojournalists who spent much of the last year embedded with a battalion of the US marines in Afghanistan.

"We didn't go out there expecting to use Hipstamatic," says one of them, New York-based Teru Kuwayama, who first photographed Afghanistan – somewhat more conventionally – in 2004. "We had several different cameras, lenses and video recorders," he says. But the pair settled on Hipstamatic both because of its retro aesthetic and because the iPhone "was the ideal, rugged piece of gear for southern Afghanistan". With its simple touch-screen, it didn't trap dust like larger cameras do, which was particularly handy in a desert location.

"Before, I would have three cameras hanging off me," agrees his colleague, Hungarian Balazs Gardi, who was also on his second Afghan mission. "Using just the iPhone allowed me to move much more easily." The lack of a long lens also helped, Gardi says, because it forced him to get closer to his subjects. As a result, he and Kuwayama have created an unusually intimate series of portraits of both Afghan civilians, and US servicemen.

Kuwayama and Gardi were part of a new journalistic endeavour, known as Basetrack, that aims to bypass mainstream media and provide a personal news source for the friends and family of serving marines. Aided by a small network of writers, the photographers self-published articles and photos through their Facebook page, Twitter feed, and WordPress website. "The iPhone is this ubiquitous thing that everyone has got in their pocket," says Kuwayama. "It fitted with our idea of demystifying journalism."

Would the pair use the iPhone again? "Not as a phone – it never even had a sim card," says Gardi. "But I've used it as my prime camera ever since." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 17 2011

The shot that nearly killed me

Attacked by a Haitian mob, kidnapped by Gaddafi's troops, shot in Afghanistan… Who'd be a war photographer?

In pictures: the life of a war photographer (contains some graphic images)

Adam Ferguson, Afghanistan, 2009

I was one of the first on the scene. The Afghan security forces normally shut down a suicide bombing like this pretty quickly. I was able to get to the epicentre of the explosion. It was carnage, there were bodies, flames were coming out of the buildings. I remember feeling very scared because there was still popping and hissing and small explosions, and the building was collapsing. It was still very fresh and there was a risk of another bomb. It was one of those situations where you have to put fear aside and focus on the job at hand: to watch the situation and document it.

This woman was escorted out of the building and round this devastated street corner. It epitomised the whole mood – this older woman caught in the middle of this ridiculous, tragic event. I wish I could have found out how her life unravelled, but as soon as the scene was locked down, I ran back to the office to file.

As a photographer, you feel helpless. Around you are medics, security personnel, people doing good work. It can be agonisingly painful to think that all you're doing is taking pictures.

When I won a World Press award for this photograph, I felt sad. People were congratulating me and there was a celebration over this intense tragedy that I had captured. I reconciled it by deciding that more people see a story when a photographer's work is decorated.

Alvaro Ybarra Zavala, Congo, November 2008

The situation was very tense – people were drunk and aggressive. I was with two other photographers most of the time, but at this moment I went back to the road alone. I saw three soldiers smoking, playing with their guns, and felt safe – I don't know why. Then I saw a man with a knife in his mouth, coming out of the bush – he was holding up a hand like a trophy. The soldiers started laughing and firing in the air. I didn't think about it and began shooting. He walked directly at me. People surrounded us, celebrating. I thought, "Don't do anything crazy, just act like you're part of this crazy party."

When I got to the hotel, I showed the other photographers. They said, "Do you realise you could have been killed?" Only then did it hit me how dangerous it had been. Years after I took this picture, every time I see it I feel scared again.

I really hate this shot. It's the worst face of humankind. I always ask myself, "Why do I do this job?' And the answer is: I want to show the best and worst face of humankind. Every time you go to a conflict, you see the worst. We need to see what we do to be able to show future generations the mistakes we make. The guy with the knife in his mouth is a human being like the rest of us. What's important is that we show what human beings are capable of. The day I don't do that with my photography is the day I'll give up and open a restaurant.

Lynsey Addario, Libya, March 2011

I had been in Libya for just over two weeks, shooting the insurgency. Pictures like this, of inexperienced rebels being fired on by machine guns and mortars. On 15 March, myself and three other journalists were captured by Gaddafi's troops. They made us lie in the dirt, put guns to us. We were pleading for our lives. They started groping me very aggressively, touching my breasts and butt. Then we were tied up, blindfolded and moved from place to place for six days.

The first three days were very violent – I was punched in the face several times, groped nonstop. At that point, it was hard to justify why I put myself in that situation. When our captors left us alone, we spoke about what we'd do if we got out. I said I'd probably have to get pregnant because I've put my husband through a lot – I was kidnapped in Fallujah in 2004, and I was in a car that flipped just months before our wedding. Some of us contemplated whether we wanted to continue covering conflicts; whether it was worth the hardships we put our families through.

When we got out, I felt surprisingly OK. We'd survived – when you survive, this job is always worth the risk. Then a few weeks later Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in Misrata, which sent me into a tailspin. This job takes a lot of skill, but a lot of it is luck. When friends die, you wonder if it's worth the price.

João Silva, Afghanistan, October 2010

I'd been in Afghanistan for a month when I stepped on the landmine. I was the third man in line, and as I put my foot down, I heard a metallic click and I was thrown in the air. I knew exactly what had happened. As the soldiers dragged me away from the kill zone, I took these pictures. When people around me have been hurt or killed, I've recorded it. I had to keep working. The soldiers were yelling for the medics. I knew my legs had gone, so I called my wife on the satellite phone and told her not to worry. The pain came later, back in intensive care, when infections set in and they nearly lost me a couple of times.

I've spent enough time out there for my number to come up. I was one of the few who kept going back to Iraq. People think you do this to chase adrenaline. The reality is hard work and a lot of time alone. Firefights can be exciting, I'm not going to lie, but photographing the aftermath of a bomb, when there's a dead child and the mother wailing over the corpse, isn't fun. I'm intruding on the most intimate moments, but I force myself to do it because the world has to see those images. Politicians need to know what it looks like when you send young boys to war. If it's humanly possible, if the prosthetics allow me, I'll go back to conflict zones. I wish I was in Libya at the moment, without a shadow of a doubt.

Tom Stoddart, Sarajevo, 1992

I'm not really interested in military bang-bang pictures; I'm interested in documenting people living through war. Sniper Alley, where this was taken, paralysed Sarajevo. To get from one side to the other, the residents had to pass through this intersection and Serbian snipers would take shots at them. Bullets pinged past the entire time. Some people would sprint as fast as they could; others would brazenly walk, as if they were giving two fingers. Many were killed. Anyone who says they aren't frightened during war is either lying or a fool. It's about finding a way of dealing with the fear – you have to be very calm. You're not there to get your rocks off; you're there because you feel your pictures can make a difference. Sarajevo was the most dangerous place I have worked on a long-term basis. But I could leave. The occupants of Sarajevo couldn't. That was one of the strange things about covering it – it was so close to London. You could be back at Heathrow in a couple of hours. People would pass carrying skis, or off to the Caribbean, and you'd feel like screaming, "Why don't you understand?" You become a terrible dinner guest.

Greg Marinovich, Soweto, 1990

I was deep in Soweto when I saw a man being attacked by ANC combatants. The month before, I'd seen a guy beaten to death – my first experience of real violence – and hadn't shaken the feeling of guilt that I had done nothing to stop it. "No pictures," someone yelled. I told them I'd stop shooting if they stopped killing him. They didn't. As the man was set on fire, he began to run. I was framing my next shot when a bare-chested man came into view and swung a machete into his blazing skull. I tried not to smell the burning flesh and shot a few more pictures, but I was losing it and aware that the crowd could turn on me at any time. The victim was moaning in a low, dreadful voice as I left. I got in my car and, once I turned the corner, began to scream. You're not just a journalist or a human being, you're a mixture of both, and to try to separate the two is complicated. I've often felt guilty about my pictures. I worked in South Africa for years and was shot three times. The fourth and final injury, in Afghanistan in 1999, wasn't the worst, but I decided enough was enough. I was looking to settle. Nineteen months later, I met my wife.

Gary Knight, Iraq, April 2003

This was at the start of the invasion. We were at the Diyala Bridge, which had to be taken by the marines so they could get into Baghdad. They were the lead battalion, the ones who went on to pull down the statue of Saddam. The opposition were shelling us. It was terrifying – both the actual shelling, and the anticipation of it. It comes in waves so you can see it moving in your direction. One had exploded in the tank. If it had landed on top or a couple of feet over, I would have died. Your instinct is to bury yourself, but you can't. You're there to do a job. The point is to get the news out. If you keep moving, you can manage the fear. And my stress is nothing compared with civilians and soldiers. I remind myself of that all the time. I don't have to be there – they don't have the choice.

My wife and children were very much on my mind because the danger was so extreme. You cannot separate the rest of your life and I've tried not to control how much I think about them. Sometimes they have been constantly in my head, sometimes I have not thought about them at all.

Shaul Schwarz, Haiti, February 2004

Port au Prince was falling. It was riotous, with widespread looting. A group of us had gone to the port. The thugs with guns didn't want us there. We snapped from the waist, trying not to make it obvious. We decided to go over the wall. One thug offered me "protection". As we jumped the wall, I saw this boy, and was like, "This is what it's come to." It was my first digital assignment and I was amazed to be able to look at my shots. I did for a second; when I looked up, everyone had run off. It was just me and the thug. It was like a dog that smells fear. He began pushing and threatening me. Then I was surrounded. One of them hit me. I had a few dollar bills in my trousers, and put my hand there. They began tearing at me, fighting over the bills. I waited 30 seconds, started to walk away, then ran and scaled the fence. On the other side, I tried to breathe.

I began shooting one guy a metre away. He screamed and pulled a shotgun. I saw the barrel, then he shot the man next to me – I had blood on me, brains. I was crying, shaking. I ran to the car horrified; I was a mess. I love Haiti, but every time I pass the port, I carry some of that fear.

Eric Bouvet, Chechnya, May 1995

It was unbearable. Two crazy weeks and the most unbelievable story I ever did. I was with a Russian special commando. They were torturing, killing and raping. I saw them do it, and I couldn't stop them. Someone of a normal constitution can't accept that. I was working on the edge.

This is the morning after a night that left four men dead and 10 wounded. It was heavy fighting, and I was very afraid. I discovered a dead Chechen four metres from me when I got up in the night. You see movies, you read books, you can imagine anything. But when you are in front of something, it's not like the movies. We started out as 60 and came back 30 – one in two people injured or killed. I was lucky.

As soon as it was light, I took pictures. This is the first thing I saw. The guy with the bandage on his head has lost his friends. He has fought all night long. I don't feel pity, but at the same time they took me with them and did everything to protect me. Without them, I couldn't have done the story. I was the only witness. It's very complicated.

Mads Nissen, Libya, February 2011

I got into Ajdabiya shortly after its fall. The rebels had just moved in and the locals were going crazy, shooting in the air. Bodies of pro-Gaddafi soldiers were lying around, beginning to stink as the sun got higher. The fire from the tank was incredibly strong and I was worried it might explode at any moment. Suddenly this guy jumped on to it. I'm not that interested in pictures of tanks burning – I'm interested in people. I had wanted to capture the sense of release that everyone had and suddenly this became the shot. I got as close as possible, within metres, and started shooting, counting to five in my head. Then I got out. I had seen corpses, torn apart, in the morgue and didn't want to end up like that. I took a chance – I had to; that was why I was there, to tell the story – but I made sure I wasn't too greedy.

Adam Dean, Pakistan, December 2007

I was very much a novice when I took this. I'd just finished a master's in photojournalism and thought I'd go to Pakistan to cover the elections. An attempt had been made on Bhutto's life two months earlier, so there was already a certain degree of risk.

I was about 15 metres away, photographing Bhutto, when there was a burst of gunfire followed by an explosion. I had a split-second decision to risk a secondary blast (as had happened in October) or start running with the crowd. I was panicking, trying to fight the urge to leave. I'd never seen a dead body before. It was almost like a test, to see if I had what I needed for this job.

As I approached the aftermath of the bomb, I struggled to compose myself. I was terrified and sickened, but kept telling myself just to concentrate and get it done so I could leave. I knew I had to frame the pictures so they weren't too graphic. The epicentre of the explosion was a pile of maybe a dozen limbless, charred, mangled bodies in pools of blood. This was one of the times I was most in danger, but there have been times in Afghanistan where I have felt more scared. This was over in seconds, but a firefight can go on for hours. The real worry is IUDs, though – when you go on patrol, every step could be your last. I'm 33 and I'm not sure I'd want to put myself in such risky situations when I'm older and perhaps have other people to consider.

John D McHugh, Afghanistan, May 2007

This is the last picture I took before I got shot. I'd been embedded with US troops in Nuristan for five weeks when we went to help a unit that had been ambushed nearby. There were bodies on the road, dead and dying. Taliban started shooting down on us from the mountains. I jumped behind a rock. I could hear bullets hitting it, and thought, "Oh fuck, oh fuck."

We ran behind a Humvee, but now we were being fired on from both sides. By that point I'd accepted that I was going to get shot. There were so many bullets in the air, it sounded like a swarm of bees. They had us pinned down and a sniper was picking people off one by one.

The bullet went through my ribs and out of my lower back. It felt as if I'd been punched. I fell to my knees, but managed to get behind another rock. The entry wound was the size of a penny; the exit bigger than the palm of my hand. The pain was overwhelming. I was convinced I was going to die and felt angry with myself. Then I started worrying that I might live but end up paralysed. Maybe I was better off dead? My mind refocused and I thought, "No, fuck that!"

It was 25 minutes before anybody could get to me. My cameras were on the ground, and as they grabbed me I had to lean down and pick them up. When we got to the local base, a medic said, "Hell, I can see right through you." As soon as I knew that I'd recover, I told my girlfriend I was going to go back out. The work I do is important and also, if I hadn't, it would mean I'd never really understood the risks in the first place.

I love my job but getting shot made me think about life beyond work. I proposed to my girlfriend two months later, and we had a baby last year.

Marco di Lauro, Iraq, November 2004

This photograph was the most dangerous moment in my career. I was with two marines trying to get into this house. The first marine knocked down the door and the guy that you see in the image threw a grenade at him – the dust is from the explosion. Being behind the wall at the side of the front door saved me.The second marine entered the room and shot the Iraqi dead. I was the third person in the room and I took this picture.

I started when I was 28. I'm 40 now, and a lot has changed in the risks I'm prepared to take. When you're younger, you're immortal. Three days into my first assignment, I was photographing between two lines of people shooting at each other in Kosovo. I'm more scared now, more aware of the risks. I've lost a lot of friends and colleagues – two of them very recently. I'll keep doing the job I do but I'll be more careful.

John Stanmeyer, East Timor, August 1999

There were numerous firefights going on between the pro-Timorese Aitarak and the Indonesian militia, so I just ran. A bullet went right by my ear, moving my hair. It was fate that my head was tilted to the right, otherwise I wouldn't be here today.

Within minutes of nearly being killed, I came across pro-East Timorese independence supporter Joaquim Bernardino Guterres. The military turned their guns on him, and as he started to run they grabbed him and kicked him. Moments later he was lying in a 20ft stream of blood. The military were very unhappy with the pictures afterwards.

I don't think about the risk to myself, as I probably should. While I was out in Afghanistan, my wife had a miscarriage and she equated it to my being away. That was pretty dreadful, but she's a writer and understands why I do this. We've been to Sudan together, we've been ambushed, we've been in lots of nutty situations.

Ashley Gilbertson, Iraq, 2004

It was one of the most intense experiences I've ever had. I was with a lead unit of marines, and we received a triple ambush from the insurgents. I'd just run across a street with 40 marines to take shelter in an Islamic cultural centre, with bullets whizzing past my face. I thought, if I'm going to die right now, I might as well be working. I was in so much shock. It was a wake-up call to how violent it was going to be.

The guy in the photo is shouting, "Don't take my fucking picture!" Sometimes, you look at images of war, and they're like a Hollywood producer's vision of what war is supposed to look like. There are very few pictures where you get a feel for how fucking awful it is, how desperate and urgent. I like that it's not a clean picture, that it's not well composed and you can't see everything that's happening. That's part of it. It's so messy. It's the closest I've come to capturing the chaos of combat.

Ron Haviv, Bosnia, 1992

These are the Serbian warlord Arkan's men. They've just executed these Muslim civilians – a butcher, his wife and sister-in-law; the start of what became known as ethnic cleansing.

I had taken a photograph of Arkan with a baby tiger, which he'd liked, and he'd agreed for me to travel with his troops to photograph his "mission". The soliders were yelling at me not to shoot, but I'd promised myself I'd come out of this with an image to prove what was happening.

I was shaking when I took this shot. None of them was looking at me so I lifted my camera, just trying to get them in frame. When I put it down, they looked over. They didn't realise I'd taken photos.

Later, Arkan caught me photographing another execution and said he'd process my film and keep the ones he didn't like. I'd hidden the film from earlier in the day in my pocket and figured that if I fought hard enough for the film in my camera, he wouldn't search me.

When the pictures were published not long after, Arkan said in an interview, "I look forward to the day I can drink his blood." He put me on a death list, and I spent the next eight years trying to avoid him. Eventually, these images were used to indict him at The Hague.

Julie Jacobson, Afghanistan, August 2009

We were hiding from Taliban gunfire, when there was this explosion. Afterwards, I saw [Lance Corporal Joshua M] Bernard – one of his legs was blown off and the other was barely there. He'd suffered a direct hit from an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]. The media ground rule was that you couldn't photograph a military casualty in a way that they could be identified, but I could see Bernard's hand reach out to his weapon, his face turned to me. So I shot nine frames over two and a half minutes.

Making that decision was a public act. I got a lot of flak. Bernard later died, and people said that I didn't give him dignity, that I should have helped him. But I couldn't help him. For me to turn my back, that's disrespectful.

Ami Vitale, Gaza, October 2000

I was photographing a funeral, and having spent most of the day with the women, I went to see the body being taken in. A man in the procession started screaming, "CIA agent" and pointing at me. I was surrounded by hundreds of angry men, screaming in my face, grabbing me. I was terrified, and thought, "This is it. I am going to die." Suddenly I understood a mob. There's no thinking, just passion.

A woman I'd spent the day with managed to pull me away. When I got home, I sat and cried and cried – she had saved my life. I stayed on in Palestine, but was much more cautious after that; have been ever since. That moment changed my perspective. No picture is worth it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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

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

Tim Hetherington obituary

An outstanding photojournalist and film-maker, he defined a generation of reportage

The photographer and film-maker Tim Hetherington, who has been killed at the age of 40 while covering the escalating violence in Misrata, Libya, was a leading light of his profession. The canon of work he bequeaths defines a generation of reportage.

His eye and ability for capturing on film some of the most disturbing events of the past decade was as relentless as it was unsurpassed. With a great sense of self-deprecation and humanity, Hetherington was driven repeatedly to explore the ragged, violent margins of society to bring back portraits of people profoundly affected by conflict.

Never an end in itself, for Hetherington the purpose of working in war was to understand better the lives of the civilians and soldiers caught up in it. Fundamentally a humanitarian, he worked not only for news organisations and magazines, but for human rights organisations, and undertook extensive projects for the US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

In Misrata he wanted to record the plight of civilians. He died with them: an explosion on the town's mortally dangerous Tripoli highway – the frontline in the battle between forces loyal to the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels trying to unseat him – killed him and his friend, the US photographer Chris Hondros. At least eight other civilians were killed in fighting that day, a fact Hetherington would have been at pains to ensure was not forgotten.

Careful not to be pigeonholed as a photographer or a film-maker, Hetherington worked across different, mixed visual media. His interest lay in creating diverse forms of visual communication and his work ranged from multi-screen installations, to fly-poster exhibitions, to handheld device downloads. Known for his long-term documentary work, Tim lived and worked in west Africa for eight years, reporting on social and political issues worldwide.

As a film-maker, he worked as both a cameraman and as a director and producer. Liberia: An Uncivil War (2004), the first documentary he worked on – as an assistant producer and cameraman – was also his first experience of filming warfare. Surviving repeated firefights and close-quarter combat, Hetherington captured iconic images of the Liberian rebels fighting to overthrow then-President Charles Taylor. When a rebel commander threatened to execute a doctor tending to injured rebel soldiers, suspecting him of espionage, Hetherington put himself in front of the condemned man and pleaded for his life, physically grabbing the pistol from the incensed commander. On that occasion humanity prevailed, and the doctor's life was saved.

An assistant producer and cameraman on the BBC's Violent Coast series (2004), about west Africa, cameraman on The Devil Came On Horseback (2007), about attacks across the border with Chad by Sudanese militia, and a producer/director on Channel 4's Unreported World – Nigeria: Fire in the Delta (2006), he made his debut as director of a documentary feature film with Restrepo (2010) – a cinematic release made with his fellow director Sebastian Junger about a platoon of forward-deployed US soldiers over the course of a year in Afghanistan's isolated Korengal Valley.

At times almost constantly in combat, and deeply affected by his time in Afghanistan, Hetherington said of his experience there: "When I'm filming, I'm very focused … You don't really have time to start examining your emotions when you're in the middle of this kind of situation. You kind of push them to a deeper place in your mind and examine them later. But war is traumatic. I've seen a lot of traumatic things happen in the Korengal Valley when we were there … I was with people who got killed and that was a very sad and upsetting thing to go through."

Awarded the Rory Peck award for features (2008) and the grand jury prize at the 2010 Sundance film festival, Restrepo was subsequently nominated for an Academy award. The film gave an unprecedented insight into the lives of US soldiers fighting and dying on that war's least reported frontline. Originally conceived as a short news piece for ABC News Nightline, it ultimately served, perhaps more than any other film from Afghanistan, to create an enduring connection between the US public and the experience of the US soldier. His most recent film, Diary, is a highly personal experimental short currently playing at film festivals.

Born in Liverpool, into what he described as a "normal, working-class family", Hetherington moved around the country, attending both state and private schools – including Stonyhurst college, a Catholic boarding school run on Jesuit principles, near Clitheroe, in Lancashire, before going to Oxford. He graduated from Lady Margaret Hall in classics and English in 1992, broke. But then, in a final gift to her grandson and, inadvertently to the wider world, Hetherington's grandmother left him £5,000 in her will with which to escape Britain's economic recession and travel for two years in India, China and Tibet, feeding his curiosity for the lives of others in unfamiliar circumstances. Particularly impressed by Mount Kailash, the Himalayan peak in Tibet that has religious significance for several faiths, he went on to Dharamsala, in northern India, where he met the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan exiles. Though brought up as a Catholic, Hetherington developed a Buddhist sensibility: his friend Piers Dunn recalls that, without any specific sense of mission, he took a thoughtful, considered view of everything he saw.

Of his desire to become a photographer, Hetherington wrote: "I had the epiphany when I came back [from India] and realised I wanted to make images. I then worked for three to four years, going to night school in photography before eventually going back to college." Returning to full-time education under his own steam when he was 26 to study photojournalism at Cardiff (1996-97) paid off: he found immediate employment as a staff photographer with the Big Issue, the magazine produced for sale by London's homeless. Its editor Becky Gardiner was soon impressed by the way he captured a church service for blind-deaf people, conducted by signing into each other's hands.

The Snapshot page of the magazine showcased street-based photography: Hetherington and his colleague Lena Corner wandered round London, stopping people to ask them for their photo – for which Hetherington showed real flair. Corner recalls him talking endlessly about "imagery, technology and how he had managed to rig up some sort of screen or other contraption in his flat, in his eternal search for new ways to present his pictures. He was really ahead of his time. Back then, he recognised the power of the moving image as well as the still. I remember him telling me he simply couldn't understand photographers who didn't want to capture the things they were witness to without a movie camera as well." From the Big Issue he moved to the Independent as a regular freelance photographer.

Soon a member of the photographic agency Network, he joined a small, dedicated, group of photojournalists often reporting on the world's trouble spots. In 1999 he went to Liberia – his first assignment in Africa. By 2002, he had also worked in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali and Sierra Leone – developing a project about young men and political conflict in west Africa. Awards followed – including World Press photo of the year 2007 for his portrait of an exhausted US soldier in Korengal while working on assignment for Vanity Fair.

His project Healing Sport was published as part of the group project Tales from a Globalizing World (2003). Long Story Bit By Bit: Liberia Retold (2009) narrates recent history by drawing on images and interviews made over a five-year period. Infidel (2010), about a group of US soldiers in Afghanistan, continued his career-long examination of young men and conflict.

His work with the Milton Margai school for the blind in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was very important to him, and he was fascinated by the possibilities of braille photos. He was also a member of the UN panel of experts on Liberia.

Hetherington had recently moved to Brooklyn, New York. He is survived by his partner, Idil Ibrahim; his siblings, Guy and Victoria; and his parents, Alistair and Judith. The troubled corners of the world into which he shed the light of his lens are brighter because of him; the work he leaves is a candle by which those who choose to look, might see.

• Timothy Alistair Hetherington, photographer and film-maker, born 5 December 1970; died 20 April 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Tim Hetherington: a brilliant journalist and a courageous, radical film-maker

In Restrepo and in his photography, Tim Hetherington put himself in harm's way to help convey the realities of a warzone

The question of the exact cause, and exact number, of non-combatant casualties in Libya has been put into sharp focus. One of the latest civilian victims is the award-winning photojournalist and Oscar-nominated film-maker Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Misrata just after tweeting that the attacks on the city were coming from Muammar Gaddafi and not Nato.

With Sebastian Junger he created the extraordinarily powerful documentary Restrepo, about a US platoon's mission to build and defend a forward outpost in the terrifyingly dangerous Korengal valley in Afghanistan. The outpost was named after an army medic, Juan Restrepo – killed on the first day of their tour of duty.

Hetherington and Junger show how this naming was an act of defiance as well as remembrance – a way in which a bunch of very scared young men could impose their identities on an alien, hostile landscape. It was also a way of containing and controlling their fear of death.

Hetherington's own terrible fate shows that the fear and danger with which his film was saturated was not a Hollywood device or a journalist's macho rhetoric. They were actually present.

Hetherington began his career as a stills photographer – though he and Junger appear genuinely to have shared the filming and directing responsibilities on Restrepo. It was an inspired collaboration, but Junger must surely have relied greatly on Hetherington's razor-sharp visual sense. The images in Restrepo are viscerally powerful. There's an incredible moment when the film, having shown us these soldiers getting aboard a helicopter, switches to their point-of-view as they look down into the valley from hundreds of metres above. It is a moment of pure vertigo: you can feel your heart plunge into your boots.

When these men were under fire, Hetherington was under fire, too, and arguably in more danger: he was armed only with a camera. But perhaps the film's most extraordinary scene was one that was (ostensibly) calm. One of the soldiers is being interviewed afterwards about his experiences. Mid-sentence, he stops; he can't carry on. It is not simply that he is emotional – he is in the middle of a flashback, actually caught on camera remembering horrifying events he had clearly suppressed until that moment.

To understand the realities of a warzone, to transmit those realities back to us, Hetherington put himself in harm's way: a brilliant journalist and a courageous, radical film-maker. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Tim Hetherington: one of the finest photojournalists on the planet

Always at the heart of a story, even when made to photograph celebrities, this bold film-maker was a truly generous spirit

Tim Hetherington arrived at the Big Issue in the late 1990s, fresh out of college and landing in an editorial office that often felt like a dysfunctional college campus itself. We were a small crew – young and green and making the job up as we went along. If Tim thought he was joining the ranks of some idealistic guerrilla army (and I think, initially, that is exactly what he thought), he was too good natured – too abidingly generous of spirit – to let his disappointment show.

He was our staff reporter, rolling into the office with his big voice booming and his camera bags clattering. He had been living in squats and sported clotted dreadlocks and comfort clothes (sweatshirts, tracky bottoms) that he wore until they literally rotted off his body. Some of my colleagues were dismayed by this. "He sat opposite me on the tube," one reported in a scandalised whisper. "Legs apart, trousers all torn at the crotch. And he wasn't wearing any pants!"

Tim's pictures were extraordinary: rigorous, alive and shot on the fly. We sent him to snap homeless shelters and demonstrations, dockers' strikes and boxing gyms. Sometimes we would send him to photograph celebrities, too – an indignity he weathered with pained good humour. He couldn't quite see the point of it. Why photograph celebrities when there were so many proper stories playing out right now, under our very noses?

Tim Hetherington finally moved on from the Big Issue. He cut his dreads and bought a suit. He went to war zones, outraged then Liberian president Charles Taylor and found himself recognised as one of the finest photojournalists on the planet. But when I last saw him, in October, he was reassuringly just the same. His intense professionalism always went hand-in-hand with a childlike wonder at a world that never ceased to spark his interest.

It is perhaps the fate of all great photographers that they will eventually cross the camera line and start being photographed themselves. Prior to that last, gut-wrenching image that reared up on BBC News last night, the final photo I saw of Tim was taken at the annual Oscar nominees' lunch in February. Tim had been shortlisted for his devastating war documentary Restrepo, and this involved him rubbing shoulders with 150-odd Hollywood stars and industry players. Having once had to suffer photographing film celebrities, he had somehow conspired to become one himself.

The nominees had been arranged in rows and gathered around an oversized Oscar statue. Helena Bonham Carter sat far out on the wings. Colin Firth and Mark Ruffalo perched up in the gods. And there, bang in the centre, right by the statue stood our old staff photographer – a winner before the envelope was opened. It was a position that seemed to reflect how Hetherington lived his life: in the thick of things, at the heart of the matter, honouring the Robert Capa dictum that "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough". He was never one to sit out on the sidelines. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Tim Hetherington – a retrospective in pictures

British photojournalist and documentary maker Tim Hetherington has been killed in Misrata, Libya. The Oscar-nominee won numerous awards for his coverage of conflict zones around the world

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

Tim Hetherington remembered

David Batty recalls studying and working alongside the British photographer, who has died in Libya

I first met Tim while doing a postgrad in journalism at Cardiff University. He was the star student on the photojournalism course – everyone on the print courses wanted to work with him as he fast gained a reputation as a creative photographer with a knack of getting access to interesting people and situations. Back then he was a gangly but striking figure with thick dreads, who always seemed to have a roll–up to hand.

We later worked together on a series of articles on Gulf War Syndrome at the Big Issue in London, where he was their first trainee photojournalist and I was a reporter. I remember trawling the streets and hostels near Waterloo – where cardboard city used to be – with him, tracking down a veteran who claimed to have information of an MoD cover up. The guy clearly suffered from post-traumatic stress but Tim's frank but calm manner soon put him at ease, and we got a great colour feature.

That mix of charm and compassion was a great attribute in a job where you were often dealing with vulnerable, distressed, if not traumatised, individuals: young runaways, victims of abuse, the mentally ill and addicts. Whenever he accompanied you on a story there was little need to persuade interviewees to open up - people just dropped their guard.

I lost touch with Tim when he subsequently moved to CNN and I went to the BBC. But I always took an interest in his success, which came as no surprise.

David Batty © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 23 2011

The Book of Destruction

Mosaic Rooms, London

When The Book of Destruction, Kai Wiedenhöfer's exhibition of photographs documenting the consequences of Israel's war against Gaza, opened at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris late last year, two men wearing ski masks and motorcycle helmets tried to storm the building to damage the exhibits. An umbrella group of Jewish organisations in France accused him of "virulently anti-Israel views". Others on the internet charged him with "fanning the flames of antisemitism".

The award-winning Wiedenhöfer, whose exhibition moves to London this week, is not unaccustomed to such charges and finds them ridiculous. They first emerged in 2005 during discussions with Berlin's municipal authorities for a project – which never saw the light of day – involving affixing giant prints of Israel's West Bank separation wall on to what remains of the Berlin Wall. During talks, a local politician informed him that the panoramic images in his book, Wall, which were to be used for the project, were "antisemitic photography".

"I asked him to define antisemitic photography," says Wiedenhöfer. "He replied that I had pictures in the book that showed Israeli soldiers being violent against Palestinians."

Sitting in his bare Berlin apartment, Wiedenhöfer is suddenly animated and goes to fetch a copy from his bookshelf. "I know every picture in this book. There is not a single image of an Israeli laying a thumb on a Palestinian. So I said, 'Show me!'" Wiedenhöfer flicks through the pages. "This is the only image of violence in the whole book – it's an Israeli soldier removing Israeli peace protesters."

Wiedenhöfer's pictures are controversial because his three books – Perfect Peace, detailing Palestinian life between the two intifadas, Wall and now The Book of Destruction – focus almost exclusively on the Palestinian experience. Self-employed and funded often by grants, he is free from the requirement of television and print media to tell both sides of the story with equal weight, instead photographing what interests him, which has rankled deeply with some of Israel's supporters.

Here, I believe, a disclosure is in order. I have known Wiedenhöfer, who was born in 1966 in a village near Stuttgart, for almost a decade. We first met and travelled together when covering Israel's 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, dodging tanks in Bethlehem. Wiedenhöfer borrowed the title for his current exhibition from an article written by myself and my Observer colleague, photographer Antonio Olmos, about a list we came across of all of Gaza's damaged buildings, a document we called "the book of destruction".

Wiedenhöfer's dedication, even in a profession that requires such discipline, is extraordinary. I recall running into him in Jerusalem almost five years ago when he was working on Wall. He was staying in a filthy, cell-like single-room dwelling owned by a monk, scattered with crucifixes and empty whisky bottles (the monk's, not the teetotal Wiedenhöfer's) because it meant he could come and go as he pleased and he wanted to capture the morning light. He took me on one of his early-morning outings, wandering beneath watchtowers full of armed soldiers to study how the light fell on concrete at different times, scrambling up ridges to find new viewpoints of the concrete barrier snaking among the hills and observe the pattern of daily life flowing around it.

If Wall was about separation, Wiedenhöfer's new book and exhibition, funded by the Fondation Carmignac Gestion, is unquestionably about violence, documenting in almost unbearable detail the damage left after Israel's assault on Gaza in 2009. Unpeopled images of ruined buildings, photographed with an architectural precision, are contrasted with portraits of equally ruined people with truncated limbs and scarred bodies. His human subjects look into the camera, seated in their own homes: women and children; the family of fighters and civilians – all displaying bewildering variations of traumatic amputation and burns.

The photographs of the ruined buildings supply their own taxonomy of the consequences of different explosive forces: houses brought down by mines rendered into bristling igloos of concrete; buildings pierced and burned by shells; walls perforated by gunfire. The result is a body of work that is anti-sensational but shocking in the directness with which it engages with violence.

"I wanted to make a record," Wiedenhöfer says. "That's all. I do not accuse Israel. If there is an accusation, it is in the record itself." Therein lies the problem. He has come up against the increasingly prevalent desire of many within Israel and without to rule inadmissible any "record" that depicts what Israel or its defence forces do in a negative light, deploying an intellectual sleight of hand to suggest that all such criticism is designed to "delegitimise" the existence of Israel. That it is "antisemitism" of a new and sneaky kind.

The irony is that Wiedenhöfer had not intended to return to the subject of Israel and Palestine again after his books Perfect Peace and Wall. Indeed, his main interest these days is examining the nature of boundaries, particularly in areas of conflict or that have been affected by conflicts, something he is pursuing with the same single-mindedness he dedicated to documenting Palestinian life for almost two decades.

Wiedenhöfer insists that he could have done a similar study to The Book of Destruction in Afghanistan or in Iraq and that the real meaning of the book is the horrible "creativity" people use to hurt others. What really concerns him is the unwillingness of many photographers, and the media, to document the human consequences.

In part, he blames the constrained economics of the media today, which, he believes, has made many photographers take fewer risks, instead focusing on images they know will sell. "We see the same pictures all the time. A Palestinian child throwing a stone. A soldier surrounded by dust in Afghanistan. An IED exploding. But what does it show us of the true meaning of war?"

Peter Beaumont is the Observer's foreign affairs editor. Kai Wiedenhöfer's The Book of Destruction: Gaza – One Year After the 2009 War is at the Mosaic Rooms, London SW5, from Friday to 12 Feb; Funds raised through the exhibition will be used to support the individuals featured in his photographs. The book is published by Steidl/Fondation Carmignac Gestion on 6 June, £30 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 16 2010

Suffering for art

Susie Linfield says modern writers dismiss images of suffering. But photojournalism forms a basis for our human rights debates

The first chapter of Susie Linfield's provocative recent book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, is titled A Little History of Photography Criticism; or, Why Do Photography Critics Hate Photography? The polemic, as it turns out, is a precursor to a much bigger moral argument – an exploration of the fraught ethical landscape skirted by contemporary reportage photography. But Linfield, who is director of the cultural reporting and criticism programme at New York University, has her reasons for laying into the critics.

In a recent interview in Art Forum, she said: "I teach criticism and read a lot of it, and some years ago I realised how different photography criticism can be in tone and approach from criticism of film, or music, or other cultural forms. Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus and others are very immersed in their subjects; they write analytically and critically but with love. By contrast, Susan Sontag and her postmodern heirs in the realm of photography criticism were very removed from, even hostile to, the subjects they discuss."

Sontag's On Photography (published in 1977) remains one of the cornerstones of photography criticism, as does Roland Barthes' more theoretically mischievous Camera Lucida (1980). Both books, along with Sontag's later work Regarding the Pain of Others, question the idea that graphic photographs of horror, atrocity or suffering can provoke the viewer into political action. Even John Berger, whom Linfield calls "the most morally cogent and emotionally perceptive critic that photography has produced", is distrustful of graphic images of political violence.

Faced with Don McCullin's most powerful, and powerfully disturbing, photographs of human suffering from the Vietnam war, Berger writes that "these moments are utterly discontinuous with normal time ... the reader who has been arrested by the photographs may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy". The shock the viewer feels at his moral inadequacy, Berger argues, "disperses" his initial feelings of outrage, so that "the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised". There is, of course, something to this argument – more so than Barthes' uncharacteristically bald statement that images exhibited to shock us often "have no effect at all".

Linfield acknowledges these misgivings, but rails passionately against the (mostly American) postmodernist critics who followed Sontag and Barthes, developing their suspicion about photography into one long sneer at "liberal, socially conscious photojournalists who clung to the old-fashioned ideas such as progress and truth".

Contemporary photojournalism is problematic, both in the increasingly explicit nature of its images of suffering and degradation and its uncertain role in a world where, as Linfield puts it, "we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework" that governed our responses to the war photography of the past. For these reasons, her book only really comes alive when she moves beyond the narrow world of theoretical criticism and tackles the photography itself – specifically, the role of photojournalism in a world where the old certainties no longer apply and the violence of faraway wars often seems nihilistic.

Linfield's critical gaze ranges far and wide, from images of the Holocaust to photographs from Abu Ghraib. She tackles, at some emotional cost to herself, "the onslaught of images from the Muslim world that celebrate suicide bombings, beheadings and other forms of barbarism". She also writes passionately about the moral reportage of the great Robert Capa, perhaps the most influential and admired war photographer of the last century – though problematically she cites Capa's most famous photograph, The Falling Soldier, as the "classic war image, as well as the classic anti-war image, of the twentieth century" without alluding to its contested context. Capa biographer Richard Whelan refuted the suggestion it had been staged, as many suspected, but concluded he was snapping soldiers "fooling around" for the camera when a sniper's bullet killed Federico Borrell García, who "stood up for what was intended to be a heroic photograph".

The Cruel Radiance is divided into three sections: Polemics, Places and People. In the third, she contrasts Capa's work – his heroic approach and the results it produced – with the more graphic and morally complex images taken by two contemporary photojournalists, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress. In their different ways, Nachtwey and Peress have responded to the brutality and horror of modern warfare and suffering by getting closer to that brutality and horror, to what Linfield calls "the physical agony" that so troubled Berger.

She calls Nachtwey "the Catastrophist" and it is not hard, when confronted by his photographs, to see why. It is difficult to look at many of these explicit images of contemporary warfare and suffering without being bewildered or even repulsed. And as photographs of political violence have become ever more explicit and shocking, our responses have become ever more muddled.

Linfield insists that we should look all the same and, in doing so, somehow learn to see more clearly the people in them. "If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn't merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation and defeat," she said recently. "We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming and bewildering an experience that may be."

At its best, the passionate intensity and intellectual rigour of Linfield's writing may convince you that looking away, or not looking at all, is not an option. To make sense of a violent world we must, she contends, "look at, and look into, what James Agee called 'the cruel radiance of what is'". Whatever the cost.

Now see this

Veteran Magnum photojournalist David Hurn has been taking photographs for 55 years. According to the press release his latest show, Passing Time, currently on at the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, "has been born from Hurn's will to prove that he is not as dead as some may assume, but is instead observing and photographing every day". Pairing early and late photographs from his long career, the show proves this is indeed the case. It opens on 19 November. An attendant exhibition of paired images by Hurn has been curated by members of the public; this opens on 3 December.

• For more details on The Cruel Radiance, visit the Chicago University Press website. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 08 2010

My best shot: Marcus Bleasdale

The documentary photographer talks about capturing child soldiers and conflict zones – and explains why the reason he takes pictures is because he gets angry

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