Armed with a camera: Confessions of a war photographer

From Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia, photojournalist Jack Picone shares his most disturbing memories of war.

I have never felt more intensely alive than I did in the moments before I was certain I was about to die.

This is how war can make you feel.

War. Even the word is ominous.

People sometimes assume that photographers go to war zones because they are adrenaline junkies. This was not the case for me. Obviously, war zones can be adrenaline-charged places, and by helping you to think clearly when faced with danger, that adrenaline can keep you alive. But my motivation for documenting war has been more layered and nuanced than a need to feed some adrenalin craving or an inclination towards voyeurism – another accusation sometimes directed at war photographers.

In my experience, people rarely do extreme things for a singular reason. And willingly entering a war zone is an extreme thing to do. My grandfather had fought in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War and I’d read extensively on the topic; all of which had helped to form the nagging question in my own mind of whether I had the resourcefulness and courage to document such events. At the time I was a staff photographer on a major daily Australian newspaper; a job I found repetitive and unchallenging. So, when the picture editor of that paper asked its 20 staff photographers whether any would be interested in covering the first Iraq War, my response was immediate.I was the only one to say ‘yes’.

RELATED- Rwanda: Capturing a vision of hell

But my first war proved anticlimactic; my time in Baghdad was short-lived. I was arrested by Iraqi secret police for transmitting photographs of Iraqi troops crossing the border into Kuwait, put on an empty plane and deported to Jordan.

My first ‘real’ war experience came soon after, and it couldn’t have been more different. The Nagorno-Karabakh War had been raging in Armenia since the mid-1980s. I arrived in 1992, aged around 30 and ready to answer the question I’d carried around with me for years: could I keep my head, literally and metaphorically, as I documented an exchange of gunfire between warring soldiers?

I was making my way towards Armenian soldiers positioned in trenches by the side of a mountain when I got my answer. The mountain suddenly reverberated with the sound of gunfire and exploding mortar shells. Ink-blot black clouds snaked their way eerily towards the sky. A shallow hole – a perfect ready-made grave – provided my only cover from the incoming bullets and cluster bombs. I remember thinking as I lay there, that while this was too picturesque a place to be the scene of war, it was certainly a beautiful place to die.

Then I looked up and saw an Armenian soldier signal for me to run to him. His trench was only about 80m away, but that short run seemed to go on forever. I took some shrapnel in the lower back and head but I was alive. My heart pounded, adrenaline surged through my body and I felt that kind of affirming, edifying euphoria that comes with escaping death.

On reflection, I can conservatively estimate that I should have been killed at least five times over by now: once at the hands of a mob in Rwanda, another time in southern Sudan, when a Sudanese government soldier put his pistol to my temple and screamed that he was going to pull the trigger. On both occasions, only a chance intervention helped me cheat death.

RELATED- Australia’s aboriginals: When the river runs dry

I have worked in some of the most dangerous places on the planet: Angola, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Gaza Strip, Israel, Soviet Central Asia and the former Yugoslavia. It could be argued that most of these were unconventional wars, where armed groups and rebel factions took each other on and where it was possible for a photographer to cover both – or indeed multiple – sides of the conflict. Far from being embedded with one side or the other, as you might in Iraq or Afghanistan, a photographer in less structured conflicts can cross enemy lines, evading censorship and propaganda. But these wars also pose their own challenges – leaving you open to accusations of spying and making it much easier to ‘disappear’.

During many of the African conflicts I covered, photographers and journalists were killed at roadblocks by bored soldiers, who were often stoned, drunk or both. It’s no mystery why they were targeted. War photographers can carry more money and equipment than a rebel soldier in an underfunded rag-tag army can hope to earn in years.

Having escaped death several times, I gained a new-found confidence that I could document the ‘bang bang’, as seasoned war photographers sometimes refer to it, and stay alive. But with this came the realisation that documenting war really ought to involve more than simply photographing soldiers. What seemed exponentially more important was telling the stories of the innocent people – the children, women and elderly men – caught in its crossfire. I shifted my focus from the frontlines to the ordinary people on the edges of war.

Apart from the inbuilt danger of working in a war zone, photographing war is a philosophical, emotional, ethical and moral minefield (pun intended). On many occasions, I have found myself questioning what I was documenting. But the decision about whether or not to press the shutter has to be made in a micro-second and is fraught with responsibility.

RELATED: Life and death along the Thai-Myanmar border

I haven’t always made the right choice. During the famine in Somalia in 1992, I photographed an infant cradled in the arms of an aid worker. “You can stop taking pictures now Jack,” the nurse told me in her thick Irish accent. “The baby just died.” The thought that the last thing that child saw was my camera has haunted me ever since. The fact that the aid agency had asked me to photograph them at work in order to help publicise the desperate plight of the Somali people offered no consolation. I was inconsolable.

A photographer has a role to play in a war zone: to bear witness, to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard and to create a visual history. For me, these tenets have acted as a filter for all but the most horrific situations I have encountered in the theatre of war. But the emotional torment often followed me home. In denial, I told myself, my friends and my family that I was unaffected by what I saw. But then the nightmares began. The emotional hangover from witnessing and documenting violence too dark to describe exacted its toll. I self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, which only worsened my problems. I still haven’t come to terms with what I’ve witnessed, but I have stopped trying to use substances to control my emotions and am instead simply trying to co-exist with the discord.

War is many things, most of them barbaric. But what disturbs me most about it is its repetitiveness: the same play, just with a new cast. That being said, nothing seems more important to me than documenting the plight of those caught up in it. Right at this very moment, human beings are frenetically killing each other in countries across the world. All we can really do is bear witness; to hold up a mirror to man’s inhumanity to man in the scant hope that future generations will succeed where we have so conclusively failed and break the cycle.

Photo Gallery

A rebel soldier surveys government troop movements during a lull in the fighting in Quito, Angola. I remember how still and silent it felt; even the birds were quiet. But, instead of seeming peaceful, it felt ominous. 1993 [Jack Picone] 

Locals take shelter during the fighting in Angola’s long-running civil war. I was struck by how war-weary the women and children appeared. After the photograph was taken, they receded into the darkness. It bothered me that I never saw them again. 1993 [Jack Picone] 

As I made my way to the frontline of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, I encountered this soldier returning from the front. I wondered if I would look as unaffected and blasé when I returned. 1992 [Jack Picone] 

These Komjo rebel fighters in Liberia believed their animist practices protected them from incoming bullets. Sadly, this wasn’t true. The mask the rebel fighter in the centre of the picture is wearing is called a ‘devil mask’. They had a reputation for being fearsome warriors, and I always felt uncomfortable around them as they could be volatile and unpredictable. 1996 [Jack Picone] 

Angola’s MPLA soldiers would often carry amulets or decorate their tanks for good luck. In this case it was with a child’s doll. It seemed visually and culturally incongruous. 1994 [Jack Picone] 

The soldier in this image informed me that he had just hit his target. The silence from the enemy trench seemed to add validity to his claim. The trench warfare of the Nagorno-Karabakh War bore similarities to the First World War. 1992 [Jack Picone] 

An Angolan landmine victim experiences a ‘phantom pain’ in his amputated limb. I had waited in the prosthetics room knowing that an amputee would come in. He reeled back in pain as though he had been electrocuted, pulling his shirt open as he tried to maintain his balance. 1994 [Jack Picone] 

A former combatant in Angola’s long-running civil war is chained to an engine block in a mental hospital in Luanda, Angola. He was one of scores chained to various car engine parts. They were all said to be former combatants who had become mentally unhinged because of what they had experienced during the conflict. I felt helpless and appalled photographing human beings chained up like wild animals. 1995 [Jack Picone] 

Angolan children run through the streets of Quito during a lull in the fighting. I was perplexed by how the vehicle had ended up on its side in such a tight space. 1993 [Jack Picone] 

A sick child cries to be picked up during the civil war in Quito, Angola. No matter how many times I photographed scenes of poverty and desperation like this one, I never failed to be confronted by the pathos of it. 1994 [Jack Picone] 

An Angolan man has his leg amputated without anesthetic at a hospital in Quito. He had stepped on a landmine. His anguish pervaded me. 1993 [Jack Picone]

We were on our way to an ambush in the jungle on the Thai-Myanmar border when I noticed this KNLA combatant flinch with pain. A little later, I asked him what the problem was. He told me ‘malaria’. 2006 [Jack Picone] 

Bosnian Muslim fighters come under fire in the former Yugoslavia. It was trench warfare and this was a frontline. But what was particularly unsettling was that the bullets were coming from behind us as well as from in front. We had been flanked. 1994 [Jack Picone] 

A Croat sniper plays Bach on a piano during a lull in the fighting. The soldier told me he had taught art in the same classroom from which he was now a sniper. This collision of art, culture and war was difficult for me to fathom. 1994 [Jack Picone] 

Unexploded ordnance in Quito, Angola. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was thinking lying on the ground beside an unexploded bomb. 1993 [Jack Picone] 

This 14-year-old landmine victim has his gangrene-infected leg amputated with a blunt saw and local anesthetic. He winced at times during the operation but did not scream. The smell of rotten flesh was putrefying. The operating theatre was about nine feet long and six feet wide. Flies buzzed around in the 120 degree heat but the staff worked in silence to complete the operation as quickly as possible. Thai-Myanmar border. 2006 [Jack Picone] 

Rocky (his nickname) plays war games during the siege of Sarajevo. Like many children in the city during the war, he displayed signs of stress, aggression and erratic behaviour. 1994 [Jack Picone] 

A young man is beaten by MPLA soldiers during Angola’s civil war. The MPLA was applying forceful conscription on villagers, but the man being beaten had rejected the government soldiers’ insistence that he join them. After my pictures (and others from the same series) of this man being shot were published widely in Europe there was public outrage. Many people branded me a vulture and a voyeur in another person’s misery. Many also asked if the soldiers were doing it for the camera and why I hadn’t stopped the beating and shooting. My answer to the first question was that it was already in motion before I began photographing. To the second question, I responded: “Have you ever smelt the pungent odour of men pumped up on adrenaline and in the frenetic throes of killing another man?” But there was a positive byproduct of my published photographs of this incident: the Angolan government investigated the soldiers photographed. 1994 [Jack Picone] 

This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. 

Source: Al Jazeera


More from Features
Most Read