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