Two sayings about war that seem to hold universally, no matter where or when the war, no matter just or unjust, short or prolonged are: "War is Hell" and "The first casualty of war is the truth". One may combine these as I did for the title of this post into "War is a Hell where the first casualty is the truth". Though war reporters, photographers, and photojournalists are supposed to report objectively on the truth of war, often that truth is predetermined or gets turned into propaganda. Objectivity is elusive, even when subjective human beings behind the lense, the video, the recorder, the keyboard are doing their best.
Some war correspondents are more dedicated to capturing the action as it unfolds. They leave their hotel rooms, the bars, and the wire services, are genuinely embedded, and take considerable risk. Like others in the conflict, they come under fire, are injured, may be captured, may be a prize hostage. And, like others, they may suffer both acute traumatic stress disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tribute to Chris Hondros with his last images from Libya, The Big Picture, Boston.com. The tribute is intended for both photojournalists, though Tim Hetherington's photos in Libya, taken for an assignment with Vanity Fair weren't available to the editors. The New York Times offers an appreciation of both men, and the photojournalists who continue on, in "War, in Life and Death".
Two such correspondents died last Wednesday, April 20, 2011, in Misrata, Libya, covering the gruesome siege of that city by Gaddafi's forces. Both were fully embedded with the opposition forces, and both died from injuries sustained in the battle they were covering--Tim Hetherington immediately, Chris Hondros a few hours later in what little clinic facilities are available in Misrata.
“In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.”
--Tim Hetherington's last, of only a few dozen tweets on Twitter.
I was more familiar with the work of Tim Hetherington, thanks to his co-direction with Sebastian Junger of the Academy Award nominated documentary Restrepo--about the life of an American platoon, fighting in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, over the course of a year. I was so struck by the film, I saw it twice, did a post on it--"Afghanistan: 9 Years and Counting--Part I Good Morning Vietnam! Good Afternoon Cambodia! Restrepo!"--and recommended it to everyone, including 2 pleasant Saudi tourists who happened to be sitting next to me one day at lunch. They were very interested in seeing it too. Among the many things that struck me about the film, was the fact that the filmmakers had to have the same level of fitness, and same battle smarts as the soldiers. They were caught in fire fights, and ambushed--a clip of Hetherington arriving back to safety, and breathlessly recounting how it happened has played in numerous tributes to him by his colleagues.
Another aspect that struck me was how much the filmmakers' perspective was stimultaneously detached, encompassing myriad aspects of the experience, empathic to the soldiers' plight, and revelatory of the sheer folly of it all--the immense disconnect between the Americans and the Afghanis, particularly the village elders, and the impatience and angry condescension, at times, of the American officers. That the platoon takes and retakes the valley or parts of it, has a change of leader, then is rotated off with a new platoon trying to do the same, and that the war still goes on with little real "result" except for death on both sides, and destruction, is the overarching folly.
Tim Hetherington's capture of a weary US soldier in the Korengal won World Press Photo of the Year, 2007
Chris Hondros' work was less familiar to me, though I did recognize immediately some of his images from Libya, and the prestige of the Robert Capa Award he received for his work in Iraq. Until a couple of days ago, I hadn't seen the image for which he won the Award--the one that opens this post. It shows 5-year-old Samar Hassan, in her red rose covered dress, her face and hands splattered with blood, screaming in terror after the family car was mistakenly shot on by US soldiers. Her parents were killed, one brother paralyzed by a bullet, and another was too young to do anything but stand in shocked silence. 3 other siblings were in the car.
This particular photo certainly deserves the Robert Capa Award, yet it was one of a series that Hondros took of the accident--putting himself at risk to capture the truth of the hell of this particular war:
An alternate image of Samar.
Another image of Samar, with her younger brother standing shocked in the background.
An image of the car, with Samar's 8-year-old brother Rakan lying paralyzed by a bullet in the spine, in front of the car.
Rakan propped up against a wall for safety.
Rakan being carried away by medics.
The excellent blog, Visual Culture, Politics and Criticism, has 2 outstanding posts on the Samar Hassan photo, the implications of the world finding out about it, the positive efforts organized by Edward Kennedy to get treatment and rehabilitation for Rakan, and the task of the Boston Globe to spin a tragic killing into a story of one Iraqi boy's healing, and American redemption: "Photojournalism, Ethics and a Trail of Blood"; "Photojournalism, Ethics and the Afterlife of a Photograph".
It is hard to forget an image of hell though: