For every image of a war-torn place, a conflict photographer to thank

  • Asad Ali, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 28, 2015 20:13 IST
Iraqi children talk to a U.S. soldier as he stands guard during the opening ceremony of West police station in Mosul, Iraq, Saturday Aug. 9, 2003. (AP photo/Manish Swarup) (AP)

When the Tibetan man, his body ablaze and a fire of defiance in his eyes, rushed towards Manish Swarup, Swarup had two instinctive reactions. He could help douse the flames. Or he could do what he is supposed to do as a photojournalist. Swarup decided to press the shutter of his camera.

“In that one instant I decided to shoot, because I felt it was more important for me to show what he wanted to say through his act,” says Swarup. “But maybe if I had been alone, with little help for him around, my reaction would have been to help him. Later I felt terribly sad about the incident, but as a photographer, you deal in moments: you’re either there to capture them or not.”

Swarup is an eminent Indian photojournalist with a wide body of work. He’s been working with Associated Press (AP) for 14 years, and has extensive experience covering conflict situations with his lens, whether it’s strife-torn Afghanistan and Syria, or self-immolation protests closer home.

For Swarup, and other intrepid photojournalists such as him, conflict photography is as real as it gets. Every frame is stripped bare of artifice, and makes a compelling statement.

The spectre of conflict

The world celebrated the art of photography enthusiastically on August 19, World Photography Day. Lots of stunning portraits and candid photographs were shared on social media. But the only two photographs in recent months that got everyone’s attention the most, had the spectre of conflict shadowing the subjects.

One was the photo of a young four-year-old girl, identified later as Hudea, with her tiny hands raised in alarm, as if she were staring into the cold emptiness of a gun’s barrel. It was in fact, the telephoto lens of a Turkish photographer Osman Sagrl who took the photo at a refugee camp in Syria.

The other photograph to stir the world’s collective conscience was that of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler washed ashore in Turkey. In an interview to The Wall Street Journal, the photographer, Nilufer Demir, said her “blood froze” when she saw the body. “The only thing I could do was to make his scream heard,” she was quoted as saying.

The first reaction to the word ‘war’ most times is to think of those mammoths – the World Wars. But conflict photography has documented much more. And India has played a part in that narrative.

One man gave an identity to the Indian war photography aesthetic in a big way: Kishor Parekh. Gujarat-born Parekh arrived on the scene in the 1960s – he was chief photographer with the Hindustan Times from 1961 to 1967 – and covered most of the defining conflicts of the time.

But he is best known for his work on the Bangladesh War of 1971. Swapan Parekh, his son and an acclaimed photographer himself, says, “He managed to record in days (8 to 17 December 1971) the birth of a nation – Bangladesh. To date, these pictures are spoken about, not just for their photographic finesse but for their power to move.” He recalls how Kishor stopped eating non-vegetarian food while in the field. “He used to say, ‘All I can smell is rotten flesh...’” He lost more than 15 pounds in three weeks.

His famous book, Bangladesh – A Brutal Birth, remains an important visual document of the war. At the time Parekh was working as picture editor for some publications in South East Asia that had no interest in covering the war. But he was intent on documenting the conflict. He took the first flight out of Hong Kong where he was based, for Calcutta, and jumped into an army helicopter carrying a press troupe to the war zone. The army major leading the group refused to accommodate him because he didn’t have accreditation.

“He told the major, ‘Shoot me now or take me.’ The major agreed to take him, but with no responsibility for him once he was in the war zone,” recalls Swapan Parekh.

Fear factors

For better or worse, you don’t see such self-assigned and self-funded attempts to cover conflict these days. But that doesn’t mean conflict photographers in India don’t deal with extreme risk and trauma when on assignment.

Manish Swarup, who’s covered Kargil, Bangkok, Iraq and other conflicts, says that over time one learns to cope with it all, though the early days may be a bit rough. “I covered Babri Masjid when it was attacked the first time,” he recalls. He was unable to shoot for a good 15 minutes when he reached the spot. “Police were lathi charging women and the elderly. I couldn’t believe they were being beaten, that’s how young and naive I was. But you have to push aside such sensibilities and do your job.”

News agencies like AP, AFP and Reuters send their journalists for courses that familiarise them with conflict situations. Swarup says, “In AP, we are sent for a risk assessment course every three or four years. A London-based company, Centurion, conducts it. They teach us what things to bear in mind in warzones and how one should operate.”

Journalists and photographers are also provided with a helmet, a bullet-proof jacket and a gas mask for such assignments. But some survival instincts need to be chiselled into shape on a personal level by the photographer and reporter concerned.

Altaf Qadri knows well how to survive in situations of extreme strife. A veteran conflict photographer, Srinagar-born Qadri has covered most of the modern wars in Syria, Afghanistan and India. He has many stories, but one in particular has nearly cult status.

While covering the Libyan conflict between Colonel Gaddafi and the rebel forces who wanted to oust his government, Qadri was stuck in a small 4x6-foot dark room next to a gas station in a remote corner somewhere off Benghazi for almost two days without any supplies. He couldn’t come out because of heavy shelling and blasts outside. The room was “stinking of rotten onions and human excrement in one corner,” remembers Qadri. By night, he managed to escape to another nearby building and had to rummage through a trashcan to finally find a half-full bottle of water.

Libyan rebels run for cover as they shell pro Gadhafi forces along the front line near Brega, Libya, Saturday, April 2, 2011 (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri) (AP)

Sensitivity & sensibility

Photographers aren’t new to the question of ethics and/or morality. Most of them have been asked how they can continue to shoot death and destruction when they could offer help instead.

Senior journalist and defence analyst Nitin Gokhale, who has extensive experience in covering conflict, says that photographers don’t need to be insensitive to be able to capture war and its effects. “I’ve been covering conflict for three decades and it still affects me,” he says. Usually, the effects are felt after the event, not during it, say Swarup, but conflict reporters and photojournalists also have to deal with personal conflicts while in the field. For instance, their personal political beliefs.

“All of us are driven by our own biases and perspectives, so I don’t mind subjectivity, and I wouldn’t blame a photographer for being subjective. In fact, I’d like him to be that way,” says Gokhale.

Qadri says that people sometimes over-read these things. “Many photographers in Kashmir are asked why their photos include funerals of supposed militants, but not of soldiers,” he explains. “The simple answer is that getting access to the funerals of soldiers is very difficult. If we had easier access, we would take those photos as well. People don’t understand that and yet over-read things.”

Indian soldiers take positions for the final assault during a gunfight with a suspected militant Abu Qital, an alleged commander of Lashkar-e-Toiba, in Ajas, some 54 kms north east of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, 15 January 2008. (EPA/Altaf Qadri)

Some sense of personal politics does influence the work of most photographers, says Swarup: “In an India-Pak war we were obviously happy when the firing was from our side... these emotions do seep into your photos. You can of course control your biases in your work, but they are there – as they should be in any sensitive person.”

Lessons learnt in such circumstances can be life changing. When Gokhale was working out of Guwahati which was in the midst of militant turmoil, Mother Teresa died. Gokhale’s eight-year-old son asked who had killed Mother Teresa.

“When I said no one killed her, she was old and so she died, he was surprised. He asked me how she could just die when no one killed her,” says Gokhale. “My son had grown up in the violent atmosphere of Assam. Every day he would hear me or my friends talking about the ‘score’ – alluding to the number of deaths that day or week. It was beyond his understanding that someone could pass away naturally. After that, I stopped talking about deaths in terms of numbers... it was a turning point for me.”

For Qadri, the common thread of pain has been a life lesson: “Loss and pain in a conflict never discriminate between people. They affect everyone equally.”

Follow @AsadAli1989 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, September 27

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