Sunday, 7 June 2009

Photographs - Taking or Making History?

On the odd occasion in the past when I have taken a 'difficult' photograph [not necessarily subsequently published], I did it for a particular reason. In the main, I don't feel a particular photograph should not be taken, although I do have some views on ethics! My personal view is that it is important to take a photograph for historical reasons - preserve that moment of history and then decide afterwards whether it should be published or archived for the future. That is, I know, a really simplistic view, but I acknowledge there are lots of other factors to consider. I would be interested to hear some of your views on these.

A few years ago, while researching the subject of war correspondents, I came across the story of an American female war photographer who, in the 1970s, trod on a mine. There is no soft way of putting this across, but her lower body was torn apart - literally shredded into nothing. What absolutely shocked me about this was the fact that she remained conscious for quite some time before she died. One of her first actions was to reach up to those around her and say: "Quick! Take my camera and photograph me . . .! Now, why did she do this? I can only surmise that she felt she was making history and wanted that history preserved. Remarkable!

Perhaps the latter tale remained in my subconscious? In the 1990s, I found myself on assignment in Gornji Vakuf in Bosnia. Two factions had fought over the town for months, but a fragile ceasefire had been declared. One of the safeguards negotiated by the United Nations force was for a telephone line to be laid across no man's land so that each side could negotiate with each other should tensions reach boiling point. It was to prove very effective.

A liaison officer offered to take me and a photographer into no man's land to see the connection between the two sides' wires. Quite insanely, I agreed. We were asked to step carefully as the narrow path was littered with anti-personnel mines - some buried out of sight. I can remember saying very firmly to the photographer: "If I am blown up by a mine, alive but injured or dead, you must take my photograph!" I was determined that my own personal moment of history, should it happen, should be preserved. I can remember getting a funny look from our escort.

In the event, we got about 30 feet down the track and the photographer decided he didn't want to go any further. He stuffed the camera in my hands, said, words to the effect of, "If you want the photograph, you can take it!" and rushed back down the track. I can remember thinking, "you idiot! You have put us all at risk by dashing through the minefield without looking where he was going!" But I don't blame him for not completing this particular assignment . . .

The photograph I took was of two different types of telephone cable with the bare wires held together by a copper clamp. The liaison officer held it in his open palm as I photographed the join. Not the world's most amazing photograph, but a small piece of history in its own right!

It was published and is archived. Sometimes it is the little things that count - a subject I will return to in a future post. In the meantime, I really would appreciate hearing what you have to say about the subject of capturing a moment of history; the actions of the dying photographer to ensure her death was recorded; and the significance of recording the little things like the joining of the wires! The discussion floor is open. Please join in!

17 comments:

expateek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
@eloh said...

Her photograph told the story of what was happening. Back then (1970) we got a good bit on the six o'clock news by way of some very brave photographers.

Some things people would rather not have seen.

Out of sight - out of mind. So burn it into their minds.

Chris David Richards said...

In a sense I think history wouldn't exist without people documenting it, even the little (or not so little) moments. A memory is personal but taking a photograph, or writing it down, makes it history - public in a way.

Cynthia said...

I think that we sometimes are so committed to a task, it becomes the priority. If you asked me, do I want the getting the last photograph to be the final thought on my mind, I would say no. I would rather move toward a different kind of closure-thought. I too have been in dangerous situations...I was in a serious car accident many years ago. When the car was rolling, I thought of release...letting go...it was freeing. Photographs of the car were frightening...I was in that? It was smashed flat...it's history, yes, but it was not so important to preserve. I think the photographer was on "automatic thought" like the drive to accomplish, finish, arrive. Thank you for signing up at Oasis Writing Link. I hope you participate with a comment every now and then...so we can get to know each other. You have a lot of blogs...which one to you write the most in? <3

Laurie said...

Hi @eloh, I agree. Some of the film on the news in the 70s was incredible - trouble is these days, the horror of conflict is sanitized on TV now - when I got back from the first Gulf War - most members of the public thought it was some sort of video game. I was one of the first to get to the infamous 'convoy of death' on the Mutlah Ridge - alleged scene of the turkey shoot that caused Bush senior to wobble and not finish the job . . . Four kilometres of nose-to-tail wrecked vehicles over six lanes of highway - unbelievable!
Laurie

Laurie said...

Chris, thanks for your supportive comment. When I covered the first Gulf War, I covered everything from stencilled cartoons spray painted on Army vehicles to snake blood stripes on the front edge of armoured vehicles and shelving to stored body bags should mass casualties occur. Too many others concentrated just of what they thought of as 'sexy' tanks and other weapons . . .
Regards
Laurie

Laurie said...

Hi Cynthia, Thanks for visiting and commenting. I know what you mean about what you want to see at the end and the feeling of letting go. It is an extraordinary thing.

I certainly will be commenting on the Oasis Writing Link. This blog, as you ask, is about writing and photography and what I have learned over the past thirty years of doing it, together with comment and encouragement for others to express their views - although it will start getting some illustrations shortly as I have at last uncovered a box of pertinent photographs at last! Creating Pictures in my Mind is more illustrative and contains quirky and unusual illustrations helping people to be more imaginative in what they actually see . . . while the Graveyard Detective which launched today is a more in-depth look at the symbolism of cemeteries and stories about those whose names are recorded upon the stones in graveyards. Hope this helps.
Best wishes
Laurie

jyothy karat said...

I agree with Chris David. Its after all, all these documentation that makes history. When i see the images streaming in from Afghanisthan , Iran and Pakistan, I feel a deep sense of foreboding. I wish the images are a lie, when i know it's not.

I complete relate to the thought the photojournalist must have had during the last few minutes of her life on earth. It would be the final chapter of a life devoted to a mission.

Owen said...

I've had on my bookshelf for years now a copy of "Images of War" about war photos throughout the history of photo-journalism. The debate in that book about just how far editors should or can allow themselves to go when considering which images to print or publish in the mass media is fascinating in a grim way, one thought being that if the photos are too gory, people will be put off buying the publication.

There are websites showing photos of mangled bodies in Gaza or southern Lebanon that I never saw in the mainstream press which are indeed heart-wrenching to look at. Photos are beginning to filter out of Iran which are also terrifying... and they are not on CNN.

Personally, I think we should be shown the truth, perhaps with a warning prior to seeing the images, so those who do not wish to see can choose not to. As for wishing to be photographed with my legs blown off... not sure I would have had the presence of mind to make the request.

I do hope we will get to see at some point some of your photos from your travels in Kuwait/Iraq and the former Yugoslavia...

June Saville said...

LAURIE
I found my way to you through 'The Graveyard Detective' and now I discover 'My Writing Life'. Lucky day.

Why am I not surprised that you are a photo-journalist?

I'm an old journo too, and I know the feeling of compulsion to get a good story through. I can understand what these two were on about, even though my own career was not so eventful, danger-wise ...

May I compliment you for encouraging your readers to make meaningful comments? I've tried to do that on my own blogs as well. Real communication can be sadly overlooked I say.

Thanks for visiting Journeys in Creative Writing.
June in Oz

Marius said...

In fact, every photo is the record of the UNIQUE moment in time and space, so unique that it never occurred till photographed and it will never happen again after. So, every photo makes history, either for particular people or for smaller or larger communities.

Of course, I know the history of, let`s say, Nicolle and Adam`s wedding is not as interesting for me as for themselves and I also know that a doll left in a shelled building could be more important for an magazine editor then for a teenager. But I guess that both photos make history of something and both have value, though not identical value.



Great blog, Laurie. A delight to read your posts.

@eloh said...

Desert Shield...I had a baby, two days later I'm allegedly using one of my Forensic Degrees to make sure bodies can be ID in fragments....Desert Storm....They remove the stupid doctor in charge and bring in an RA Col. life improves more than I could have hoped for..no more coming in to find the doctor had spent hours going through medical files scratching in lies....life continues....people start coming back and we start checking the "gases" blood work compared to when they left....PANIC SETS IN... RA Col. is pulled out and idiot worthless piece of crap is put back in charge...more lies...I am told to lie to people.....to tell them that they have to come back in a third time for the blood test of gases teat because the first two were lost. It's a lie, they are coming back so abnormal that no one can believe there eyes....I refused to lie....War over...I quit. No one could believe I walked away from that job.

People start dying from the "Gulf War Syndrome" that the government says is all in their minds...doesn't exist.

@eloh said...

I do know the difference between there and their...I should stay off the computer when I have a headache or when telling things better left untold.

Chris said...

Thank you for this. Very good food for thought.

I think it is important to have record, both in words and in pictures. These are touching instances. We humans live very short lives, and much of them are spent in believe we know everything and are sure of what we believe. The more of a record there is of real life and real people, the better it is for us to learn and grow as much as we can. We can only be one place at a time. But photographs and stories allow us to be hundreds of places!

Love Writing Again! said...

I think its important in such situations to look around you, and see the details that are often ignored, and left behind in an aftermath, as those can tell you more about the damage done, rather than the big pictures of tanks and so on. I think its the images of dolls in rubble, and shoes in dust, that make you realise that this situation is real and it matters, and had real life attached to it. Only when we make war real, can we stop it. Thanks for sharing.

annh said...

I have a Granddaughter that served in the Navy for six years, she was on a ship in the Gulf war..I am in Awe of you , young Women that put yourselves in Harm's way for your Country...We all owe you more than can be expressed, God Bless you all!

Rosie said...

Such an interesting blog. I knew a Gulf War veteran who developed cancer after being given injections by the army. It could be coincidence but the same happened to many of his mates. I'm all for photos and stories to be allowed out in the world. My hat off to the people that are brave enough to do it.