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!