Photo courtesy of Christian Frei.
They march amongst soldiers, face immediate physical danger on a regular basis, risk their lives to be close to the action, all the while unarmed. Why would they want to sift through explosive violence and the debris of battle? They are on a mission to tell the world a story; these brave people are the journalists of wartime.
Journalists working in combat zones are there to create records of some of humanity’s most poignant and extreme moments. To capture the unusual, the terrible, and the heroic as it is happening. Their work lives and thrives in the moment, in an attempt to relay to us back at home the immediacy and harsh realities of wartime. They work to widen our perception of the world beyond our doorsteps and make us more aware of how decisions made by our governments affect the lives of others.
Of course, when it comes to something as grotesque and jarring as war, what people respond to more than anything are images.
Photojournalist Christoph Bangert of Switzerland has worked in many combat zones including Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq amongst others. Bangert tells BTR that journalists are generally traveling with a particular army or rebel group, “Only very rarely, you get to see both sides of the conflict with equal levels of access.”
Despite the risks they’ve taken for their images, photojournalists have be harshly criticized in the past for offering sometimes disturbing and sentimental imagery that showcases either the cost of war for civilians (largely women and children) or badly wounded soldiers (which is an accepted and re-occurring aspect of war). It is an ethical dilemma, at what point does the journalist refrain from their work for altruistic purposes?
Many see war journalists as either civic-minded men or fame-seeking opportunists. The question of considering aesthetics and how you are able to train yourself to do such a thing in the battlefield when confronted with death is an ever-present dilemma — a question that often clashes “getting the job done” with one’s own personal sense of conscience.
When asked about the intrinsic difficulties of working in warring regions, Bangert has this to say, “The toughest part is not to get caught up in the idea that you can cause direct change by documenting wars. Journalists don’t end wars. We are not able to help the people we photograph directly. People who read articles and look at published photographs do eventually end wars, though. So all energy has to go into documenting a conflict as truthfully and accurately as possible. It is crucial that the world’s population is well informed about the events and changes that are occurring on our planet.”
War is nothing if not alive; a living, breathing social organism that is constantly changing from one moment to the next punctuated by long stretches of anxious waiting juxtaposed by actions of dire consequence often occurring in bursts. What gets captured on film is a moment of experience for the subject. But the more specific moments of experience we get, the closer we are to seeing the whole picture.
“I am a photojournalist because I believe that journalism plays a vital role in the world’s societies,” says Bangert. “We should not take this for granted. It is not happening automatically, although it sometimes seems that way in the age of the internet. We are only informed because professional journalists are doing some old school reporting on the ground.”
As the soldiers are there to fight, these journalists are there to protect us as well, albeit in a very different way, through freedom of information acquired on a very direct and harrowing level.
Perhaps one day everything and everyone will be recorded, remotely controlled cameras will roam war stricken lands photographing all in their path, and we won’t need human witnesses in order to see human suffering. We would no longer need war photographers to risk life and limb for the perfect shot. But for now, like the soldiers they work beside, many continue to go back year after year on a mission to document the surreal landscapes of war.