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Cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno, right, follows a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) member in June 1998 in the province of Kosovo while covering the escalating conflict between ethnic Albanian fighters and Serb forces. It was Mr. Moreno’s death in an ambush in Sierra Leone in 2000 that convinced Santiago Lyon to give up combat photography. (Santiago Lyon/AP)
A lifelong focus
Santiago Lyon fell in love with news photography at an early age and never looked back. But over his three-decade career, writes Anthony Feinstein, his philosophy of 'forced resilience,' plowing through the psychological trauma caused by covering multiple wars, eventually shattered

About the series

Photojournalists are vital witnesses to global events. Through their lenses, we, the reader safe at home, glean a sliver of visual reality from places torn by man-made or natural catastrophe. As recent events have shown, kidnap for ransom and murder to instill terror have made journalism increasingly hazardous. This, in turn, has challenged journalists when it comes to their physical and emotional well-being.

Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor at the University of Toronto, is a world leader in the psychological effects of war on front-line journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running a year-long project: Conflict Photographers. Once a month, we feature a frank and intimate interview between Dr. Feinstein and a photojournalist. Each article showcases an image that represents a seminal moment in the photographer’s life and career, and often presents a window to a much greater issue.

In this 12th and final instalment, Dr. Feinstein speaks with Santiago Lyon, whose three-decade career has taken him through more than a dozen war zones to his role as director of photography at the Associated Press.

What makes a person choose a profession in which they know that scores of their colleagues, some of them friends, will be killed each year, while hundreds of other colleagues will be arrested and some will go missing, never to be found? Why choose a profession that entails running toward grave danger while those around flee from it? If you can answer these questions, you begin to gain some insight into the complex world of the front-line journalist.

In the case of Santiago Lyon, his choice of combat photography has a preordained element to it. His father, New York-born and a journalist with an overriding passion for bullfighting, named him after Santiago Martin (“El Viti”), one of the great matadors, hinting at a life of adventure to come. Soon the young Lyon was leading a peripatetic existence, shuttling between his mother and schooling in Ireland, and his father and the newswire services in Spain and Portugal.

Some of his earliest memories are of hanging around the Associated Press bureau in Lisbon, paging through their annual reports, beautifully produced hardcover books filled with photographs from around the world. He remembers standing on a chair in the AP darkroom in Lisbon after a military coup that overthrew the Salazarist regime of Marcelo Caetano and being asked by an indecisive photographer to pick out the prints for publication. Too young to grasp the political significance of the moment, he fondly recalls the stillness of the darkroom and the “miracle” of an image appearing in the wash. He also vividly recollects how the tranquillity of the darkroom vanished on a later trip to Madrid where, to his amazement, he saw that a huge blowup of Eddie Adam’s infamous Vietnam street execution photograph now filled a wall in the bureau.

With nature and nurture in seamless alignment, it comes as no surprise to learn that Lyon, after completing high school and securing a place at Trinity College in Dublin, took a gap year to work at Agencia EFE, a Spanish international news agency. Here, he had the evocative-sounding title of “copy taster.” His job was to identify stories of interest from Central America and translate them from Spanish into English. The news was dominated by lurid accounts of war and massacre. Lyon never made it to Trinity. He laughs that he is still on his gap year.

Being a copy taster may have opened the door to a distant world of conflict, but for Lyon, it was too far removed from events on the ground. Determined to taste the turmoil himself, he decided to become a photographer, swayed by the advice of a senior colleague who told him “they see all the stuff up close.” He left Agencia EFE, bought a used camera from an AP photographer, began work as a contract freelancer and set his sights on the revolutionary fervour of Central America. By the time he was 23 years of age, he had arrived in Mexico City as Reuters’s chief photographer for the region.

The desired posting was not entirely to his liking, for it came with considerable administrative responsibilities. Still, for someone who, by his own admission, “relished going into trouble,” the Civil War in El Salvador offered a long-sought-after entree into the world of a combat photographer. Lyon remembers feeling terrified during his first exposure to warfare, but in the same breath recalls Winston Churchill’s observation that “there is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result.” He quickly learned to appraise risk and observed how his more senior colleagues responded to the disturbing sight of people killed deliberately – by adopting what he saw as “forced resilience,” putting aside their feelings.

When sent to photograph the first Gulf War in 1990, his administrative duties were thankfully over, but a new, unexpected challenge arose. He was one of a number of journalists taken captive by Saddam Hussein’s forces at war’s end. His six days of captivity, in which he was well treated, were less troubling than the episode’s aftermath. In London, after his release, he recalls that a letter was slipped under his door. “While I understand the lure of a good story,” wrote one of his managers, “I want you to know you wasted valuable management time securing your release…” Lyon was also taken to task for “losing valuable company equipment.” There was no expression of concern for his safety, no relief that the captivity had ended well. Incensed by his employer’s mercenary attitude, Lyon left to join the Associated Press soon thereafter. He was posted to Cairo and it was from the Egyptian capital that he was sent to cover the break-up of Yugoslavia.

The wars in the Balkans consumed Lyon, physically and emotionally, as it did many of that generation’s journalists. The longevity of the conflict, its proximity to countries the journalists considered home, the re-emergence of ethnic cleansing within living memory of the Holocaust and a dismay at what was seen as Europe’s recidivistic bloodletting all combined to create a set of circumstances that dragged in journalists and held them captive. To many in the press, the Balkan conflict was the Spanish Civil War redux, presenting a clear moral choice between right and wrong, aggressor and victim, democracy and authoritarianism. Couched in this emotional language, it becomes easier to appreciate how journalists came to view the conflict in such a personal way. Removing or weakening the buffer of objectivity, however, ran the risk of breaching the emotional floodgates, as many were to discover.

Lyon began covering the war from the Serbian spa town of Ilija, a short drive from Sarajevo. When Bosnian forces attacked the hotel in which he was staying, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at his room, knocking him to the ground. After the attack was repulsed, most of the journalists left the town, deeming the situation too hazardous. The small AP team stayed and relocated to a house in Sarajevo. Lyon remembers moving into the city just as most of the journalists were moving out. Amongst the handful remaining was Jordi Pujol, a freelance photographer working for the Catalan language daily, Avui. Pujol, covering his first war, looked to the slightly more experienced Lyon for advice. “I had him under my wing,” recalls Lyon. Mentorship could not, however protect against the randomness of warfare. Pujol was killed in a mortar attack that seriously injured another AP photographer, David Brauchli.

It fell to Lyon and his colleagues to repatriate the body. They had to buy a coffin, rent a second car for the coffin, load the injured Brauchli into a third car, navigate the lengthy drive from Sarajevo to Split, which entailed crossing multiple checkpoints and battle lines – a passage eased by the presence of the makeshift hearse – and hand over their wounded colleague to the air ambulance attendants and the corpse to the crew of a chartered Spanish plane. Lyon spent the night in a hotel in Split frequented by Bosnians escaping the fighting. He remembers waking the following morning and opening his hotel window to bright sunshine, the sounds of war replaced by the laughter of children gamboling below. The contrast with what he had just endured could not have been starker. He broke down and began crying before catching himself. There was no time for his emotions. Circumstances demanded forced resilience. Lyon had to pull himself together for the flight to Barcelona, the funeral and a meeting with Jordi Pujol’s parents to tell them how their son had died.

Immediately following the funeral, Lyon returned to Sarajevo. Feeling exhausted, he decided to leave the besieged city for a holiday back in Spain, but his vacation plans were scuppered when he was asked by the AP to relieve a colleague in Mogadishu. “I felt like a prizefighter, bludgeoned on the ropes,” Lyon tells me. Weeks of witnessing famine and death in Somalia followed, Lyon chaperoned everywhere by heavily armed bodyguards high on khat. On his return to Cairo, he fell into a slump.

Lyon could feel something was amiss, emotionally. He visited a psychiatrist in London and was told he had certain features of PTSD, but he shied away from therapy. Over dinner with one of his bosses in London, he confessed to not feeling well emotionally, only to be told “my responsibility to you ends when you send me the pictures.” The dinner was cut short.

In hindsight, Lyon is able to recognize that he was not well attuned to his own emotions. Which is, he believes, why he stuck up his hand when the AP called for volunteers to go back into Bosnia in the winter of 1993. Feeling numb, he returned to the war and a brutally cold winter. He burned firewood in the office to keep warm and spent his days at the morgue or attending funerals.

Lyon continued to photograph the Balkan conflicts for another six years interspersed with periods covering the civil war in Yemen, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and, for lighter relief, the soccer World Cup in the United States. In 1995 he was injured by a mortar attack in Sarajevo and required surgery under epidural anesthesia before being evacuated. His injury, while serious, could have been much worse if a walkie-talkie on his hip had not stopped a large piece of shrapnel. While he was recuperating, news of Srebrenica broke. He remembers feeling angry and frustrated that his wounds were keeping him from photographing the scene of Europe’s worst massacre since the Second World War.

By now Lyon’s friends were questioning his relentless drive to return to the Balkans. He ignored their advice to quit. Toward the end of the 1990s, his emotions were again fraying. Prominent PTSD symptoms such as hypervigilance and a startle response were evident. When away from war zones, he avoided socializing and resorted to self-medication to relieve his distress. But through it all he remained functional at work, still regarded as a go-to man in extremis. It took the deaths of cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno of the AP and the Reuters journalist Kurt Schork, two legendary figures at the top of their game, to convince him that if he continued combat work he would either end up like them or go crazy. “I stopped cold turkey” he tells me, “and immediately fell into a funk.”

With his persona gone, Lyon felt bereft. “These were the most difficult years of my life,” he confides. The discomfort of stepping into a professional void was magnified by unremitting symptoms of PTSD, compounded by self-medication and social withdrawal. Marriage in 2001 to fellow war journalist Emma Daly and the birth of their daughter were, however, the start of the healing process. A Nieman Fellowship gave him the time to rethink his career and, just as importantly, receive the long-delayed psychotherapy. He emerged from his year-long fellowship healed, the memories of war and loss not forgotten, but now in a place that no longer caused him pain. The most articulate of men, Lyon likens his recovery to “level setting my alarm system to where it should be.” In search of a challenging and complex job, but one that was not life threatening, Lyon became head of the AP’s photo operations, responsible for managing hundreds of photojournalists world-wide.

“My worst fear when I took the job in 2003,” he divulges, “was getting a call that somebody working for me had been killed. That was my nightmare. And 10 years later, Boom! It happens.” The 3 a.m. phone call was to inform him that Anja Niedringhaus had been killed in Afghanistan and her colleague Kathy Gannon wounded. As with the death of Jordi Pujol, it fell to Lyon to manage the aftermath of the trauma, except in this case Niedringhaus was a close family friend, compounding the grief.

In writing about the life and career of Santiago Lyon, as with the other photojournalists in the series, I have focused on the emotional effects of grave dangers confronted, stresses encountered and losses endured. There is, of course, much more to the profession, numerous experiences that are uplifting, exhilarating and professionally fulfilling. There are the fun times, hard partying and strong friendships forged, which, alongside the nobility of the human spirit that war paradoxically unmasks, offer antidotes to the suffering witnessed. These positives surely outweigh the negatives, providing an enduring allure to those with the right temperament. And yet, as this series has shown, the work of conflict photographers comes at a personal cost. War inevitably leaves an imprint.

Before concluding, there is one other theme that deserves comment, running as it does in parallel alongside the trauma of war. I refer to resilience. Lyon’s career is testimony to it, marking his passage from wide-eyed boy standing before Eddie Adams’s iconic image, to director of photography at Associated Press, a storied company founded in war 170 years ago. Barely out of school, he was sucked into the vortex of conflict, batted around by the vicissitudes of fate, shot at, wounded, called upon to eulogize friends and colleagues who had died too soon, and all the while he never went under, pushing the limits of endurance, tenaciously bearing witness, capturing history with a camera. What a journey it has been.

About Santiago Lyon

Born in Spain to American parents, Santiago Lyon grew up in newsrooms, following in the footsteps of his journalist father. From an early age he fell in love with photography. Over a thirty-year career, Lyon covered conflicts in more than a dozen countries, including several in Central and South America, the Balkans and Afghanistan. He is now Vice President / Photography for The Associated Press.

Warning: Some photographs are graphic and some readers may find them disturbing

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