Tim Page was 20 years of age when he arrived in Vietnam on February 6, 1965 with a contract from United Press International. He had virtually no photographic experience. The war was ramping up and a month later the marines would land at Da Nang. Access to the battlefield was easy, courtesy of the US military, whose helicopters functioned like taxis, ferrying Page and his colleagues to war by day and back home by nightfall to favourite Saigon bars awash in sex and mind-numbing drugs.
Fifty years on, descriptions of what life was like for Western journalists in Vietnam seem almost quaint. Long gone are the days when they could swan in and out of combat, à la Page. Never again would they have such unrestricted access to the front lines. Gone too is the notion of journalists as neutral observers of conflict, tolerated and accepted by combatants as part of the landscape of war. Instead, they are now firmly in the cross hairs of insurgents; the kidnap and murder of journalists Daniel Pearl and Jim Foley, to give but two examples, are a chilling reminder of their vulnerability. On June 22, Page and nine of his colleagues, representing two generations of the world’s finest war photographers, will gather in Toronto to discuss their careers and the changes they have been witness to over the years. Never before has such a stellar group come together, not to photograph, but instead to talk.
Beyond this confluence of skill and experience, there is another, more important, reason for us to pay attention. War photographers are visual historians. Their photographs tell a story of nations made and broken, of societies upended and lives forever altered. The images they capture speak to the worst and best of who we are, testimony to our species’ diabolical proclivity for destruction, but also to our deep reserves of compassion and resilience. In short, their images, attained at great personal cost over the past 50 years, frame the human spirit with all its maddening, heartbreaking and uplifting contradictions.
There is, however, a third reason, most important of all, why we need to hear what the great war photographers have to say. We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Events that take place far from the comfort and security of our homes have the ability to impact our lives in ways big and small. If we are to understand why well-educated men fly planes into skyscrapers or why an unprecedented number of people are on the move across the globe, braving rough seas, unwelcoming borders and unscrupulous traffickers, then look closely at the images of these photographers and listen to what they have to say. For they have seen it all – no second-hand knowledge here. War photography, more than any other type of conflict journalism, demands proximity to the event and there is simply no substitute for bearing witness with a gimlet eye.
“Shooting War” gives voice to two generations of war photographers. It also highlights, as it was meant to do from the very outset of the project, the high price that comes with this work. Those who enter the vortex of conflict seldom if ever emerge unscathed. Reflect on the following: Joao Silva and Tim Page were grievously wounded. Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya, and Chim Seymour was killed in Suez. Santiago Lyon, Ashley Gilbertson and Carol Guzy were brought down by PTSD. Yannis Behrakis became depressed to the point of contemplating suicide. Sebastiao Salgado was crushed as much by a spiritual as a physical exhaustion. And Corinne Dufka and Don McCullin have been haunted by the shame and guilt that comes from a conviction that one’s career has been built on the suffering of others. Being able to talk and write about difficulties like these, particularly the psychological consequences of exposure to war, represents a sea of change in attitudes amongst the media. With the dangers confronted by photojournalists escalating and the range of threats increasing, such a discussion has never been more important.
Which takes me back almost half a century to Tim Page and his work during the Vietnam War. What befell him offers a salutary lesson, and one that some in his profession have done well to heed. Notwithstanding the hedonistic delights of wartime Saigon, being mentored by two celebrated photojournalists, Henri Huet and Larry Burrows (both would be killed in Vietnam), the chance to rub shoulders with the elite in his business, and the good money and fame that came with six-page spreads in Life Magazine, the war never ended well for Page. A fifth injury in April, 1969, with shrapnel to the brain, three cardiac arrests and life-saving neurosurgery finally put an end to his time in Vietnam.
The surgeons did their job well. But no medical specialist ever asked him how he was feeling emotionally. It was PTSD, depression and substance abuse – the toxic trinity – not bullets, mortars and shrapnel that crushed him and from which he took years to surface. This, too, is the lesson learned from 50 years of photographing war. It has taken decades for war photographers, and conflict journalists in general, to begin speaking about this. Yet one more reason for us to hear from them.
Shooting War, presented by The Globe and Mail, features 11 of the world’s best-known conflict photographers in conversation with Dr. Anthony Feinstein and The Globe’s editor-in-chief, David Walmsley. The event will take place on June 21 and 22 in Toronto. For event information, visit tgam.ca/ShootingWarEvent