The death of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherton shook the world of photojournalism.
Last week, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, met with the photographers Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Mr. Silva is recovering from the grave injuries he suffered — including the loss of his legs — when a land mine exploded under him in Afghanistan. Mr. Marinovich and Mr. Silva are the authors of “The Bang-Bang Club” (2000), an account of the tumultuous end of apartheid in South Africa that was made into a movie in 2010. Their conversation, which served as the basis for Mr. Keller’s column in The Times Magazine this week, is presented here in full, with minor editing and condensing.
Keller: How’s the rehab going?
Silva: The walking, the prosthetics and all that kind of stuff is actually going exceptionally well. It kind of lifts your spirits up. The rest is what’s letting me down. The matter of the surgery cycle 18 days ago. It was a major surgery just to reconstruct the anal and urethral passage. It’s been a success, by all accounts, but since then, I’ve been stuck with all sorts of secondary infections that have been taking a toll on my system. And, in fact, I’m about to receive two units of blood, so I’m not out of the woods yet.
Keller: How much time do you spend on your new legs?
Silva: Usually about an hour and a half every day. I have two P.T. sessions — one in the morning, where I usually do actual physical exercises; upper-body strengthening and all that kind of stuff, working with weights. And stretching exercises. That’s been working pretty good. I’ve been able to regain a lot of my muscle mass. Then, in the afternoons, that’s when I usually walk with the prosthetics. That’s usually an hour or an hour and a half every day.
Keller: Can you go off the grounds on your legs?
Silva: No, no, no. I’m far from there. I’m still walking between the parallel bars. When I walk the circuit, which is an oval around the actual P.T. area, I walk with walkers and I am assisted from behind. It will take a few months before I can actually stand on my own.
Marinovich: How’s the balance feel? Is it dreadful?
Silva: No, the balance is pretty good. I have a natural step, so that’s the one good thing.
Keller: What’s a natural step?
Silva: Basically, I took to it immediately. From the minute they put the prosthetics on, I walked the natural pace. Because initially, you have to fit the prosthetics while you walk, to get the robotic momentum with the leg which has the artificial knee. My walk is very smooth. I took to it quite easily.
Keller: So now, the main issue is infection. The curse of hospitals.
Silva: Yes, secondary infections. My system being weakened as a result, it’s taking its toll.
Marinovich: This stuff is actually deadly. If it was just the legs, you could be an outpatient.
Silva: If it was just the prosthetics, it would take 6 to 10 weeks, and you’d be out of here. You’d become an outpatient and be coming in for your rehab. But I have this left tube coming out of my side, so it’s going to take a while. But we’ll see.
Keller: You guys know better than I do that it’s been a hard season for combat photographers — Chris [Hondros] and Tim [Hetherington], most recently. I date the start of the season to last October [when Joao was injured], but we’ve had Tyler [Hicks] and Lynsey [Addario] arrested in Libya. You probably know that Jehad [Nga] also spent a few days being roughed up by the Libyan authorities. And that’s just the Times people.
Silva: It’s the nature of the beast, you know? If you go back to Vietnam, photographers were killed and photographers went missing, never to be heard of again.
Marinovich: And World War II. How many people got killed? Nobody even counted them, actually.
I have this great difficulty with this sentimentalization of what happens to journalists in war zones. We go there voluntarily. We have a privileged position because we can leave when the going gets tough. And often, you have money, which makes a huge difference in your safety. Not that I think that journalists should get hurt and that I don’t have any sympathy.
Joao is my best friend and someone who has had something happen to him. But I don’t think we should start wailing about the safety of journalists in war zones. Most of it’s incidental casualties, when people are not targeted. Because it’s chaos in Afghanistan. There are land mines everywhere, so it’s almost impossible that this kind of thing is not going to happen if people keep going back or keep getting sent back. It’s going to happen.
Silva: No doubt. In terms of the kind of sentiment that’s in the air right now, I think it’s fair for us to mourn those who do get killed out there. I think it’s fair that the community feels somewhat under siege right now, because so much is out there. And it is a small group of people in the end. It’s just the way it is.
Keller: What is it about this particular moment? Is it something about Libya?
Silva: There will always be casualties in war zones. It’s an unusual time right now.
Marinovich: I think it’s access. As photographers — and we don’t really discuss this — the best time for getting pictures is within the first weeks of any combat. The most promising pictures come out when you get access. That’s kind of my rule. You get the best images at transitional phases, often at opening transitional phases. Then things become formalized and everyone knows what the scene is. Even in Croatia or Bosnia, you could work there in reasonable safety, no matter how horrible it was. This was because you kind of knew where everything was set.
With this current Arab uprising, there are no rules. Libya: on the one side, you have a formal army that is clearly not going to adhere to any rules, but they’re organized; on the other side, you have people who have no idea what they are doing. But since the world is very swiftly supporting them, they want foreign press there, and they let you do anything you want. You look at Chris Hondros’s pictures, I think the last pictures he filed. I don’t know how it happened, but they’re in a building with these guys shooting around and going up the stairwells. Those are like suicide pictures.
They [the Libyan rebels] get into unpredictable things. That’s the problem. No matter what you factor into your risk factor, if you deal with people that you aren’t familiar with, and you don’t share the same language, it’s a real problem. It pushes the danger. And a lot of these journalists get caught because they’re not sure where the front line is. Nobody knows where the front line is. It’s a weird situation.
Silva: And when you see that through the mind of an inexperienced photographer: they see the images come in, they assume and realize that access is available, and they go out to make their names.
Keller: But you guys did that once.
Marinovich: Oh, yeah. We’re not knocking it. But essentially, it’s really dangerous.
Keller: This is a question that I know you guys wrestled with a lot for the book, and it’s still something that puzzles people, which is: why do people do this?
“It becomes your identity in so many ways. This is my identity. This is all I’m known for. Nobody sends me out to go shoot beautiful pictures for travel articles, you know?”
Marinovich: It puzzles my wife.
Silva: The reason why I continue doing this and writing the book — my focus has always been to be on the edge of history. I’ve always wanted to show the reality of war to those who are fortunate enough not to live in a war zone. That’s pretty much my standard answer. I think if you go deep down, it’s a lot more complex than that. That’s just how we rationalize this. But, certainly, being on the edge of history is real, you know? Those few moments of adrenaline, which are very short; those few bursts of activity. I think it’s complex. It’s not just one single answer as to why we do this kind of stuff.
We do it because it’s there, we do it because we can, and because there is a need for the world to know. And we can go out there and do it.
Keller: Last time we were talking, it sounded like you wanted to go back to that kind of coverage.
Silva: If I could, yeah.
Keller: And you’ve been wounded four times, right, Greg? And at some point, you decided, or your family decided, that was enough. Is it hard to get out of? Is it hard to take yourself away from it?
Marinovich: It was. Because there’s a whole lot of fun involved in this stuff. There is, like what Joao mentioned, this feeling that you’re on the cusp of history. History in the making.
Silva: It becomes your identity in so many ways. This is my identity. This is all I’m known for. Nobody sends me out to go shoot beautiful pictures for travel articles, you know?
Keller: But if you did go out to shoot beautiful pictures for travel articles, or portraits, or sporting events.
Silva: I think I struggle with sporting events.
Keller: O.K., but if you were out doing some other kind of job that didn’t have the intensity or danger, would that satisfy you?
Silva: Sure. And you know, working for The Times, it’s not just full combat. There’s so much more. So my career has been to cover as much conflict as I’ve allowed myself to get into, but for The New York Times, there’s so much more to the job than just combat.
Keller: But you feel an appetite to go back and do combat.
Silva: I would like to, but with my legs blown out, and going through this difficult recovery, it’s very easy for me to say that I want to go back. Because I won’t know for a long time whether I’ll be able to go back. I wish I was in Libya right now.
Keller: You wish you were in Libya?
Silva: Yeah, without a doubt.
Marinovich: If this hadn’t happened, or if you were in a position physically, you would go back?
Silva: If I was in the position to, yeah. Why not?
Marinovich: Why not? You’re asking me? I don’t know, what about your family, Joao?
Silva: The families are very brave. But the reality is that I’m stuck. It’s all academic at this point.
Keller: Do you have a feeling that you have to get back on the horse again after you’ve been thrown off? That you have to go back and prove something to yourself?
Silva: I don’t feel that. Not at all. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there will always be another war, there will always be another conflict. It all depends on what kind of human being I turn out to be after all of this, what kind of man am I going to be. My wishes and my wants are irrelevant. All is uncertain.
Marinovich: Honestly speaking, whether you want to go back or not is not your choice, in many ways, even if you’re physically able. One day, you’ll be in a physical state to go back.
Silva: Then we’ll see and we’ll decide. We haven’t reached that yet. Right now, I’m having a blood transfusion.
Marinovich: Well, if your prosthetic is good.
Silva: I’m moving around slowly.
Marinovich: But you’re also putting the people around you in danger. You’ll be putting yourself in a difficult situation.
Silva: I haven’t touched the topic yet, but what I’m going to be at the end of this totally depends on the good doctors and how much they are able to repair.
Keller: Do you miss it, Greg?
Marinovich: I do miss it. But I had a different approach than Joao. I would have to overcome my fear, whereas Joao has a lower place of fear. It’s like when you see people, they freeze under fear. And other people become violent. They divert the violence so that it doesn’t get onto them, but there are so many responses to fear.
And then there’s the judgment call as to when you’re going to be courageous and when you’re not. It’s difficult. It’s all about self-control, and Joao has remarkable self-control. I think the one time we actually discussed the situation was in Chechnya, in ’95, when the rebels were trying to take a town. I was the only person outside, and the rebels were telling me to go here and there. And I see all these fighters eating watermelons. Then the people started cheering, eating watermelons, and it was like, ‘O.K., that’s good.’ And suddenly, a Russian tank arrives. The fighters are climbing all over the tank and these rebels are firing up their RPG’s [rocket-propelled grenades] to take on the tank.
What do you do? You just keep photographing, because where are you going to run from a tank? Then you start thinking and you start sidling, and if it doesn’t happen in the first 10 seconds, you have time to do something. Then it’s absolutely terrifying. “I’m just here to take pictures.” But that was truly scary and if I had the choice, I would have transported myself anywhere. But I couldn’t. So you just deal with the fear and you shoot a picture. I think Joao has a different approach, actually.
Silva: I don’t know. I just shoot pictures. That’s it. It’s kind of simple.
Joao Silva/Associated Press Greg Marinovich, above, was wounded in Thokoza township, South Africa, in an incident that cost the photographer Ken Oosterbroek his life. April 18, 1994.
Keller: So — your family. What about your family? This kind of work gets really hard on families.
Silva: It is. Especially time away from your family.
Keller: It’s hard on families in other ways, too. They worry about you.
Silva: It is. It’s hard. Fortunately, I have a very supportive wife. She’s been around from the very start. She understands that this is always what I’ve wanted to do, and where my focus has always been and where I’ve been most comfortable. This is all I know. This is how I have kept my family fed and my kids clothed.
And again, I want to stress that this is not all we do. Only a portion of our time — or at least a portion of my time — is spent in a war zone. Most of the time, I’m traveling with correspondents, and not necessarily in a war zone. It’s only six months of the year. The other six months, I’m doing something else. I think that’s the truth for most war photographers. During this period, it’s really hard on your family. But family is very important. My parents are still alive. Family’s all I’ve got.
Marinovich: It’s all about making a living. If you think about how the Times contract works, you can feed the cats on that, essentially. When he goes to conflict zones, suddenly there’s a block of time where you’re paid for every day. You’re living on expenses. So that becomes financially viable. That is part of what you factor into your thinking and your lifestyle. That’s how it goes. For me, when I gave up, I’m not sure if there was a definite day-to-day decision.
Silva: You pretty much made up your mind right there.
Keller: Was it one event that did it?
Marinovich: We were having too good of a time in the war zone.
Silva: We were with [Ahmad Shah] Massoud’s people and the Taliban. Massoud was making ground.
Marinovich: The whole thing is more complicated than that. It was scary.
Silva: The minute we landed, we got attacked. We literally had just stepped off the helicopter and started getting hammered — all around us. We took cover in a building, and we started getting hammered by bees because the beehive had been rattled from all the bombing, and the bees just started attacking. We started running, and at that point, between the bee stings and the bombs, we decided to go for the bombs. So we went to a completely different building, which had decent coverage. It was like a woodshed. All because of the bees. So that was the beginning. We had barely landed and the planes came at us.
Marinovich: And a week later, I felt really bad. We discussed that I was going to leave, then he and Dominic [Cunningham-Reid] said that I couldn’t because we had to leave together. So I said, ‘O.K., I’ll stay on a few more days until we finish the trip.’ Nothing much happened. The first day or two after the last three skittish days, the adrenaline took over again. We were at the front line and getting good pictures, good footage.
And then these guys — even Massoud’s guys, who fought the Soviets, who knew everything — made such a blunder. They headed back to where we’d been taking fire, and of course, the Taliban were watching. When they came back to the same place, mortar hit the building and it eventually hit me. It was actually quite bizarre, because I had just switched off the camera, you know, to save the batteries. But if I had turned it on, I would have caught the whole thing. And it took hours for medical aid to arrive.
Keller: What were your injuries?
Marinovich: Split open the lip and lost these two teeth.
Keller: Do you count this as one of your four injuries?
Marinovich: Yes. You take what you can get, right?
Keller: Four Purple Hearts for you.
Marinovich: Four Purple Hearts. I think we get the Pink Hearts. But it took two or three hours before we got to some guy, who was, like, the neighborhood vet. He wasn’t even a vet. He wasn’t anything. He was just the guy who decided that he would be the medic. He sewed up all the people there. Look. No scar.
Keller: Yep, no scar. He did a good job. I wonder where that guy is. Maybe running a hospital somewhere.
Silva: Yeah, reading this and saying, “How dare you call me a veterinarian!”
Keller: What year was this?
Keller: And that was the last time you went out for that kind of assignment?
Marinovich: Yep. At that stage, I could get any assignment I wanted. I switched jobs and my income plummeted. It was difficult. Then, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, I got a call from Fox, saying that they were going to pay big money. But I was like, “I just got married.” And they said, “We’ll pay for her, too.” And we thought, “Cool, but no.”
Keller: Did your wife [Leonie Marinovich] ever do combat?
Marinovich: She did. Last year, we were in Sharpeville [South Africa] and there were protests, some corruption. Still a combat zone.
Keller: I ask because you guys understand something about each other that your wives probably don’t.
Marinovich: Yeah, she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t choose to. She just gets [angry]. Not with the cause, but the concept of, why would you go if you’ve got kids?
Keller: Joao, does Viv have any of that?
Silva: Yeah, now she does. And if I say that I’ll go back into these places, she’ll probably hang me from the roof.
Keller: I realized that the Bang-Bang Club wasn’t really a club, but in a way, a notion that the “club” part of that phrase is more important than the “bang bang” — the intensity of the relationships among the people who do this.
“Bonds grow. It’s intense out there, and out of that intensity, bonds form that are inexplicable to anybody else. People just don’t get it. You have to be there and you have to live it.”
Silva: And that’s really true today. I was here with Michael [Kamber] when the news broke [about Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros]. Michael was heartbroken. He was in tears, hanging onto me. I’m pretty emotional. Then Tyler walks in, and he’s all emotional, too. It still exists today, it’s out there. There’s a deep, heartfelt angst for your comrades who are out there. It’s true today. Bonds grow. It’s intense out there, and out of that intensity, bonds form that are inexplicable to anybody else. People just don’t get it. You have to be there and you have to live it.
Keller: Does it harden you emotionally in some ways, being exposed to that much awfulness?
Silva: Yeah, me neither.
Marinovich: There are essentially two kinds of beasts out there amongst war correspondents and people who cover conflicts. There are beasts who are decent human beings, and then there are beasts who are not decent human beings. The center of community and camaraderie is essentially amongst people who find common ground. The thing is, you see how people respond to danger and how selfish they are or how willing they are to help the people you work with.
This is why World War II vets think that World War II was the best time of their lives, right? Because you cut through the varnish — what people say and what they really mean, and what they will do for you in a really tight situation and what they’ll do for strangers in a tight situation. This is where the bonds really come from. This is why certain people stay friends and others you steer clear of, because they don’t go by your yardstick. It’s difficult to find that center of humanity and where that humanity lies. If there are people who are purely ambitious and are only doing this just for the ambition —
Silva: But that’s O.K., too.
Marinovich: I’m not saying it’s not, but those aren’t the people I bond with.
Silva: It’s O.K. to be ambitious and do this for your own ambitions and fame. People have a fascination with what we do, you know? Right or wrong, people complain about how when one journalist dies, there’s all this media. The bottom line is that many people who complain are fascinated by what we do and what we are. They don’t understand us, as much as we don’t understand ourselves for the most part.
Marinovich: Why should we understand ourselves?
Keller: Let’s go through the mythology. One of the myths is that combat photography gives you a hard shell. Another one is that you’re all cowboys. Another one is that you’re all vultures.
Marinovich: That might be the only thing that might be true.
Silva: At times, I agree. When you’re running around people who are firing RPGs, those are the fun times. That’s actually pretty cool.
Marinovich: Because they are not victims.
Silva: The hard times are when you actually have to force yourself to photograph, say, a mother holding a dead child, or a brother weeping over his brother’s corpse — whatever the case may be. At that moment, you know you’re in trouble. But you force yourself beyond that. It’s simply important to show those moments, so you go beyond that initial phase and you photograph that, even though you feel like a vulture. You feel like you’re intruding beyond, but you do it. You force yourself because it’s important. Civilian casualties are important.
Marinovich: And being vultures is a part of it.
Silva: We have to show those. For an outsider, it’s easy to perceive us as vultures, when you see us walking through pools of blood and corpses just to get that perfect shot that will aesthetically show the situation as best as you can so it can be printable in a newspaper. So yeah, we will be perceived as vultures. But in many ways internally — at least speaking for myself — I know that I’m out of place. I feel it all the time. Give me combat any day. Give me the bang bang. It’s very exciting. And during combat, if one of them gets hurt, it’s fair game. It’s what they do. But the civilian casualties side of it, it’s heartbreaking.
Marinovich: You do not change. You are the person who went in when you come out. You will just have gone through more experience and different experience. But it’s not going to intrinsically change who you are. I’ve never seen anyone intrinsically change.
Silva: I think people can expand. I think people can learn from situations.
Marinovich: They’re not going to transform, though.
Silva: I don’t know. I think it’s a silly way of looking at it. I have more faith in humanity than anything. Somebody can come out of these situations a little changed.
Keller: I’ve known reporters who have come out of combat — horror stories — who came out with something like PTSD, who were really damaged by what they covered.
Marinovich: I think “damaged” is slightly different than “changed.”
Keller: As long as we’re talking about vultures, I’m going to take it back to Kevin [Carter], which you guys wrestled with in the book. He took a huge amount of flak [for not helping an emaciated girl whom he photographed at a feeding center in southern Sudan with a vulture nearby] and gave different answers to exactly what happened. Do you feel like you know what happened?
Silva: The kid was where she should have been. She was in a feeding center, within walking distance of one of those type of tents. If you look at Kevin’s pictures, there’s a village in the background. The child was not abandoned. The other children were face down in the dirt like that. I wasn’t there when Kevin photographed it. If I had been there —
Marinovich: You would have been in line with Kevin for the Pulitzer.
Silva: Yeah, exactly. But I wasn’t. I finally made it there. We were only on the ground for a few hours in that ridiculous spot. He was very emotional. He was clearly affected by what he had seen, and he was talking about going back to his daughter, Megan.
That’s another thing about photography: it’s up to individual interpretation. People wake up in the morning and they see the front of their newspaper and go, “Wow!” And they project their own fears into it. There will be misconceptions. There was absolutely nothing to help. The child was within walking distance of the feeding center. Kevin claimed to have chased the vulture — it’s cool, and it’s all good and done, and they reasoned that someone picked up the child and moved her 20 meters closer to the feeding center.
Marinovich: I think the problem is that the other absolute issue was that the child wasn’t helped. There were people there to help the child. I spoke to an aid worker who was based in Sudan at the time. She said there was no issue. The child was there, and it was fine. It was all over like that. But the problem is: if I was Kevin, and I hadn’t done that, and was asked why I hadn’t helped the kid — what the hell am I going to say? That is the problem: the shame. And that’s what Kevin felt. He was ashamed. Sometimes we fail our own moral compass, our own emotional compass. Kevin was a bloody warm, generous and fantastic guy and I’m surprised that he didn’t pick up the kid, just to make himself feel better.
Keller: The Bang-Bang Club. Do you guys think a lot about those days?
Marinovich: Only when I’m asked.
Silva: During the movie period, we did. At least, I did. Because you’re going on set and you’re reliving it. A lot of it is being re-enacted right in front of you, and you start associating with all the characters, and in your mind, you’re living those days. Every single scene. You relive all that stuff.
It was an emotional roller coaster for that month that we were on set. Even beyond the filming, it took another month to decompress. I remember, for my part of the consultation, I kept my week short because I had already postponed my rotation in Afghanistan. I just couldn’t postpone it again. I went in to do my rotation. Even during that period, when I was there, a part of my mind was still thinking about Africa and what they had done with Kevin’s character. I remember I told the director, “Be kind to Kevin’s character.” Because there was always an uncertainty as to what he was going to do. The Kurt Cobain of photography.
Keller: The movie aside, did you feel like there were lessons to be learned from those early days?
Silva: That’s a tough question.
Keller: Let me rephrase that. Say, if some photographer comes up to you guys, someone in his 20s, and he says, “I want to go and do this kind of thing” — what do you say to that?
Silva: I don’t know I’d discourage him. I might make him try to understand certain realities and make sure he goes in with his eyes wide open. I wouldn’t discourage anybody. I’m not here to save anybody from themselves. But it’s good with the experience that you have to try to empower him with some sort of knowledge as to what he’s potentially diving into. There’s an emotional price that’s associated with it. And then there can be a physical price. It can cost you a life, as you’ve seen. It’s not my place to discourage him. But it is my place to educate. I can educate. With 20 years of experience, I can educate.
Keller: What would you want that kid to know especially?
“Despite what people have believed, I have never had a death wish. The first prize has always been to come home after an assignment.”
Silva: I’d want him to understand — if he really wants to follow the combat aspect — that what he is getting himself into potentially could cost him his life and no picture is necessarily worth it. Despite what people have believed, I have never had a death wish. The first prize has always been to come home after an assignment. I’d want to make these things very clear to him before he embarks on his first adventure. You don’t know what you’re going to encounter. You just go and you deal with things as they happen — be it whatever the case may be — until you get yourself in the kill zone and whatever you’re going to find there: sometimes nothing, sometimes something, sometimes more than you expect.
Marinovich: I do tend to try and discourage people. I just think, “I’m too tired to go into that process, quite honestly.” Don’t do it unless you absolutely understand what it is you’re getting yourself into and what you’re doing. What can you tell someone? People don’t learn by listening. Nobody listens to what people say, so I’ve just kind of said, “Find another career.”
Silva: I’m a little more benevolent than that. But Greg is right. People are usually going to do it once they’ve spoken to you about it. The decision has already been made.
Marinovich: They’re looking for reinforcement.
Silva: They look at you and they think, “If you can do it, I can do it.” By the time they’ve come to the asking phase, 99 percent have already made up their minds that they are going to do it. And they will do it. I see a lot of young photographers from South Africa or from younger generations than ours doing it. They’re all in Libya. They’re kind of following in our footsteps, emulating our moves. You’re not going to stop people from doing it. Forget it.
Marinovich: But I’m not going to encourage them.
Silva: There’s no glamour in this field.
Marinovich: There are moments of glamour.
Silva: Like what?
Marinovich: I don’t know. Like when you haven’t had a bath in three weeks and you take off your boots, and you think: “Should I throw these socks away? Is it worth it? Am I going to get blisters?” It’s very glamorous.
Silva: But it’s certainly an education.
Marinovich: It is, and I certainly wouldn’t undo it. There are some things that I wish I had never seen, quite honestly, but I think the insights and experiences I’ve gained are very privileged. We really are very privileged. As a journalist, you get into other people’s lives.
Keller: I wanted to ask whether you had any thoughts on what the boss’s obligations are — the people who send you off to do this and who pay you.
Silva: I think the obligations are clear. If you send anybody into these zones, then you’re committed to full responsibility for that person. Good or bad. If that person gets blown up, as I did, then I think it’s the employer’s responsibility, too. And if I screw up and drag The New York Times’s name through the mud, it’s equal responsibility.
Keller: I certainly agree with that. Don’t you think we also have an obligation to make clear that when we say the standard line — that no story is worth your life — that we actually mean it?
Silva: Sure. I understand that. When I got blown up, I wasn’t pushing the envelope. On those numerous patrols that I’ve been on, I’ve shot numerous pictures like those, which were — for the most part — pretty damn boring. Pictures become pretty damn repetitive. That was what the story was about: the changing face of the war. I don’t think anyone wants to get blown up for a picture. Nobody wants to get shot for a picture. That wasn’t Chris or Tim’s motive that morning. They didn’t wake up that morning thinking, “I’m going to push the envelope today like I’ve never pushed it before.” You’re following guys with guns. You do whatever they do. You go wherever they go. You have to follow them. That’s what they’re doing. You’re caught up in that vortex, and you follow through. I think we clearly understand that.
Marinovich: I think there are employers who understand what putting someone in a conflict zone means and there are employers who have no clue. And there are employers who understand and don’t care. And then there are employers who think, “Well, it’s up to the person on the ground to make the final call, essentially.” Which it is.
The problem is that it becomes technically tricky. Do you look after somebody because they’re on staff, or do you look after somebody because they are doing it for you? I’m not just talking about The New York Times, I’m generally talking. If you hire somebody for 24 hours to go and report for your staff writer in a war zone, I think you have to be prepared to accept the responsibility. Or don’t do it. You want those people to know that you support them, and what that support means. It mustn’t be vague. It mustn’t be dependent on good will or their relationship. It must be crystal clear: these are the guidelines. A lot of the people who get injured are freelancers.
This was one of the reasons I stopped. Because every time I got wounded, I was freelance. The first time was for Newsweek, who took no responsibility whatsoever. They paid for the medical bill. The other times were all freelance. For months, you’re out of commission. The world moves on, and you’re in this stupid position. I’m a very firm believer that when I’m assigning and employing someone to do a job, via work-for-hire or permanent staffer, you have to accept what you want to get out of them.
Some organizations are very serious about that and have taken people who are put in conflict zones into training courses, which is great. It will all help. The converse of that is that if you want to go out and do conflict zones, you must also accept responsibility for that for yourself. You have a choice. You can say yes or no. You can’t become bitter and twisted. These are the choices you make. It’s difficult. The world has turned into a place where it’s all work-for-hire. Organizations need to take responsibility.
Keller: Well, at least combat photography is one specialty where it’s not so likely that the citizen journalist is going to push you out of the way.
Marinovich: I completely disagree.
Silva: Yeah, totally. Because a lot of the fighters are getting cameras and videophones. They’re filming their own stuff and they’re getting a lot better footage than what you’ll ever get.
Keller: And where does it show up?
Silva: YouTube seems to be the market right now.
Keller: Right. But that doesn’t pay so well.
Silva: It doesn’t pay, but you’re getting the message out. These guys don’t really care about payment. They care about getting their picture out there.
Marinovich: I believe it’s less stills and more videos.
Silva: Yeah, it’s all video.
Marinovich: But I think stills haven’t quite got that. Just like in our world, nobody takes stills as seriously.
Silva: It’s always been at the bottom of the food chain.
Keller: So you think that even in this incredibly risky and incredibly specialized form of journalism, the so-called citizen journalist is poised to crowd you out of the workplace?
“Whether you shoot a thousand pictures or you shoot 10 to get a good one, who cares? The pictures get run all the time. You see it with the paparazzi and the celeb pictures. Nobody cares about the quality of the picture. Nobody cares about whether it was taken with good ethics. Nobody cares, they just want it.”
Marinovich: It’s happened — not in a direct way but because citizen journalism and noncraft photographers can now take good pictures with their equipment. Whether you shoot a thousand pictures or you shoot 10 to get a good one, who cares? The pictures get run all the time. You see it with the paparazzi and the celeb pictures. Nobody cares about the quality of the picture. Nobody cares about whether it was taken with good ethics. Nobody cares, they just want it.
What happens with that is that there are less and less assignments. So then you have to rely on the war assignments because that’s a specialized niche. You can’t survive on that. So since there’s less and less work, I have to go do something else. That’s for photojournalism as a whole. Conflict photography is just a subset of photojournalism, which is now getting squeezed and becoming unviable for the middle ground of people who are making a living. I didn’t just do conflict photography. It was a percentage of what I did. If you can’t make a living, conflict photography will disappear as well.
Keller: I wanted to ask about embedding.
Marinovich: For me, I’ve never done it.
Keller: What do you mean? You’ve embedded with Massoud’s people.
Marinovich: That’s a form of embedding?
Keller: Yes, that’s a form of embedding. The thing is that it’s not just the American military, when you go into a conflict zone you’re going in with one side or the other.
Silva: Exactly. You go with the side that gives you the most access, quite frankly. That’s how it usually works. You go to the side that gives you access to the pictures.
Keller: You travel with guys. You share food with them. You share danger with them. How do you not feel like you’ve taken sides? You took a lot of flak for those pictures with that job [covering the Mahdi Army as it battled American forces in Najaf, Iraq, in 2004].
Silva: Yeah, I took a lot of flak. The paper took a lot of flak.
Keller: I know. I remember.
Silva: The way I see it: I’m an objective journalist. I had covered the U.S. side numerous times. In that particular frame in time in that condensed history, it was possible to still cover the other side of the conflict. You know, there’s always two sides to conflict and very seldom is one able to do that. At the time, I wasn’t the only one who did it. Stephen Farrell, for one. Dexter [Filkins] was with me. Sabrina [Tavernise] was with me. We crossed American lines every time we were going into the city.
So do you choose sides? No, not really. But it was important to be able to show both aspects of this conflict, to try to understand who the enemy is. And The New York Times was a unique newspaper at the time that did photography from both sides. Therefore, the coverage was exceptional. I think, as a journalist: mission accomplished. I can’t understand it when people perceive it to be besides that, especially American readership.
But I do understand if you have a son fighting in the armed forces, or you might know someone who has lost his son, where that antagonism comes from. But from my point of view, I was just being a professional. The opportunity became available and I took it. It was simple as that. I still maintain the idea that it was important to show both aspects of any conflict. For that particular battle, which lasted a month, it was possible to do so. But that’s no longer the case.
Keller: In your recollection, what do the pictures from the Mahdi Army side of the battle add to the overall understanding?
Silva: Well, you get to see firsthand what you’re fighting and how well equipped they are. For instance, you have these guys running around in rags, you know? Tracksuits and sandals, and they’re out there putting their lives on the line and fighting against the mightiest army on the planet. There’s something to be learned from that. I’m sure the C.I.A. and all sorts were going through my pictures. You know? They were watching and seeing exactly what kind of weapons they had. So in a way, I was acting as a spy, which is why those guys don’t give access to Western journalists anymore. But I think it’s important to know who you’re fighting. I think it’s important to know the enemy.
Marinovich: That makes it sound like you consider yourself American.
Silva: No, not at all.
Marinovich: I know you don’t. That’s why I’m surprised.
Silva: I’m working for an American organization and in that perspective, I think it’s important for their readers to understand exactly who they were fighting. Because at that point nobody knew who these guys were and what they were capable of. As reporting both sides of a battle, we were unique in being able to do that because I decided to cross to the other side and see what was there. I was surprised that they were even open to Western journalists. They might not have been up at the front lines, but they were in the mosques and inside the shrines, which is where the Mahdi Army had their headquarters. They were being debriefed every day by the so-called Mahdi Army officials.
Marinovich: I thought obviously, of course, you must do that. Why would that even be an issue?
Silva: But it was an issue because it’s the military. But I’m O.K. with it. It’s important to educate these people, whether they understand that they’re being educated or not. They might not realize how valuable that was, how unique that was. I maintain that I was in the right. I did nothing wrong for a journalist. I was targeted because I was presenting it through the biggest media organization on the planet, so it was easy to find me as a target. But if you read what was going on in other organizations, like Newsweek, Time, The Guardian — they all had people in there. Even the Brits were in there. I mean, we don’t have anyone in embed with Qaddafi’s forces right now.
Marinovich: If I was doing this, I’d happily go on Qaddafi’s forces’ side. You photograph it and you’re showing what’s happening.
Silva: You’re documenting. What’s the big deal?
Marinovich: It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. It doesn’t matter what your personal opinion is. I don’t believe in objectivity. I think it’s a myth. I just think you have to be honest and truthful.
Silva: You’re exploiting the situation. It becomes available and you do it. That’s the natural state of photojournalism. What becomes available to you, you exploit to the maximum. Look at WikiLeaks — it’s all out there. I understand where people are coming from, since I’m working for an American audience. But it doesn’t faze me one way or the other. And those that wished ill upon me — well, their wish came true.
Keller: Jim Estrin was talking the other day and he was wondering — besides the napalm girl in Vietnam [by Nick Ut], the shooting by the general in Saigon [by Eddie Adams], maybe Kevin’s vulture — how many pictures feel like they change the world or change the consciousness in a significant way?
Silva: I don’t know. Very few, I think.
Marinovich: It’s part of a dialogue, really. It’s not a one-off event. It’s part of a conversation that society is having with itself. Some of these pictures are “wow, wow,” that really do it all on their own. But mostly, it’s really part of this information exchange.
Silva: Certainly with Vietnam, the amount of images coming in on a daily basis had an impact on the American psyche. But did it contribute to the war ending? I don’t know. I’m not a historian, but I certainly think that photojournalists play a small role in it ending some way. That war was very documented, American casualties even more so. The American public lost a taste for casualties a long time ago.
Marinovich: I think a lot has been made of the showing of casualties and the censorship from early on in the Iraq war; the censorship of bodies and allowing funerals to be shown.
Silva: Even casualties in the field. There were all sorts of restrictions. You had to get permission for it.
Keller: Supposedly, their concern was not showing Americans in that state. They played the family card.
Silva: And we play by those rules. There would be moments where it was possible and there would be moments which were very difficult, where we would be almost disembedded — most famously, the picture of the dead captain in the kitchen; Stefan Zaklin’s picture. They were trying to disembed him because of that picture. We’ve had our own people in trouble for similar stuff. But I think that’s the nature of the war. The war in Iraq was a much more political war than the one in Afghanistan. It’s changing now, but there was so much more at stake. With Obama, it’s a little bit easier. You see it with the amount of access we get: far better than the access we got in Iraq. But that’s just my opinion.
It’s complicated. Unfortunately, most people are looking for a simple answer to things, but they don’t exist. A lot of these questions that have been posed, there’s no single answer to them, actually. People ask me, “Why do you do it?” and such. I don’t really have the time. It’s complex.
Keller: So you’re mostly a writer now, correct?
Marinovich: No, I do a lot of photography, too.
Keller: What kind of photography do you do for money these days?
Marinovich: I do some corporate. Some journalism; in fact, some for the fine New York Times. I do video. I still do my own documentaries.
Keller: Video journalism?
Marinovich: I make films: documentary films, video journalism, whatever. I’ve done a lot of stuff for Unicef. It’s a mix of things, really. I do video editing. I still keep working on my own photographic projects, things I really care about. I don’t make much money from all that. It’s just a matter of getting it down and documented. But writing is something that I’m really interested in.
Keller: What have I neglected to ask?
Marinovich: It depends on what you’re going to write about. It depends on what angle you’re going to take.
Keller: My angle on every subject is that it’s more complicated than you think. The job is to get people to look beyond the caricature and the stereotype and understand — or at least accept that there are other dimensions. Because that’s the beginning of when you start to understand things. It’s a little like the question about how many pictures would actually change the world. Well, when we started running those WikiLeaks documents, people said, “These don’t profoundly change the way I think about the world.” But how much of journalism does that? Mostly, it just moves you a few inches, and that’s fine. It doesn’t have to completely overturn your understanding of the world. That’s just too high a standard to set.
Marinovich: You’d have very thin newspapers.
Keller: We’d have very thin newspapers. We would not publish very many articles. On the other hand, there would not be many people making a living doing it.
Silva: Yeah, but if you take one picture that changes one single person’s mind about one specific event or topic, I think you’ve accomplished something.
Marinovich: That would be a very powerful thing. But just because it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.
Silva: Some pictures shot in our lifetime might not have entirely changed the world, but may have had a huge impact. Kevin’s picture, for instance. Greg’s Pulitzer picture, for instance [showing supporters of South Africa’s African National Congress murdering a man they believed to be a Zulu spy]. They haven’t necessarily changed the world, but they had an impact.
Keller: They get people to pay attention to things that they weren’t paying attention to earlier.