Thursday, June 13, 2013

War Photographer

At the beginning of each term, as I face a new class, I always ask my students what specialization they wish to get into. Nowadays, it’s mostly fashion or travel, but I came upon a demure, slim, very feminine looking girl – probably 18 0r 19 years old – who very shyly said “war photography.” I wasn’t sure that I heard her right, so I asked again, and in almost a whisper, she repeated, “War photography. I would like to be a war correspondent.”

I was intrigued. I asked her why she had thought of becoming a war photographer. She said that as a child, she came upon some black-and-white war pictures and saw the strong emotions portrayed in them, and since then, she has been wanting to do the same kind of powerful imagery. She wanted her photographs to be memorable.

Since I did not want to pay singular attention to her, I moved on to ask the others, but I continued to be intrigued by her ambition, since it seemed inconsistent with her appearance and demeanor.

On our third session, we delved deeper into the different genres and the personal characteristics of the photographers pursuing each specialization – that someone who would like to do fashion photography would do well being fashionable herself, that a landscape photographer should be an early riser to catch the fleeting sunrise of a beautiful morning. That someone who wanted fixed hours should not do advertising photography, which we know demands work beyond normal hours, but probably should work in a portrait studio in a mall. As I went through each of my  students’ choices, I named a few very well known photographers who represented each genre.

When we touched on war photography, I named a famous Filipino photographer who had covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan but somehow, in an effort to put across the message that war photography has its own intrinsic risks and extraordinary demands, I got drawn to cite John’s own experiences while covering coup détats. I related that I would be nervously praying for his safety every time he left the house for such assignments. At that time, the military was restive and John was doing photography for Asiaweek.

I asked her if her family would be able to accept the risks that she would face as a war photographer. She did not answer. Is she physically fit and mentally agile?  Would she be able to think on her feet to make split-second decisions that may be necessary to save her own life?

A scene flashed in my head – of a story that I heard from John, and for which I am eternally grateful that he survived and I did not have to witness. He was covering one of a few attempts to overthrow the Corazon Aquino administration. John said that he had aimed his camera at a soldier, a bit far from him but within the range of his telephoto lens, who was aiming his rifle at a civilian, when suddenly, he found the end of the soldier’s gun aimed at him. For a nanosecond, he froze, then realized that he had to disengage from this encounter. Understanding that the soldier must have been also tense at the moment, he did not want the soldier to further feel challenged, so without looking at him, and in the slowest manner, he turned his telephoto away from the soldier and downward to the ground. He pivoted his body to also turn away from him, took a well-planned step, again in the same slow-motion fashion that made a few seconds seem like eternity. Still curious as to how the soldier was reacting to him, he caught from the corner of his eye that the soldier also turned and walked away from where he stood. John withheld even a sigh of relief so as not to call further attention to his presence. During that tense moment, the last thing he wanted to hear was the sound of a gunshot, since silence meant that he was still alive.

After covering a few coup d états, John was starting to believe that he would make a good war correspondent.  He probably would have, but it would have come at the expense of my sanity. He told me that if he didn’t have a family, he would have gone. I am glad and grateful that he went back to being an advertising photographer. It’s not exactly an uneventful life – something that is hard to do with John - but at least we were far from a war photographer’s daily dose of life-or-death situations.

I hope my student listened to my narrative about John. It was not just a story -  it was my personal plea for her to reconsider her choice of a career in photography. But then, I know of course, that it is her decision and not mine.