A Conversation with Photographer Bruce Haley

Veteran photojournalist Bruce Haley has seen the worst of us. He’s covered conflicts stretching back to the Afghan battle against the Soviet Union. For his work on Burma’s bloody ethnic civil war, he received the Robert Capa Gold Medal, which honors photographic reporting that requires exceptional courage.

Ten years ago, Haley wrote a timeless essay calledThe Tao of War Photography, arguably more relevant today than when it was originally drafted. It’s part training manual and part memoir, mostly tragic and a little bit hilarious.We published the essay in our May/June issue, and we wanted more. Here’s a conversation betweenHaley and Utne Reader‘sJeff Severns Guntzel. To see more of Haley’s work, visit his website atwww.brucehaleypictures.com.

Utne Reader: Why did you write The Tao of War Photography?

Bruce Haley: Approximately. The piece came mostly from years of people saying ‘You should write a book!’ But that’s the polar opposite of what I want to be or what I want to do. My work is about the places and people that I photograph. It has nothing to do with my role in getting those photographs. This piece was the closest thing to the bullets-whizzing-around-me autobiography that anybody is ever going to get out of me.

I have some friends who are writers and they go: “Your true voice really comes through in this thing”–which means the sarcasm and dark humor. Every breath I take is laced with one or both. I take my work very, very seriously. I just don’t take myself seriously, you know what I mean?

UR: I interviewed this forensic anthropologist many years ago. He’d been digging in mass graves for decades–Guatemala, El Salvador, Iraq–digging up bodies with family and friends of the victims standing at his side watching and waiting. More than any other experience, he said, he witnessed the full range of human at the site of mass grave exhumations. Is that true of the conflict situations you’ve photographed?

BH: Certainly. I have some photographs on my website, in the Somalia section, from the height of the famine in 1992, where people are breaking down the gate of one of the compounds where the UN was trying to guard food–things were that desperate and furious. People are dying all over the place. And yet you can find people laughing. You know what I mean? These people are almost skeletal and yet they’ll find something to laugh about for a short period of time. You find that in these places–not to mention the more warped, black humor.

UR: In our first email exchange you pointed out, rightly, that you’ve done all  kinds of photography. You’re recent work is not war photography at all. But did having this piece go all over the place kind of put you back in that spot a little bit?

BH: Sure, and that’s fine.

UR: But was it hard? I’m guessing that when you put it up on your website, you didn’t expect it to go all over the place.

BH: No, I didn’t expect this. Especially places like Russian Esquire. The one thing that bothers me about the attention to the war work is that it opens up that can of worms about those execution photos. That was a huge clusterfuck in the beginning and a difficult time for me. Kill-the-messenger syndrome is always in full effect with that kind of thing.

UR: And that came back?

BH: Yeah. Somebody wrote and said, “Your credentials as a human being should be taken away from you.” When people write to me directly, sometimes I’ll answer them and say, “Hopefully I’ll see your war photography in few years.” And I never hear from them again.

UR: You handled the issue of the execution photos beautifully on your website, where you tell the story of one kid in particular, the vicious 18-year-old fighter whose parents were killed by government forces…

BH: Generational cycles of violence…

UR: You explain that whole cycle–the back story to your photos of this kid committing terrible violence.

BH: When your work is syndicated like mine was, you don’t have any control over the way it’s run. So you don’t know if any of the back story is going to be printed or if it’s just going to be used in some sensationalistic manner.

UR: Was the back story ever printed?

BH: It was, as part of a cover story for the London Sunday Times magazine, but that didn’t stave off any of the uproar. The Financial Times actually ran an editorial and some hotshot over there actually accused me of staging the pictures for the right camera angle. It’s ridiculous. I risked a lot getting all these pictures, obviously, and it comes from a place of wanting to get the word out about these little places that nobody pays much attention to. When I first started out doing that kind of work the number of journalists or photographers covering any given conflict was directly proportional to the closeness of booze and comfortable lodging. You go deep into Afghanistan or spent a lot of time in Burma and you’re not tripping over a lot of journalists in those places.

UR: I would imagine not.

BH: For a number of reasons. One: it’s difficult. Two: The magazines aren’t that interested. So it becomes a labor of love. You spend a lot of time and effort in these places to try to get the story out. Burma was that for me.

UR: Just in the case of Burma, how many times over the years did you actually feel vindicated by the publication of your photographs? You’re seen so much I can’t imagine your work would ever be broadcast in a way that is commensurate to whatever it is you were feeling as you made the photographs.

BH: It’s always been frustrating. Burma especially, because I spent four years doing nothing but that. There would be little blips where something would happen and the media would pay a little bit of attention to it and then it’d be buried again. The story is one of great breadth and depth and complexity.

Almost every magazine has gone more towards lifestyle and entertainment and less and less to in-depth coverage of little places around the world that everyone would just as soon forget.

UR: I’m actually amazed that there isn’t more of that, at least online.

BH: There isn’t, but there are a ton of people out there doing really good work and really pushing hard and doing it all on their own dime. And certainly the web has made that accessible, but these people aren’t getting their money back on the web. While it’s not a matter of making money, it helps, if for no other reason just to be able to continue your work–to push it further. And when you don’t have many major magazine venues, then it becomes harder to continue following or covering a place. Then we get into the whole aftermath thing–how we focus on wars in the media: once it’s over, the place just falls off the edge of the world. You never hear about what people have to go through trying to put things back together, put their lives back together and their countries.

UR: Your piece is as much narrative as it is practical advice. Is this the stuff you share with young photographers?

BH: Sometimes at my lecture, I jokingly say: If you learn one thing from this–get one of those little plastic leftover containers and put some of those moist baby diaper wipes in that thing where they’ll stay moist and stick it in your camera bag. Always keep it full.

That’s one of the most practical pieces of advice I can give anybody. It fits right in your camera bag and you can wipe your ass anywhere with something that you know is palatable–not palatable, that’s not what I… [laughter]

UR: Wrong orifice!

BH: …you know, not some big leaf you’re going have an allergic reaction to.

UR: Before you were a photographer, you were with the Army Special Forces, right?

BH: I was with the 82nd Airborne for a while and I was an instructor at the reconnaissance commando school at Fort Bragg–I had that kind of stuff in my background. Then I was a cop for a while and I was on a S.W.A.T team. Photography was just kind of a hobby. As I became disenchanted with what I was doing at the time I decided to combine all those aspects of my background with my hobby.

UR: How much did you draw on your military and police training when you were doing your work in Afghanistan or in Burma?

BH: Immensely! The upper hand right off the bat is understanding how all those weapons delivery systems work. It doesn’t always save you, but it helps to know how this stuff works.

UR: Did you ever run in to a situation where you just felt like you were better trained and the fighters you were following were doing it all wrong?

BH: In some cases, yeah. In Afghanistan–I mean, that was just absurd. We had less than 20 people, most of them under 18. They were armed with AK-47s and a couple of RPGs and one single-tube rocket launcher and they attacked a Soviet base fortified with dug-in tanks and heavy artillery! I had not experience at the time; it was my first gig. There were like four of us [photographers and journalists]. We were up in this mountain hut in Afghanistan and we were pressing the commander to send us all on some mission or something.

We always blame it on the British journalist because he committed, like, the ultimate atrocity in the eyes of the Afghans: he farted during the Commander’s meal. You don’t do that. The commander and all his men basically got up from the dinner table with their meals and walked out. That night they decided to send us on this mission–it was really bad, so we all figured it was due to this guy.

So this little ragtag group attacked the Soviet base. We went along this dry riverbed. They had these little crevices dug into the riverbank. You could look down this big sloping, mined area and there was the base. So they get in these positions and they set up this single-tube rocket launcher. They pray and they do the Allahu Akbar thing and press the little switch to start the attack and nothing happens. So there’s another ten minutes of farting around. So they think they’ve got it fixed and they do the Allahu Akbar thing again. They press the switch and nothing happens. I’m sitting there, going: Shit! This is ridiculous!

I know the Soviets know we’re there. There’s no way they could have missed this. So these guys–it must have taken them 30 or 40 minutes to get this thing figured out. So they finally press the switch and BOOM!–this dinky little single-tube rocket launcher fires. It arcs out and lands like two-thirds of the way to the base. It doesn’t even reach the friggin’ base after all of this! And the Soviets–half of these guys are probably drunk, sitting in their positions with the heavy artillery–I’m sure they were getting the biggest kick in the world out of this. They’re just waiting: “Ivan! We’re going to fuck with these guys. We’re just going to wait.” And the second the Mujahedeen fires this little rocket launcher, these guys answered back with this massive friggin’ artillery shell that landed right in the middle of us. They had the coordinates of the position dialed in before they even fired their first shot. This thing came in and took out this tree that was behind me.

Everybody was stuck into these crevices. They had us pinned down for three hours. I lost partial hearing in my right ear. Twenty-one years later, still gone. Just gone. There were so many just huge shells landing and I’m going: You know what? We need to we’ve got plenty of cover from this bank. We can make it back down this dry riverbed to this destroyed village where we staged. Just get back there.

UR: What was their response?

BH: We’re staying here! The Soviets are raking like 50 caliber fire over us and these 16-year old kids were standing up in the middle of this and yelling Allahu Akbar and firing their AK-47s. The rounds aren’t even going to reach the base! When you fervently believe you’re going to die a martyr’s death and you’ve got a shitty life to begin with…

UR: We ran two of your Burma photographs the magazine and I’m wondering if you would provide some. The first is the photograph of the soldier, barefoot and looking out over a valley. What’s going on there?

BH: Not much really. It was in Burma’s southern tail. I was traveling with the Mon National Liberation Army. We walked all the way across the southern part of Burma to the Andaman Sea…

UR: Wow.

BH:…during the monsoons. It was really difficult going. We came upon this place with these stupas up on this really jagged kind of limestone-ish rock that you can see in the picture. It’s fairly high–maybe a couple of hundred feet high or maybe more. Since it was a holy site, you couldn’t wear shoes up there. You’ll notice he’s barefoot.

UR: Right.

BH: And I wanted to go up there and take some pictures of the guys on lookout. This is one of those deals where those guys have been walking barefoot through the jungle their whole lives. And me–a big, dumb friggin’ white boy who is like two feet taller than all these guys–I had to pull off my shoes and climb up this jagged rock, barefooted. I was like: Shit. I think this picture is going to be worth this when I get to the top.

We also ran the photograph of the transport boat.

BH: That was the same trip, with the same guerrilla group. There was a monsoon coming in. We were in a bay right off the sea. Right after that series of pictures was taken, the freakin’ boat capsized. You see it’s overloaded–people did the wrong weight shift and the boat went right over–flipped over completely. All my gear went in the water. I was up on the wheelhouse and as it went over I had had one of my cameras around my neck–the one I had taken the series of pictures with. As it slipped I was doing that thing; like in the cartoons when they try to keep running–when somebody’s falling over, you know? I was doing that kinda thing and I actually managed to grab on to something. I went over the hull–it’s slippery and mossy and there’s nothing to grab on to. And as the wheelhouse came back over again I managed to grab on and probably three-quarters of my body was submerged; but I managed to keep the camera out of the water.

UR: Brilliant!

BH: So I saved the one camera. It was chaos after that. Weapons were lost and people were trapped under the boat. My camera bag was out maybe 75 to 100 yards. It was starting to sink. So I gave good camera to somebody and I dove in to the water and starting swimming out after this thing. I got it and my other cameras were done. In fact, I use one as a paperweight; it’s still here in my office. But all my film–I had been traveling for weeks with these people and every single shot of mine, including the previous one that we just talked about, could have been lost, but I had all of my film double-bagged in those heavy-duty freezer bags. It was all under water in a camera bag, but I got to it in time before any water got through and managed to save all the film. I had to shoot the rest of the trip on that one little camera. But, you know…

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