The Tao of War Photography

1 / 3
For more photos by Bruce Haley, visit the image gallery.
2 / 3
3 / 3

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 this timeless essay, arguably more relevant today than when it was originally drafted. (It appears here excerpted and renumbered, but is available intact online at It’s part training manual and part memoir, mostly tragic and a little bit hilarious.You can also read an interview with Haley about his work. –The Editors

1 To begin, practice this sentence: “If I get out of here alive, I’ll never do this again.” You’ll say this to yourself every time an already dangerous situation really turns to shit.

2 As a general rule, people don’t catapult 10 feet into the air when an artillery round explodes near them, despite what Hollywood war movies depict.

3 The editors of major magazines don’t give a rat’s ass about the latest war and famine in the hinterlands of East BurkinaTimorLanka. You’ll never get an assignment to cover this unless Leo­nardo DiCaprio becomes a rebel commander and Tommy Hilfiger designs his battle fatigues.

4 Absent Leo and Tommy, a few murdered white tourists will cause a temporary blip on the radar screen . . . or not.

5 True anarchy sucks. Forget those tie-dyed, dreadlocked white kids in university towns who advocate hemp and “anarchy”–if the real thing ever happens, those assholes will be on the bottom of the food chain.

6 If a rebel commander asks whether you would like to be buried in his country or your own, he might very well be serious and not just testing your resolve.

7 If the rebel commander from #6 sends you along on what turns out to be a kamikaze mission, it could be because the British journalist accompanying you happened to fart during dinner the previous evening, causing said leader and his aides to rise silently and file out of the small mountain hut (a very, very bad sign).

8 It is said that sudden fright causes people to soil themselves. Sustained fright causes increased flatulence: fear-farting. I have seen Afghan mujahedeen run out into a heavy rain of incoming artillery rather than shelter in a small crevice with two fear-farting Western journalists.

9 Do you believe in a personal, loving God who really cares about us mortals down here? Go to a few war zones and famine areas and watch all the innocent children die, then answer this question.

10 On the flip side of #9: Many of the people who have suffered through such hardships show the greatest faith I’ve ever encountered on the planet. Go figure.

11 If some natural phenomenon occurs with supernatural timing and saves your ass from almost certain death and you’re told that Allah just intervened, believe it.

12 Are you rabidly devoted to saving all of the world’s wildlife? Would you be enraged if you saw a guerrilla soldier blow a monkey out of a tree with an M-16? Bugger off. After weeks of living on the run in the jungle, eating nothing but rice, that barbecued monkey leg tasted like filet mignon.

13 Chances are your most vehement detractors have never walked a mile in your war-zone moccasins, or experienced anything more dangerous than a broken lawn chair.

14 Study and understand the different types of weapon systems. Once they spring off the page and are actually firing at you and exploding around you, you will wish you had devoted more effort to that study.

15 If you don’t entirely understand the concept of indirect fire, do not go to a war zone. If you remember only one thing from this article, let this be it.

16 Don’t be too “macho” to take cover. Forget about Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. If you do that and you’re not a movie star, prepare to eat hot metal.

17 Dead photographers don’t take any more good pictures, and your agent and relatives will be the only ones to profit from the sudden interest in your old stuff.

18 Amoebic dysentery really, truly sucks.

19 No matter how good you think you are at “holding it,” amoebic dysentery always wins.

20 Never wear shorts when you’re afflicted with amoebic dysentery. At least with long pants on, no one will see that telltale bright-red trickle running down your leg until it hits your shoes.

21 While we’re on the subject of shorts, also never wear them when you are riding an Asian elephant. Between the murderous razor-blade hair and the infernal cloud of biting flies that are constantly swarming the poor beast, you will think you are in one of Dante’s circles of hell.

22 Back to war: If you have become adept at dodging unwanted social invitations back home, apply this skill when you are asked along on a kamikaze mission with ill-equipped teenage soldiers who are hopelessly outnumbered.

23 The downside to the advice in #22 is that you generally don’t realize that you’ve tagged along on a kamikaze mission until things truly turn to shit and you can’t get the hell out because you’re pinned down. Now is a good time to refer back to #1.

24 Also: If the soldiers you are accompanying believe that to die a martyr’s death admits them to paradise, while you believe that to die a war photographer’s death probably just hurts a lot, this difference should give you pause for reflection.

25 Always keep in mind the following when you photograph people in war zones and other awful places: You’re there because you want to be–they aren’t.

You can leave–they can’t.

26 And a few more:
Keep up and hump your own gear. People in war zones, believe it or not, have other concerns besides carrying your shit for you and waiting for you to catch up . . .

Keep your sense of humor intact, even if it is a black one . . .

Laugh at yourself . . .

Truly give a damn about the world . . .

Be humble . . .


In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.