The Tao of War Photography

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Image by Bruce Haley
Guerrilla fighters near the Andaman Sea; Burma

Veteran photojournalist Bruce Haley has seen the worst of us. He’s covered conflicts stretching back to the Afghan battle against the Soviet Union. Ten years ago, he wrote something he called The Tao of War Photography. It’s part training manual and part memoir. It’s mostly tragic and it’s a little bit hilarious.

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

2. It’s true that photography can save your life. The big dent in the front of my F3 would have been an entry hole in my face.

3. As a general rule, people really don’t catapult ten feet into the air whenever an artillery round explodes near them, despite what Hollywood war movies show you.

4. Big jungle foliage makes acceptable toilet paper in an emergency, though it’s rather lacking in the absorbency department.

5. The editors of the major magazines really 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.

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

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

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

9. If the rebel commander from #8 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 the commander’s dinner the previous evening, causing said leader and all of his aides to silently rise and file out of the small mountain hut (a very very bad sign).

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

11. 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 those innocent children die, then answer this question.

12. On the flipside of #11: many of the people who have actually suffered through such hardships show the greatest faith I’ve ever encountered on the planet. Go figure.

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

14. 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 goddamn barbecued monkey leg tasted like filet mignon.

15. Lenses, rocks and Pakistani border police make a bad mix. People ask me: “Why did he smash your lens on that rock?” Answer: the same reason a dog licks his balls–because he can.

16. The Serbs will shell a hotel that they know is occupied only by journalists. This is proof that the Serbs have done at least one thing that the rest of the world can understand.

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

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

19. Make sure you can count (remember, we’re talking photographers here). If the multiple-tube rocket launcher that’s firing at your position goes “fffwuupppp” six times in a row, please count six explosions around you before poking your head back up.

20. Understand what it means when the opposing side is “walking in” their artillery. If you’re capable of drawing a line from Point A (the artillery) to Point B (you) on a piece of graph paper, you can figure this one out.

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

22. 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.

23. You know you’re in trouble when the new head of your once-reputable agency sends out a form letter asking his photographers to shoot “quirky Americana” stories.

24. Amoebic dysentery really, truly sucks.

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

26. Never wear shorts when 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.

27. While on the subject of shorts, also never wear them when you are riding an Asian elephant: between murderous razor-blade hair and the infernal cloud of biting flies constantly swarming the poor beast, you will think you’re in one of Dante’s Circles of Hell.

28. Actually, there’s no room for you and an elephant in any of the Circles of Hell, because they’re all filled with magazine editors–who get to spend Eternity attempting to lay out Gene Smith’s Pittsburgh essay to his complete and utter satisfaction.

29. Afghan horses have absolutely no feeling in their mouths; reins and bits are for decorative purposes only. Most of the U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles were used to get these creatures to stop.

30. You will see the exact same wretched mongrel dog in every third world country you visit. After a while you will come to believe that it has a passport and is following you from country to country.

31. Huge, menacing rats like to perch upon sleeping photographers’ faces at 3 a.m in seedy hotels in warring portions of the former Soviet Union.

32. Drug lords throw amazing parties–somewhere there exists a jungle videotape of me and one of Khun Sa’s top aides (on a stage and backed by a fully electrified band) attempting to entertain 500 Maung Tai Army soldiers with an extremely drunken rendition of “Hotel California”.

33. There are some really nasty regimes who won’t let you into their country, and then have the nerve to get really pissed when they discover that you’ve entered illegally.

34. Regimes like #33 will send out troops specifically to get you, should your unwelcome, sorry-ass presence be detected. Equation: 600 government soldiers in a pincer movement equals you following the old Taco Bell maxim “Make a run for the border.”

35. Boats sometimes capsize during the monsoon, especially if they are already overloaded with heavily-armed guerrilla soldiers. Camera bags that are heavier on one side sink exactly like the Titanic in that dreadful James Cameron flick.

36. If the scenario from #35 should occur and your film is double-bagged in heavy-duty freezer bags, it may very well ride the waves long enough for you to swim out and rescue it.

37. Forget the Clintonian “It’s the economy, stupid”–your mantra should be “It’s the film, stupid.” Without it all you’ve got is another bullshit fish story to tell your agent or client.

38. Under certain miserable conditions, film emulsion can actually turn to goo inside your camera and create a stuck-together traffic jam. It’s always your “best” roll, too.

39. Besides the various and sundry wraths of God, there are any number of really mean people worldwide just waiting to confiscate, steal or destroy your film. They and airport X-ray machines are the true stuff of nightmares.

40. Learn what “Kill the Messenger Syndrome” means. If you cover world nastiness and your stuff’s in the public eye, sooner or later you’re going to piss off some windbag somewhere.

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

42. A general rule: if you meet another photographer while on assignment and invite him to visit you at home sometime, he will invariably arrive when he’s broke.

43. Australian photographers, after a long night of drinking, have the best aim with their vomit… the record for my guest bedroom includes hitting the floor, the window, the dresser, the pillows, the bed and three of the four walls (only the ceiling and the far wall escaped this herculean hurl).

44. From our “Coincidence or Not?” department: once upon a time a kind and altruistic non-profit organization dedicated to exposing the horrors of a bloody, long-running ethnic civil war raised a large sum of money in order to put out a book on the subject. A publisher supposedly dedicated to putting out top-quality photography books agreed to take their money and wrest control of the project. The first casualty was the paying group’s choice of cover photograph: the publisher’s Exalted Executive Director/Editor-in-Chief decided that he didn’t want a gun on the cover (remember, this is a book about a brutal civil war). The photo in question ended up inside the book, reproduced in such a manner as to make it look out of focus, despite the fact that the original transparency and even the duplicate were tack sharp. And to make matters worse, the book’s reproduction included a big scratch or piece of hair snaking its way through this same photograph… Coincidence, or not??? Moral of the story: next time you give a large amount of cash to a book publisher, use a different aperture.

45. If you are “detained” by soldiers at the airport in Kinshasa, you get a free tour of the airport’s more dark and remote outbuildings. You will immediately call to mind the movie slogan “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.”

46. In situations like #45, your host for the event and tour guide to the interrogation room will be the hulking and half-witted Sergeant Thug-Most-Likely-to-Thump-You, whose command of the English language consists of two words: “Give money.” He uses these two words in almost metronome-like fashion, sandwiched between examples of a much more universally understood language: “Give”-whack!-“money!”-whack!-“Give”-whack!- and on and on.

47. If you are detained by British soldiers in West Belfast, you get locked in an armored vehicle, driven to a heavily-fortified station, then locked in an interrogation room… no tea, no crumpets. Say goodbye to your film.

48. Pleasant footnote to #47: several months later you may be surprised when your confiscated film arrives by post, completely processed and intact, with a small printed note bearing a quite regal-looking seal and the words “With Compliments of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.”

49. Equation: the number of days your average group of Thai border police will spend trying to catch you sneaking back into their country is directly proportional to the amount of cross-border black market bribe money they’ve taken in that month.

50. Equation: the number of journalists covering any given conflict is directly proportional to the proximity of comfortable lodging and booze.

51. Sometimes small things REALLY mean a lot: should you be swept away in a raging monsoon-fed river and repeatedly pulled underwater, bashed against rocks, etc. etc., until you’re choking for air and fighting unconsciousness, be thankful for that long piece of bamboo arching into the river that provides something (albeit very slippery and difficult) to hang onto and eventually save yourself.

52. Lesson learned from #51: don’t let your big stupid ass get swept away in the river in the first place.

53. Accept the inevitable:  if your agency syndicates a 30-picture set worldwide, rest assured that the five photos you like least will be published eons before your favorite five ever see the light of day.

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

55. The downside to the advice in #54 is that you usually 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.

56. Example of a kamikaze mission that I somehow (see #13) survived: a score of mostly teenaged mujahideen, armed only with AK-47s, the odd RPG-7, and one single-tube rocket launcher with a faulty firing mechanism, attack a Soviet-occupied base defended by tanks, field artillery pieces, and nearby rotary- and fixed-wing air support.

57. (Also: if the soldiers you are accompanying believe that to die a martyr’s death admits them instantly to Paradise, while you believe that to die a war photographer’s death probably just hurts a lot, these irreconcilable differences should give you pause for reflection).

58. If your group initiates an attack with an indirect-fire round that lands nowhere near its intended target, and the opposing side immediately answers by planting a huge artillery shell precisely into your midst, guess what: the position that you’re attacking from is already on their ‘speed-dial’ under “Reach Out and Touch Someone” (if you don’t understand this, see #18).

59. You know in the Hollywood war movies where soldiers hear that high-pitched whistle and yell “INCOMING!!!” and take cover and save themselves and their entire platoon? It’s bullshit. Many is the time that I’ve had stuff come in practically on top of me and the only thing I ever heard was the goddamn explosion when it landed.

60. The statement in #59 has been field-tested by a somewhat wide variety of types and sizes of indirect fire, including mortars, tanks, field artillery pieces and multiple-tube rocket launchers… the end result of all this testing is that whenever someone asks me a question, my first response is usually “Huh? Can you speak up?”

61. Yes, those really are gruesome hacked-up snake parts in that big glass of homebrew you’re expected to chug down, and YES, your hosts will be extremely dishonored and upset if you try to weasel out of it (or if they catch you dumping it under the table when they look away). Quit being such a pussy and just drink the damn thing.

62. The manner in which shrapnel selects its victims is one of the true Mysteries of the Universe. The guy next to you can be taken out by a piece the size of dime, and you’re untouched.

63. Always keep in mind the following when you photograph people in war zones and other awful places:

  1. You’re there because you want to be–they aren’t.
  2. You can leave–they can’t.

64. And a few more:

  1. 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.
  2. Keep your sense of humor intact, even if it is a black one.
  3. Laugh at yourself.
  4. Truly give a damn about the world.
  5. Be humble.
  6. Peace.

For more, visit Reprinted with permission of the author.

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