A shot too far? Exhibition explores conflict coverage and trauma
June 11, 2012 Leave a comment
“As a curator, you aren’t normally used to your artists dying on you.”
When photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed while covering the war in Libya last year, curator Sarah Schuster felt the impact of his death. She had been working with him on an exhibition that will explore the psychological effects of war coverage on journalists.
“When he died I was upset. It was surprised how hard it hit, because I didn’t feel I had the right to be upset. It brought home a whole different perspective,” she said in an interview with INSI.
Schuster, 32, has curated exhibitions for 10 years. But her new project, “One Shot Over the Line: Conflict Journalists and Trauma” is a far cry from her previous endeavours, which included a Zaha Hadid retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York.
She wanted to explore the gritty lifestyle of war correspondents and bring to light the challenges they face every day.
“I’ve always been interested in war and war photography, but never thought about the people making the pictures,” she said.
“I wondered what it must be like to stand there and look at someone being murdered in front of you, and thinking about light and colour, and how to frame it. How does someone deal with that?”
The planned exhibition, with an accompanying catalogue, is a collection of photographs and essays donated by journalists who have covered conflict around the world. The brief, to highlight the psychological toll of war reporting. From Vietnam to the Arab Spring, the contributions – from photographers including Heidi Levine, Warrick Page (photograph above), Frédéric Lafargue (photograph below, right) and Leif Skoogfors (photograph below, left), to writers such as Stuart Hughes - are unified by the staggering impact they’ve had on those who created them. Short paragraphs written by the journalists accompany the photographs and essays and provide further insight into their experiences of covering war.
I took some photos of him. I went to ask him his name, but his neck was bandaged and he motioned that he couldn’t speak. He mimed writing. He wanted to write his name for me. I didn’t have a pen. I thought to go and get one but I got distracted and forgot. The photo made front pages around the world, including the International Herald Tribune, but his name wasn’t on it. He deserved to have his name there, but I let him down. I’d failed that moment as a journalist to put a name to a face. I had unintentionally initiated him into the global fraternity of poor, brown-skinned, nameless victims. It wouldn’t have mattered to the average reader, but it would have mattered a great deal to him. It’s something that I will always feel a deep shame for. He deserved better.
- Warrick Page, photojournalist, on his contribution to ‘One Shot Over the Line’ (photograph above)
“I had people turn away”
Schuster came up with the idea 10 years ago after reading ‘The Bang Bang Club’, an account by four photojournalists covering the bloody transition from apartheid in the townships of South Africa in the early 90s.
But she says that there was a significant lack of knowledge about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in journalists – and an unwillingness to discuss the issue openly.
“I had people turn away. It was difficult to say, ‘I’m a curator and I want to talk about your deepest, most sensitive experiences”.
“Now the situation is different. I’ve had a fantastic response and I’m indebted and grateful to the people participating in the show, and people talking to me about their experiences.”
Schuster says that the public’s thirst for instant news may be one reason for an increased awareness of the physical and emotional pressures on war correspondents.
“And it is an accepted topic of conversation between editors and reporters in the newsroom. It’s OK to say ‘I’m having a problem’ now.”
“We are not machines”
One contributor is American photojournalist Heidi Levine, who has been covering conflict and the Middle East for three decades.
The harrowing photograph she donated was taken while she was covering Libya last year. It shows bodies covered with lime powder on the grounds of an abandoned hospital in Tripoli.
“I have seen a lot of dead people but there is something strangling about that scene. The way the lime covered their bodies froze them in time. Every horrific moment is accentuated by the lime… but there is also this weird sense of beauty,” she told INSI.
“It was an experience I couldn’t believe I was seeing. I can’t get it out of my head. It screams out to me.”
Levine says the pressures of her job have taken their toll. She is startled by loud noises and crowds, and becomes anxious when cars stop by her – an echo from when she was almost kidnapped at gunpoint in Baghdad in 2003. Working in hostile situations has put pressure on her family, where she would become irritable, anxious and “pick fights”.
“What was important to them [my family] was not the same to me. It’s hard to listen to normal day situations when you come out of seeing such things in war zones,” she said.
“It’s like a big compression. When you go scuba diving and you surface, you have a decompression. We [war correspondents] don’t have that, and that’s a problem.”
Levine says the exhibition is the first chance she has had to explore how her experiences have affected her emotionally, and hopes that it will raise awareness of the taxing conditions war correspondents work under.
“Just because you’re not wounded physically doesn’t mean you’re not wounded in other ways,” she says.
“Some people believe we are machines. We are not.”
“Suffering from a psychological injury… feels like drowning”
The BBC’s Stuart Hughes, who has written a chapter for the ‘One Shot Over the Line’ catalogue, lost his right heel after stepping on a landmine in Northern Iraq in 2003. His contribution chronicles his personal experience of PTSD.
“Suffering from a psychological injury is terrifying; it feels like drowning. The harder you try to keep going and stay afloat, the more it seems to pull you under,” he said.
“I lost interest in almost everything; my friends, my work, the world around me. There were days when I just didn’t want to wake up in the morning.”
Hughes said attitudes towards PTSD and trauma are changing within the news industry, as more journalists and newsrooms become aware of the problem. He said he became involved in the One Shot Over the Line project to raise awareness.
“I believe strongly that it’s only by talking about trauma that it’ll become accepted as a potential occupational hazard for journalists, rather than ignored or treated as something to be ashamed of,” he said.
Eighteen photojournalists and reporters have contributed to ‘One Shot Over the Line’, so-named, said Schuster, “because all these experiences must add up.”
With more participants to be announced, and a date not yet set, the project is still very much in progress. But Schuster hopes that the built-up pressure surrounding the work of war photographers will ease with each photograph and essay donated.
“They all have really specific moments that they associate with their trauma. It could be one shot that went too far,” she said.
I won’t forget the day I took this photo in what remained of a house in Qana. I have witnessed some horrible sights, but there was something incredibly eery about standing in the rubble of this house after arriving on the scene with ambulance workers and realizing that what first appeared to be a lot of rubble, was actually a lot of bodies covered in rubble and dust, most of them women and children. They had been alive just a few moments before, huddled together in the basement, listening to the heavy bombardments nearby. I had heard the same bombardments from my hotel close by and imagined their fear and how the children must have been crying and the adults trying to console them..
- Frédéric Lafargue, photojournalist, on his contribution to ‘One Shot Over the Line’ (photograph above)
The Irish Republican Army announced a cease fire and a truce with the British Army, starting at midnight of June 26, 1972. I’d been following the daily bombings and fighting throughout Northern Ireland and looked forward to the quiet days of a truce. My nerves were shot, I’d almost been lynched by a Protestant mob just days before. I hopped a bus from in front of my flat, in a mostly quiet area of Belfast, to join a few friends to celebrate the truce with a good meal and a few drinks. It was almost eight pm as I noticed the bus pull off its route and steer into “The Shankill”, a loyalist and very militant neighborhood. I jumped up to the driver and asked what was going on, I didn’t want to be dropped off in this area at night. “They’re blowing the fucking town up”, he said. Later, the IRA announced that their numerous bombings that night were done as a show of strength. They wanted to make the point that the truce wasn’t because they lacked the strength or will to wreak destruction. The restaurant we’d planned to eat at was totally ruined. The photograph became a significant one for me a few weeks later. I’d travelled to Paros, an island in the Cyclades in Greece to visit friends and take a break from Belfast. I had a few dozen work prints with me and I brought them out for a small group of art students studying there. A young woman said, “It’s terrible, and so beautiful”. And there it was, beautiful and terrifying. The power of photography.
- Leif Skoogfors, photojournalist, on his contribution to ‘One Shot Over the Line’ (photograph above)
Locations for the One Shot Over the Line exhibition, to be displayed next year, are yet to be confirmed.
For more information visit http://www.oneshotovertheline.com/