PHOTOS: New book unveils unique insights from behind the lens of conflict photography

MYTILENE, GREECE - OCTOBER 22:  An Afghan man injured in fighting is helped as violence escalates for migrants waiting to be processed at the increasingly overwhelmed Moria camp on the island of Lesbos on October 22, 2015 in Mytilene, Greece. Dozens of rafts and boats are still making the journey daily as thousands flee conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. More than 500,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year. Of that number, four-fifths have paid to be smuggled by sea to Greece from Turkey, the main transit route into the EU. Nearly all of those entering Greece on a boat from Turkey are from the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
An Afghan man injured in fighting is helped as violence escalated for migrants waiting to be processed at the increasingly overwhelmed Moria camp on the island of Lesbos on October 22, 2015 in Mytilene, Greece. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We are bombarded by visions of conflict. Wars, natural disasters, genocides, and refugees are shown everywhere. The growth of social media has accelerated and expanded images of conflict. They are inescapable.

But what should we do in response to seeing those images? How were they taken and why have they been shown to us? Do they deepen the knowledge or compassion of viewers, or result in fatigue or even apathy?

Lauren Walsh’s Conversations on Conflict Photography invites readers to consider these urgent questions through conversations with globally diverse, award-winning photographers, leading photo editors, and key representatives of major human rights and humanitarian organizations.

Framed by contextualizing essays on the history of photography and the current state of the journalistic landscape, this book of interviews explores the complexities and ethical dilemmas of conflict photography today across a breadth of visual imagery, including coverage of wars as well as social, political, and economic conflicts. Walsh delivers a penetrating look at the struggles of the craft and the men and women who keep it alive, from brushes with death on the frontlines to the battles for space, resources, and attention in the media.

Conversations on Conflict Photography offers unique, extended insight into ‘behind the lens’ practices, because this imagery, which informs public reactions to current events and ultimately shapes the course of history, must be better understood. (Bloomsbury)

Lauren Walsh teaches at The New School and New York University, where she is the Director of the Gallatin School’s Photojournalism Lab. She is also the Director of Lost Rolls America, a national public archive of photography and memory.


Below are selected images from Conversations on Conflict Photography paired with brief excerpts from the interviews.


Afghan women and children mourn the loss of family members who were killed in a raid by US Special Forces, near Jalalabad, Afghanistan on May 16, 2010. (Photo: © Andrea Bruce/NOOR)

“[P]eople in the United States, or perhaps the Western part of the world, find images like this one highly intrusive, like I’m invading the special and highly private space of people who are in a great deal of pain. But in the areas of the Middle East where I’ve spent over a decade, people don’t mind showing the world that they loved someone so much that it makes them cry hysterically when that person dies.”

– Andrea Bruce, photographer

A Paris Match page spread, from the September 4, 2008 issue, depicting Taliban fighters who killed ten French soldiers in August 2008. Image courtesy of Paris Match. (Photo: Véronique de Viguerie)

“[O]n news imagery, I have no regrets in terms of what we have published. The only remorse is that there have been times when we should have explained better why we were running certain images. But sometimes, because you’re in the moment and you want to get the story out, the context doesn’t get well enough elucidated.”

– Marion Mertens, Senior Digital Editor at Paris Match

A freedom fighter, from one of the anti-government forces, enters the town of Mutoko, Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] and is given a hero’s welcome as the war comes to an end, December 1979. (Photo: © Alexander Joe)

“[F]or me, this was the strongest of the pictures I had taken. But the editor said to me, ‘Why are you trying to spread alarm among the people?’ But he didn’t mean the people; he meant the white population. This newspaper was very pro-government. [Rhodesia, a former British colony, was under white minority rule.] This was a war of rebellion, and the paper’s position was that no one wanted the rebels there. Yet here is photographic proof of a fighter being given a hero’s welcome. But that was the wrong narrative for the Rhodesia Herald. So the image never ran in the paper.”

– Alexander Joe, photographer

Former child soldier, age seventeen, Sierra Leone, 1998. (Photo: © Giacomo Pirozzi/UNICEF)

“[T]he other constant struggle throughout my twenty-three years at UNICEF was to end the predominance of clichéd representations of the child—as either the pathetic, suffering victim or the happy, aid-recipient child. There, the needle barely budged.”

– Ellen Tolmie, former Senior Photography Editor at UNICEF

A cropped version of this image appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s 9/11 edition, with a unique black border around the four edges of the frame, in contrast to the magazine’s typical red border. Photo taken September 11, 2001. (Photo: © Lyle Owerko)

“The attack happened on a Tuesday morning. An issue had come out on Monday of that week, and we came out again on Thursday [September 13]. So we had thirty-six hours to come out with this edition. It’s a black-bordered edition with no ads. […]

[M]y job, largely, is to fight against apathy, but also it’s to educate. And it’s not just educating about the content of the story; it’s to raise the visual literacy. A good visual narrative has the same pieces as a good article: your lede, your nut graf, the middle of the story, the arc, the ending. So the thing about being an effective photo editor is you have to be able to talk to people through images. Simplify the story down to its moving parts. You can’t write a sentence that doesn’t make sense—it’s the same with visual journalism. So the images strung together tell a story, and if the images are journalistic, they tell a true story.”

– MaryAnne Golon, Director of Photography at The Washington Post, former Director of Photography at Time

An Afghan man injured in fighting is helped as violence escalates for migrants waiting to be processed at the increasingly overwhelmed Moria Camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece, October 22, 2015. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“Often, my relationship to the subjects I photograph is fleeting. I feel a tremendous empathy for many of these people. But let’s be frank, I have a passport in my back pocket, an American passport. And at the end of many days, I get to go back to a hotel while they stay in some condition of suffering. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to understand what they’re going through. But I would never claim to fully understand. That would be insulting.”

– Spencer Platt, photographer

Cuesta del Plomo, a hillside outside of Managua, was a known site of many assassinations carried out by the National Guard. People searched here daily to find missing persons. Nicaragua, 1978. (Photo: © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

“That photo, which was taken at Cuesta del Plomo, is from four decades ago, and if I were thinking about a more contemporary setting, let’s say witnessing one of the ISIS beheadings, I’d ask, ‘What would I do now? Would I not make an image? If I make an image, what do I do with the image?’ Obviously, ISIS has used images, which they make themselves, to shock us, and they have achieved that very effectively. But if you were the documentarian witness, right there on site, what would your responsibility be?”

– Susan Meiselas, photographer

Child miners look for gold deep in the rebel-controlled area of Bavi, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013. The gold is then smuggled to Uganda and sold to the Ugandan military in exchange for weapons. At the time, the UN considered the warlord in charge there, Cobra Matata, a “gun-for-hire” who allegedly worked in collusion with the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo to keep control of the mines, to protect the illegal earnings of the Congolese soldiers. (Photo: © Marcus Bleasdale)

“I documented brutal mining conditions, overseen by both rebel and government militias, vying for power and money. Sometimes children are forced to work, excavating minerals like tungsten, tin, and gold, which get used in computer electronics that are omnipresent in the West. Think: laptops, cell phones.

[…] For nearly fifteen years I worked in eastern Congo covering conflict minerals, pushing people to make changes. That body of my documentary work is directly responsible for the Intel ban [on the use of conflict minerals in its microprocessors], but it could not have achieved success without people signing petitions and similar acts of public pressure behavior. When the consumer says “Enough!” then the corporations respond.”

– Marcus Bleasdale, photographer

Sufia was the only survivor in her family. The others all died when their home was destroyed by the cyclone of April 29, 1991, in Anwara, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Sufia was taken in as part of another family. (Photo: © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World)

“I’ll tell you an anecdote. After that cyclone, an American friend of mine was talking about how terrible it was because another friend of ours could not keep his beer down. He was so affected by the images he saw that it made him ill. It hit me that this is the same as the ‘breakfast table standard’—someone who is having breakfast with a copy of the New York Times, and the editors have to be careful that that person’s breakfast is not really affected by any of the imagery. I find that problematic. I want to affect that person’s zone of comfort. I want to ensure that person wakes up to the huge injustices that go on. In particular, people in the United States need to know that the extreme violence, terrorism, and excesses of their own government upon people all across the globe happen constantly, and they’re being shielded from that with a rhetoric of the ‘good wars’ that America fights. The media should be able to penetrate that defense system to shake people and wake them up.”

– Shahidul Alam, photographer

Members of the Serbian paramilitary group known as Arkan’s Tigers with Muslim civilians who have just been shot, Bijeljina, Bosnia, 1992. The Serbian paramilitary unit was responsible for killing thousands of people during the Bosnian war, and Arkan was later indicted for war crimes. The image from the execution was used as evidence in a number of war crimes trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. (Photo: © Ron Haviv/VII)

“As for the emotional toll, which can be enormous, I think for myself I’ve also been very lucky in that I was able to understand the impact of what I was doing from early on. I find that—or at least I’m using that as—an amazing rationalization for being there. If you feel like you’re constantly failing and nobody’s paying attention, I think there’s no way to keep at it. But if you believe there is or can be an audience, that at some point people are going to pay attention, then that doesn’t take away the emotional impact, but it helps because it feels like there’s a purpose.”

– Ron Haviv, photographer

A South Sudanese woman sits in a clinic run by MSF in a displaced persons camp in Juba, South Sudan, February 14, 2014. (Photo: © Michael Goldfarb/MSF)

“She is a picture of strength and dignity, if not beauty. And she’s not the clichéd image of a displaced person or a refugee.”

–Michael Goldfarb, Communications Director at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-USA

Mourning relatives at the funeral for victims killed in an explosion at a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, April 2017. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. (Photo: © Eman Helal)

“I struggled to publish the pictures. I contacted many publications, but no one was interested. […] In the end, I put my pictures on Facebook and decided that I will not travel again to cover an event if I cannot be sure of publishing the work.

– Eman Helal, photographer

The Syrian Arab Army has used chemical shells on the frontlines in Jobar, Syria. A rebel fighter receives eye drops after exposure to the chemical sarin, April 16, 2013. (Photo: © Laurent Van der Stockt)

“As a journalist, of course, you have to be 100 percent sure of what you’re documenting. You have to be suspicious yourself, looking for any cracks or gaps in the evidence. So we stayed two months on this; we had to be there and working to figure out the truth of this story. Once we had the evidence that the government was using chemical weapons in its attacks, we had to have it recognized by a body like the UN.”

– Laurent Van der Stockt, photographer

A homeless man in south Tehran, Iran, 2018. (Photo: © Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum Photos)

“Everything here is dirty, but this man’s face looked holy to me. He was calm; he was polite. I wanted to show that he isn’t just ‘a poor drug addict.’ He was observing everything. His demeanor made me think of him as a philosopher. I want viewers to understand the gravity of the situation without looking down on the subject.”

– Newsha Tavakolian, photographer

Fatima (name has been changed) survived a massacre of Rohingya at Tu Lar To Li in Myanmar. She is fifteen years old. She watched as soldiers beat her ten-year-old sister to death. They then beat Fatima unconscious. She woke up in a burning house and managed to escape. September 2017. (Photo: © Anastasia Taylor-Lind for HRW)

“[I]f I’m asked to go to one of these ignored crises, I will not go without one of the best photographers in the world. It’s unthinkable for me to try to get attention without the images. That’s just the way the world works.”

– Peter Bouckaert, former Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch

(Bloomsbury, cover photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Bloomsbury, cover photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


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