May 6th, 2011

Silva and Marinovich: “I have never had a death wish”

If you’ve read  “The Inner Lives of War Photographers,” the article Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, has written about his visit to photographer Joao Silva at Walter Reade Hospital, you’ll be interested to read the full transcript of Keller’s interview with Silva and his friend, photographer Greg Marinovich, which is posted on the Lens blog.

It’s a wide ranging discussion covering the ethics of their profession, their families’ feelings about their dangerous work, citizen journalists in war zones, the obligations of clients to the journalists they hire to cover conflict, surviving on a photographers’ pay, and more. It highlights the different perspectives of Marinovich who, after being wounded four times, decided to give up war coverage for his family, and Silva who says, if he weren’t laid up in a hospital bed after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan, he would want to be in Libya now, “no question.”

Their conversation is characterized by the self awareness and candor that makes The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War, co-written by Marinovich and Silva, such a good read.

The interview is too long  and rich to summarize, but here are a few of the passages that got our attention.  For example, here’s Marinovich, pondering the number of photojournalists killed on the job:

Marinovich: I have this great difficulty with this sentimentalization of what happens to journalists in war zones. We go there voluntarily. We have a privileged position because we can leave when the going gets tough. And often, you have money, which makes a huge difference in your safety. Not that I think that journalists should get hurt and that I don’t have any sympathy.

Later, Keller brings up the public’s fascination with war photographers.

Keller: Let’s go through the mythology. One of the myths is that combat photography gives you a hard shell. Another one is that you’re all cowboys. Another one is that you’re all vultures.
Marinovich: That might be the only thing that might be true.

Silva: For an outsider, it’s easy to perceive us as vultures, when you see us walking through pools of blood and corpses just to get that perfect shot that will esthetically show the situation as best as you can so it can be printable in a newspaper. So yeah, we will be perceived as vultures. But in many ways internally — at least speaking for myself — I know that I’m out of place. I feel it all the time. Give me combat any day. Give me the bang bang. It’s very exciting. And during combat, if one of them gets hurt, it’s fair game. It’s what they do. But the civilian casualties side of it, it’s heartbreaking.

Keller also asks Silva what advice he would give a young photographer who wants to make his or her name by covering conflict.

Silva: I’d want him to understand — if he really wants to follow the combat aspect — that what he is getting himself into potentially could cost him his life and no picture is necessarily worth it. Despite what people have believed, I have never had a death wish. The first prize has always been to come home after an assignment. I’d want to make these things very clear to him before he embarks on his first adventure.

He and Marinovich note, however, that by the time photographers ask for advice on the subject, it’s too late to talk them out of it.

Silva says he has been racked by secondary infections following his operations, including recent surgery for intestinal reconstruction. On a hopeful note, however, his physical therapy and use of prosthetic limbs is “actually going exceptionally well.” Proof of that came today when the Lens blog posted a video of him walking on the artificial limbs without assistance.