I spent Friday and Saturday at a conference at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) listening to a variety of academics and journalists discussing the legacy of the Vietnam War. The topics were diverse, but one that came frustratingly close to surfacing but which didn’t quite make it into the open was the issue of the hero worship often afforded to war photographers, a sort of cult of the conflict photographer. Don McCullin, who was one of the speakers at the conference, is a good example of this. His photographs are incredible, but they are only half the story for many of his admirers. The man himself is arguably as important as the images and latterly the issues they depict. As if to demonstrate this at the end of his appearance he was swamped by eager fans and scalp hunters, after his autograph or a quick photo with the great man.
A good example of this cult is in Shaped by War, the IWM’s current retrospective of McCullins career. The exhibition is scattered with his possessions, including a helmet and combat boots, and a Nikon F camera hit by a sniper’s bullet in Cambodia. These objects have little or nothing to do with photography, but I’d argue they are part of the mystique of the photographer who owns them, and function in in a similar way to Catholic relics. They are insignificant objects gifted significance simply by virtue of their ownership. I don’t wish to pick on McCullin, who I actually rather admire (in fact I suspect he might well be someone who would prefer to be without this attention as evidenced by his dismissal of the ‘war photographer’ label). By contrast some photographers actively set out to cultivate this popularity. Robert Capa’s career was an exercise in legend building. Slightly Out Of Focus his memoir of the second world war is as much about creating a Robert Capa myth as it is about recounting his experiences in Europe.
How and why has this cult emerged, and what is the significance of it? Perhaps journalists are easier to idolise than the troops who fight wars. Soldiers form a depersonalised mass, with individuals rarely standing out from the army as a whole. In the past individual soldiers were often publicized for displaying positive qualities that their commanders wished to promote, for example the Soviet Sniper Vassilly Zaytsev. Today the public are perhaps too savvy to accept such obvious attempts to manipulate our feelings, and not ideologically partisan enough to accept individual achievements like ‘fifty enemies killed’ as meritorious. Soldiers as a group are instead often seen as complicit in the brutality of war, whether it be violence visited on an opposing force or on civilians. Journalists by contrast reveal this legitimate or illegitimate brutality, none more so than the photographer who must bravely be in close proximity to these events in order to record and report them. To borrow a line from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the photographer must be really ‘in the shit’.
Many of the hero worshiped photographers also fit into a popular tradition, the ‘live fast, die young’ profile of James Dean, or more recently many popular musicians, for relevancy to the Vietnam War say Jimmy Hendrix. War photographers live hard and on the edge, in the sense of choosing to cover grueling, dangerous events that most people would run a mile from. Consequently many suffer post-traumatic stress disorders, and, at least according to popular culture, some mitigate this with excessive drinking and drug taking. As an example take Dennis Hopper’s crazed photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Whether this perception is borne out by reality is almost irrelevant, its the belief in it rather than the reality that matters. This combined with a sense of the wasted talent of those war photographers killed doing their job produces an attractive, romantic fatalism about the profession that has again little or nothing to do with the photographs it produces, but is all about the people who produce them.
So does this cult really matter at all? Arguably yes, as I began to suggest in the previous paragraph I think that as long as we blindly idolise the profession and focus heavily on the individuals involved we aren’t going to be able to properly engage with what matters most, the product and the manner of its production. War photography is vastly problematic, the fact that photographers shoot frames rather than bullets does not mean they aren’t able to be complicit in the events they are photographing, particularly when they work in close cooperation with a military force, something which is increasingly the norm. War photography can easily verge on being a form of journalistic imperialism, today more than ever. In Vietnam you could perhaps make the argument that these photographers justifiably documented a conflict that few Vietnamese had the resources to. With the proliferation of image making devices and data distribution networks even in undeveloped countries I think today we have to ask ourselves as professionals if it is better for us to defer to occupants of conflict zones in the production of war images. It’s outdated to believe that we must travel around the world to produce these definitive images on behalf of the people to whom these events are actually happening.
On another level one can argue that it doesn’t matter at all, because the type of photographer who is hero-worshiped is a dying breed. One of the speakers at the conference, veteran journalist Philip Knightley, made the point that the days of the wandering combat correspondent who goes where he wishes and reports what he wants are over. Governments are too aware of the effect the media can have on public opinion, and journalists are also now often seen as fair targets by enemy forces. The reciprocal relationship of embedding is far less romantic than the free roaming photographer of the Vietnam era, but it is increasingly vital, and needn’t necessarily mean inferior journalism, just a different journalism. So the traditional war photographer may become extinct because the environment in he existed is gone, and like a teenage fascination with an increasingly prehistoric rock band, the cult will perhaps also disappear over time.
(photo montages courtesy of Michael Home)