The war inside

By Deborah Mensah-Bonsu

How combat changes war photographers, and why they can’t stay away from the fight

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The destruction in Lebanon in the diptych style.

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Click here for photographer Louie Palu’s website
Click here for photographer Rita Leistner’s website
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By Deborah Mensah-Bonsu

Louie Palu can’t eat red meat anymore — cutting into a steak reminds him of human body parts.

“It doesn’t matter what class or course you take, nothing can prepare you for a head lying on the road or the smell of burnt flesh,” Palu said. “Once you see that kind of stuff you’re never gonna be the same person.”

A flood of hideous events has unfolded in front of Palu’s camera in the 17 years he has been a professional freelance photographer. The images have reached beyond his lens. Photographers throw themselves into conflict zones and are drawn to dangerous destinations. When they return, they are changed.

It took Palu more than a year to digest what he had seen, heard and smelled in Afghanistan in 2006. He can still vividly recall approaching the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kandahar.

“From a thumb to pieces of hair, bits of flesh. There were hands, a foot, a face like a mask without a skull.”

Palu took pictures.

“It really triggers something primal in you, something horrific. I’m thinking, ‘Is my shadow in the photo? Am I too close?’ I’m thinking composition, ‘Is it publishable?’ I just kept shooting. I was numbed, and I was numbed for a day after that.”

He’s not the only one.

Flashlights cut through the darkness of a hot night, as freelance photographer Rita Leistner and a unit of American soldiers wade through a field in the Sunni Triangle. Following an exchange of gunfire with insurgents, the soldiers are ordered to collect the bodies. Leistner remembers being exposed in the open space, the rising fear of another onslaught of bullets. Moments later she came across the first corpse.

“It’s a horrible, horrible sight,” she insisted. “A human being destroyed like that . . . I had never seen anything like that before.”

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In the last decade, Leistner has witnessed poverty in Cambodia, brutality in Iraq and destruction in Lebanon. Time and time again she has ventured into perilous situations, both on purpose and by mistake.

Leistner and journalist Adnan Khan were taken captive in Iraq in 2004. Insurgents stormed into Leistner and Khan’s hiding place, put guns to their heads and accused them of being spies for the Americans.

“They wanted to kill us,” Leistner said. “One of the most horrible things in Iraq is the fear of being kidnapped. The danger stifles your ability to work.”

Shooting film while coping with the fear and insecurity of volatile surroundings has always been a challenge. In the 1997 elections in Cambodia, Leistner photographed several violent street demonstrations. She was part of the crowd when the police opened fire; she ran to a wall for cover.

“My pictures were all blurred because I was shaking so badly.”

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Conor Seyle, a research psychologist who studies the psychological effects of terrorism and natural disasters, said the experience of being in the presence of death causes significant psychological stress.

“Being exposed to a situation of fearing for your life or watching someone else die or get hurt is severely traumatizing,” he said.

And the memories are often intrusive.

“It’s the inability to get past it. Memories enforce themselves on your life whether you want them to or not.”

Palu calls them the demons in his mind.

“I saw body parts in my head for a long time. It affects you in ways you’re not even aware of. I’m never gonna be the same again. You see stuff like that and it’s burned in your mind forever.”

Seyle explained that being in a war zone can be jarring because it throws our expectations into flux.

“We really don’t believe that bad things will happen to us so when they do we’re confronted with the reality that the world doesn’t work that way, it’s distressing.”

“For a long time I was very confused,” Palu said. “Who are these people? Why don’t they want to live? What’s wrong here? I was not able to come up with any explanation for why people would treat each other like that.”

Seyle said traumatizing events challenge a person’s perceptions.

“If it’s to do with physical safety, it’s much, much more upsetting,” he said.

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war-ide-photo_01.jpg Going to war is the ultimate way to face one’s mortality, Palu said. Returning to life at home after those experiences can prove to be a harsh adjustment for many, if they come home at all.

Over the past decade, 1,000 news media personnel have been murdered around the world while trying to cover the news, according to a survey conducted by the International News Safety Institute.

Some come back unable to leave the other reality behind.

American photographer Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of Saigon police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Vietnam in 1969. But with this international recognition came the guilt of permanently staining the general’s honour.

“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera,” Adams wrote in a Time magazine editorial.

South African photographer Kevin Carter committed suicide in 1994, a few months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a starving Sudanese toddler stalked by a vulture. The ongoing horrors and pressures of the job overtook him at the age of 33.

It is common for war journalists to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms occurring more frequently in photographers due to their necessity for proximity, notes psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein in his book, Dangerous Lives.

“Iraq did take its toll on me,” Leistner said. “I was really depressed and unstable . . . I bailed out on assignments.”

At one point, Leistner needed to see a psychologist three days a week.

“I came home and felt that a lot of my friends hadn’t seen what I’d seen.”

In therapy she came to realize she couldn’t do much good with her work if she wasn’t in a stable state herself.

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While in Lebanon in 2006, Leistner adopted a style called “diptych,” in which she merged two pictures to create a single image.

“During the conflict there were a lot of pictures coming out of people standing amongst the rubble, or bodies being pulled from the rubble,” she said.

She found herself struggling to convey the photos. When the subject was at the forefront, the background was diminished. Reversing the situation didn’t make it any better.

“I wanted to create a narrative between the landscape and the person,” Leistner said.

She gave her subjects a chance to compose themselves before taking the pictures, to avoid capturing them at the height of their emotion. She believed seeing ordinary people in the chaos of their surroundings would make viewers more able to identify with them.

Halifax Chronicle Herald photographer Christian LaForce also found his work changed by his experience in Afghanistan.

After LaForce spent a month covering vast expanses of terrain and shooting in 45-degree heat under the intense sun, his editor noted an improvement in his use of wide angles and natural light.

LaForce said the daily uncertainty and danger in Afghanistan also caused him to approach his photography back home in new ways — something he clearly recalls from the Atlantica protests this summer.

Demonstrators clad in black up to their eyes flooded through the streets in downtown Halifax. They shouted, hurled paint and broke windows.

“It makes you look at things differently,” LaForce said. “Lots of times I used to just jump right in the middle of things.”

LaForce said instead of frantically trying to snap a picture, he took stock of the fact that there were “bottles and light bulbs flying” in his direction and stopped rushing to get any shot.

“I weigh it against something else now. I kind of just watch and really try to take my time do something kind of interesting.”

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Despite the risk and fear associated with a conflict zone, photographers keep going back.

“I felt a responsibility to show people back here what’s going on over there,” LaForce said. “I think while I was there I felt an even greater responsibility to the people there that I was covering. To tell that story in a proper way, in a complete way.”

While he was in Afghanistan, LaForce was shooting daily.

“I felt like what I was doing really mattered. It was important to me. Over here work is work; over there work is everything.”

Palu said the shocking experience of working in a war zone will stay with him forever, but he can’t help but be drawn to the stories that he said have to be told.

“It’s a horrible thing to have to see and a horrible thing to have to photograph,” he said.

Palu recalls walking through a hospital in Afghanistan and coming across a young boy asking for his eye back.

“What do you say to that 11-year-old kid?…I wish I wasn’t interested in the stories but I am. It’s not the war itself, but what’s happening to the people (that) is of interest to me as a photographer . . . I want to share what I see with others.”

Leistner echoes Palu’s sentiments.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to take pictures of people in emotional distress.”

During her time in Iraq she visited a hospital for women with mental disabilities who were imprisoned for life. Though overwhelmed by the hopelessness of their situation, Leistner was compelled to share the women’s experiences with the world outside.

“These women seemed to have more strength and courage than I would think myself capable of . . . people needed to know about them.

“There are places that are unpleasant to go to, but someone has to go there.”

There have been times when she wished she were anywhere else, and questioned how much she was willing to sacrifice for her work. While Leistner had a gun pressed to her head during her kidnapping, she thought, “This isn’t worth it.” But she and others continue to step back into worlds of fear and hostility.

“When someone suffers a broken heart,” Leistner said, “they swear they’ll never fall in love again, but they do.”

“Somehow the feeling passes . . . and you go back.”