War Photos: “The Shot that Almost Killed Me”

Posted on July 19, 2011

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Last spring, following the deaths of photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya, the British Guardian newspaper ran a terrific story, which my friend Deborah Mauro just to me. It’s called “The Shot that Almost killed Me.” Seventeen photojournalists tell the tales about their most harrowing experiences. If you ever wanted to know what’s it’s like to be a war photographer, this is it. Below are a few of excerpts. Go here for the complete piece.

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“I’d been in Afghanistan a month when I stepped on a landmine. I was the third man in, and as I put my foot down I heard a mechanic click and I was thrown in the air. I knew exactly what had happened. As the soldiers dragged me away from the kill zone, I took these pictures….I had to keep working.”

Joao Silva, Afghanistan, October 2010

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“The situation was very tense–people were drunk and aggressive. I was with two other photographers most of the time, but at this moment I went back to the road alone. I saw three soldiers smoking, playing with their guns, and I felt safe–I don’t know why. Then I saw a man with a knife in his mouth, coming out of the bush. He was holding up a hand like a trophy. The soldiers started laughing and firing in the air. I didn’t think about it and started shooting.”

–Alvaro Ybarra Zavala, Congo, 2008

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“I got into Ajdabiya shortly after it’s fall. The rebels had just moved in and the locals were going crazy, shooting in the air. Bodies of pro-Qadaffi were lying around, beginning to stink as the sun got higher. The fire from the tank was incredibly strong and I was worried that it might explode at any moment. Suddenly this guy jumped up on it….I had wanted to capture that sense of release that everyone had, and suddenly this became the shot. I got as close as possible, within meters, and started shooting, counting to five in my head. Then I got out. I had corpses, torn apart, in the morgue, and I didn’t want to end up like that.”

–Mads Nissen, Libya, February 2011

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This is the last picture I took before I got shot. I was embedded with U.S. troops in Nuristan for five weeks when we went to help a unit that had been ambushed nearby. There were bodies on the road, dead and dying. Taliban started shooting down on us from the mountains. I jumped behind a rock. I could hear bullets hitting it, and thought, “Oh fuck, oh fuck.” We ran behind a Humvee, but now we were being fired on from both sides. By that point I’d accepted that I was going to be shot. There were so many bullets in the air it sounded like a swarm of bees….The bullet [that hit me] went through my ribs and out of my lower back. It felt as if I’d been punched. The pain was overwhelming. I was convinced I was going to die and felt angry at myself….It was 25 minutes before anyone could get to me. My cameras were on the ground, and as they grabbed me I had to lean down and pick them up. When we got to the local base, a medic said, “Hell, I can see right through you.” As soon as I knew I’d recover, I told my girlfriend that I was going back out. The work I do is important, and if I hadn’t it would mean I’d never really understood the risks in the first place.

–John D. McHugh, Afghanistan, May 2007

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This was at the start of the invasion [of Iraq]. We were at the Diyala Bridge, which had to be taken by the marines so they could get into Baghdad. the opposition were shelling us. It was terrifying–both the actual shelling, and the anticipation of it. It comes in waves so you can see it moving in your direction. One had exploded in the tank. If it had exploded on top or a couple of feet over, I would have died. Your instinct is to bury yourself, but you can’t. Your there to do a job. The point is to get the news out. If you can keep moving, you can manage the fear.

–Gary Knight, Iraq, April 2003

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