Why does a photographer cover a war, putting himself in harm’s way?
For adventure, by happenstance or to calm that front-page fever, answered an illustrious panel of photographers gathered in Paris, who covered the Vietnam War. Or more often than not, it’s because it’s in the blood.
Henri Huet, an Associated Press photojournalist who lost his life in 1971 when the military helicopter he was riding in was gunned down over southern Laos, was one of those who “went to war like other people go to work,” said Horst Faas, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who headed AP’s Saigon bureau from 1962 to 1974.
“Henri never considered himself a war photographer,” said Faas, but “he could really photograph the soul of a GI.”
The comments were made on Monday, as a group of Vietnam-era photojournalists gathered in Paris to launch an exhibit of Huet’s wartime photographs 40 years after his death.
During the Vietnam era, helicopters were the bane of photographers at war, necessary evils that allowed them to move around but left them exposed to gunfire and breakdowns, the panel said.
Today, photojournalists face new perils and are unprotected by the technological advances that allow some print reporters to cover stories from a distance.
Richard Pyle, a former Saigon bureau chief for AP during the war, said that today, “murder has become a primary cause of deaths among working journalists.”
During the Vietnam War, there were no “embeds,” journalists implanted with well-armed troops, like those who cover wars today from Iraq to Afghanistan. But neither were there snipers, police or troops targeting journalists — who are being killed today at a far greater rate.
The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers says 66 journalists and media workers were killed last year because of their profession — with Mexico and Pakistan the deadliest countries.
Journalists worldwide are “targeted for investigating organized crime, drug trafficking, corruption and other crimes,” it said in a report last month.
Two journalists have died in recent weeks in uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. An Egyptian reporter from a state-run newspaper was shot by a sniper last week while photographing clashes from his balcony.
In Tunisia, a French photographer died of his injuries after a tear gas canister struck him as police put down a peaceful demonstration in the capital.
So why take such risks?
Nick Ut, photographer of the infamous shot of a young Vietnamese girl running naked down a road after a napalm attack, said he knew instantly that his photo would define the horrors of war for the world.
The dead and wounded were the grim fare of wartime, but “I never saw a picture like that. Children. Naked,” said Ut, who began working at AP at the age of 15 on the advice of his older brother, a photographer killed in southwestern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
“We know the job is very dangerous,” he said. “But if you don’t see the picture, you don’t see the story.”