Kim Ludbrook is a photographer and was in Libya shortly before his friend Anton Hammerl arrived and was killed. He reveals the conflicted soul of people who photograph war, in a story first published in The Media magazine.
The icy cold wind was blowing off the nearby sea as the Libyan rebels parked their military vehicles up on the high ground, to the left of the tar road that ran directly into Bin Jawad, Eastern Libya.
The atmosphere was relaxed, considering this was the frontline of a conventional war, and it reminded me of some sort of huge outdoor picnic in the middle of the desert.
Libyan rebels offered me cups of sweet tea and tuna sandwiches and we tried to converse in my non-existent Arabic and their non-existent English.
All they could get across was: “Gaddafi crazy, Gaddafi crazy…!” as they sat on chairs and surveyed the battlefield stretching out to the west on the low ground.
Then our friendly chat was broken by the screaming of more rebel rockets being launched from a sand bank about 100 metres to our right.
Each salvo was met with a huge cheer from the rebels who would then shoot their AK47s aimlessly into the air.
As we watched the rockets impact with a dull thud in and around the government positions some five kilometres away, my friend and driver, Abdullah, an ex-Libyan army soldier, came from behind and grabbed my shoulder. “Kim we must go! The government soldiers will get their distance now! Let’s go!”
As we turned and started running down the hill to the car, a salvo of Libyan army shells, most likely from both tanks and artillery, came slamming into our position. Sounding like wailing banshees, they exploded around us; there was chaos as rebels and journalists ran for cover, some diving into ditches beside the road, others making for their cars, some simply standing still, bemused and shocked.
As I made the tar road and sprinted towards the vehicle with Abdullah just in front of me, a shell came spinning at warp speed, end over end, just above our heads, crashing into the road behind us with a dull but menacing thud. As Abdullah drove like one possessed through the retreating rebel 4x4s, shouting and screaming at them and the universe, my mind was racing, praying that we would not be hit by a shell as we went on our mission to make the safety of the Ras Naluf junction about 5km away.
Adrenalin fills the veins, all your senses are on full alert, you hold the dashboard with your free hand, cameras bouncing on your lap and hitting the car door as the car rams over shell holes in the road – and as you drive, time seems to stand still; even though you are running for your life, the human mind and senses work overtime, in a higher gear and thus, despite the speed at which everything is really happening, it conversely slows down; every memory becomes recorded in your memory bank…
As the conflict continues there are many who have not been so fortunate. With the recent passing of conflict photographers, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondras, and death of friend, colleague and fellow photographer Anton Hammerl, those memories and questions I ask myself, come back to fill my mind.
Like a computer defragmenting, I am trying to answer some questions that remain: Why did I survive the daily bombings on the front and not others?
Do my images make ANY difference in the world? What has happened to my driver and friend Abdullah? How do I process the absolute assault on my senses that a war brings (the massive barrage of sounds, smells and sights of wounded and dead soldiers, tanks and metal, sand and cold, wind and rain, no trees, no vegetation, men screaming and shouting at each other, nerves on edge…)?
But probably the most important questions is: How do I deal with the fact that although I put my life at risk to take photographs, I am thrilled by the excitement of covering war?
Is it that you took the risk and survived that leads you to feel invisible and invincible, or is it the fact that there’s no other drug on the market, no motorcycle fast enough, no fairground ride tall enough, that holds such danger that it captivates you to such an extent?
As the memories start to fade slowly into the background, I realised that the most difficult aspect of covering conflict – what I have a problem dealing with – is the fact that within hours of leaving my quiet and idyllic middle-class life in the suburbs of Johannesburg, I was dodging bombs in a bitterly cold and desolate foreign desert. And then mere hours after leaving the frontline, the reverse happens. It’s like waking up from a dream to the reality. Now that I’m lying in bed at home the entire two-week experience seems like an ultra-fast, acid-induced dream that I remember clearly, but now seems to have been some sort of out-of-body experience.
So as this personal account shows, covering conflict is not the glamorous pastime that many outside of the photojournalism community think it is. Even from within the confines of the photojournalism community, those who have not been under fire may feel that the life of the Bang-Bang Club photographer is all Hollywood and easy…
The opposite is true: hard work, long hours, a huge toll on both your own karma and that of those close to you, airports and visas, getting sick on assignment, having friends die and having friends injured and trying to deal with the aftermath of covering such scenes is all the daily reality of conflict photography.
I must say though that being the next generation of photojournalists to ‘graduate’ from The Star newspaper in 2000 means I never met Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek and Gary Bernard; but I have had the pleasure of working with and being friends with Joao Silva – and I am sure he will not mind me commenting on the fact that as a young photographer, their ‘image’ and mythical status that the Bang-Bang Club book and all the awards that they won, attracted me, and others, to the business.
Although the attraction and the thrill of news photography appear to have not left my soul, I do approach the assignments with a vastly different viewpoint.
It is a down-to-earth approach. It is a viewpoint of a father of twins girls and a husband – an older man who realises that he still wants to be part of the greater picture, to tell the story of those who cannot, and hopefully, add my still images to the information superhighway that helps keep the human race’s chakras balanced.
It is also a viewpoint that has had the shine taken off, a viewpoint that has seen the horrid side of conflict photography; both the death of some many innocent people but also of friends like Anton Hammerl.
Some spectators will always look from the outside at conflict photography and feel it is a romantic pastime and yet to others it is still a champagne lifestyle on a beer salary…
And as the war in Libya rages on, I watch from the safety of my house in Johannesburg with interest and pray that the needless attempts to depose a leader does not cost the lives of more journalists, photographers and civilians.
But the hard facts are that war needs to be photographed. The eyes of the world mostly get their image of what is really happening in these areas through stills photographs. Thus the need for photographers to risk their lives to bring the images to the mass media will continue.
Note: Pls view the images from Libya’s front line at http://www.kimludbrook.com/photo-essays/ras-naluf-junction-2.html