War photographers must be wired differently to the rest of us. They feel fear, yet they seem to suppress the instinct to do anything about it. They are calm in the middle of a disrupted and dangerous reality.
Paul Conroy opened the Amnesty lecture at Belfast Festival with the tale of how he first met journalist Marie Colvin and travelled around the Middle East by raft, boat, road and driven on the back of a motorcycle through minefields. Leaving countries with the rest of the media pack wasn’t their style. Instead, they stayed to tell the stories of human suffering at the hands of brutal groups and were driven by opening the lid on human rights abuses.
A rocket fired by Syrian government forces hit their building in Homs and “removed a room”. Conroy’s instinct was to run to get his camera to get a shot. Another rocket eliminated the corridor. He found his friend and journalist Marie Colvin, dead in the rubble, just 200 miles from where they’d first met 13 years before.
It seems crazy to discover that a couple of weeks later when Conroy finally escaped the country – with further deadly experiences – he was the one briefing British intelligence since they could only get as close to Syria as using binoculars to peer in from the border.
If you witness [atrocities] you have an obligation and a duty to speak out.
Conroy isn’t afraid to tell others about what he sees, saying that he only talks about what he saw in Syria with his own eyes and doesn’t want to pontificate about what he can’t be sure of. He’s fiercely critical of how governments continue to fund and arm conflicts.
In a fantasy Belfast Festival, I would love to hear Jonathan Powell in conversation with Paul Conroy and find out how political diplomacy and “Talking to Terrorists” stacks up against the photographer’s first hand witnessing of the brutality of war and regime abuses.
Conroy is clear that in these situations, ground warfare is inevitable: “You cannot take territory and keep territory from the air”.
He’s nearly blasé when he describes the danger that he and fellow photographers and journalists face reporting from conflict regions. He believes that ransoms shouldn’t be paid when people are kidnapped. Injured from the rocket attack, it was trapped for days before he was able to escape Syria, and he knows many of the western hostages that ISIS are murdering.
I knew and didn’t expect the cavalry to come running. I got myself in there … as much as it pains me to watch my friends being beheaded.
Chairing the post-lecture Q&A, William Crawley asked what he thought about ‘citizen journalists’? Paul Conroy replied, at first wondering what an airline pilot would think about citizen airline pilots. before going on to explain the value add that journalists brought to reporting. He gave the example that anyone could film a tank and upload it online. But a journalist would stare at the images, join the dots, and realise that it was a new model of Russian tank not seen in this area before and piece together the bigger story.
Conroy acknowledges that his choices have an effect on his family back at home.
I hope that I’m giving a good example to my three lads … teaching them that you can go out and make a difference.
If people don’t go and turn lights on and use cameras in these very dark places, then these people will keep on [with their abuse]; I hope people continue to ferret around and look for their dirty little secrets.
War photographers are obviously wired differently to the rest of us. But so too are the politicians, despots and their henchmen and women who create the horrific circumstances from which Paul Conroy and his peers so bravely report.
You can read Paul Conroy’s account of his last tragic assignment with Marie Colvin in Under the Wire.