Why I Never Had Enough Guts to Be a War Photographer

Alvaro Ybarra Zavala--Congo, Nov 2008
Alvaro Ybarra Zavala, 2008

Twenty years ago when I was living in Tokyo and shooting more photojournalistic work, I still harbored a romantic desire to be a war photographer. To jump on a plane and document the horrors of Desert Storm, Sub-Saharan Africa, East Timor, the Middle-East. Robert Capa, James Nachtway, Don McCullin, Eddie Adams, and especially Philip Jones Griffiths were heroes of mine. I believed that documenting man’s inhumanity to man was not only noble, but necessary and would change the world for the better. I still believe that, in theory, but not in my gut anymore.

My only real confrontation with violence occurred in Tokyo when I was photographing a feature story about a fringe left-wing group who was opposed to the Emperor system. One late afternoon, as I photographed them protesting with bullhorns and banners near the pedestrian crossing bridges at Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, a bunch of burly, yakuza-looking guys in cheesy polyester suits arrived and started yelling. The threats soon escalated to kicks and punches. I continued to shoot away, totally ill-prepared, my only film left being Kodachrome 64 which was no good in the dusky light. As a gaijin, I was kind of invisible to the bullies who were now swinging bats. They attacked Reservoir Dogs-style, kicking and punching and smacking one of the protestors against the curb rail. Then one of them started shouted at me about taking pictures. In truth, I’d only snapped a half-dozen frames, partly because of the weak light, but mostly because I was not only scared, I just couldn’t frame the violence without feeling nausea and rage and impotence. My overwhelming urge was not to photograph, but to protect my subjects. When the police finally arrived 15 minutes later (the ties between the far-right and the police are pretty strong), I was nearly in tears. The sidewalk was splattered with blood and a few of the protestors were crumpled on the asphalt waiting for ambulances. That was the moment I realized I didn’t have the guts for war photography. I was a chicken and a partisan. After that I became an armchair war photographer.

After the recent deaths in Libya of two amazing young photographers, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington (both residents of Brooklyn), there has been much discussion on the risks and worth of documenting brutality and war. The Guardian ran a story and gallery about war photographers shaken to the core. Warning: it’s a sobering read and might be a bit graphic for some.
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