Every photojournalist must draw a line that is uncrossable no matter how high the editorial stakes – for the sake of his or her life.
Robert Capa, the war photographer whose coverage of World War II and the Spanish Civil War became legendary, died while reporting on the French Indochina war in Vietnam, after he stepped on a landmine.
Lamenting his untimely death, Capa’s colleague Marc Riboud said, “Capa had many years ahead of him and much more to do.”
Although undoubtedly tragic, Capa’s death was by no means unusual in its circumstances. Over the decades, scores of photojournalists have died on the job – mostly while covering war and violent conflicts.
In 1989, Sanjeev Premi, a photojournalist with The Times of India, was accidentally electrocuted as he stood atop a railway coach in order to photograph the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in Aligarh. More recently, Ravi Kanojia, a young photojournalist working for The Indian Express, met a similar fate while shooting a stationary water train in Jhansi.
These fateful incidents beg an important question:
How far should a photojournalist go?
Put another way, to just how much risk should they expose themselves for the “perfect” shot?
Sondeep Shankar, editor for pictures, at Deccan Chronicle, has a simple answer: he holds that no image, no matter how important it seems to be, is worth risking one’s life over capturing.
He recounts a near-death experience that led him to this conclusion:
In the spring of 1983, he was at the Golden Temple at Amritsar attempting to photograph a Sikh man reading the Guru Granth Sahib. Realising this, the man grabbed Shankar aggressively and threatened to kill him. It was only when Bhrindenwala, a Sikh religious leader present there, intervened that Shankar was able to release himself from the man’s grip. He later learnt that the man was a Khalistani militant.
Why do so many photojournalists continually put themselves in harm’s way?
Much of the time, due to a desensitised overconfidence, photojournalists believe themselves invulnerable and grow oblivious to the dangers inherent in the environments in which they work.
For example, in 2000, Pradeep Bhatia, a Hindustan Times photojournalist, died in a car-bomb blast in Srinagar. Many local journalists later told me that they had been warned about the bomb and so stayed away, but Bhatia had refused to do so.
Similarly, in my disregard of the danger I was in, I avoided wearing a protective helmet while covering a riot in Kashmir. I was hit on the head by a stone that missed my eyes by barely half an inch. I was badly injured and I could have lost my sight – my vocation as a photographer, that is.
As Kanojia’s editor at The Indian Express told me after his colleague had lost his life, “One should be aware of the steps one is taking, for a simple image is not worth the loss of a life.”
Photojournalists must demonstrate a deeper understanding of their surroundings and their own mortality.
The tipping point
But another possible reason for the recklessness seemingly characteristic of photojournalists is editorial pressure. Photojournalists are expected to get exclusive shots – ones that are considered to be as impactful as possible.
Photojournalists should, however, resist this pressure, if succumbing to it involves entering potentially life-threatening situations.
Publications should additionally provide training and guidance, since most photojournalists enter the field untrained and learn on the job, which makes them even more vulnerable to the risks of their profession.
While training can contribute towards making the profession safer, it cannot, however, ensure it. For, decisions that lead to danger are typically taken by the photojournalist in question and are specific to his or her context.
Ron Haviv, a contemporary war photographer, acknowledges this when he says, “Personally, I try to minimise the risk in my attempt to take the strongest photograph. I very firmly believe that no image is worth dying for. I want to be alive to photograph again.”
Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
But perhaps what he was advocating through this provocative statement was emotional, and not necessarily physical, “closeness.”
In the physical realm, every photojournalist must draw a line that is uncrossable no matter how high the editorial stakes. Being overly confident, as an artist and a professional, involves costs far higher than those of not managing to capture the “perfect” shot.