At the beginning of the summer I interviewed Teru and Balazs Gardi, then with their help began putting things in place for the show to come over from the Amnesty International exhibition in Jersey, we're now just nailing down the venues and timings so more on that soon.
The thrust of the interview was about hyperphotography and the issues that they deal with at the frontline of distribution, funding and sustainable practices As soon as I edit it, I'll put that up here along with some exclusive excerpts from their quicktime movie pieces.
Among military planners, there's an aphorism that states: "Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics."
The daily mechanics of photographing in a "war zone" don't have much to do with photography—mostly it's about getting from point A to point B without getting your head cut off, then finding a signal and an outlet.
For what it's worth, here's some advice for first timers heading out to the badlands.
Wear Your Seat Belt
I get questions on a daily basis from journalists heading for Afghanistan—most of them are about body armor—but it's the traffic that's most likely to kill you. The stretch of Islamist insurgency that arcs from Southern Philippines to Somalia hasn't produced exceptional snipers, but it's home to some of the most lethal drivers on Earth. On my last trip to Pakistan, I flipped a car four times within 72 hours of arrival. My bulletproof vest is still wrapped in plastic somewhere in Islamabad.
Learn How To Say "Hello" and "Thank You" and To Count To Ten
Most tourists wouldn't go to France or Italy without packing a phrasebook, but a surprising number of photographers set off to Iraq or Afghanistan without learning how to make the most basic conversation. I recently found myself explaining to an "experienced war photographer" that Afghans don't speak Arabic.
Stop Looking For the "Front Line"—It's a Mirage
The awkwardly named "global war on terror" might be the undeclared World War III of the 21st century, but it doesn't play out like WWI and WWII, and counterinsurgency isn't done in trenches. In modern military parlance, the "battlefield" has been replaced by the "battlespace," an all-encompassing realm that includes not just the landscape, but also the "hearts and minds" of a "human terrain," and the airwaves and webspace across which an "information war" is being waged.
Equip Yourself With the Right Gear
War zone propeller-heads can talk endlessly about their toys, so here, in bullet points, are a few tips:
• Avoid the faux-commando stuff - An entire paramilitary equipment industry has emerged, selling "special operator" products ranging from "tactical flashlights" to mercenary-chic cargo trousers. Private military contractors love this overpriced war-schwag, but since you are not a highly paid, heavily armed, former Navy SEAL, it's probably best that you avoid dressing up like one. When you're on the side of the road, getting shaken down for your money and/or your ID, you really don't want to pull it out of a camouflage passport holder that says "Operation Iraqi Freedom" all over it. (It won't make you especially popular in the airport in Paris or Dubai either).
• Bring plastic (not your credit cards) - In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, you will encounter an unimaginable variety of dirt, dust, sand and, in the rare event of rain, mud that falls from the sky. These abrasive, corrosive, gear-choking forces are probably more destructive than any known insurgent militia, and they will eat you and your expensive toys alive. Zipties, ziplock bags, crazy glue and plastic packing tape will help you patch it together. Skip the army-navy outfitter, and go to Home Depot and the 99-cent store.
• Pack your go bag - AKA, your grab bag, jump bag, snatch bag, bug-out bag, etc. Since you're out there looking for trouble, be prepared to find it. Your go bag is the essential kit, packed in advance, that you head for the door with when things get hectic. Beyond your go bag, keep an ultra-light bare-bones survival pack—and keep it strapped to your body. When things go bang, you may be semi-conscious, crawling out of a destroyed building or a wrecked vehicle, and even your go bag may go sideways. Military bases and hotels with foreign guests are natural magnets for missiles and explosives, so expecting to be blown out of bed is not necessarily an irrational thought. Similarly, you are exceptionally vulnerable when traveling by road, and in the event of an accident or an ambush that you are lucky enough to survive, you won't get a time-out to collect your stuff.
Embedding Has Both Perks and Consequences
For better, and for worse, the military has provided training wheels for rookies. On the upside, embedding takes care of the serious logistical challenges of transportation, shelter, security and food and water. There's not a lot of bed-and-breakfasts to be found in Fallujah or Kandahar, so that's not a small consideration. On the downside, embedded reporters operate on a very short leash with ever-increasing restrictions from their military handlers. Independent reporting is critical for getting an accurate view from these places, but it's dangerous, difficult, expensive, and it's being done less and less by the international press. Embedding provides a particular but extremely limited view of the battlespace. You can spend an entire deployment embedded with the US Marines in Diyala or Helmand, but don't fool yourself that you know anything about Iraq or Afghanistan—what you've seen is the inside of an armored bubble.
Read. Think. Ask questions - and triple check before you start believing.
Some suggested reading:
Descent into Chaos - Ahmed Rashid
The Gamble - Tom Ricks
29 Articles - David Kilcullen
War and Anti-War - Alvin and Heidi Toffler
The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell - John Crawford
Five years ago, while I was working in Iraq, I teamed up with my brother, a web developer, to launch a web-based data-sharing network of people who do inadvisable things in sketchy places. When you have a bizarre question that no travel agent can answer, try our site, lightstalkers.org. Someone out there will have advice for you—heed it at your own peril.
Teru Kuwayama has made more than 15 trips to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, traveling both independently, and as an embedded reporter with US and NATO military forces, as well as Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian armed forces. In 2009 he received the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor award for his work in Pakistan, and a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.
He is a 2009-2010 Knight Fellow at Stanford University, a contributor to Time, Newsweek and Outside magazines, and a contract photographer for Central Asia Institute, a non-profit organization that builds schools for children in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He is also the co-founder of Lightstalkers.org, a web-based network of media, military, and aid and development personnel, and the curator of Battlespaceonline.org, a traveling exhibition of photographs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.