Four Corners

Friday, 25 September 2009

The Marlboro Marine

Luis Sinco (Photographer, Los Angeles Times) in dialogue with Thomas Keenan (Bard College, USA) The following is an abstract from a conference being held this weekend at Durham University. The conference is titled "Humanising photography" and can be found here.

This is not a war story—it’s a love story.
Luis Sinco It’s about the unlikely friendship between James Blake Miller, a young Marine from the coal- mining mountains of Kentucky, and me, an accomplished photojournalist for one of the nation’s top newspapers. Ours is a story of fidelity, courage and kindness in the aftermath of war. How we overcame differences in age, geography, race, politics and culture to form a lasting bond. It’s about how he saved my life—and how I repaid the debt.

I was embedded with the Marines in November 2004 as they mounted a bloody
assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallouja, Iraq. I followed Miller’s unit as they took cover from heavy fire inside an evacuated home. During a lull in the fighting, I transmitted images by satellite phone from the kitchen. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the house, and I headed to the action upstairs. Miller had barked orders into his radio, directing tanks to take out the insurgents who had us under attack.

In the brief calm that followed, I looked across the rooftop at Miller, realizing he had
just saved my life—and the lives of many others. I raised my camera and snapped a picture of the young warrior, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his face smeared with grit and camouflage paint, blood trickling from a cut on his nose, his eyes exhausted, haunted, yet somehow determined.

The photo, immediately dubbed the “Marlboro Marine,” ended up on the front page of
more than 160 newspapers. It evoked strong emotions around the world. Mothers wondered if the rugged young man was their son. Women wanted to marry him. Dan Rather waxed poetic about it on the evening news. Many recognized the “thousand-yard stare.” Even the Marine Corps command took notice, offering to give Miller a free pass to leave the combat zone.

The photo thrust me into the limelight, earning me a finalist spot for the Pulitzer Prize
and invitations to speak at prestigious institutions. Ironically, I wanted nothing more than to leave the photo – and the war—behind. I resented how the image had been misinterpreted as a swaggering pro-war emblem. I had taken so many other photos in Iraq, but all anyone remembered was the “Marlboro Marine.”

My antipathy began to fade in the fall of 2005, when I learned that Miller, then barely
21, had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition serious enough to get him discharged from the military. Soon, at the urging of my editors, and the encouragement of my wife, I headed to Kentucky, hoping to do a quick follow-up story.

For me, it was a chance to set the record straight—to let the world know that the
photo of Miller was not about “Kicking Butt in Fallouja” as the conservative New York Post had screamed on its front page. Despite my reluctance to get involved and the professional ethics that required me to remain objective, I found myself getting drawn into Miller’s crisis. After a particularly bad run of events, he fell into a deep depression and teetered on the brink of suicide. I had no choice: I had to put down my camera and pick up a young man in desperate straits. “If I had gone down in Fallouja, would you have carried me out?” I asked Miller. “Damn straight,” he responded. “Well, I think you’re hurt pretty badly and I want to help you,” I said.

That day I coaxed Miller into my car and drove him to a treatment center in
Connecticut, all the while knowing that I could lose my job for crossing the line that’s supposed to remain between journalist and subject. Over the next 18 months, I came to understand how war alters lives—not only Miller’s, but also mine. Together, we have struggled to make sense of a world where it seems nothing has changed but us. We became brothers. We found healing.

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