There were times when Anthony Feinstein would scare the hell out of me. I was worried he had some sort of X-ray vision. We would sit together on panels discussing war journalism, and my fear was that he would see right through me and judge the cumulative effect of my experiences covering combat.
Such was the power of his unobtrusive gaze and, more importantly, his reputation as a neuropsychiatrist. For those of whose business it was to chronicle war, you would have had to have been living under a rock for the past dozen years not to have met him, read his work, or at least been aware of it. That kind of gravitas gets you pretty impressive access to a tight-knit, often-cloistered community of extraordinarily gifted people who’ve been riven by the burdens of repeatedly staring into the savage abyss of modern wars and conflicts. Through him, we are granted admission into this intimate fellowship to meet his subjects and in some cases their families in Shooting War: 18 Profiles of Combat Photographers.
“The work of conflict photographers comes at a personal cost,” Dr. Feinstein writes on the back dust jacket. “War inevitably leaves an imprint.” It is a patently obvious statement with the patently obvious intention of drawing readers in to meet each of the photographers whose singular or collective body of work he admires.
He further entices with a noble, but also somewhat obvious, appeal along of the lines of you may know the image, but you don’t know the person. “So when you next come across photographs of war or conflict and marvel at their content, or recoil from it, or perhaps even look away, depending on your sensitivities, pause for a moment and reflect on the men and woman behind the lens and what it has taken to get the images before you.”
Feinstein, the director of the neuropsychiatry program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, first encountered conflict in 1982 as a conscript into the South African army, which was fighting in northern Namibia and southern Angola. His interest in war photography was kindled by the “amateurish” photos he took there. In this book, he “worked backward…starting with photographs that I admire and then going in search of the men and women who took them.”
That has a tinge of self-indulgence, which he can be forgiven in light of his previous groundbreaking scholarly works including Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women Who Report It and Journalists Under Fire. My fear that this book was going to be a vanity project vanished after the first few pages. What lingered temporarily was a concern that we were being served up fawning, misty-eyed, or rock star accounts—as much as the words “rock star” can apply to the semi-anonymous world of combat photographers.
Don’t get me wrong: it is no sin to admire someone who has shown courage in the face of horror, even physical danger, and yet still had the presence of mind to do the job as a service to history. We are, however, being invited with this book to gain a better, clear-eyed understanding of these unique individuals beyond the maudlin and often hackneyed interpretations of war photographers. Feinstein succeeds some of the time.
It is no easy task that he has assigned himself. Having spent fifteen months covering the Afghan war as a print journalist, I have come to appreciate how combat photographers are a breed apart. They are, in most cases, among the most sensitive, thoughtful, historically literate, and, more importantly, image-conscious people I’ve ever met.
They are also the toughest to get to know. They are keenly aware, even more than television people, of how they want to project themselves, under what terms, and in what light. And rarely do they let you in completely.
You would think Feinstein’s long history as a psychiatrist and the ability to dismantle the roadblocks of the mind, without setting anything off, would give him a leg-up on average interviewers. It might very well be, in some cases, that his subjects saw him coming. There is a guarded quality to some of the biographies that is all too familiar, especially if you’ve spent time in the company of war and conflict photographers. If you haven’t, you’re left with questions and a desire to know more about some of the subjects.
Only a few of his subjects are remotely close to being household names, although they are widely known and revered within the community of foreign correspondents.
There’s the legendary Don McCullin, a Brit whose career has spanned over six decades with assignments in almost every major war zone since 1964—including Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and the present charnel house of Syria. The portrait of him is, by far, the most complete. You leave with a better appreciation of the man, not only the expected torments and regrets, but the wellspring of his ambition and outlook on life. The harrowing account of David Guttenfelder’s brushes with death in Africa and his willingness to share that trauma and the grace with which he deals with it make for a gripping read.
Then there’s Tim Page, who arrived in Vietnam as a twenty-year-old and made his name with photographs that “reveal, in the most dramatic and visceral way, the horrors and exhilaration that come with warfare.” Page was renowned for the hard and fast life he lived in his four years in Vietnam, which was a kaleidoscope of dope, women, rock ’n’ roll, and combat. And it is clear that Feinstein is a fan, writing that Page’s account “of the war is so funny, intoxicating, and downright entertaining that it can obscure his own suffering and the deep wellspring of sympathy and compassion he had for the Vietnamese.”
There are flashes of insight like that, but in the end we don’t leave with a better understanding into what makes this legend tick. That is unfortunate. Pick up a copy of Dispatches, Michael Herr’s classic memoir of Vietnam, and you will see Page stitched throughout that gripping narrative. There is, perhaps, more insight in that book than in the retrospective of him offered here, where we meet the older version of the man who continues to drag around the ghosts of his storied past.
Shooting War contains moments of tenderness and mercy, in particular with Feinstein’s handling of Carol Guzy, the multi–Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer who was—according to the book—unceremoniously dumped by the Washington Post after decades of covering conflicts and the aftermath of natural disasters.
Feinstein also does justice to the memory of Alexandra Boulat, the outstanding French photographer who died at the relatively young age of forty-five in October 2007 from a ruptured brain aneurysm. She left behind a significant body of work that focused on the plight of women in war. To create his portrait, Feinstein relies on interviews that deliver a gratifying view of the woman whose riveting images of the violence in Gaza in the early 2000s gripped me. Seeing her through the eyes of the people who loved her brought a depth and warmth to her story that is missing in some of the single-voice narratives.
Photography, in particular photojournalism, is about capturing the essence of moment, or the truth of an individual, with an image. Being able to seize and illustrate the substance of each of these extraordinary people would have been a daunting task for even a seasoned biographer.
The peril with this kind of project, in particular, is to avoid creating caricatures or playing to well-trodden stereotypes, which people invariably have about war photographers and even correspondents. It is easy to dismiss all of them as larger-than-life characters—cowboys or cowgirls, adrenaline junkies, and even freaks who’ve been broken by what they’ve seen.
That kind of appraisal is something I have personally witnessed with the shocked, sometimes puzzled, expressions of those who’ve asked about my time in Afghanistan and learned that it involved fifteen months and eight deployments. They are stunned by the amount of time I spent there, mystified at the motivation, and even a little disturbed by the serenity with which the words are spoken.
Most people do not understand the deep, intimate commitment needed and the peace one must make with oneself, eventually, in order to repeatedly do that kind of work. Everyone who covers combat knows there are sometimes consequences such as when British photographer Tim Hetherington was killed while covering the Libyan civil war. That said, the bargain you make with yourself is amorphous and evolving, something you can’t quite wrap your fingers around as it’s going on.
My reasons for covering the war in 2006, when the hard fighting started for Canadians in Kandahar, were not the same as those that drove me to the streets of Kabul in early 2014 on the same day fellow correspondent Nils Horner was murdered with a shot to the back of the head by a Taliban splinter group. It is not the kind of wisdom that gets shared with random strangers, no matter how well meaning or noteworthy.
The fact that you don’t always get deeply personal insight and brutal honesty in one, two, and three—or may be even four—interviews may be one of the most important weaknesses of Shooting War.
Still, the book does make you “pause for a moment and reflect” on the men and woman behind the lens. Feinstein avoids the cliché and cringing. There is a certain reverence that is touching, particularly in the presentation of the appendices where portraits and boilerplate biographical details are displayed. This book succeeds, in a few instances, to deliver moments of truth and piercing insight into its subjects, but the call for a deeper appreciation of each of them is unevenly delivered. Nevertheless, it is worth reading. It will, if anything, serve to whet the appetite of those who want to learn more about the nobility of these people, the nobility of a profession that is growing more dangerous and maligned with each passing year.