Militaries fear that painful images can sway public opinion on the wars they sell – war photographer

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – and that goes double for the works of war photographers. Is there catharsis to be found in the tragedy captured by a camera lens? We asked Zoriah Miller, who has documented the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, and many other places.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Zoriah Miller, award-winning photographer who put himself in the line of danger to document wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza – welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us, can’t wait to talk to you. Zoriah, you say that you always do your best to portray the reality of what you see. Are you remaining an impartial observer of the events that you are shooting?

Zoriah Miller: Yeah, I think “impartial” is something every journalist strives for. It doesn’t mean that I’m not emotionally invested in what I photograph. Obviously, I am a human being and I have opinions on what I see and I have opinions on what is right and what is wrong and injustice, and I’ll obviously try everything I can to bring injustice to light. I suppose my definition of injustice is my personal opinion, so I am impartial, but I do have feelings and I follow those feelings and I hope to try to portray them in the photographs that I capture.

SS: I suppose what you’re saying being “your personal opinion” are the key words. Does personality hinder you in telling a story as truthfully as you can? Does it get in the way?

ZM: No, I think that’s one of the common misconceptions in journalism, it’s that having feelings and having emotions and caring about a story is going to hinder your ability to capture that story or make you impartial. I think you have to have feelings, especially for this type of photography. When you’re with a family after they’ve lost a loved one or in a situation where people have lost everything, I think it’s impossible to not have feelings about it, and when you do see pictures from people that go into those situations without feelings you can see it in the imagery, they’re not able to capture the emotion of these situations. It’s important to feel and I don’t think it’s necessary for journalists to go into a situation without any opinions of their own. You can go into a situation and have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong, and you can still be open to every side of the story and to every side of the argument. As long as you’re willing to accept at some point if you’re wrong, if you see something that goes against your beliefs, you capture it anyway and your beliefs change, I think that’s good journalism – not just walking into a situation trying to be as void of any thought process or any feeling on the subject matter. That just ends up being cold in my opinion.

SS: Photography only captures a split second, and so it leaves a lot out of context. Has it happened to you that the story your pictures were supposed to tell was interpreted falsely? How do you deal with those context challenges of your trade?

ZM: Yeah, absolutely. I had a situation in which – I don’t remember, I was in one of the bigger magazines in the US, either Times or Newsweek, I can’t remember at this point – they wanted to use a photograph that I’d taken in the Gaza Strip with some militants who were building tunnels under the border. Primarily these tunnels were being used to bring over medical goods and aid and basic everyday needs for the people in Gaza and yes, weapons did cross these tunnels at times, and I understand that, but they wanted to use the picture in the context of illustrating terrorism. Luckily, my editor at the time told me what they wanted to use the photo for and I said that that’s not the context this photo was taken in and I decided not to allow it to be published. Of course, especially when you’re working for international media organizations and photo agencies, oftentimes you don’t know which photos of yours are being purchased, you don’t know how they’re being used, and that was one of the biggest reasons why I decided to become even more independent than I already was and start to  have my own blog in which I could actually post the photographs that I took and give the context that I saw them in, that I photographed them in, and let people know how I interpreted the photos and how the people that I was photographing felt about their situations so that it wasn’t completely left up to other people, how these photographs were portrayed.

SS: The Time magazine gathered, I remember, 100 most influential photos of all time, and those pictures are mostly political and military ones, like the coffins covered with US flags or the children fleeing from a napalm attack. Why are we, as humans, most affected by such grim visions – is it about compassion, a lust for tragedy, or both? I always wonder why?     

ZM: You know, there’s the old saying that the editors used to use which is “if it bleeds, it leads”, meaning if there’s blood in the photograph it’s going to be the lead photograph. I don’t know, I would say it’s partially human nature, I would say it’s partially the dramaof the photograph. I think that’s one of the amazing powers of still photography, it’s really able to kind of capture a mood and a feeling and portray that to people in a way that oftentimes video doesn’t give quite the same emotion. Why so many of those photos are the really difficult ones? I suppose it allows people to kind of put themselves in other people shoes, like “what would it be like if that was me in that situation where I didn’t have access to food or water or, you know, I was injured in that way, or a family member, a friend was injured in that way”. Most people do have some compassion and some ability to feel what others feel. I would say that probably a lot of those photos really have an emotional impact on people.

SS: I always wonder when I look at those pictures – because some are obviously much more horrifying than other – where is that fine line that you draw when you say “when it bleeds, it leads”?This question might sound a little harsh, but when you do blood and gore so close up, are you afraid it might look like “suffering porn” instead of what you want it to look like?

ZM: I think that there are people who are going to look at images in different ways. My goal was always just to show what I saw, to show what was actually there, especially in war zones. I don’t think most westerners have any idea what that situation is like, and media doesn’t do a good job portraying it. We’re always trying to censor things, we’re always trying to dumb stuff down. The bottom line is that a newspaper with a really graphic photo on the cover is going to make people call and complain, it’s going to make advertisers complain. They don’t want to be selling a Rolex watch or a Lexus opposite a page of someone suffering and dying. I think we’ve gotten really used to things being dumbed down in the mainstream media. I didn’t want to dumb things down, I wanted to just capture what I saw, and not only that, but capture what soldiers were seeing. Especially at the time when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan you know soldiers were coming back with severe PTSD and people didn’t really understand what that was or how it happened, and then the media wasn’t helping that at all because people see these very, kind of, vague photos of what’s going on in a war zone, and I just wanted to show what I was seeing and what other people were having to see and experience in this situation. I remember years ago I was doing some stories on AIDS orphans in Cambodia. We’re talking about rural areas and in a lot of these places kids don’t have money for clothes or when they’re quite young they run around these orphanages without clothes on. I was getting hate mail and death threats for having these pictures in news stories because people were saying “These pictures could be used by people that are into child pornography to look at these in a sexual way”. My response was – a photographer can’t be fully responsible for the way individuals see images. We have to do our best to portray things, obviously I wasn’t photographing these in any type of a sexual way, it was young kids playing and that’s often the way they play in other countries. The fact that somebody could see that as sexual I think is beyond the scope of what a photojournalist can worry about.

SS: You mentioned your work in Iraq – back in 2008 you were embedded with the US troops there but were kicked out after you took photos of dead soldiers. I know there were bans on photographing coffins flying into US from Iraq as well. Why be so afraid of what is after all just images?

ZM: I think, like I said before, images do have a power. They affect people. If you look back to the Vietnam war and the images that started coming out of Vietnam, they had a great way in changing public opinion on that war and making people go into the streets and protest and start to demand that the US withdraw from that war. Militaries around the world have taken those lessons and they’ve seen what photographs can do and what the media can do to affect people opinions, and that’s what we see all around the world – every year the job of journalists, photojournalists, any type of videographers, writing journalists, their job gets much more dangerous every year because so many people see what we do as threats, threats to whatever their narrative is, whatever their propaganda is. Like anything in our culture, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had to be sold to the American people and it obviously wasn’t what the government wanted to portray. There was pain and suffering and pointlessness and despair. That doesn’t fit in with the narrative that they want to portray to continue selling that war.

SS:You’ve been saying that a war photographer wants to get an image that will stop the war. But images can’t really do that, can they? Look at all the amazing images we had from the Vietnam war, from the Iraq war for that matter, and none of that really helped stop anything…

ZM: Yeah, it’s true, and it’s something that I realize more and more as I go on in life, but I don’t think it’s a reason to quit. There’s lots of things we do every day in this world that don’t necessarily have the end outcome that we want them to have. Doctors will try to save people’s lives that are horribly injured and lot of times that doesn’t work, but sometimes it does. I think it’s not a reason to stop trying. Whatever images we get from war zones and we show to people, it will have some effect on that person, and it might not be immediate and stop that war, but maybe if there’s enough information out there, maybe if people see this enough, their decisions might change over time. It’s an idealistic approach and I don’t know if it’s right or not, I don’t know if it’s worth the cost of what we pay to be war photographers but I think that it’s worth trying. If people had to live through these things, the least we can do is acknowledge them, look at them. If my country is in a war that’s taking people’s lives and ruining them, I feel like the least we should do as a society is acknowledge that and see that it’s happening. Even if we don’t do anything – we should do something, but even if we don’t – we should know that it’s happening, we should know what it looks like and we should try to imagine what it feels like.

SS: Do you feel some kind of an extra responsibility when you take pictures the way you do, with your influence, since your work can change things around, affect many minds? Even if it’s not stopping wars it makes people aware of what’s going on. Is that a burden sometimes, or do you manage to stay only about catching the moment?

ZM: I guess there’s two answers to that story. In the moment you’re just focusing on doing everything you can to capture that moment in the best way that you can – you’re paying attention to light, you’re paying attention to what’s going on around you, to whatever potential dangers might be in that situation, but after you’re out of that moment, when you’re preparing for the next time you go out and film, you really feel a deep responsibility. To me it was always a deep responsibility to the people that I photograph more than anything else. If I mess up a shot, if I have my settings wrong on my camera or something, that feels like a big loss to me because I feel like I’ve left people down that I’m trying to capture their story. So, it is a responsibility and I think it does weigh on you, but as you do the job more you learn what you need to do to get it right and, hopefully, the vast majority of the times you do get it right. A lot of times if you don’t, if you’re able to in some way meet with that family gain and capture those pictures again, that’s great. A lot of times you don’t have that luxury of being able to have a second chance and you have to work with what you have. But of course, I think we all want to capture images that are visually beautiful and stunning because that’s what is going to bring people in to look at a subject matter that they might otherwise want to ignore. There could be a million articles on a subject matter out there for people to read about and people might just not even want to bother with reading however many paragraphs the article is, but if they’re flipping through their newspaper or magazine an image just catches their field of vision for a second, if that’s a beautifully captured image and it shows the emotion of the scene, then hopefully you’ve given them a little lesson or something that will stick in their mind or something that will make them curious to kind of figure out what’s going on in that situation. For me that’s what made me fall in love with photojournalism – just looking at books of photos of humanitarian issues around the world and saying “Wow! What’s happening there? Why is that happening? What does this mean?” And then that pushed me to fight about this subject matter and also pushed me to capture images that would make other people feel that way.

SS: Have you ever found yourself in the environment where locals were resentful to the idea of being photographed? For instance, when you were shooting Palestinian tunnels in Gaza didn’t they suspect you of being an Israeli spy sniffing around?

ZM: Yeah, absolutely. People will suspect you of a million different things and a lot of times you have to prove yourself. There was a lot of times when I had to carry a portfolio with me and show people the types of images that I captured and what I’d done in order to try and gain their trust, and of course a lot of times you’re unable to gain a certain person’s trust. In that situation you have to move on. You can’t get everyone to trust you all the time.

SS: You put yourself in the line of danger multiple times, tell me - when you are in the middle of war chaos and you take photos, were you ever scared that this is it?

ZM: Generally, I’m scared to death before I go and when I get back – those are the times that I allow myself to be scared. The first time I went to Iraq it was the bloodiest time of the war and journalists were being killed at an alarming rate and locals and military, the amount of death that was happening when I chose to go in was just incredible, I had a really hard time with that decision, and I was very scared. But the second you get into the situation you let that go and you focus, because fear is not doing you any good when you’re in this situation – you have to concentrate, all of your attention has to be spent on what is going on around me and what is going on with what I’m doing, an immense amount of attention spent on, you know…

SS: How do you manage to keep your head cool when bullets are flying over it?

ZM: I guess this is personal, I’m sure everybody deals with this in a completely different way, but for me I just shut it down. In a way I had to kind of think of myself in those situations as being invincible. I just would say there’s nothing that’s going to harm me, I’m going to be fine, there’s nothing I have to worry about and just do it. Because if you start to let the fear take over you’re not going to go in and take that photograph that you need to take, and you’re not going to put yourself in some of the situations that you need to put yourself in to document what’s going on. I guess you kind of psyche yourself out for it and it’s kind of a meditative state, you go into it, you do what you need to do. And as soon as you come out and you get back home, then you’re having visits with your psychiatrist and you’re taking PTSD medication, depression medication and you’re trying to deal with what you just went through and how crazy it actually was.

SS: Would you risk your life for a good shot?

ZM: I did many times. Whether I would at this point? I’m a lot older now than I was. Like you said before, we don’t really know what the meaning of these photos is, we don’t know what they’re going to change, we don’t know if they’re going to make any difference. And I think that’s something I’ve realized more as I’ve gotten older and I would reevaluate decisions a bit more at this point in my life than I did in my late twenties and early thirties when, you know, it was something that I was so passionate about and believed in so much and didn’t really care what the cost was. I think a lot of young people like myself kind of thought of ourselves like bulletproof and I got lucky, a lot of other people didn’t and are either not around anymore or are suffering from any number of different injuries.

SS: When you were embedded with the US force in Iraq, you stayed with infantry troops and refused any special treatment as a photographer. In the famous series “Generation Kill” the journalist who rides with the Marines takes a gun when things go rough and shoots back. Did you ever have to do something like that?

ZM: To take a gun to get myself out of a situation? No, I’ve never had to act in a combat role. I mean, I’ve had that training, I know how to use all the equipment that they use in those situations, but… You know, I suppose if my life really depended on it, then I would have to take those steps. But luckily, I was never in a situation where I had to make that choice, I was there as a journalist and for sure I didn’t want to take someone’s life. That would be something that I would have a really hard time living with.

SS:I heard some war photographers say that they become addicted to war to the point where they feel that they can’t help but go and work there again and again. Has this happened to you?

ZM: It’s something I very actively thought, that instinct. Because it is extremely addictive on a number of different levels. The adrenaline is something that’s easy to get addicted to. I think another thing that’s really hard is when you come back from those situations, when you come back from war zones and different countries – I’ve worked in 116 countries at this point – when I come back to the US and I’m around friends who have wonderful, “normal” lives, it’s always hard to relate to each other. I think they have a hard time picturing my life and what I see and what I experience, and I have a hard time picturing what it’s like to have a family and to live in one place and to come home to the same bed every night. There’s a disconnect and it makes you feel kind of more out of place when you’re home in a normal situation then when you’re sleeping underneath a tank in a desert waiting for something crazy to happen. So, it is very difficult mentally and I think everybody that does this type of work will come out from it with some kind of issues. I don’t think you can see these kinds of things and come out unscathed. I think it’s important for young photographers and journalists to know that.

SS: For the past couple of years you’ve been working on this project called Dollar Street that shows how others live at different income levels around the world. Why did you decide to change the focus and drift away from the war photography and go into that in particular?

ZM: Dollar Street was a project which I really believed in from the beginning, it was a subtle way of giving an immense amount of information to a great number of people. This is a project that can be seen by anyone around the world and used and studied for free. I spend a day with families in different income groups and I photograph their lives – what a plate of food looks like for them, what kind of toys their kids play with, what their house looks like. This is now being used in schools around Africa, it’s being viewed by people all around the world. I think the subtle things are just as important. For someone here in the West to be able to go and to see what it’s like to live in Burkina Faso in the bottom 2 percentile of the income bracket that’s – important. I think it’s possibly just as important, or even more important than war imagery and things that are very hard to look at.

SS: Zoriah, thank you very much for this interview, it’s been wonderful talking to you and having your insight.

ZM: Thank you, Sophie.

SS: We were talking to Zoriah Miller, award-winning photographer who travelled to crisis regions from Iraq to Haiti to document human suffering there.