Hard Focus

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By: Andrew Blum | June 1, 2008

What does conflict look like? Some people are fortunate enough to know only from the photographs they see in newspapers and on the web. But between the moment a picture is taken and its appearance on our computer screen or in our morning paper there exists a technologically remarkable chain of communication. Gone are the days when photojournalists lugged a chunky Rolleiflex TLR into the field and sent film home on planes. Digital technology has streamlined the process—while adding a few of its own complications. To find out more about how technology is changing photojournalism, I tracked down a few of the conflict photographers who travel around the world from hot spot to hot spot, snapping images and sending them back to their editors at home.

“One of the things that many people don’t talk about is how digital photography is giving a lot of the power back to the photographer,” Ron Haviv tells me late one night, at the other end of a bad phone connection from his hotel in Tanzania. He’s there on assignment for People, taking pictures for a story on economist Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Village project. I got in touch with him through the New York office of VII, the photo agency that Haviv cofounded, with James Nachtwey and others, specifically to document “conflict—environmental, social, and political, both violent and non-violent.”

After a few e-mails back and forth, I had reached Haviv on Skype, then arranged by IM to call his room. He was doing what he does every evening: sorting and processing the day’s photographs using Apple’s Aperture program on his Mac. This adds three to four hours to his workday, but, he says, he’s glad to do it. He used to drop off film at the airport to be sent off to editors in New York or Paris; it would be days before he heard anything, and then he would often be frustrated by their choices. Today, he says,“the photographer is really editing in the field and has the ability to shape the story.”

The first war to be explored digitally was Afghanistan. Rather than working with a local color lab (even Somalia had one) or having film couriered, the photographers jury-rigged their new digital cameras, laptops, and satellite phones to car batteries or diesel generators. The files were relatively small compared to today’s—a good thing, as the satellite data links were slow. By the time of the invasion of Iraq 18 months later, digital technology had matured.

Christopher Anderson, who’s now with Magnum Photos but was formerly Haviv’s colleague at VII, remembers Iraq as presenting the most difficult working conditions he’s ever experienced. On the job for U.S. News & World Report, he was embedded for two months with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, and accompanied the first group of soldiers that entered Baghdad. Preparing for it was “like taking a college course in electronics,” he remembers. They all had to find ways of connecting their battery chargers to the electricity coming out of a Humvee or a tank without frying them. He bundled his laptop, lenses, and cameras with plastic wrap to keep the sand out, but it didn’t work. By the time he arrived in Baghdad, he had one working camera left, and one lens.

Haviv was there, too, covering the invasion for Newsweek, and struggled to transmit his images. He was embedded with a Marines platoon that was constantly on the move; when they stopped to rest, he would get to work. “That was a lot of stress,” he says, “because on top of the worryof being ambushed, we had the whole worry about sand in your gear and getting the satellite and getting your pictures out.”

Since those early days in Iraq, the conditions experienced by photographers in recent conflict zones have been comparatively comfortable, and the technology has improved. In Afghanistan and Iraq, power is now easier to come by (at least for foreign journalists in hotels), and in Lebanon in 2006, most of Beirut functioned normally.

Perhaps the most significant technological advance since the Battle of Baghdad is the wide availability of Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellite connections. With a device about the size of a laptop (used in tandem with an actual laptop), photographers can quickly send high-resolution images. It’s still not a walk in the park—you need a view of the sky in the right direction, often in places where you don’t get to request a room with a view. But it’s a huge improvement, so much so that Haviv and Anderson, like many contract photographers, are able to send off the audio and video footage that they are increasingly recording along with their still photographs.

BGAN is expensive, though, and mostly necessary for breaking news. And in any case, for many photojournalists, the use of such cutting-edge technologies is contingent on something extremely basic: access to electricity. Riccardo Gangale, a freelance photographer based in Kigali, Rwanda, recently rode a barge up the Congo River with journalist Bryan Mealer, who wrote about their journey for the October 2007 issue of Harper’s. In order to last 10 days without power, he rationed his Nikon’s screen brightness and carried half a dozen batteries, along with his iBook.

He says that not for a second did the inconvenience make him want to return to film, though having faster connections to news desks at home has added pressure—and a touch of the surreal—to the experience of being a photojournalist. “It’s funny for us photographers to talk about,” Gangale told me by IM, on his laptop in the lobby of a hotel in Kigali. “Sometimes you’ll [be on the phone] to someone in London while you’re running on a dirt road with rebels around, and there’s no way you can stop and file. But they’re just worried about deadlines.”

Photojournalists are legendarily free-roaming, so it’s ironic that while technology has given them more control, it also keeps them more tethered, due to demanding deadlines or dependency on power. And no matter how the technology changes, one thing remains the same for these photographers: Their pictures only tell part of the story. Says Gangale, “Sometimes it is really hard to let people imagine the hell we have here.”