By Peter Andrew Bosch
I had a high school teacher who was a Vietnam veteran who gave me advice that has stuck with me – and is especially appropriate for photographers heading into conflict or disaster situations.
The five “Ps” of life, he said, are: Proper preparation helps prevent a poor performance.
He also believed you should always have a backup system — and trust your instincts. Follow your gut, and use your common sense.
As a photographer, the five “Ps” can translate into the need to know how to do logistics. It’s become an integral part of how I enter every situation I get in.
What I mean by doing logistics is the need to research the assignment, learn the facts, prepare for what is likely to occur, look for every possible option — and take into account the unexpected. Only then can you go into the job with some degree of. That’s how I like to approach my job – although there will be times when you don’t have the luxury to prepare for every contingency – or the unexpected is too far off your radar screen.
Dealing with the Unexpected
On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, I had only been in Haiti for two days when I watched with the rest of the world the first airplane fly into the World Trade Center. I knew immediately it was time for me to head back to Miami and to the Miami Herald for there would be pressing news to cover. But with Haiti on high alert and the airports shut down, it could be two weeks before my colleague and I were able to fly out of Port-au-Prince, we were told. We could have driven to the Dominican Republic to try our luck at its international airport, but that also could have led to lost days of waiting. Instead, we chartered two planes to Cap Haitien in the north of Haiti and found a cruise ship that had room to take us to Miami.
Within months, I was preparing to head to Afghanistan as Operation Enduring Freedom was being launched. I’d worked extensively in the Middle East, spent some time in Israel and Iran but had never been to Central Asia. And although I’d seen my share of combat, natural disasters and military coups, I’d not yet covered a war against terrorists, essentially a guerilla war with an elusive enemy who would look no different than the civilian population. But the more immediate problem was, how would I enter Afghanistan?
Getting a visa into the country had become impossible, so many journalists opted to enter the country by crossing the border from Tajikistan to the north. One option was to walk for five days across the Pamir mountains and through the Hindu Kush. But it was snowing and the mountain passes were closed. I needed another option, but I would have to figure it out after I had landed in Tajikistan.
In Tajikistan, a group of reporters and I found our answer when we met a Russian who owned an old helicopter. He agreed to fly all 11 of us into northern Afghanistan for the hefty sum of $22,000.
The Russian took us into northern Afghanistan just across the Tajikistan border. It was the wildest helicopter ride I’d ever taken; our pilot took on altitude and dropped the helicopter, veering side to side across the canyon like an out of control carnival ride, hoping his unpredictable flying would keep us from getting hit by a rocket-propelled grenade — an RPG. It worked. From there, we worked our way toward Kabul, walking and catching rides from passersby.
Once there, I coordinated with writers as I would on any assignment to figure out the stories we wanted to do. In many ways, it was no different than working in Miami: What’s going on, what do we need to do, what’s the news we need to cover.
Of course there were significant differences too. In Miami, I’m not packing my bags – whatever I need is already in my car trunk – or thinking about what I need with me for the next few months. In addition, the Afghanistan conflict was a war on terror. What did that mean? How do you prepare for it?
Preparing for Conflict Photography
- First off, think about your physical safety. Before reaching Tajikistan I attended a week-long course in England on military conflicts and first aid training. I thought I knew most of it from my previous work overseas. I went in cocky. But in short order, I learned how quickly I could die in a guerilla conflict. I left the course humbled and much more aware.
- Consider what kind of gear to bring. Different environments require different clothes and equipment. What you need in a desert is different than what you need in the tropics. Dry weather requires different planning than wet weather. In desert countries you bring clothes that breathe. In the tropics you want clothes that dry quickly and don’t slow you down.
- Feet first. Regardless of the environment, you need excellent footwear. If yodon’t take care of your feet you’ll get exhausted much more quickly.
- Protective gear, adjusted to the country or conflict. I brought helmets and Kevlar bullet vests. In Iraq, I had to get a chemical warfare suit. I actually carried two, one for me and one for my translator so I wouldn’t risk getting killed for a suit.
- Items taken for granted, but don’t forget them. I brought water with me no matter where I went. I had a satellite phone to make contact with the outside world. I always had extra camera equipment in case something broke. What you can carry with you is all you get, there are no superstores in these parts of the world to replace a lens.
“Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.” – Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw.
As the person on the ground you have to make decisions that work for you.
And, as Robert Capa used to say, if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. But sometimes you settle for less because the conditions are too dangerous to do much more.
But the Basics of Photojournalism Still Apply
As exotic as Afghanistan and Iraq were, I tried to keep in mind that I had to remember the basics of journalism. This is just another assignment. Most of the same rules appled there as they did in Miami. I was there to tell a story. I worked with experienced writers and reporters who knew nothing. The experienced reporters were good because they knew what they’re doing. But some of them had lost some of their excitement. Inexperienced journalists can put you at risk because of their inexperience, but they see the assignments with fresh, eager eyes and connect with stories a more experienced writer may overlook.
I never embedded. I worked solo. I ran with the locals. It was the best way to get to know the country.
When you’re embedded, the military becomes a wall between you and the country you’re covering. People treat you differently when they see you with people who carry guns. They’re not as open. I did deal with the American military. I always brought chewing tobacco which soldiers gladly traded in for water or MREs — in a war zone, chewing is the way to go for smokers who know too well that the glow of their cigarettes come nighttime could turn them into perfect targets.
Finally, all the preparation in the world won’t erase some of the uncertainty of traveling to a place you’ve never been. It’s like a date: You can plan and plan but eventually you got to ask the girl out. Eventually, you just have to do it.