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Mark Peters : May 6th 2005 - 12:00 CET

Interview with Vietnam and Iraq war photographers

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NewsInterview with Vietnam and Iraq war photographers : Three of the finest war photographers of the last 40 years shared their views about the futility of war on Tuesday night without always agreeing on the state of combat photography today. The panelists in a discussion called "Journalists Under Fire: Vietnam and Iraq" at the University of California here were Don McCullin, an acclaimed British war photographer who dropped out of school as a young teenager and went on to cover more wars than he cares to count; Catherine Leroy, a French photographer who bought a one-way ticket to Saigon at 21; and David Leeson, who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of Iraq.
Interview with Vietnam and Iraq war photographersPhotographs of the war in Vietnam
Vietnam photography has become the benchmark by which other images are measured, they said. "No war has ever been photographed like Vietnam," said Ken Light, a documentary photographer and professor of photography at the graduate school, who introduced the panel. Although the technology has improved since Vietnam, Ms. Leroy and Mr. McCullin said the impact of war photographs had diminished. In the mass media, celebrity and lifestyle stories trump gruesome images of war.

War photographers - Joined by
The war photographers were joined by the moderator, Orville Schell, dean of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism; his brother, Jonathan Schell, the peace and disarmament columnist for The Nation, who covered Vietnam for The New Yorker; and Mike Cerre, a television producer who was a soldier in Vietnam and covered the war in Iraq for ABC News.

Vietnam war - Give war a face
"What I did was to give war a face," said Ms. Leroy, whose book "Under Fire: Great Photographers and Writers in Vietnam" has just been published by Random House. "I'm not sure I succeeded. Perhaps I did, once in a while." Ms. Leroy spent three years in Vietnam during the war, jumping from helicopters and sharing trenches with the troops. She was captured by the North Vietnamese, whom she photographed.

War photographer - "Hangman"
"I'm not seeing, not smelling the truth somehow," said Mr. McCullin, a brooding man uncomfortable with the adulation he receives. "I hate the idea of being a war photographer," he said in a photojournalism class earlier in the week. "You might as well call me a hangman."

Vietnam and Iraq war photographs - Differences
Mr. Light explained: "Vietnam photos were more intimate because they were closer. Because of the nature of warfare in Iraq, the photos are further back." Photographers use longer lenses, which do not convey the same visual intimacy, he said. Mr. McCullin's and Ms. Leroy's pictures, he said, "were really about the human condition."

Iraq war - Dangerous
Mr. Leeson, who has covered 11 conflicts in 20 years, was an embedded photographer in Iraq. All three photographers agreed that the war in Iraq was far more dangerous for journalists than Vietnam. "We saw 24-hour-a-day Iraq war," Ms. Leroy said, referring to cable television, "but we didn't really see much of anything." While Americans recall memorable images of Vietnam taken by war photographers, the most memorable images of Iraq - the prisoners of Abu Ghraib - were snapped by soldiers, she said.

Iraq war - Photos showed less emotion
Mr. Leeson, 47, who takes photographs for The Dallas Morning News, said it was too early to know what impact images from Iraq might have had on the public conscience. After hearing criticism that photos from Iraq evoked less emotion (though none of it directed at his work), he asked rhetorically, "How much more do you want?" There were some scenes of bodies that he would not photograph. "I must live with myself," he said.

Interview with the photographers - Frustration
In interviews, the three photographers expressed their frustration that their photographs have neither stopped nor slowed war. "I ask myself, what have I been doing the last 30 years?" said Mr. McCullin, 69. His awards are stuffed in his garden shed in Somerset, England, and he said he preferred to shoot "landscapes with great Wagnerian skies, and I wait for cathedral lighting that punches its way through the clouds."

War photographers - Future
The three say they do not plan to return to conflict. Ms. Leroy is raising money for an outdoor exhibition of Vietnam photos on the Mall by the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Mr. Leeson, who over the years has divorced and remarried, said he missed his oldest son's first five birthdays and hoped not to make the same mistake with his second family. If their views were intended to dissuade newcomers from careers in war photography, they failed miserably. Afterward students encircled them, including Omar Vega, a freshman at San Francisco State University, who had just returned from eight days photographing homeless Iraqis. He was bursting with enthusiasm. "I was inspired," he said.

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