I help by taking these photos – someone will see them and appeal for help to the dying people
First wartime photographs date back to the so-called Crimean War (1853-1856) between Russia and Turkey. They were taken on the British government commission by Carol Szathmari, painter and lithographer, and Roger Fenton, lawyer and founder of the Royal Photographic Society. The technique used did not allow for depicting the true reality of war – static images revealed prearranged scenes with soldiers and dignitaries, battlefields and munition warehouses. Out of 360 photos taken by Fenton, one made history – “Shadow of the Valley of Death” which shows a battlefield scattered with a vast amount of cannon balls.
With time, due to technical progress, photo journalists came closer to the truth about war, to the point of risking their lives. “If your photos are not good enough, it means that you were not close enough,” Robert Capa, famous for his images of WW2, used to say. He himself perished while working in Vietnam. War photojournalists often become invalid or come down with mental illness.
Photographs shape public opinion; they influence the way people perceive armed conflicts and their actors. Professional ethics poses questions: where is the border you must not cross, what is the purpose of taking this particular picture. According to James Nachtwey, one of the eminent contemporary war photographers: “Photographers show extreme human experiences, in order to make the viewers aware of what is happening. Sometimes they risk their own lives, because they believe that your opinion counts. Their images appeal to what is best in us: generosity, decency, empathy, willingness to identify with others, refusing to accept evil.”
“I found myself in such surreal situations, that it did not even cross my mind to help anybody. […] I help by taking these photos – someone will see them and appeal for help to the dying people.”
Krzysztof Miller, a photographer, spent 25 years documenting transformations, revolutions, and above all wars taking place at the turn of the 21st century. He took pictures during the Round Table Talks in Poland and the events in the Balkans. He travelled back and forth to Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Republic of South Africa, Chechnya and Rwanda. One tragedy gave way to another.
“The man in the picture, entangled in history, shooting, running, terrified, joyful – that is of utmost importance to me,” Krzysztof wrote in his book.
Tanks in the streets, the Taliban praying at the battlefront, starving children, women in despair. These are the images that for years continued to haunt him in his dreams.
In Johannesburg, he took a picture with which he defined his profession and showed the relation between a photographer and his object of interest. “My colleagues, war correspondents, bear the burden of their work. There are cases of suicide, there is no romanticism in it. […] a difficult, tedious work which leaves its mark on one’s psyche.” Simultaneously, he stressed that it was his own decision to become a photo journalist. “I used to go to places threatened by wars, and there is no point crying or feeling sorry for myself!”
The journalist who cooperated with Krzysztof recall that he always had to be at the heart of things. Lying flat on the ground, being hit by a truncheon, he still pressed the shutter. “[…] he was of opinion that if you do not touch the thing with your bare hands, the photo is useless. Krzyś did not simply took photos, he experienced them. That is why he suffered from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], the disease of soldiers, widely described in literature and presented in Hollywood movies. Only none of the soldiers – with all due respect to soldiers – no matter if he comes from America or Poland, has not seen even half of what Krzysiek saw. He was simply a hero,” Paweł Smoleński, a reporter and Krzysztof’s professional partner, wrote in a memorial to his friend.
He continued to work despite being aware that he would not be able to change much. “In the case of wars, refugees, human tragedy, my photographs did not do anything,” he said in one of his interviews. And yet, he did not give in.
“I do think that a photo journalist must take every photo. One may later ponder over whether to publish it or not. Photos of the first victims of the war in Yugoslavia, dead bodies in a morgue, were never used, but they served as a proof during trials and a primary material for scholarly research on the subject.”
Krzysztof believed that the basis of his profession was neutrality – he was not to judge who is just, and where the truth lies.
At times, he did put away the camera and helped in a different way. At the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, the spot where Albanian refugees trying to cross the mountains used to gather, he got into a car and drove them across the border to Montenegro.