A Conversation with Roger Richards



If there is any kind of photography that I have my problems with it is photojournalistic photography from war zones. I usually refer to it as “war pornography”, and by that I mean that photos of dead or maimed soldiers or civilians are often just used for a cheap thrill, not unlike the sexual equivalent. Needless to say, this point of view is not all that fair. People usually tell me that photos from wars have the power to change our perception of wars; and I think a large part of my repulsion stems from me simply not seeing much evidence for that to be true. You just have to think back a few years, back when the Iraq war was not a very unpopular war that nobody really wanted, but a war that was necessary, with good reasons - I’m sure you will remember the jingoism. It was almost like those images from Vietnam, say, or the absolutely gruesome images from the earlier Gulf War. I will admit that some images have had an impact on the public’s perception of an ongoing war, but in all cases that I can think of, the war had already gone on for many - too many - years.

Following one of my posts about some war photography, Roger Richards emailed me, and we had a brief exchange of emails about various topics. I was absolutely thrilled to be able to talk to somebody who had actually worked as a photojournalist during a war - Roger spent a long time in Bosnia during and after the war there. I think if there is any insight to be gained into the topic of what this kind of photojournalism can achieve and how it might have to be done, then that insight will not come from people who are writing articles (or silly blogs) from the comforts of their middle-class existences, but from people who have actually experienced the conditions, which produced the images we get to see. I was thus very happy to learn that Roger agreed to participate in one of my conversations with photographers.

Joerg Colberg: There is an article online - Remember Sarajevo at Digital Journalist - that talks about the work that you did in Bosnia. In that article, the author talks about how “evil” was responsible for what happened there. I’ve always regarded “evil” as such an outright weird term, because it doesn’t really help to understand anything. “Evil” is an abstract concept that’s hard to grasp and even harder to use when you’re trying to understand something. I don’t mean to say that there was no evil, but as an explanation it seems to fall somewhat short. And to some extent, I think, we all really need to try to understand how something like the war in Bosnia, with its ethnic cleansings etc., was possible - to (hopefully) next time be smarter and make sure it does not happen again. On top of that, evil is not something you can take a photo of. What did it feel like to be there in Sarajevo, being shot at, while at the same time being treated, as you said, like a voyeur by the people whose lives you tried to capture?

Roger Richards: The concept of evil, for most people, is really an abstraction. Here in the western world it carries connotations of religion, of the Christian Bible, and conjures up images of Satan, the Devil, paradise lost. But it becomes real when you see the handiwork of humans who seem to have lost all the values of understanding, tolerance and compassion that enable us to live together in peace with our neighbors. The author of the introduction to the Digital Journalist piece, who also wrote the intro to my book, is writer Peter Maass, who wrote Love Thy Neighbor : A Story of War about the war in Bosnia. He was there on assignment for the Washington Post as the worst of the atrocities were happening in 1992-1993. Peter wrote that the war in Bosnia is what happens when the social contract breaks down, along with the forces of law and order. The result is a Darwinian devolution where man’s baser instincts, the part of us that allows the mildest person to commit horrible acts, is in ascendance. It is like a form of madness. It is the negation of ‘the other’ as a human life worthy of respect. It is kill the ‘other’ before they kill us. A textbook case of this in extremity is what happened in Rwanda in 1994.


You cannot see evil, but you can see its fruits. Believe me, it can be felt. I once watched as an old woman tried to walk across an intersection in downtown Sarajevo as a Serb sniper was at work. A Bosnian policeman and a crowd gathered at the opposite side of the intersection shouted at her to stop and go back. But she was either senile or past caring for her safety, as many of the people of Sarajevo had become. The sniper, who was shooting from a hill maybe a quarter of a mile away, began toying with her like how a cat plays with a bird or a mouse in its claws. He placed his bullets all around her, and pieces of concrete exploding from the wall behind showered her as she shuffled across. He let her live, but her face was cut by the sharp pieces of concrete. Right after that he shot a young guy on a bicycle who tried to make a brave dash across. Then the sniper stopped shooting, and the next part of this daily ritual took place, a car picking up the body of the victim, who was not dead but seriously hurt. I was on the scene, and made photos, but could not bring myself to raise my camera to my eye as the old woman was walking through under fire. I was conscious of this, but could not make myself take those photos. It would have almost been like I was hoping for her to get hit. I wondered if the sniper on the hill had a mother or a grandmother.

This happened to me twice in Sarajevo. A few months before at the Kosevo hospital emergency room, a car came in with a family wounded by an artillery shell that had scored a direct hit on their apartment, just as they were about to eat lunch. The mother was evidently beyond help, and her young son was covered in blood and extremely distraught. I could not make any photos. Afterwards, a friend of mine working with TV in Portugal, who had seen what happened, chided me gently, reminding me that the only moral reason for being there was to make photos that documented what was happening, that freezing up was dereliction of duty. He was absolutely right. First you shoot the pictures, the rest you do on your own time. I was not a war rookie, having done work in the wars of Central America in the 1980’s, in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the US invasion of Panama. But Bosnia felt like civilization was ending. A medieval siege was taking place in the heart of Europe, only 45 minutes by air from Vienna, and the world said it was powerless to stop it.

As for being treated like a voyeur by Sarajevans, that did not start to happen until after the first year of the siege, and the feeling began dawning on the citizens of Sarajevo that help was not on the way and might never arrive. I never experienced any serious hostility from regular people, although I had weapons in my face and shoved into my back by gunmen on a few occasions. When foreign journalists first arrived Sarajevans were hopeful that they would communicate the brutality of their lives under siege, and that surely the ‘international community’ would do something concrete to help. What they got were United Nations ‘peacekeeping’ troops who were under orders not to do anything to rile the Serbs, and to keep the flow of humanitarian aid coming so that they would not have to do anything, and hoping that somehow it would all just go away. The people of Sarajevo began to become resentful of the presence of these outsiders, and sometimes it trickled down to us in the press. That said, there is now a statue in downtown Sarajevo that was erected in honor of the scores of journalists who were killed in Bosnia during the war.

JC: Let me try to re-phrase what I was trying to say by using an example that’s very close to me personally. I was born, raised and educated in Germany, and to this date, there still are lots of debates about the Nazi era. While I am very glad that this is still ongoing in Germany, I am much less happy about one particular aspect, and I’ve also seen this aspect in discussions outside of Germany. Actually, the German-born Pope just made a lot of people feel very uncomfortable when, during a visit to Auschwitz, he talked of the Germans as a people “that a gang of criminals managed to achieve power over with deceitful promises, with the promise of greatness, of the resurrection of the nation’s honor and significance, with the promise of well-being and also with terror and intimidation, such that our people could be used and abused as an instrument for their fury of destruction and domination.” (source) What bothers me - and many other people - so much about this is that he implies that the Nazis were somehow not even really Germans, so the Germans aren’t to blame. When I was a teenager, I always asked people where the Nazis went in 1945. Apparently, nobody had been a Nazi. So when we talk about the history of Germany, you have these people called Nazis who did all these bad things, but it’s almost like they flew in from Mars and then disappeared into thin air when everything was ruined. Apart from the fact that that’s a very nonsensical way to think about what happened, it is also not useful at all when trying to make sure things like that will never happen again. We can all easily agree on that the Nazis were evil, but if there’s no real connection with Germans, then what do we gain? And it’s this aspect of evil that bothers me, where the abstraction of evil is not the fact that ‘evil’ in itself is an abstract word but, rather, that the word evil is used to abstract something that we ultimately better try to understand.

I don’t know whether I’ve made it clear what my main concern is here. But the question that I derive from this is: How can one go about documenting a war like the one in Bosnia in such a way that people actually learn from it? Because, if I look at recent history, for example the genocide in Darfur, it’s almost like Bosnia or Rwanda never happened.

RR: I do not think that people learn anything from war coverage that will prevent other conflicts from happening in the long term. To believe anything else is to live in a fool’s paradise. My philosophy of life, learned from seeing life in extremis, is that human beings will always fight among themselves, and there are always those who will prey on the weaker if it is possible.

So, one might ask, why then bother at all with risking one’s life in this line of work? First, there are personal reasons that lead one in this direction. Second, and it might sound corny, but the pursuit of factual truth. Cut out all the thrill seekers who go to war and you have left the professionals who believe that what they are doing can make a difference in how history records the monumental event that is war. Truth is a loaded word, as there are no objective truths. Everyone has their own personal truths, according to their perspective. But facts are concrete. For this to be so honest people need to depict things as they are, so that history cannot be rewritten. In the years after the war in Yugoslavia, there have since emerged many writers who have attempted to distort what took place, and even attempt to absolve the Serbs of responsibility for starting the war by asserting that everyone was equally guilty, so no one can be blamed…..it all just kind of happened. That is the main reason that I released my archive of images on the Web a couple of years ago, many of the photos unpublished before. Of all the scores of photographers who documented the war in Bosnia only a handful of us were there for a long time. So we bear the responsibility of the living witnessing for the dead.

JC: In one of our earlier conversations you told me that “documentation of a disaster or war zone, or former area of conflict, is legitimate if done with a purpose. Otherwise it is just voyeurism and exploitative.” and you go on to say that the most important bit for this kind of work was “not WHAT one does but HOW one goes about doing it.” So how did you go about documenting the war? How were you looking for images? Or what kind of images did you want to take?

RR: I firmly believe that to do this kind of work requires one to live by a moral code. Without this code, it is hard to live with yourself and do it for any length of time. I documented wars for a period of a bit over ten years. I stopped after a period of intense work ten years ago, right at the end of my tenure with the Associated Press as the photo bureau chief in Bogota, Colombia. I had seen enough of war and conflict situations. It was never for big money, for there is none in photojournalism. You see so many things that cannot be explained to others who did not witness it, and then even after you question yourself, did I really see that? There is no glory, or glamour, except in the eyes of those who really have no clue what this line of work is about. But there can a tremendous sense of satisfaction when you do it right. I do not believe in the concept of journalistic objectivity. So much emphasis is put on this, which is impossible to achieve. Photographers make decisions on when, where and at what to shoot, and from which angle, the light, framing and so on. All that comes from inside of us, and is totally subjective. What I firmly believe is that we must be fair. A photojournalist’s mission is to create awareness and tell the stories of people in places with names that we can barely pronounce. The rest is up to the politicians and the public. These days it is tough to make images that can compete with Brad and Angelina for space in the press.

I really do not feel that I chose to document the siege of Sarajevo. I sort of just ended up there by fate. That sounds strange, I know, so I’ll explain. I was a contract photographer with the Gamma Liaison photo agency (now Getty Images) based in Miami, Florida, and my main interest up until 1991 was the political and social upheavals in the Caribbean and Central America. I was not in the least interested in covering the first Gulf War, for example. But the beginning of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in summer 1991 caught my attention. In the fall of 1991 the Croatian city of Vukovar fell to the Serb-led Yugoslav army. The images by Ron Haviv and Christopher Morris impacted me and I began to keep a close watch on developments in Yugoslavia. In spring 1992 the Serbs launched their siege of Sarajevo, and I began to feel a strong pull. But I resisted. In June 1992, the third month of the siege, I was in Paris visiting the HQ of Gamma and picking the brains of a couple of the photographers who had been in Yugoslavia. I left Paris for the south of Spain, where my mother lives. While there I watched daily the dispatches of Television Espana war correspondent Arturo Perez Reverte. I did not want to go, but something was pulling me hard. Frankly, I was scared to go. But one Friday afternoon I called my agent, Jennifer Coley, at Gamma Liaison in New York to tell her that I would be en route to Sarajevo from Spain in a couple of days.

Those were different times for photojournalists. I had the luxury of picking where I wished to go, and usually my agency would find an assignment for me. Those were the pre-digital days, when war photographers shot transparency film for the news magazines and had to be resourceful enough to find ways to ship our take from the middle of war zones in order to make deadlines. I knew that if I got hurt the agency would find a way to get me out. If I ran out of film, or money in Sarajevo, they would find someone going in and send me some. And they did. That was how it was. When I signed up with Gamma Liaison a few years before I was 26 and it was the culmination of a dream. In those days to work for one of the major photo agencies was a big deal. If you got in and worked hard good things could happen.


My first thought when I drove into Sarajevo on that sunny August day in 1992 was that I had entered hell itself. The thunder of artillery, smoke from burning buildings, streets filled with debris, stalled streetcars, dangling power lines and terrified civilians. Even today the smell is what remains with me the most. Photographs are powerful, but I think that if we could somehow capture the scent of war then that would be even more evocative of the reality.

My first assignment in Sarajevo lasted just five days. I spent three of those with the French RICM, their version of the US Marines, who had been freshly deployed in Sarajevo as part of the United Nations mission. I was documenting their mission to keep the sides apart and distribute food to cut off Bosnian government parts of the city. Their commanding officer, Colonel Patrice Sartre, was relieved that so far none of his men had been hurt by hostile fire. A few hours later that all changed when a French armored personnel carrier was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, seriously wounding all three crewmen on board. At the same time the Serbs began walking mortar fire in on us as the French marines were supervising the unloading of UN aid trucks for the citizens of Sarajevo. Ironically, we had spent over an hour having coffee with the Serb commanders who granted permission for the UN convoy to unload their cargo. Welcome to Sarajevo.

My exposure to how brutal the siege was on the civilians came when I visited City Hospital, also known as French Hospital. The doctor I toured the hospital with showed me wards filled with civilians who had been maimed by the constant Serb artillery and mortar fire. Running water was nonexistent, they used whatever container they could find to store it. What I saw stayed in my mind when I returned to Zagreb, Croatia on an Italian Air Force C-130 to ship my first films to Paris.

I returned to Sarajevo three days later, to join a UN humanitarian aid convoy heading for the town of Gorazde, which had been encircled and cut off by the Serbs in eastern Bosnia. When the convoy was postponed, I was at Sarajevo airport waiting for a flight back to Zagreb so I could pick up some supplies when an inbound UN aid flight was shot down by a surface to air missile on final approach to the airport. All of the crew was killed. It was to be the flight I was to fly out on, and it was the same Italian crew that I had flown with three days earlier. The UN halted all aid flights, and my route out of the city was cut off. So I stayed in Sarajevo for three weeks that time, and then kept going in and out for the next three and a half years.

I felt a responsibility to use my skills and privileged position as a journalist to let the world know what was happening in Bosnia. I did not feel that the photos would bring an immediate stop to the killing, though I did dream that perhaps a miracle could happen. But I knew the world does not work like that. Perhaps the only difference they could make was that the powers outside would be unable to deny they knew what was taking place. It was clear after the first months of the siege that the cavalry would not be riding to the rescue anytime soon.

My mission in Sarajevo became one of documenting what I felt in my bones was a significant historical event. Without consciously doing so I saw that my work was focusing more on the daily realities of life under siege rather than on combat action, also referred to as ‘bang-bang’. My method of working was to walk the city like a civilian. It allowed me to see things and interact with Sarajevans, which I could not do if I was speeding past in an armored car. As Luc Delahaye once said, sharing the risk is my ticket, my price of admission.

I was staying with Bosnian friends in an apartment in the city, not in the Holiday Inn which was the main base of the foreign press corps in Bosnia. I would set off in the morning and walk the main street that ran parallel to the infamous ‘sniper alley’, which was much too dangerous to traverse on foot. At the intersections you would steel yourself and sprint across as fast as possible, hoping to avoid a Serb sniper’s bullet. On the journey into town there were over a dozen spots where you knew the snipers were looking down their scopes. Once downtown I would go to visit my destination of the day, or just observe what was going on. After a few hours it was time to return, and the same journey as the morning was repeated, back past the snipers and praying that the shelling would not be too heavy. Quite often later in the day was worse as the Serb artillery gunners would be awake after sleeping off their slivovitz from the previous night. I did this day after day, and it really changes you to see what a citizen of Sarajevo had to undergo to survive in those bleak days.

My photographs became more about mood, and recording the faces of Sarajevo. This had once been a beautiful city, where the 1984 Olympic Games had been held only eight years before the siege began. I was trying to record on film what it felt to live in a place where the thin veneer of civilization had been peeled back. You can see it in a person’s eyes. War always exposes the inner person. Those you think incapable of doing so often committed the worst deeds. There were extraordinary acts of kindness, and bravery, on a daily basis. In a weird way, it was life affirming, because you see firsthand how people manage to find a way to go on even in the worst circumstances. Even though I shared much of the risk of being there I was privileged to have a pass that would allow me to fly out on a UN plane at any time I wished. But when I was gone I had to return, and that was very hard to do. There is a mental transformation I had to go through that was necessary to function as a professional. Whether flying or driving in through the siege lines around the city, I always had to tell myself that I would probably be killed. The acceptance of this allowed me to let go of the outside world and be able to work. You have probably heard of the phrase ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’. That was a reality for me, a kind of madness was necessary. Most people who cover war do not want to talk of this. Some just deny to themselves that anything would happen. Denial is easier than facing the likelihood of one’s own mortality.

In a twist of fate, a few weeks after I began working there, I teamed with Arturo Perez Reverte and his cameraman Miguel, whose television reports I had watched while in Spain. Arturo and Miguel showed me the lay of the land so that the chance of my blundering into the wrong area and getting killed was reduced. My mother felt better when she heard that I was working with Arturo, his reports from Sarajevo were really well known in Spain. That kind of changed one day after a report went out by the international news teams about us. We were all gathered in an editing room at the television station where all international TV operations, including CNN and ITN, edited and uploaded their reports. We were looking at the day’s footage. Arturo stepped out of the room into the hallway for a second. He called out to the editor, Frenchy, a Swiss freelancer, and I to join the conversation. About four seconds after we walked out of the room a large caliber mortar shell impacted and exploded on a window ledge opposite ours on the floor above. The editing room we had been standing in seconds before was sprayed with large chunks of shrapnel, penetrating editing gear and lodging in chairs. It was not our time to die. This was the first of lots of close calls over the next couple of years, some even closer, and not counting being shot at. It was part of the deal. I lost my nerve once, after about a year there, on a day that three different snipers almost hit me at three different locations. There is something very personal about being shot at by a sniper. A firefight is random, and somehow different. The day after I could not face the streets, and got on a UN plane to Croatia for a few days.


In the end I came to feel that the work was justified. Over the last few years some of my photographs have become known as scholars, documentary filmmakers and historians have revisited and questioned what took place and why. One author of a book about recent civil wars based a chapter of her book entirely on a photo I made of a young woman, beautifully dressed, racing to avoid being hit by a sniper. Some of the photos seem to have a life of their own. Last year August I received an e-mail from The Netherlands, from someone saying that he was a Bosnian refugee from Sarajevo who had been sent to safety by his father during the early days of the siege while he was a very young boy. He said that he never saw his father again because he had been killed by a sniper in November 1994. There were no photographs of him, as their home had been burned. Then he was looking on the Internet and found a photo, one of mine that I had taken on the second day I was in Sarajevo. His father, Amir Coric, was at the wheel of a battered car, with two other men as passengers, about to leave French Hospital after delivering a wounded man they had picked up on the streets. I had spotted them and shot two frames with my Canon EOS-1 camera.

Another photo has come represent the destruction and attempted cultural genocide by the Serbs against the Bosnian Muslims. It is a photograph I made of the centuries old Vijecnica, the Bosnian National Library, which had been gutted by incendiary shells fired by the Serbs, setting it ablaze and in the process destroying hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts and cultural artifacts in a deliberate attempt to erase all traces of a people. I photographed the ruins of the Vijecnica several times during the war years, as did many other photographers. The photo that has become known was made in January 1996, a short while before the city was reintegrated and the siege formally ended. The light coming into the Vijecnica was soft and ethereal, reflected from mounds of snow that had fallen through the open ceiling, looking like ruins from centuries ago. I always thought the picture was a decent one, but others grasped the significance of it before I did. It did not find its place until years after it was taken, like Dirck Halstead’s photo of Monica Lewinsky embracing President Bill Clinton. It was first exhibited in at the PhotoEspana festival of photography in 2003, enlarged to 10 feet wide, part of a group show with Magnum photographers Bruno Barbey, Stuart Franklin and Gilles Peress on the 13 most significant images made between the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the fall of the twin towers on September 11, 2001. Coincidentally, the Vijecnica was set ablaze on the afternoon of the same day in August 1992 that I made the photo of Amir Coric and the men in the shot up car, a photo that later came to mean so much to a small boy heading into exile.

One last thing. My friend Ron Haviv, one of the founding members of the VII photo agency, made a series of photographs of the Serbian warlord Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic and his paramilitary forces moving into and deliberately killing innocent civilians in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina in early 1992. These photos became evidence of the atrocities committed by the Serbs and have been used by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Ron even had a price put on his head by the Serbs after his photos were published in TIME magazine and around the world. Both Milosevic and Arkan are now dead. When they were alive part of why they had reason to fear the war crimes tribunal was Ron’s photographs.

JC: There appears to be a somewhat new branch of photography where people go to places destroyed by war or natural disasters and produce photography often with the intent of going the fine-art route: Galleries, books, etc. As much as I like fine-art photography, there seems to be something profoundly wrong with this. What do you think about this?

RR: I have some feeling of unease about this. In my opinion, there is a difference between the work of these photographers, who usually go afterwards, and the images of someone like Luc Delahaye, who is there when it is all happening. This gives a sense of urgency that can be felt when looking at his work. Although Delahaye uses the same approach as a photojournalist he is after something very different from his colleagues. I think his work is somewhat more in common with the master painters who depicted great historical moments before photography came along. He is interested in the scene just before or after ‘the decisive moment’ as defined by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Delahaye is interested in the totality of the situation, and the fine details in it, rendered larger than presented in the press. He presents his work in books and museums, as these are the only ways that documentary work like this can be seen. The only image of his that troubled me at first was the one of the dead Taliban soldier. I have viewed a print of this in person, fortunately one is in the collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art here in Norfolk. I have watched people react to it, as it is presented alongside works by Larry Burrows, Thomas Struth and Rineke Dijkstra. I believe Delahaye’s work is documentary photography, because of his intent.

I do have a bit more discomfort with the work of some photographers who go in the aftermath of war and disaster zones with the objective of making beautiful images out of the destruction, then put them up on gallery walls to be sold as fine art. Perhaps the photographers can do this because imminent death, or its stench, is no longer around, and so they can then concentrate on making beautiful order out of chaos. There is for them the excitement of making images in a place of death, but it is without experiencing the actuality that might give their work urgency. There is an audience who are receptive to this kind of work, who are more affected if a huge disaster with considerable human suffering is depicted in an abstract way. Perhaps this is due to the sheer number of images of war and famine in the press every day, and people become overloaded. There are also fine art photographers like Chris Jordan, who worked in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and who has donated all the proceeds of this work to benefit victims of the storm. I hold both Jordan’s work and his actions in high regard. It all depends on the photographer’s approach. It is “not WHAT one does but HOW one goes about doing it.”

I do not set myself up to be a judge of what is good or bad. Maybe what I am most offended by is a lack of imagination on the part of the photographer. There are some who have built a reputation on this type of work, like Simon Norfolk, whose work I happen to like. Norfolk serves his art, and creates images that make you consider the timelessness of the landscape and the futile beings that fought each other upon it. In the aftermath of the Bosnian war, years after, some photographers have showed up like war tourists and the images that have appeared in galleries are of the most banal sort. Many of them are of building exteriors and interiors with bullet holes and shrapnel marks, shot in beautiful light. As part of a body of work they would be informative, but an entire series of such photographs gives away the photographer as merely a shallow voyeur. In my opinion such work contributes little to the discussion.


My own photography has moved away from the recording of monumental events and tragedies to life on a personal scale. I no longer feel the need to go off to foreign places to see what is going on. I still focus on world events, but mainly on how they affect where I live. My current work in progress looks at life in America from a personal viewpoint.

I am also a film diehard. Everything is shot on film, and then scanned and archived on gold CDs and DVDs. The new digital cameras are great, and if I were working as a photojournalist they would be in my toolkit. A couple of years ago Hurricane Isabel blew through this area and we were without electricity for a couple of weeks. I was able to look at all my slides and contact sheets from twenty years back. The CDs and DVDs with the digital files were useless. I have owned, used and sold several digital cameras, including the Canon EOS 5D, 10D and Nikon D1X. I prefer the working process of using film, and the tangible quality of a negative or slide. I use ALPA 12WA and Linhof Technorama 612PCII cameras, an R.H. Phillips and Sons 8x10 super lightweight (5.8 lbs) field camera, and Leica MP, M6 and M3 rangefinders. I like using different formats. It depends on my subject.

JC: There’s a book entitled My War Gone By, I Miss It So, by Anthony Loyd, who went to Bosnia to cover the war, and apart from descriptions of the war, it also talks about how the author felt about his own role. At one point he says “I felt I was a pornographer, a voyeur come to watch.” I read about the lives of quite a few other war correspondents, and more often than not I sensed that some of them were in it for the thrill. I’m assuming you must have met quite a few other photojournalists while being in Bosnia. From your experience, are the thrill seeking journalists the exception or are they quite common?

RR: I have Anthony Loyd’s book, and the details are very accurate. Many of the characters in his book are friends or acquaintances of mine. I would say that war correspondents are as individual as anyone in another profession, with their own motives. It usually is not about making a living. I believe that for most it is first about seeking to test themselves. Some find they have a knack for it, and that it gives their life some kind of meaning. Many of us eventually become almost addicted to the adrenaline, as there is an intensity to life that cannot be felt anywhere else. There is nothing like being shot at and living to tell about it.

This has nothing to do with professionalism. The best war correspondents know how far to push, but luck is as large a part of staying alive as instinct and experience. Many of those who get killed are either beginners or have stuck around too long in the profession. People like Christiane Amanpour of CNN or James Nachtwey of VII are rare. In a war zone you always run into people who get themselves in over their heads, as the reality is much more than they are prepared for. Here is an example.

In December 1992 Sarajevo was facing its first winter without electricity or running water. Flights into and out of the city were sporadic. Living in Zagreb, Croatia, it took me three days to get in, what was once a 30 minute flight. I hitched a ride on a United Nations humanitarian aid truck convoy and arrived in a little town called Kiseljak on the outskirts of Sarajevo. The driver dropped me and my bags at the side of the road, as there was heavy fighting around the city and they were not going to attempt to go through that day. I was standing there and figuring my next move when a tiny car with two people in it pulled up. In it were two Japanese photographers. “You go to Sarajevo?” the driver asked. I told him yes, but not that day. The sound of artillery could be plainly heard. They offered me a ride, and I soon deduced that these guys were total novices. They had been on assignment in Hungary for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun and decided to go check out the war in Bosnia. A Croat had rented them a tiny Zastava car, which would be turned into Swiss cheese by any kind of small arms fire. It was clear to me that these fellows were totally out of their depth. I told them that I would help them out if they obeyed everything I told them to do. They agreed.

We found a small hotel in Kiseljak that night, and the next morning I made arrangements with a French army officer and his men who were escorting the convoy I came in with the evening before. We reached the Sarajevo airport later, and the officer offered us a ride in an armored personnel carrier for the final leg into the city as the car we were in would most likely not make it, with all the heavy fighting going on.

The following day, a Sunday, I was out shooting photos of Sarajevans lined up for water at a communal tap, the type of target the Serb gunners in the hills loved. My Japanese friends were in attendance, and they were becoming used to the continuous gunfire and crump of artillery. But we soon had the misfortune of being close by as a barrage of shells dropped in. They both cracked. I managed to get a ride to the nearby Post and Telegraph office, where the UN commanders were billeted. There I pleaded with a French lieutenant to help me get these two guys out of Sarajevo, as by now they were totally freaked out and shaking. He agreed to help, and loaded them into an APC for a ride to the airport. He was going to get them on a mercy flight out. That was the last I heard of them.

I never intended to become a war photographer. But one day at the beginning of my career as a photojournalist I saw an exhibition of photographs by Don McCullin. That made a powerful impression on me. I come from a line of 20th century soldiers, from WWI onwards. My grandfather was an officer in the British army in WWI, as was his brother in the Scots Guards. My grand uncle Dudley picked up a piece of shrapnel in his head in the trenches that killed him after the war. My uncle was in the British army facing Rommel’s Afrika Korps in WWII, and my father was a paratrooper in the Canadian army in Korea. My younger brother served as a combat engineer in a unit attached to the 101st Airborne, the ‘Screaming Eagles’. I had no intention of going into the military as an adult. My childhood had been like one long boot camp, and my father was the drill instructor. Strange how things work out; I eventually ended up going to war, just like my forebears. You can’t escape your destiny.

Roger’s ebook Remember Sarajevo can be downloaded for free.