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Talks & Interviews

War photographers and reporters on “Telling Afghanistan”

Color photograph

On Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Brewery, a group of photographers and reporters held up a mirror to how and why they report in conflict zones around the world, namely the war in Afghanistan. The panel, moderated by journalist and Restrepo director Sebastian Junger, included novelist and veteran Elliot Ackerman (Green on Blue), reporter Jennifer Percy (Demon Camp), and Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael (Disco Night Sept. 11). The event was held by Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), founded after the death of photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Libya in 2011. Though focused on Afghanistan, the panel offered a window into how conflict reporters grapple with the complicated consequences of working in the midst of war.

Junger opened the panel by asking if there’s an inherent attraction to war among those who cover it. Ackerman, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and drew from his time there to write his new novel, explained the drive to be in extreme situations. “That sense of purpose is like meth,” said Ackerman of young soldiers and journalists in war, who are, “freebasing the crystal meth of purpose.” When it came to attacks, he added, “My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be there.” Van Agtmael offered perspectives on gathering images in dangerous conditions. “It’s something I can believe in besides its complications,” he said. “Photojournalism is an instinctual path.” Percy spoke about her experience reporting her new book, which tracks the residual effects of war, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “There’s always that artifice,” she said about her time in the field, “being a spectator, a reporter.”

Van Agtmael offered an anecdote about sending the first edits of his book to a friend, who charged that he had too narrowly focused on American troops. “You see a slender reality as a photographer,” van Agtmael said. “That’s what I had access to, but I was filled with shame that she was right.” The panelists also compared experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan, and embedded versus unembedded reporting in war zones. Van Agtmael described embedded life as being part of “Little America.” Ackerman asked, “Why was I there in the first place? The answer has nothing to do with the political,” later adding, “I regret that I had to make that choice.”

Tickets to the event benefitted RISC to continue training freelance journalists to prepare for potentially fatal situations, free of charge. More information can be found on the RISC website. A video presentation of the event will run on Slate next week.

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