May 22, 2008

Photographing War: ‘I Simply Want to Change the World’

Posted in Iraq War, War in photos tagged , , , , at 2:27 pm by Mazin

Images of War: Afghanistan (© zoriah/www.zoriah.com)

By Suzanne Baroud

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. At the risk of sounding terribly cliche, I have to say that my understanding of war, the pain of war, the humanity that is able to rise above war, the valiant spirit of mothers and children caught in the midst of war….were ever so slight until I stumbled upon the miraculous work of the award-winning war photographer called Zoriah.

What an amazing and talented artist. What wonders this man captures with his camera. It is as if he has an enchanting ability to transport the viewer of his work right to the heart and soul of the many conflicts he has covered. I cannot remember being so moved by a photograph and the story which it imparts.

I always felt that I had a keen understanding of the tragedy in Iraq, the catastrophes of Palestine and Afghanistan, but after witnessing Zoriah’s works of pure genius, my understanding seems deeper and closer then ever before. The wisdom in the eyes of Gaza’s children, the knowing expression of an elderly man wasting away in a Baghdad hospital, I leave Zoriah’s work with a profound sense of grief and admiration that is rarely felt. It is like I too have been there.

Zoriah is a multiple award winning photojournalist whose work has been seen in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, museums and publications, with clients such as Newsweek, the BBC, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Grand Reportage and many many others.

Before his career as a photojournalist, Zoriah was involved in disaster management and humanitarian aid to developing countries. But after a brief period of working for a large international aid organization, he realized that red tape and bureaucracy would significantly hamper the work he hoped to do: “So I decided to pick up my camera after a long hiatus and set out to document disasters and humanitarian crisis. I believed that I could use the power and emotion of the still image to educate the people about suffering in the developing world.”

And so this man travelled to uncountable countries with “his camera as his weapons” to do just that. For the greater part of his career, Zoriah has worked as a freelance photographer, explaining that he could only “go so far” with the corporate mainstream media: “I do feel like there is quite a lot of censorship in the mainstream media. My editors in the past used to tell me ‘this is an incredible story Zoriah…you know it will never sell, right?’ It is so painful to put every bit of yourself into a story and risk your life to capture images that will never end up being seen.”

I asked Zoriah if he felt that his work with mainstream media was highly censored, he replied, saying: “Censorship can be in the form of blatantly removing blood or body parts from images of war, down to subtle censorship, choosing only a select group of images from a larger story or not running graphic or controversial stories/images at all. As long as news remains a moneymaking industry, publications will cater to what they believe the average person wants to see. Somehow it has become ok to show violence for the sake of movies and entertainment but not for the sake of news and education.”

Zoriah has been in the heart of the world’s most ruthless of conflicts and disasters, from working as an embedded journalist with the US army to his work as a disaster technology specialist with the American Red Cross. I asked him to share an experience that had made a profound impact on his life as a humanitarian worker and a photojournalist. He narrated an episode in Pakistan: “After the Asian Earthquake I was in Pakistan photographing the injured in a local hospital. A man came up to me and gently put his arm around me and pointed down the hall. He did not speak English but I knew he wanted me to follow him. He took me into a room where a woman sat crying next to the body of dead man as two other women comforted her. I found out that the man was her husband and had just died do to injuries he sustained when their house collapsed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon photographing this family mourn the loss of this man. I was truly humbled by the fact that they had brought me into their lives to let me document such a personal and painful moment. They seemed to instantly understand my motivations for being there and I believe that I understood their need to show the world the pain that they were experiencing. To this day my favorite photograph is from this moment and the experience will remain in my heart as long as I live.”

He shared another story of his experience as an embedded journalist with the US army in Iraq:

“While in Iraq, I find out that a group of detainees are about to be released. Although formally forbidden to take photos of any detainees under any circumstances, I am close with the unit and they invite me along.

The detainees, still blindfolded and cuffed are led into a convoy of armored vehicles. We set out to drop the men off in the area that they had been taken into custody the day before. It is about a fifteen minute drive and the sun is beginning to set.

‘This is it, this is where we picked them up’ says one of the soldiers as the convoy pulls off to the side of the road in a residential neighborhood. The detainees are led out of the vehicles and lined up against a wall. Their blindfolds are taken off and when the men realize that they are being released they begin to cry with relief. They look absolutely exhausted, their clothes filthy and torn with a look of fear and confusion on their eyes.

As the soldiers escort the detainees back to their homes, a crowd of friends and relatives begins to gather on the streets. There is screaming, crying and hugging as the community sees the missing men are alive. Two women faint and are held up by their husbands and sons.

One man starts screaming in English “why did you do this? Why did you take them? They are graduate students at the University. These are not terrorists, they are students! Why did you take them? What did you do to them?”

Zoriah’s work is raw and it is real. It does not induce a false sense of comfort nor can it leave the viewer with the faintest feelings of impartiality. I have an ironic feeling of frustration as our exchange ends; I simply cannot find the words to commend this man for the invaluable work he has done. I conclude with asking him about his source of inspiration. His answer is frank and poignant: “Every photographer is different and has different motivations. My motivation is pretty simple…I just want to change the world… and I am fairly sure I can do it.”

– For more on Zoriah’s work, visit his website: www.zoriah.com and his blog: www.zoriah.typepad.com.

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