Paul Conroy: on Syria, the death of Marie Colvin and the future of war photography
In the first of a new series of interviews, we spoke to renowned British conflict photographer Paul Conroy.
Paul has worked in some of the most dangerous places in the world‚ including Bosnia and Libya, and nearly lost his life doing so. Last year he made headlines when he was seriously injured in a rocket attack in Syria that killed his friend and colleague, Marie Colvin.
His new book, Under The Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment recounts that experience, and in this interview he tells us how writing the book helped him come to terms with the terrible events in Syria.
You spent 7 years in the Royal Artillery. How much did your experience as a soldier prepare you for conflict photography?
Let’s just say that the Army and I didn’t get on very well. When I came out of the army I was in this position of having been trained to kill people, and suddenly I thought, ‘This was a waste of time for me.’
But then years later, working in extreme places like Libya, all that knowledge came flooding back. I knew about fire patterns and how targets are located.
I could spot how people were working, knowing what weapons were being fired and their capability.
Now I think to myself, ‘Thank God I did get that training.’ Without that experience I wouldn’t have made it this far.
Doctors treat a wounded boy in Homs, Syria. All images copyright Paul Conroy
Did you find the process of writing this book therapeutic – if so, in which way?
I’d been out of Syria for two weeks when my friend asked if I’d like to speak to a literary agent who approached him about my story.
I was high on morphine when the agent came to speak to me in the hospital. I felt like I could have written the bible at that point, so I agreed to it!
But when I started to write the book it was quite difficult. I couldn’t get the concentration I needed. I had 13 or 14 operations to go through at that time – a number of blood transfusions.
So I set the book aside while I recuperated. I then spent about three or four months living in an apartment nearby because I couldn’t go too far from the hospital. I had a lot of morphine in my system, which messes with your sleep, and I was waking up at 4am not knowing what to do with myself.
Marie Colvin in Homs, Syria
One day I decided to write and ended up writing for four hours straight. I started going through every single minute of the Syrian assignment in my head.
And in a strange way I found it brought Marie back to life. I was going through conversations, laughing at her jokes. It wasn’t depressing at all to write.
In my mind she was living again, and I was telling the world what it was like to work with Marie. The experience was great until I got to chapter 10 when I knew in my own mind I would have to kill her again.
I found lots of excuses not to write that chapter for a while. But then one day I just woke up and said, ‘OK, I’m going to do it today.’
I think I wrote the whole chapter in a day. I woke up at 4am like usual, but didn’t take morphine and got the whole thing done. I didn’t want to linger on it. I knew exactly how it had to be. And from then on I knew the worst part was over.
Doctors deal with the wounded in Homs, Syria
How do conflict photographers cope once they leave these environments and return to the stability of home life?
Going from home life to war you find that you get into the rhythm of it very quickly. You know you’re in a country you shouldn’t be going to and that people want to kill you.
The moment you get on the plane with your bag of money and sat phones you’re already on the assignment, plotting the logistics.
You then go through the conflict and your mind is completely occupied with that moment. All of a sudden, you then go home, and it becomes slightly strange.
You’ve been living in this extraordinarily intense situation for a long time, and now you’re home and suddenly everything is rosy and pretty.
Everyone asks you, ‘How was it?’ And what do you say? You may get a phone bill, and it just seems like an odd thing to be concerned about.
Rebels fighters move heavy artillery outside Homs, Syria.
The hardest part of returning is that you somehow have to store away all the stuff you’ve seen and start relating to people who don’t want to kill you. It’s a longer decompression period coming back, and I don’t think some people handle it very well.
Life can seem quite banal. People don’t realise that you go feral in these places and sleep on the floor, and don’t wash and live on cheese triangles!
Coming back from Syria was particularly hard for me because I came back alone and there were a lot of people needing answers to what happened. The enormity of what happened really hit me when I got home. Luckily I was a bit shielded in the hospital.
What are your thoughts in the moments before a rocket hits when you realise this could be it – at what point do you stop being a journalist and kick into survival mode?
I knew the rocket was coming due to my experience in the Army. I could hear sirens and rounds land closer to the building. The building we just came out of got obliterated. I’d just run in and got my bag, and upon leaving the corridor I ran out of got hit.
In my head at this time I thought, ‘I have to get a shot of this because this is what the people of Homs have been going through for six months.’
Even as the rocket hit the house we were in I bent down to pick up my camera. It was like the perfect shot in many ways. So even at that point I was thinking as a photojournalist.
Up until the rocket hit I was thinking, ‘Is there enough light, is it worth getting this shot?’ After it hit I reached down for my camera, but when I touched my leg my hand went through and came out the other side. That’s when I went into survival mode. I remember thinking, ‘Oh shit. I hate the hospital!’
There were 10 seconds of that, and then I snapped back and knew from my Army days that I needed to put a tourniquet on. I then took two steps thinking I could walk and fell down next to Marie.
I checked that she was dead, which we was. Meanwhile, the drone above us had seen me moving in the rubble. I was lying there about 15 minutes when I was pulled into a house.
And then at that point I thought, ‘I should be filming this.’ Of course my camera and everything was destroyed. And then I quickly got back to realising how lucky I was to be alive. But you do feel a bit impotent.
Fighters cross Tripoli St, Miserata, Libya
How do you know who to trust in a situation like this?
Good question. It’s a slow process. I spent three weeks in Beirut making contacts. We were recommended a person in Beirut who passed us slowly down the line.
Everything moves in geological time during this process, but I was comfortable with moving slow because you know that you’re meeting the right people.
When we were introduced to some commanders, for instance, you knew that these were guys just fighting to stay alive. You’d meet others who thought you were insane.
A rebel soldier carrying ammunition for the next fight – Libya, March 2011. Photo by Paul Conroy / Rex Features
Generally it was these guys you can trust most, but you just have to watch people’s reactions and gauge. A lot of it is instinct and gut feeling based off the way people are with you.
I never do anything quickly. Wed go on a small job with them, and if you feel good you go again. If not, wait for someone else.
A fighter fires at pro-government troops only 300m away at the front line in the village of Aburwaya. Photo by Paul Conroy / Rex Features
How does an experience like this change your perspective as an artist?
There’s a lot of uncertainty for my future. Kneeling down to shoot is really difficult. I’ve considered that I might not be able to do this anymore. So I’m at a stalemate. Plus all my kit was blown up.
I’ve started to think about what else can I do through this medium to fulfil my needs as an artist, but to be honest, I’m at a blank.
These weren’t just photographs to me. They were a life story. The challenge of getting them, going through what we go through over there, the concentration and effort and energy to tell a story in one picture was immense. At the moment no other form of photography does that for me.
Neighbours rush to help put out a fire at a family home destroyed by a motar hit. Photo by Paul Conroy / Rex Features
I can pick my camera up any day and go shoot a landscape, but I don’t think I’m at Don McCullin’s point yet. Landscapes aren’t enough for me.
I’ve tried street photography, but again, it just doesn’t do it for me. It lacks that extra something.
My photographs and words by Marie took on a life of their own. I feel like I’m lacking the other half sometimes.
I’d love nothing better than to get my leg strong enough and go back out there, but I don’t want to put my companions and translators at risk by making them have to stop and wait for me. I can only do this again if I’m 100% sure I’m not going to endanger any one else.
Journalists run for cover in Ras Lanuf, Libya. Photo by Paul Conroy / Rex Features
Have journalists always been targeted so brazenly in past conflicts, or is this something that is becoming more acceptable?
It’s definitely changed. In world’s gone by you could put the word ‘TV’ in gaffer tape on your vehicle and rest assured no one would harm you. Now it’s been a complete reversal. Doing that would be like putting a target on your car.
In the Balkans, where I got my start, you could cross through the front lines, slip soldiers 200 fags and blag your way in and out as you pleased. In these Arab Spring conflicts you’d just be asking for trouble.
Journalists are now part of the battle, and they face so many new risks. You give your location away, for instance, when you transmit photos. I set up my laptop and sit 500 yards away when I send photos just to avoid getting killed by a drone.
on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 at 12:01 am under News.
Tags: documentary photography, famous photographers, photojournalism