My second pair of eyes
As a child I would get really angry when others called me four eyes. I was not cross eyed but did wear glasses. Usually this resulted in a fight with my older sister mediating and bringing a small gift to the victims of these close encounters with a garbage can and/or me.
If I had only realised at that time having four eyes, or more precisely, a second pair of eyes is a huge advantage over anyone with only one pair.
On one of my last trips, to Lebanon, I began to realise just how important it is to have a good driver. Some call them “fixer”, others “driver” but to me it became clear that they were my second pair of eyes.
Hassan, a veteran Reuters driver, has worked for us since the Lebanon civil war days.
Hassan (C ) checking the bread which was delivered by the Red Cross to the Nahr Al Bared camp.
Essentially he is a better journalist, cameraman or photographer than any one of us with the only difference being that he is unaware of it. It is something he does instinctively, just as my hands go up and grab the guitar out of thin air as soon as Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” or Thin Lizzy’s “the Rocker” blasts out of the speaker of my stereo set at home.
By better I mean that from time to time all of us professional journalists are guilty of pretentiousness in what we want to say or try to show but with Hassan it is just a matter of ‘what I see is what you get’. As we were driving down the road from Tripoli to the Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr al Bared, we saw many movements of troops and other people.
Many times I said “no that’s not a picture” or “hmm, I don’t know, I don’t see it, it looks nice but it just doesn’t make it”. For him it was news and he was right, it was news. What were seeing was news and what was happening was worth reporting but for us “professionals” often we don’t bother because it doesn’t look sexy enough.
Waiting for many hours at the gates of a refugee camp it’s difficult maintaining your concentration. So we killed the time discussing what could happen next. Will the army roll in, in the next few days or so? Will they destroy the camp completely? If they destroy the camp will they do it with the refugees in it?
We discussed the humanitarian crisis inside the camp although we had no idea of what was going on inside at all? We would discuss which lenses and cameras work best in these circumstances? Where could we get barbequed lamb sandwiches?
“OK. Look out, there’s an ambulance. Will they let the refugees walk? Oh, come on, please let the refugees walk, it looks much better for pictures and TV. Oh come on now, what are those soldiers doing over there? Come on man!!!!!! You are ruining my frame. Get away…. Thanks Buddy!!!! ”
So after two weeks of jumping on a few refugees with the few remaining photographers, camera teams and journalists it was time to change the strategy. But how?
Refugees were being evacuated by the Lebanese Red Cross. After being taken out of the camp they had to switch from the Red Cross ambulance into a Lebanese Red Crescent ambulance in a so called no man’s land where Lebanese soldiers checked for weapons and fighters from Fattah al Islam. From there they were escorted through the last checkpoint and again switched into a private car or bus before being transported to another refugee camp.
The pictures were all of refugees emerging, crying and hugging; the elderly being carried out by the young and strong and the sick and wounded being loaded into ambulances. There are too many photographers even though you are only two or three. It’s too embarrassing to jump on these poor people who have just emerged from hell, shoving a 14mm lens into kid’s faces to get an even more frightened and even better, a crying child.
Hassan wondered what I was doing at the back behind everyone else but after asking me just once he understood right away just what I wanted. No more words. We waited for the next ambulance to arrive and while the media pack ran after it, Hassan and I jumped into the car without anyone noticing us and drove to another camp where refugees were being given shelter with relatives or friends.
The scenes there were heart breaking. Young and old reunited; mothers and fathers looking for sons and daughters and children looking for their parents.
Photographers try to show the world as objectively as possible but do not always manage to do so. We only have one pair of eyes and can only look in one direction at a time and so we do miss beautiful or dramatic pictures. We are lucky to have our drivers, fixers and translators. Sometimes they have been watching us for years and years, they may even in some circumstances be better photographers than us. They take the necessary step back. They have the overview that we sometime don’t have – the framed, well cropped or perfected view on a story or on the world. Often they tell you of the small things happening to your left or right that you can’t see because you are concentrating on the obvious.
They are the ones who carry your extra camera body with a long lens or your backpack with all that extra stuff you need. They are the ones who tell you to put on your flack jacket or take cover when things get hairy.
They are the ones who see you cry when you come back from shooting something horrific who put their arm around you, give you some comfort and help you to accept what you have just photographed.
They chat cheerfully and make you that nice cup of coffee or that nice fish sandwich while you’re filing your pictures. They wait for you, while resting on your bed watching the news on Al-Jazeerah, to take you to your next assignment.
I am always struck by just how many people they know – as well as photographers, cameramen and journalist - and how many people know them. We arrive somewhere and they approach the people there saying, “just wait, let me ask if they know”. Kisses and cigarettes are exchanged and it’s always, “luckily I just met a guy I was with during so and so, or, luckily I just met my cousin who is the head of so and so. They are always the ones to find the right way.
I don’t listen to just anybody, we all have a tendency to believe that we know it all and there is not much anyone can tell us. Last summer in Lebanon, on the way back from a small town near the Syrian border where we had been covering a funeral of two Lebanese soldiers,
we had to pass the Nahr-Al-Bared refugee camp which was under heavy mortar fire by the Lebanese army.
On the small roads we saw ambulances of the Lebanese Red Cross passing us at the other side of the road. We looked at each other and Hassan began to drive faster and faster. All of a sudden he pulled the car over some hundred meter in front of an army check point and said to me , slowly but very determined,” jallah habibi flack jacket, jallah habibi flack jacket, JALLAH HABIBI FLACK JACKET”. He meant serious business, no time for discussion. Just put on your god damn flack jacket. I saw in his eyes that this was not a joke. We took our body armour and helmets out of the boot and slipped them on.
Hassan adjusted his seat to accommodate his gigantic flak jacket, hit the gas pedal and manoeuvred his car through the road block which was in the process of being erected and speeded down the highway straight through the frontline.
The scene was out of Apocalypse Now. Soldiers taking aim, the streets littered with empty cases, army vehicles positioned strategically alongside the road and a burning, decomposing cow, shot a few days previously. The smell was just unbearable. This scene was one we are not able to photograph. One that you will always remember as of one of these pictures that, “if only I heen able to. ….”. Maybe it just has to be that way. Maybe some pictures should not be shot. When we speeded down this road it all was happening in slow motion and it seemed to take us a lifetime.
The soldiers preparing their weapons; carrying in fresh ammunition; soldiers taking a rest; the empty bullet cases; the army vehicles; the incredible loud explosions of the shells hitting the buildings and the Howitzers firing them. The warmth of the Lebanese evening sun which coloured everything red.
The smoke which made everything so hazy and mysterious and in the middle of it all, the burning and decomposing cow, which was just lit up by two Lebanese soldiers who pointed and smiled at me and made sure that the camera I was raising and attempting to point at them would go back on my lap, to just observe this surreal scene.
When we safely reached the end of the road, in record time and not the lifetime I had imagined, I looked at Hassan who didn’t blink an eye, although I could see he was tense. The only words he said were, “I think we deserve a nice cup of coffee.”.
This was the man to trust. This was my bodyguard. This man was my second pair of eyes.
Hassan taking a nap in his car.