Photographers' Blog

The essence of war

By Umit Bektas

As the medical staff rushed to prepare the seriously wounded soldier for immediate surgery, I stood in one corner of the emergency room wondering how publishable the pictures I would take of this bloody and violent scene would be and what would be the benefit of it, if they were indeed published.

No photo of the soldier who lay there covered in blood and unconscious would ever be sufficient to express his agonizing pain. There was no way I could ever sum up the earlier life of this solider, the life which would never be the same again. I could never explain why this happened to him. I could never relay in a single frame what really happened to him and what purpose his injuries would serve. For some time I watched the medical staff working frantically around the soldier, making superhuman efforts to keep him alive. Their efforts would probably save a life. What would mine accomplish? What would I have achieved if in the middle of this bloody scene I succeeded in taking a photo appropriate to be printed in newspapers and people thousands of miles away would bring into their homes to look at. What photo or photos would ever help the soldier to regain his limbs which would likely be severed very soon. I happened to catch a glimpse of the soldier’s boots lying on the floor. As the soldier was wheeled into surgery after emergency first aid, and the commotion in the room died down, I approached the bloodied boots and snapped them.

It is now more than a month since I returned from my assignment as an embedded photographer with the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Now, as I write this blog I am looking at that picture. I want to talk about what a pair of blood-soaked boots means to me; as a human being and as a photographer.

For a month I reported with photos from a number of different assignments the American troops were engaged in. But I admit the days I spent with the 628th Forward Surgical Team were the most trying. It is not only the issue of seeking a meaning and an outcome in what I witnessed that still occupies my mind – it is a problem of the essence of the whole thing.

Let me explain what I mean by essence. The premises where three patients can simultaneously receive emergency treatment is in fact a tent. Unavoidably, it is cramped and the space left after three gurneys are placed side by side, is barely enough for the medical teams to squeeze in. If you are a photographer allowed to take pictures, obviously you cannot move an inch. Not because anyone has prohibited you, but to avoid hampering the medical staff, you take care not to change your position unless you absolutely need to. From where you stand you can clearly see what is happening but most of what you see cannot be photographed, cannot be transmitted if photographed and cannot be published if transmitted. It is bodies bloodied and mangled.

Are you ready for your embed?

By Umit Bektas

When I was informed of the date from which I was to be embedded with a U.S. military unit in Afghanistan, I luckily had enough time to prepare. I felt I had to plan everything before I left so I drew up a “to do” list. A major item on the list was the packing of my bags.

I knew I should carefully plan what I was to take. I knew I should travel light but at the same time have everything I would need on hand. Given the nature of the assignment and the conditions in Afghanistan, it would probably be impossible to secure anything I may have left behind. Fearing that my own list may be lacking some essentials, I contacted Kabul-based Ahmad Masood and other Reuters photographers who had been embedded before me. Masood, most likely the recipient of many such queries before, promptly sent back a comprehensive document he had prepared with a list of what I needed to take with me as well as other useful information. Along with other details from colleagues, I then knew exactly what I needed to take with me.

The first priority was the security equipment – body armor and helmet. Without them in your number one bag, you can not be embedded. So I put these two items in a separate bag.

38 days and 10 years in Afghanistan

By Erik de Castro

As I write this blog, I am on the 38th day of my current assignment to Afghanistan as an embedded journalist with U.S. military forces. I have been assigned here several times since 2001 to cover the war that is still going on 10 years after the al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil. Mullah Omar, popularly known as the one-eyed Taliban, was the first member of the Taliban I met back in 2001. He held press conferences almost daily at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan a few weeks before U.S. forces and its allies attacked Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government.

Ten years and several trips back to Afghanistan later, I still haven’t seen a lot of Taliban fighters. My present assignment is the time I’ve experienced the most encounters between the combined U.S. and Afghan forces and the Taliban.

It is remarkable how the Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters are more aggressive now. The insurgents, though they know their artillery is no match to that of the Americans, are daring enough to attack at every opportunity, be it with small arms, RPGs or, on occasions, IEDs and rockets. Most of the time, it is a “hit and run” kind of attack wherein they flee after firing some shots. Such eagerness, however, could cost lives.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures February 27, 2011

The World's gaze at events in the Middle East was broken last week after an earthquake of 6.3 destroyed many buildings in Christchurch, New Zealand; the death toll now stands at 147 with 200 still missing. This was the latest disaster covered by Tim Wimborne. In recent weeks he has been to Toowoomba and Brisbane for the floods, Cairns for the typhoon Yasi and now NZ to cover the earthquake.  Tim worked closely with stringer Simon Baker to produce a file that saddens the heart, buildings normally seen on holiday postcards now forming the tombs of those who have died and as yet have not been pulled from the rubble. For me one of the strongest images is that of a  man picking through the rubble of what was once his home. With Tim's birds-eye view we see that nothing is really worth saving amid the dust and rubble, a photograph, a smashed lamp and a model boat.

NEWZEALAND-QUAKE/

Resident of the beach-side suburb of New Brighton, Julian Sanderson, searches for personal items through the remains of his house, destroyed by Tuesday's earthquake, in Christchurch February 25, 2011. International rescue teams searched through the rubble of quake-ravaged Christchurch on Friday for more than 200 people still missing, but rain and cold were dimming hopes of finding more survivors in the country's worst natural disaster in decades.  REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

NEWZEALAND/QUAKE

A rescue worker (R) looks through the rubble of the Cathedral of Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch February 24, 2011. International rescuers intensified their search for earthquake survivors in New Zealand on Thursday, spurred on by reports of a faint female voice heard beneath a collapsed church, even as the official death toll of 71 looked certain to climb. REUTERS/Simon Baker

Embedded in Afghanistan

Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly recently spent a month with the U.S. First Battalion Eighth Marines in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. While embedded at the remote Outpost Kunjak with the unit’s Third Platoon’s, Fourth Squad, O’Reilly documented camp life, patrols and combat operations, including one battle that saw four squad members suffer concussions from grenade explosions, including squad leader Sgt. Thomas James Brennan. This is Sgt. Brennan’s personal account of that day, and his reflections on what it is like living and fighting on the front lines of Afghanistan’s war.

Medevac! Medevac! Lifeline over Afghanistan

I had just reached the camp of the unit I would be embedded with at remote Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.

Members of "Dustoff" medevac team from 101st Airborne Division, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Shadow play cards while waiting for a medical evacuation mission in a tent in a small military base near Kandahar, Afghanistan September 17, 2010. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

As soon as I got off the military aircraft that took me there, I saw a helicopter with a red cross sign painted on it. I approached a crew doing a routine check on their aircraft and, after introducing myself, they explained the details of my embed and gave me some instructions. They pointed me to a section in the chopper where they said I should keep my body armor and helmet, which I have to put on when we flew.

Early morning on the second day of my embed with the “Dustoff” medical evacuation team of Task Force Shadow from 101st Airborne Division of the 101st Aviation Brigade, the sound of “Medevac! Medevac!” echoed on the two-way radio issued to me earlier.

An elusive war – December and January in Afghanistan

In the history of embeds, this one has been pretty unremarkable so far. I kicked things off in Dubai with an impulse purchase of a Canon 5D Mark II. Stills and video ! ASA 6400 ! 20 MB files ! It seemed like a great idea until I dropped it in the mud on a patrol. So much for the resale value.

After getting to Bagram Air Base, it took a while until I was able to test out the new gear. We had a four-day wait due to rain, which delayed or cancelled flights and gave me plenty of time to indulge in the ice cream bar at the dining hall.  On day five I got a late-night flight to Jalalabad, where I received a briefing about my embed area and made plans to get further north.  Finally, a week after my embed had officially begun, I took a 20 minute ride on a Chinook helicopter and arrived to Foward Operating Base Bostick, located in Kunar Province about 10 miles from the Pakistan border.

The view from the base is stunning. Snow capped mountains to the east mark the border with Pakistan, the Kunar River runs through the valley, and at night the stars in the Milky Way seem close enough to touch.  This being Christmas, there was a candle-lit church service in the chapel on the 24th, followed on Christmas Day by caroling and hot chocolate. The war seemed pretty far away.