Sometimes the pictures we do not shoot are the one's we think of most. These are not the images we "missed," when the Moment passed us by or we ran out of film. Rather, there are pictures we'd have taken if we simply had known to take them.
In wars and conflict zones, we're often the first in the field. Our race against deadlines puts us days, weeks, and even years ahead of the human rights investigators who the veneer of authority and scholarship to our stories and experiences, our images. The photographs and stories we create are important documentary evidence of human rights violations of all kinds; they may be the only evidence.
Photography also creates history. For the people of Prizren, Kosovo, my photographs of the days after the NATO occupation were some the only images they'd seen of those chaotic days after the war. For them, the rise and fall and rise and fall of the statue of Czar Dusan is personal history. The picture of a sniper's view of the town captured, and rescued from simple myth, the months of anxiety and dread.
Ethnic cleansing has restored the preservation of history to the pantheon of human rights work, and the truth-telling power of photography forces the photographer into the role of documentarian.
"If only I'd known what I was seeing," said Susan Meiselas, reflecting on her pictures of the massacre of El Motozle in El Salvador. Meiselas did not shoot the documents needed to "prove" the crime, the forensic evidence that could defeat the silence of the Salvadoran and American governments.
When we enter war zones, jails, killing fields, ghettos, we constantly find ourselves facing the unknown. We often cannot know "what we are seeing," in part because we don't know we should be looking for anything, in part because we don't know how to look.
How do you photograph a killing field? The dog-torn leg and the worried torso are obvious, but do not convey what has happened. A scattering of Kalashnikov shell casings? Better. But it is too easy to miss the holes in the trees that indicate where the shooters stood, the gaps in the fence where wire strands were cut to tie hands, the star-shaped entry wounds of a gun pressed against the head of a kneeling man. The body may be buried tomorrow, the fence mended, the trees cut for firewood.
The purpose of this book is help photographers (and journalists) know what to look for in the nastiness they encounter, to understand they evidence they find, and to know how to treat evidence.
It also tries to place the photographers work in a historical context, to show the origins of our current ways of working, in order to lead us to break out of the box and find new ways of documenting the human condition.
As we leave the confines of "war correspondent" or "photojournalist," bound by editors and market research wonks, we are quickly finding ourselves with new problems. Our pictures can kill, or put people behind bars, or destroy families. Globalization will bring our images to the bad guys, to the International Criminal Tribunal, or to the immigrant relatives of the rape victims. Military censorship is more sophisticated, and the MBA-censorship of the marketplace is just as stifling. The book looks into these issues, also.
I was inspired to create this book by my experiences as a beginning photojournalist in Kosovo. My picture of the policeman's pad, a page titled, "people to kill," is all that remains of the pad. The KLA fighter whose hands appear in the image, who took it home, threw it away with his other war mementos when he decided to fight no more.
If only I'd known what I was seeing.