War correspondents tell their stories in 'Under Fire'
When Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Oscar-nominated Afghanistan war film “Restrepo,” and veteran combat photographer Chris Hondros of Getty Images, were killed in April in an explosion in the Libyan city of Misurata, news of their deaths rippled throughout the documentary community, which mourned the loss of two esteemed journalists and colleagues.
A documentary opening Friday in Los Angeles, “Under Fire: Journalists in Combat,” points out, though, that reporters and photographers on the front lines are finding themselves in greater danger than ever. With kidnappings, torture, beheadings and post-traumatic stress disorder on the rise, the physical and psychological cost of war on those documenting it is becoming increasingly clear.
“Under Fire” presents nine journalists from a range of news outlets who have covered wars throughout various parts of the world, including Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Egypt and Haiti. What unites them is a need to continuously return to war zones and report the news, despite the grave risks associated with the job.
To understand their motives, director Martyn Burke, who has filmed war documentaries in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, partnered with psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein, who has studied and counseled 350 frontline journalists.
“They have this drive that takes them back into conflict zones repeatedly and I believe to do that, and to sustain that, you’ve got to have a certain biological predisposition,” Feinstein said. “There’s now good, found evidence that individuals who seek adventurous lives and dangerous lives have a particular genetic and biochemical makeup — these journalists share that.”
Most of the journalists featured in “Under Fire” admit that they cling to the excitement and camaraderie of the trenches.
“I'm sure any combat photographer can recount moments when they swore to themselves that if they got out of a particularly sticky situation, they would never do it again,” said Reuters’ photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly, who has covered wars in Congo, Ivory Coast, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. “I can’t even count how many times I’ve thought that. But we do go back, perhaps somewhat foolishly.”
And sometimes at great cost. Several journalists reveal that horrifying images they’ve seen during wars return to them in hallucinations or nightmares. Others describe the unresolved guilt they feel over the death of a close colleague in a war zone.
“No picture is worth dying for, and yet journalists do put their lives on the line daily to get the picture or the story,” O’Reilly said. “I lost two friends this year in Libya. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were two of the most accomplished and experienced war photographers working today. Until their deaths, I had always felt my decision to cover conflict or to put myself in positions of danger affected only me.
“But seeing the pain their deaths have caused others has given me pause,” he continued. “I don’t want to cause the kind of pain I’ve seen others live through after they died.”
— Jasmine Elist
Photo: Finbarr O'Reilly in Libya. Credit: JUF Pictures.