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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Photographer Reviews "Restrepo"

I met Linda Covello when I worked at Newsweek and she was shooting for cover stories about American kids. She is first and foremost a portrait photographer with a great connection to people and their environment. Linda is also a serious film buff, and after talking to her about Restrepo, the award-winning film from photographer Tim Hetherington and writer Sebastian Junger, I asked her to write about her feelings.

I saw 'Restrepo' last week and the thought kept running through my head " how the hell did Junger and Hetherington have the courage to film this insanity?"

As I watched the film unfold I was alternately jarred, shaken, shocked and frightened by the scenes of mortar fire, sniper shots and ordnance raining from above. The film opens with the Humvee Junger is filming in hitting an I.E.D. and the explosion shatters the usual complacency one feels as an audience member in a darkened theater. As all visibility through the windshield of the vehicle is obliterated by mud, rocks, and other debris and the suddenly very unnerved voices of the occupants fills the soundtrack, my heart rate sped up uncomfortably as I remembered "this is real."

The brave dudes on the screen are not a cast of characters in a James Cameron film, and that camera is held by a journalist, Sebastian Junger, whose life is at risk in the making of this incredible documentary about a platoon's tour of duty in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.

As a photographer watching the film I could not help obsessing about the courage of the two filmmakers as well as reviewing my own terrible fear at the idea of finding myself in such a situation. NFW would I want to be there.

I am always inspired by the work of the great war documentarians; the viscerality and temporality of life is so profound in the strongest examples of this discipline. Yet I myself am not moved to pack my Canons and board an airlift for such a desolate and terrifying place as the treacherous mountains and valleys of Afghanistan.

What the two have accomplished with this remarkable piece of film making is to demonstrate unequivocally the terror and surreality of war for the young men and women who enlist to serve our country, as well as the courage, loyalty, commitment and deep love that develops between brothers at arms.

Directors like Coppola, Kubrick or Stone present the facts of war filtered through the perspective of a cinematic auteur, and you can deduce through each line of dialog and staged scene what might be the ideas, beliefs, and opinions of the director or screenwriter. The dialog of 'Restrepo' is not scripted.

The scenes before us are not created by an Academy award-winning production designer. Those buff and tattooed young men will not be posing in a sexy group shot for the next Vanity Fair Young Hollywood cover. And aside from finding cover the next time shots fill the air and shatter the branches of the trees overhead, whatever Junger and Hetherington are thinking about all this is nowhere present in this documentary. You barely ever hear them and do not see them at all. This film belongs to Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne.

These guys are portrayed as exactly what they are: macho, video game playing, at times lewd and sensitive, just out of their teens boys being boys. They sit around their outpost playing guitar, looking at surf magazines and doing their best to maintain a semblance of security for themselves between constant and unpredictable blasts from RPGs and sniper fire from the enemy, who are expertly hidden in the treacherous terrain surrounding their lone outpost. This stubborn encampment is the hard won piece of real estate that platoon has defiantly staked out for itself on the cliffs of the Korengal Valley. In the words of Captain Dan Kearney, it is like a big middle finger aimed at the enemy.

Prior to them climbing out of that valley they were like fish in a barrel for the insurgents hiding in the crevices and cliffs of the mountains surrounding the Korengal. By battling their way up that mountain and building that outpost, named O.P. Restrepo for the medic Juan 'Doc' Restrepo who is killed at the beginning of the film, they give themselves an advantage over the enemy that not only instills fear in the insurgents, but creates a stronger confidence in the platoon.

The film is a blend of the humorous and the ridiculous, the satirical and the tragic. In one scene a young soldier, apparently just back from leave, is attempting to position a massive gun in a window overhanging a perilous cliff. As he carefully climbs on the ledge to secure the gun, his radio beeps and he reaches to respond to it. The voice on the other end is looking for banter and engages the young soldier in an innocuous conversation about his recent tour home on leave. The soldier returns to his dangerous task with the gun as the voice on the other side of the radio persists on with questions about what his home is like and makes an allusion to the ranch the soldier lives on and hunts on back home being similar to the Korengal except "here we shoot people". This is only one example of the serendipitous and unscripted moments in 'Restrepo' that give this film its surreal and satirical dimension.

Another of these moments comes when Captain Dan Kearney holds one of his weekly pow wows with the village elders to discuss the progress of a road that is being built to connect the people of the province to the outside world, which is the ostensible point of the military presence in the Korengal. The elders, with their brightly hennaed beards, kohl rimmed eyes and talon-like hands heavy with rings and prayer beads, look almost like cartoon characters from Disney's animation archive. As they sit on the dirt floor of the hut while a translator recites Kearney's instructions and requests regarding the continued cooperation in the building of this road, the camera pans the faces of these men. They seem bored, out of it or high on some mountain herb, but the last thing they appear is interested in Uncle Sam's road project or his young and earnest representative's promises of great amounts of money and economic security the road will provide.

Later in the film three of these elders approach the O.P. in the hopes of receiving some of those promised dollars as restitution for a cow that has been slaughtered by the platoon. The soldier in charge of this exchange is informed by the brass at base camp that will be a no can do. The disgusted and defeated looks in the eyes of these ancient Afghans speaks volumes as to what their true estimation is of Uncle Sam and his representative's presence in their country.

After an aerial attack by an Apache helicopter on a village housing insurgents, the soldiers take a tour through the rubble of a house where civilian men and children have just been killed. Captain Kearney discusses his opinions about this unfortunate collateral damage in tones that are matter of fact and seemingly devoid of emotion. But he is a pivotal and strong figure in this
drama. When the camera focuses on his face in extreme close up he discusses these events from a distance after returning home from the Korengal and all the withheld compassion, humanity and feeling do battle under his brow and jaw.

A few of the platoon members talk about their experiences in the Korengal Valley in this close up setting. The camera is tight on their faces as they recount the events they and their platoon mates survived. It is so close, in fact, that a nerve twitching uncontrollably in the eye of Aron Hijar gives away the intensity of the emotion he is dealing with as he talks about the harrowing details of his time in the Korengal Valley.

This film should be required viewing by every American. This sentiment is expressed by many who have commented on the Internet after viewing 'Restrepo'.

I had a vision of it being broadcast on every TV set in America with rapt Americans watching and listening just as they must have when Orson Welles broadcast 'The War of the Worlds' in 1938. The scene where a soldier bawls his eyes out and drops to his knees before a fallen comrade is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever witnessed in a darkened theater.

The great war photojournalist Robert Capa said "If your pictures aren't good enough you're not close enough". Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington are close enough.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Call for Photojournalism

As we head into fall (and I am sooo happy about that), I want to put a call out to photojournalists/documentarians with projects needing a platform. I will be curating an issue of a soon-to-be released online magazine, and am looking for material to publish.

Their first issue is soon to go live, and when it does I can name the publication. My issue will be number 3 and is scheduled for November. I am looking for stories from anywhere and everywhere that offer us a strong, new view of the world. This is a wonderful opportunity that I hope brings all kinds of work that I can consider. I am accepting both B&W and color stories.

Please don’t send me dozens of images to look at. Either direct me to your website or blog, or send 4-5 images that capture the story. There is, unfortunately, no payment. But this new magazine is coming from a source that I support 100%.

As I know more, you'll know more. But I'm really excited about this, so tell your friends and send me your stories. Email me at with your work or any questions.

Show me what you got!

I wanted to add something here to those who think I am a despicable person looking to take advantage of photographers.

First of all, I am not commissioning or assigning photographers for free. I would never do that. I am only interested in existing material.

Second of all, I am not being paid, and the magazine's founder is not being paid for this. We are looking to create a platform for work to be seen, so that possibly it will bring paying work to the photographers. Let me state here I do not advocate people working for free. NEVER! But these days the more people who see your work the better for you.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

I Mean What Can You Say To This?

I saw this body of work by Nick Gleis who shoots the interior of private planes. His customers are anonymous heads of states and royalty, arms dealers, and billionaires from such countries as United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Dubai, Cameroon, Johor, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and China.
The work is being shown at the Brighton Photography Biennial.

The work is pretty eye-opening, and it's hard to believe I'm not looking at some crazy Hollywood space set. After looking at images of the devastation that floods have wrought in Pakistan I can't help but wonder what they were thinking, not only spending what must be crazy amounts of money, but proving the old adage that money can't buy you class.

Thank you Nick Gleis for showing this beautifully shot work. It allows us a peak into a world way beyond our experience, and has me wondering: Is there really so much money in Cameroon that this kind of over-the-top luxury is called for?

You can take a look at Chantal Biya, Cameroon's first lady here

All photographs copyright by Nick Gleis.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Newsweek Sells for $1--What's Next?

I’m not one given to bouts of nostalgia, but when I heard Newsweek had been sold for $1 (and more than $50 million in liabilities) to billionaire Sidney Harman, it made me think back to when I worked there, and how I really came into my own as a photo editor.

I began freelancing at Newsweek in 1990, recommended by Karen Mullarkey, who knew me from a freelance stint I did at Sports Illustrated when she was the DOP. This was the first time I was really on my own as a photo editor, and I found myself the freelance cover photo editor. As the cover photo editor at Newsweek you had to handle the domestic cover and three overseas editions. Strangely enough the overseas editions were easier because Newsweek had staff and contributing photographers around the world, and you also had agencies to rely upon. This was the first time I felt over my head in a job, but the staff was so helpful and friendly I soon got the rhythm and had a great time.

I came back as a freelancer in 1991, working on special issues, including "When Worlds Collide," the centennial anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage, done in collaboration with the Smithsonian. I was given total free rein to research this anyway and anywhere I wished. I donned white gloves to look at ancient manuscripts, dug into library and university collections, and photographed pre-Columbian artifacts. It was an amazing project, and a multi-award winning one as well.

One of my biggest shoots at that time was for a cover story, "The Science of Sports" (why does a curveball curve, etc.). I hired Mark Seliger to shoot the cover and five inside images, and we chose Bo Jackson, then one of the biggest name in sports, and two sports at that (football and baseball). After weeks of negotiation, discussions of props, prop building and art direction, I flew out to Kansas City (where Jackson was) with Mark and a crew of four or five (can’t really remember) and waited for the prop truck to arrive at our rented studio. We worked all night to set up each shot, slept 2 or 3 hours and then waited for Bo Jackson to show.

Of course he arrived late, wasn’t in a very cooperative mood, and when he walked off the set, both Mark and I had to firmly insist he continue (it was pretty amazing to go up to a huge, muscled football player and demand he get back on set and basically shut the fuck up—I was exhilarated!). I don't think these two shots have ever been seen before.

The shoot ended up being great, the most expensive I had done, and yet it never ran. Why? Well that same day, a dictator named Sadaam Hussein invaded a little country called Kuwait. Little did we know what would happen next. Thank you Mark for being such a dream to work with.

In 1992 I was hired on staff by Guy Cooper, and worked on the Back-Of-The-Book section (BOB in magazine parlance) which covered everything from fashion to science to law to food to education and beyond. About half of each years covers were in my section, and one of the best issues I worked on was “A Week In the Death of America” about murder around the country. I hired Eugene Richards to ride around the city with a police band radio waiting for a murder scene he could shoot. I also hired photographers around the country like Bryce Lankard in New Orleans, Jeff Lowe, Stephen Shames, Jeff Mermelstein, Anthony Barboza. We photographed a gun show, a victim rights group, a minor incarcerated for murder and more.

This was one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever worked on, and as you can imagine, the logistics were intense. In fact, we didn’t even have a cover image until the very last moment. That kept me biting my nails up until deadline. But the project won multiple awards, and still remains one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I was able to hire anyone I wanted, shoot anyway I wanted, and do anything I wanted—total control and total creative license. What a dream for a photo editor! As a result I really was able to stretch out and learn how important picking the right photographer for the right assignment was. I learned how to art direct and visualize stories for a magazine format, and worked with the best editor ever, Aric Press, who trusted me to give him fantastic images for our section’s stories. I worked with a wonderful photographer, Jeff Lowe, who was an amazing creative problem solver. Jeff could reimagine a mundane subject into a beautifully compelling image.

I did some of the first photo illustrations Newsweek had ever used; I shot stories with Holgas, in sepia, with big sets, and with great photographers. Newsmagazines used to be an amazing proving ground for photo editors where the craft of photo editing was learned, and the best were able to contribute new visual ways of story telling to the audience. That’s what Newsweek was for me.

But newsweeklies have been way too slow to change with the times, and fell victim to the belief that photographs didn’t compel people to buy and read the magazines--people were more interested in the writing. Well, since by the time the magazine is on the stands people already know nearly all there is to know about a particular story, unless there is something offered that your audience cannot get elsewhere, they will pass you up. Great photographs are the unique added value to offer an audience. Great photographs can tell a story without words, and can impart new information, deep emotion and subcontext that is frequently missed in the text due to mediocre editorial.

Now would be the time for Newsweek to step back into the limelight as a visual storytelling publication—whether on the Web, on iPad or in paper form. You cannot get a jump on the news, but you can go so much deeper into stories around the world through the use of photography. And there are so many amazing stories being told by photographers that you don’t have to go far to find them. You just have to give them a platform.

Here’s hoping the new owner is smart enough to reinvent the magazine, break new ground and set it apart by the use of great photographic storytelling.

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