On Assigning War Correspondents

Bill Keller at the New York Times has an interesting piece up on The Lives of Wartime Photographers, the crux of which doesn’t come until the very end. He talks with several combat photographers, including Joao Silva who lost his legs while on assignment for the paper last year, about why they do it.

But it’s the last two grafs, on why he signs off on their assignments that send them into harms way, that ring for me:

My general sense of the employer’s responsibility is this: We have an obligation to provide the equipment and training, to make clear that we do not consider any story or picture worth a life and, if they get in trouble, to do everything in our power to get them out. But they are there. We are not. We should hesitate to second-guess decisions they make on the ground. (They do enough of that themselves.)

I admit this formulation may be tested when Joao is ready to work again. If he asks for that posting to Baghdad or some other place where things blow up, what do I say? To him? To his family?

When I was a newspaper editor, my responsibility to my staff was clear. When I was a magazine editor (granted, a publication that covered high school sports), I struggled a bit with my responsibility to my stringers. For my staff, I knew that we were in a long-term relationship. I helped them get better, made sure they had the tools they needed and encouraged them when they needed it, cajoled them when they were slacking.

But for freelancers, who I was hiring to do a specific job … how was I supposed to handle them? If they screwed up a job, was I supposed to walk them through what went wrong? Teach them to be better? These weren’t new shooters, these were high-end gigs mostly and we were hiring experienced shooters who, occasionally, just wouldn’t get it right.

My attitude then was to call them, tell them the work wasn’t acceptable, pay them the agreed upon rate and, in most cases, take them off our list. Of course, that’s if they sent in work without saying there were any issues. Sometimes, things would go wrong and they’d let me know, but if they just sent us lousy work, we tended to move on to the next shooter.

Still not sure that was the right way to handle this stuff, but when you’re handling 300-400 assignments a week, there’s not much time to coach.

Mark E. Johnson

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