By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It's hard to tell. There is very strong circumstantial evidence that photography has an impact. It was very effective in terms of the famine in Ethiopia and the famine in Somalia. The intervention in Kosovo was going to happen anyway, for good reason, I believe. But I also believe that the pictures gave moral assurance to what they were going to do.
It doesn't always work. In the case of Rwanda, [world leaders] were determined not to do anything to help the Tutsis, even to the point of refusing to use the word genocide in public. They understood that if they were to use the word, they would be obligated to do something. It was a very shameful moment for world leaders. But the press was there, and the leaders eventually had to accept the word genocide. It was undeniable. Both Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton did finally apologize in public, and those apologies did not save one human life.
So you feel like your role is to gather evidence?
That's one of the things we do. We bear witness, we present evidence. It's effective not to do it in a cold clinical way, but in a human way. The images are a cold statement of fact, but they present the human tragedy. There are consequences to what we do and don't do, serious consequences for ordinary people. Rwanda, 1994
How has witnessing all this horror affected you as a person?
It's made me sensitized and aware. Emotionally it's more difficult. It has a cumulative effect, and it doesn't get easier. It gets harder. The images I've seen and made I carry with me.
What was your philosophy behind publishingInferno? It's not a true retrospective of your work. It seems designed instead to make a statement on the horrors that continue to rage around the world.
Beyond being a photography book, it was to be a visual archive of what are sometimes crimes against humanity, the human cost of international policies in the final decade of the 20th century. It's a journey through the dark reaches. It was a terrible decade. While people here in the U.S. were happy with the bubble economy, there was war in Bosnia, two wars in Chechnya, genocide in Rwanda.
Can your message get through? Many people now don't even read the newspaper every day or watch the news on television.
Scary, isn't it? I work with Time magazine, and it has great influence and credibility in the world, and they keep me out there. That's as good a position as I could ask for as a documentary photographer. I feel the need to use that position to keep pushing on these critical issues. And I think people want to know, and once they see these things, they want something done about it.
Very often you are in places where war is occurring, but long before most people in the West have shown any interest, though the suffering is just as real. You were in Afghanistan in the mid-'90s, a story that only later was understood to have profound importance to Americans. Has that been frustrating?
If people don't know about it, they can't care about it. In Afghanistan, I was covering the mujahedeen when they had all the support of America [in the 1980s]. Then, when the Russians left, we forgot about them. These are the same people who were our allies, but just because the Cold War is gone we don't care about them anymore. That didn't seem right to me. When I went to my editors at Time, they were intrigued but not sure. But they trusted my judgment to go, and it became an important story. Then Afghanistan became like a black hole and you couldn't make pictures there under the Taliban. A few people did, but it was difficult. It kind of dropped off the map until September 11th.
Did the terrorist attacks of September 11th surprise you?
No. The scale of it did. It was very dramatic, obviously. I had been working in the Middle East since 1981. I covered three or four different wars in Lebanon, unrest in the West Bank, war in Afghanistan a couple of times, both Palestinian uprisings. They seemed like separate stories for 21 years. On September 11, this idea crystallized that I had been working on the same story all this time.
It was partially a failure of journalism, because it has focused so much on escapism: celebrities, fashion, lifestyle. People do want to know about those things, but it became unbalanced. And it was a failure of our political leadership to deal with these issues in a more comprehensive way. They were not paying attention to what was coming. The World Trade Center had been attacked already. Three embassies had been bombed. A U.S. military base had been attacked in Saudi Arabia. Journalists had been reporting these things, but it takes more than that.
What was the scene like when you arrived at the World Trade Center? Was it a moment that was familiar from other war zones?