Behind the Lens of Conflict Photography

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Created by the American documentarian and producer Nick Fitzhugh, each episode features some of the world’s best conflict photographers, including: Pete Muller, Joao Silva, Donna Ferrato, Nicole Tung, Robin Hammond, and Eros Hoagland, who, in their testimony and memories of trying to do their jobs well, prove that the passion for honest documentation and a longing to leave a positive imprint on the world is the backbone of photojournalism.
“With conflict photography, a lot of photographers focus on the frontlines, on the bombs, explosions, and the reasons they do that is because publications, for the most part, are more interested in that kind of photography,” says Fitzhugh.
“But I think that there is a huge, additional piece, which often goes un, or under-recorded or photographed, which is hugely important…. It’s just so far from our own realities, and of course, it’s often very intense and dramatic.”

Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital. Given that it is impossible to access for most and care is so poor, many Sierra Leoneans turn to religious and traditional healers to treat mental disability. Freetown, Sierra Leone. February 2013. Photo Robin Hammond/Panos. © 2013 Robin Hammond
Nick Fitzhugh makes an effort to represent conflict photographers who take pictures of different kinds of conflicts, like rape, domestic and sexual violence, or the impact on local communities of the narcotic trade across countries in Latin America
“I think there is this tendency to elevate war above everything else, in terms of it being the worst, and therefore the most important conflict,” Fitzhugh says.
“This hierarchy is problematic for all these other types of conflict. The long-term impacts of rape as a kind of psychological weapon of war are very difficult to estimate. But they can be totally devastating to, potentially, an entire country, and an entire race of communities. That should not be underestimated.”
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A man lies dying after being shot in the torso and then crashing his car in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The man later died from his injuries. © Eros Hoagland 2010.
“These issues are awful and, from a distance, we shake our heads when we learn about it, but it’s very hard to get close to it. And then, you see an episode of Conflict in which Robin Hammond talks about photographing a place like Congo where this happened to tens of thousands of women, and you just perceive it in a whole new way.”
The series arose from a long-standing friendship the director had with photographer Pete Muller, subject of the pilot episode.
“There was a panel discussion that he was part of in New York, probably the summer of 2012,” Fitzhugh tells BJP.
“I’ve always had a fascination and strong desire to pursue work within conflict resolution, so this occurred to me as a really interesting topic to explore, and with Pete, it seemed I had the ideal subject to begin with,” Fitzhugh says.
A Dinka woman wounded by gunfire in a remote hospital near the border with northern Sudan. After more than twenty years of civil war, the civilian population in southern Sudan remains heavily armed, a factor that contributed to high rates of armed violence. The military has made attempts to disarm various elements of the population but the disarmament issue carries many political considerations that hinder in its full implementation. © Pete Muller
“I really consider myself a conflict photography, but I make the important distinction that I’m not necessarily a combat photographer,” Pete Muller says. In his episode, Pete Muller talks of a picture of a woman he took laying on a bed in a remote field hospital in South Sudan. She had just had bullets extracted from her chest. “It’s not dramatic, in a way. It’s quiet. And it’s not part of a story of frontline explosions,” he says. “It’s the type of picture of the way the war just continues to eat away at societies.”
It’s this, the conflict behind combat, that motivates Muller. “We categorize things in our minds as big issues: gun control, abortion, war, poverty,” he says. “We lose sight that all of these sociological phenomena are comprised of individual people, who are all having their own, individual type of experience.”
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87-20-68. © Donna Ferrato
Fitzhugh and his crew were determined to honour the stories of the photographers. To do this, the team made sure to understand the balance between “us as outsiders, coming and looking at all of the information we can, in both the research and the pictures, and what these people tell us in their interviews.”
“In order for something to be successful, and appealing to the public, it needs to be as dramatic, as exciting, and as intense as possible,” he says. “A lot of times, a lot of people will take every opportunity to do that – and I think that if you do that, you no longer have an honest documentary.”
But Nick Fitzhugh is not interested in sensationalizing. “There’s plenty of drama, of power, intensity, intimacy, and vibrancy to honesty – particularly done in the right way,” he says.
Behind the scenes of the Eros Hoagland episode of Conflict: Miniseries in Mexico, associate producer Daniel Martinez, talks on the phone. © Nick Fitzhugh
“We’re trying to reflect the psychology of these photographers, we’re trying to either accurately recreate a scene that they were in, or we’re trying to recreate their memory,” he says.
Working so closely with these photographers, almost over the course of a year, immersed the director in the intensity of their world. Jaoa Silva, a photographer that is featured in the series says: “Being behind the camera doesn’t exclude you from being there. The stuff that goes through the lens is forever burnt into your mind. You put your camera in situations where your subject matter is real, and lives are being destroyed.
There are multiple moments throughout filming where the subject starts crying as the camera rolled. How, as a filmmaker, did Fitzhugh handle such moments?
Behind the scenes of the Robin Hammond episode of Conflict: Miniseries in Paris, France. © Rob Shore
“That was an amazing moment, and I think a very important reflection point in his episode,” he says of filming Hammond cry. But after finishing the interview, the director and his crew understood that Robin needed a break. “He never expected to cry, and he couldn’t believe that he had. It would have been silly to keep going,” Fitzhugh says.
“And that’s one of the things we were trying to explore in the series: the personal fallout for them, as human beings, covering these types of conflicts. We were showing some of the frontline stuff, but also the toll; the physical and personal impact of working in a war zone.”
Ahmed, 12, from Sheikh Fares neighbourhood, waits with his uncle, right, near the body of his father who was killed by a shell in the Sha’ar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Friday, August 24, 2012. Ahmed, who saw his father die, was also injured in his back by shrapnel. © Nicole Tung
In some ways, Conflict is an address to young or aspiring conflict photographers. Plenty of people get into the field for the adrenaline rush. But Nicole Tung, a young conflict photographer, says: “I don’t think that any of this is ever worth your life.” Fitzhugh comments: “It’s not that she’s right or wrong, but I think it’s important for people, of any age and any amount of experience in the field, to be thinking about these things and not gloss over them.”
“I think it’s a very rare, but a very happy thing, when any of us, creators, can make something that is very intense and powerful, and also get it out there, get it seen by a lot of people, and turn it in a commercial success. A lot of times, the best art just doesn’t do that. I’m so grateful that Conflict is getting out there.”
You can watch Conflict on Netflix, Vimeo, and The Atlantic, and find out more about the series here.