20 Years in War Zones With Jack Picone
Jack Picone is a Bangkok based, award winning Australian Photojournalist who has been covering war zones since the early 90s. Picone has travelled from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and Africa—where he covered the 1994 Rwandan Genocide that saw over a million people murdered. In short, he’s the guy to talk to if you have any questions about catching shrapnel in Armenia, the difference between rebel wars and traditional wars, and the importance of documentary photography.
VICE: Hey Jack, so starting at the top: what was the first conflict you photographed, how old were you, and what made you decide you wanted to take on this position?
Officially it was the first Gulf War. However my time in Baghdad was short lived after I was arrested by Iraqi secret police and deported to Jordan for photographing Iraqi troops crossing the border into Kuwait.
My real “baptism of fire” was during the Nagorno-Karabakh War which raged for nearly a decade from the late eighties to the mid nineties in Armenia, so I guess I was around 29-30. I felt drawn towards this work for several years before I finally felt ready to go. I suppose I wanted to challenge myself; I wanted to face all these things as see if I would be able to keep my head—literally and metaphorically.
You mentioned it took a while to bring yourself to head out, what was the tipping point that gave you the final push to go?
The final catalyst for me going was a book called As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee. It was about a young man in 1943 who left his home in Cotswolds, England with a violin to find his fortune and ended up in Spain. Lee really captured the atmosphere of the Spain he saw, coloured by his young man idealism. He painted a real picture of a violent country and of the Spanish civil war as it unfolded.
That’s a very romantic reaction to a very dangerous choice. Would you consider yourself an adrenalin junkie?
People are always quoted as saying war correspondents go to war is because they are adrenaline junkies—that wasn’t applicable to me. Obviously war zones are adrenaline charged places, but in reality that’s what allows you to think clearly in such dangerous situations.
During one conflict you found yourself pinned down by a sniper, what was going through you mind while that was happening?
Yes, that was the “baptism of fire” I mentioned during the Nagorno-Karabakh War in Armenia. It was a very surreal experience because it was the first time I’d been in a firefight. I took cover from the incoming bullets and cluster bombs by lying in a shallow hole. I remember thinking: I have a ready-made grave.
I looked up as an Armenian soldier gave a volley of return fire and yelled at me to run to him. It was only about 80 meters, but the short run seemed to go forever. I took some shrapnel in the lower back and head but nothing serious.
Was that the only time you thought it was over?
Oh no, conservatively I should have been killed at least five times by now. Once I faced a mob in Rwanda trying to kill my Belgian colleagues and I. A Sudanese soldier put his pistol to my temple screaming he was going to pull the trigger. It is miraculous that I escaped both times; the mob and the soldier were committed to killing me.
You've worked in many conflict zones: Israel, Angola, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Soviet Central Asia and former Yugoslavia. It could be argued that most of these are unconventional wars with soldiers fighting for militia groups and rebel factions against each other or regular army units. Does this affect your work in the field?
Definitely. In those kinds of wars you are not embedded with one side like you would be in Iraq or Afghanistan. In rebel and militia wars, in theory, you can cover both sides—or in some conflicts multiple sides.
Of course this can leave you vulnerable of being accused of spying when you cross enemy lines. In the developing world less structured conflicts allow you more freedom to move and contribute to less censored reporting. However, it’s a lot easier for a war photographer to “disappear” in these less structured wars.
During many of the African conflicts I covered photographers were killed at roadblocks by bored soldiers who were often high or drunk. It’s no mystery why, war correspondents carry more money in equipment than a rebel soldier in an underfunded rag tag army could ever imagine.
A lot of photojournalists talk about “the picture they didn’t get”. Do you have one?
That is a difficult question. I don’t recall any situation that got away from me— however there are pictures I regret taking. On one occasion I found myself walking over bodies in the vestibule of a church in Rwanda. I could actually feel the bodies being squashed under my feet. I was mortified and the experience was horrific. It was like walking on wet sponges and the smell was putrid.
The only way I can manage the guilt and regret I have from that is to focus on the fact I was documenting something extraordinarily important as evidence of genocide.
Don’t people try and stop you from taking those pictures?
There have been times that pictures have been taken from me. In ‘91 I was smuggled into Gaza in the trunk of a car by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. I went in this way because I didn’t want to be officially attached to the Israeli Army.
While there I witnessed Israeli soldiers chase a young Palestinian boy through a marketplace, the chase ended with them shooting him in the back. It was an unnecessary and cowardly act, and they saw me photograph it. I tried to run but they caught me, they took my cameras, film, and deported me to Israel. At Jerusalem airport they handed me back my processed E-6 film and told me to fuck off and never come back. I guess that’s a picture I regret never seeing.
So you got your cameras back with the film processed but those pictures missing?
Yes, the Israeli Army is famous for this type of stuff. At the airport they held up the processed film to the light to show me what sections they had cut out. It was a way to demoralise me.
They did something similar to Stephen DuPont, they turned the X-ray machine onto max as they scanned his film; effectively cooking and ruining his pictures. They are quite vindictive but I’m not moaning, it’s all part of the game.
Many war correspondents have been kidnapped, seriously injured, or killed while reporting on conflicts. How do you prepare yourself for threats when entering a warzone?
There’re a lot of good conflict journalism courses available now for war correspondents, as well as military training as a reservist or regular soldier. I advocate any photographer considering going into a war zone to take them. A lot if it boils down to instinct. However, in extreme, non-rational environments it doesn’t matter if you have a PhD if a drugged-up soldier with an AK-47 wants to blow your head off.
You have witnessed atrocious acts of murder and genocide, especially in Rwanda. How do you separate your emotions from your work?
War correspondents exist on a sliding scale from those who insist they're not affected to those who are deeply traumatised by the same events. Separating your emotions is marginally easier at the time of authorising the pictures because a photographer has a role to play in a war zone as a journalist.
The emotional trouble often comes later in life, which suggests that those who say it doesn’t affect them aren’t right. Post Rwanda I was in deep shock. The emotional hangover of witnessing the genocide can’t be described. I told my friends that I was unaffected by what I saw but then I began experiencing nightmares which continued for eight years. I self medicated with alcohol and drugs, it only fueled my problems long term.
Today I’m still not at terms with what I witnessed, but I'm not trying to control my emotions with drugs and alcohol anymore. I simply try to co-exist with it.
How do you explain your work to family?
With my children I don’t, I don’t want to subject them to it. My spouse is a journalist; she understands why I do what I do. That being said, I am very selective about going to war zones now and won’t go unless I feel there’s something really important that needs to be shown.
It’s simply a law of averages: sooner or later you will be hurt. Dying has never been my fear in war zones; my fear is being maimed, blinded, or disfigured and becoming a burden to my family.
For the last decade you've been documenting the pandemic of HIV and AIDS in the Nuba Mountains in South Sudan, Thailand, Australia, and along the Chinese-Hong Kong border; and have worked closely with London’s Terence Higgins Aids Trust. Tell me about that.
Over the years I have photographed numerous HIV and AIDS stories globally for the Terence Higgins Trust. It has been the most important and significant work of my career.
It was a visionary concept, ethically balanced in execution and desperately needed by those living with HIV and AIDS. The stories were intimate and emotional and allowed the public to connect with the subject. For me it confirmed the importance of documentary photography in defusing stigma and creating awareness.
Which photographers influence you?
There are photographers I admire, but few that really influence me. Even though peer influence is considered the norm, I find myself influenced by the people and stories I document.
What advice do you have for photographers?
In order to be a great photographer you have to live it, breathe it, love it, and hate it; but never surrender to it.
Follow Bradley on Twitter: @HennyWilliams
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