You might have seen the trailer for the new documentary, Shooting Robert King. We told you to watch it, so we're just going to assume you have. As you know, Robert is a war photographer and an intense guy. We wanted to find out more about the film and what he does, so we called him up for a convo.
Vice: Grozny was your first experience with war photography. Did you just decide to up and head for a war zone one day?
Robert King: You know, it was always hard. This industry is extremely hard. There was no widespread recognition of my colleagues' commitment to the profession, so that was part of the reason. We got a couple of pages in a magazine and a bit of money--that was it.
Do you think that has changed at all these days? Do the public have a better idea of the risks and sacrifices involved in that sort of reporting.
Do the people understand the sacrifices that we make every day for the freedoms of information? The effort required to record some image of the present in the hope of documenting the past? I don’t know, but a lot of us die for that.
What led you into this profession?
It was being so desperate to get out of the place I called home as a child. The tool to get out was a camera. But that camera also offered courage, honor, and integrity. I grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee, both of which are hard places to dream. Dreams here cost you your life. We are putting up a plaque recognizing a French AP photographer who was murdered for photographing the riots in Mississippi in 1962, he is just now getting a plaque, 46 years later. That’s where I grew up, that killer is the age of my parents.
How did you end up working in Chechnya?
It started in '96. I was still getting banged around in Sarajevo a bit, but I was making good images. It’s a hard business to get into, I was green. It was pretty bleak, but when I got to Chechnya I had already made inroads with AP in Sarajevo, they agreed to let me string for them in Chechnya. That really helped keep me going. I kept knocking on their door every time I was in Sarajevo, offering pictures. They would let me develop their film, there was a lot of trust, so then I went to Chechnya and I scored big. But honestly it was my colleagues who recognized the work.
This documentary is not so much a testament to me, but to the sacrifices that our colleagues make--it is dedicated to seven members of the Frontline Club who have sacrificed everything for that dream.
Were you accepted when you first arrived?
No. They were the worst man. Whether they are jumping your ASA three stops or whatever, it’s a hard knock profession, it's all in good fun, but no one can afford to become emotionally attached, it is so hard to bury friends and colleagues. It is a hard life, but they don’t go home to another life, it is their life, it's our life. So no, they weren’t accepting early on.
Did you expect the business to affect you anywhere near as much as it did?
No, oh my God. No. I mean, I'm fine. I think people are too emotional about things, how they are affected by war, fucking blah blah blah fucking war. Life is fucking war. There is no difference. It’s all about securing your name, building your generation, naming streets after you, naming streets after conquering forces. Life is war, that’s what it’s all about. We have acts of kindness so we don’t kill each other, there are acts of forgiveness that keep our global society going, but it’s all about war, that’s how I see it. So yeah, sure it has affected me, but not in a bad way. I think it just made me more honest and capable of seeing the realities that were being blinded by the mass media and all this feel good shit that leaves us weak and allows people to conquer us.
You shoot still photos, so who shot the footage for the film?
The footage is all from other filmmakers. It was a very organic process with no intentions. They didn’t say: "Robert, you've got so many great fucking awards in this industry, you are at the top of your game, we want to do a story on you." No, it was more like, "You are a complete fuck up and you are interesting." The film doesn’t promote my photography, it is about the sacrifices people make to produce these images in these environments.
Aside from films like this, and your aims of having your own photo agency, do you think mainstream media should make a concerted effort to make people more aware of these sacrifices?
No, I don’t give a shit about that, I just wish they would dress down--get rid of their armed fucking bodyguards and stop turning it into entertainment. At least in America, where all I have is Fox News, it's all entertainment journalism. It all has an agenda, half of it is lies, half of it is incorrect. I am not making a political point, it’s about moving forward and sticking to the principals, many people before us have died to inform the public.