Thomas Dworzak Takes Photos of Sad Marines and Taliban Poseurs
IRAQ, April 14, 2005. Near Tikrit/Samara, US FOB (Forward Operating Base) Speicher, Medevac. 1159th Medical Company flies Black Hawks evacuating injured US soldiers, Iraqi forces.
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers in the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Thomas Dworzak joined Magnum in 2000. His books often deal with war. His first, Taliban, was a found-photo project which freaked out a lot of Americans who didn’t want to see what the Taliban looked like when they were fooling about. M*A*S*H IRAQ examined the daily lives of US medevac teams in Iraq, and his latest book, Kavkuz, explored the impact that years of brutal war had on the Caucasus region. Oddly enough, in spite of shooting in some of the most hellish conditions imaginable, he thinks Paris is the hardest place to work in.
VICE: You are often described as a "war photographer." How do you feel about that?
Thomas Dworzak: It’s a label. What are you going to do about it? I’m not going to say I am not one, because I do go, and I used to go very often, to these conflict areas. But there are definitely people out there who are more into combat than me. There is a scale of how much involvement in war one has. And I’m not all the way up there.
How did working in Chechnya during the war there differ from your time in Iraq?
I think in Chechnya, I was more on the ground. I was hitchhiking around, trekking alone. You would talk to the fighters, you would spend time with them, and then if there was an attack you would arrive with them. It was all done in a very disorganized, one to one, personal way. I think Chechnya was very extreme as a war, compared to anything that I have seen since.
IRAQ. Out camp Sykes, Between Mosul and the Syrian Border, Town of Talofar. January 16, 2005. Task Force 1-14. Joint foot patrol with the local ING (Iraqi National Guard) and Iraqi Police. Encouraging locals to vote. The patrol gets pinned down in a two-hour firefight with insurgents.
Extreme in what way?
Just the sheer amount of stuff I saw flying around. It was an atrocious war. Bosnia was very brutal of course, but there was not so much physical destruction, it was more killing and revenge on a very personal and human level, between neighbors or whatever. Chechnya was brutal in every way. The destruction of Grozny reached a level I had not seen until then and haven’t seen since. I guess you might come across something like it now in Aleppo, for example. There was no accreditation when I was working there, no paperwork. I learned Russian so I could talk to the fighters. They were welcoming, so I spent time with them. Whereas in Iraq and Afghanistan I was embedded. You get your piece of paper and the military has to take care of you.
In what way did that affect your work? What’s your view on the embed format, do you think it worked well?
I think there is a strange kind of freedom in the structure of an embed. A lot of people have been bitching about it, going on about the embed being "the end of press freedom" and all that, but I don’t really think that’s true. I don’t know anything about Iraq really; I haven’t seen Iraq outside of the American point of view for so long now. But if I choose to cover the American angle, then an embed is not a bad way to do it. Because it is so institutionalized, you can actually move around and do a lot. You don’t have to beg, you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s a bit duller in that sense. You just have to follow the guys in front of you. And there are not that many decisions to be made. I find embeds pretty relaxing in that way.
Was your M•A•S•H• IRAQ project concluded over one single embed?
It was almost all embed work. I don’t want to overemphasize the fact that some photos—just a few—weren’t taken in embeds, as it's meant to be an embed book. I don’t know, maybe it was two years or three years, something like that. The core of the work was done over a year, I did maybe five or six embeds with the medical units over that time.
2005. M*A*S*H. Screenshots of US TV serial, 1969–1981 about an army hospital and medevac unit near the frontlines in the Korean War.
And how did the decision to splice screenshots from the M•A•S•H TV show into the book come about?
Actually, when I started the project, I didn’t know about M•A•S•H. I think I had maybe seen about half an episode once when I was a kid, but it definitely was not part of my cultural background. When I started the embed one of my friends sent me the DVD box set so I wouldn’t get bored. As the entire embed was spent sitting next to an airfield with helicopters waiting to fly off to pick up the wounded, it was always very noisy, so I watched it with subtitles on. I don’t really know why I started taking pictures of my screen, but then suddenly there were these really amazing one or two line quotes. It was funny to see that 20 or 30 years later we still find ourselves in the same situation, with the same talking points. Some of the medics displayed a similar gallows humor, but generally it’s all very antiseptic. It is a volunteer army, you don’t get drafted, it’s clean and, of course, there are no hippies in it.
In contrast to your Chechen work and M•A•S•H IRAQ, your work on the Taliban photo book was a kind of "found project," I guess?
A "stolen" project, probably…
Right. So you found the photos in a sort of photo parlor near where you were staying in Kandahar, right?
I found them—and I bought them. I went to the labs and said to the owners, “Can I buy these, or take pictures of them, or get prints or whatever? I really love this stuff.” I was pretty enthusiastic, and they were surprised at my interest and sold them for 20 or 40 dollars. They didn’t care. The photographers were pissed off at the Taliban, so they were happy that somebody had paid for these pictures. They definitely didn’t see any of them as being of any value. It was odd, the Taliban first banned photography, then they shut down the studios, then they re-opened the studios, then they had themselves photographed, but they didn’t allow anyone else to do it.
AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait.
Pretty weird. I guess a lot of the photos might represent people who are now dead, though obviously it is impossible to tell. Was there any follow-up from the project?
No. I sent the books to the shop owners, hoping to hear back from them, but I never got anything back. Before we printed the book I tried to get in touch with them to see if they wanted to say anything. People talk a lot about that project, and I am associated with it, but I’m just the messenger. I just want to put these photos out there and ensure that they aren’t lost. It’s not about me, or my photography.
I got a lot of criticism in Europe for being disrespectful to the culture, as if I had taken the pictures. People were outraged, like, "How dare you dress them up like that!" As if I violated the dignity of the Taliban or something, which was pretty amusing. It was hard to get it published in New York. It’s very popular in the gay world, it was republished in Germany by a publisher specializing in gay issues.
I bet the Taliban would be thrilled to hear that. Which place have you found the hardest to work in?
Er, France? Paris, specifically.
Really? More than Chechnya or any war zone?
Yes. In the sense of how suspicious people are in Paris. They glorify photography and they have Cartier-Bresson images on every corner, but at the same time if you want to take a picture everyone gets really upset. They have the speech ready, they have the whole thing practiced, about how horrible photographers are and how awful what we do is. It’s very odd.
In 2001 or 2002 we did a group project on the 18th arrondissement in Paris. It was something like "18 Magnum Photographers Photograph the 18th." The idea was that everyone would get a different story. I was the youngest, so I got a sort of hazing assignment, which was covering crack use at Chateau Rouge, which is a fucked-up Metro station. So we covered everything, from the social workers to the drug addicts and everybody had a lot to say about how horrible photographers were.
What are you currently working on?
I am back in the Caucasus. I am concentrating on contemporary, modern Georgia. What I did before was more of a romantic view of the Caucasus, which I turned into a book, Kavkaz. It was about the interplay between Russian literature and the typical imagery of the Caucasus. I have now gone to the other extreme, this new work is color and focuses on the region’s modern aspects. It excludes what usually attracts people to this place, so the quaint, the nostalgic, the wild mountain holidays—I didn’t do any of that stuff. I did gas-station openings, which is far more interesting!
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