Photographer of War
Boris B. Bertram
He is asked which picture he cares for the most. That explains his work the most. And, after 25 years of wars, and famines, earthquakes, hells of all sorts, Jan Grarup shows a black and white shot of a couple hand in hand in the rubble, the woman in high heels against a background of smoke. Haiti. «Because it’s all about love».
More than the images of blood and violence, and there are plenty of them since he witnessed the Rwandan genocide, marking him forever; more than the images of knives at throats, guns to heads, a corpse on a windscreen, his most famous photos are of ruins. Ruins from all over the world: a child who makes a swing from an electric cable in Mosul, behind him fighting rages on; a woman in Mogadishu who looks at the sea from a bombed-out hotel; or Kashmir, with a barber who shaves a man. For a mirror, a glass splinter, because, in fact, we all come back with more beauty than when we left. And except for the adventurers, for the adrenaline junkies who become war correspondents for money and fame, that’s what we are captured by, like moths flying into the danger and the light, as Stanley Greene said – the beauty of naked life. Of life reduced to its bare essentials. With no frills and furbelows, nothing needless. No fictions anymore. A life of brutally honest feelings, including hate, greed, envy, yearning. Everything. Including its opposite. And boundless altruism and idealism.
Parallel stories. Parallel lives
But there’s no point in trying to explain all that. Trying to explain war to those who have never experienced it. And that’s why this documentary on Danish photographer Jan Grarup, one of the best around – winner of the Eugene Smith Prize, the World Press Photo four times, and the 2005 Visa D’Or for Darfur – speaks through its plot but also, above all, through its structure. It is about two parallel stories. Two parallel lives that interchange without ever crossing – about a man who watches the latest news from the Middle East on a rooftop, away from his kids. With them, at dinner, he watches just football.
One moment you are in Copenhagen. In a Jaguar or in a stylish studio, taking powerful portraits, as soulful as paintings, with an old wooden camera, printing them in a water basin. The next, you are in the aisle of a shabby hotel telling your editor that all your equipment was confiscated, in this other, second life where we get used to trouble with the police. To be suspected, spied, arrested, to deal with killers, and jihadists and smugglers, corruption of all kinds. And to corrupt. Because what matters, is only to go through. To get in. To be there, where things happen, in this life where photography is responsibility. And you find yourself saying to a stranger you’ve just met: you are in charge, you find yourself entrusting to him your life, saying: I will follow you, to someone who is a fixer now and is reassuring you, he is saying: we are here to work, not to die, but you know very well that it isn’t true. You know very well that now he is a fixer, yes, and is taking reporters to the front lines, but yesterday he was just a student, a cook, a plumber – like you: someone who at some point, you don’t know when, and why, was called: a veteran, someone to ask advice to, even though the only advice, the only truth, is that it’s not a matter of experience, and caution, but in the end, of fortune, because the truth is that in war you die, and that’s it. And you die badly. But you get used to it: it’s your world. And what matters, is to be there. To get the story. So that no one someday will be able to say: I didn’t know.
And so one moment you walk, calmly, you chat of lenses with a fellow photographer: the next you run under fire. And when you end up in the heat of battle, and you are told that the way out is blocked by three snipers, you know now that fixing it will take at least an hour. So you take off your helmet and take a nap.
But you try to talk of all that: and it makes no sense. Even with politicians, perhaps even left-wing politicians. Even with Bernard-Henry Lévy, who comes to your studio for a portrait. You talk of Syria. Of Afghanistan. Sudan. And no way. Words sound empty. Because it’s about two parallel worlds that never cross. And that’s why you never return from war. That’s why war marks you forever. It’s not because you feel powerless, as Jan Grarup explains while discussing his book, «And then there was silence», a collection of pictures across over 500 pages and five kilos, so to be physically – and psychologically – hard to disregard: the problem, he says, is the opposite. The problem is, that when you are there, you realize that, more often than not, stopping a conflict takes nothing. And yet, no one acts. No one cares. And nor will your pictures bring any change.
And that’s why, honestly, I detest talking of war. When I am back home, when I am in Europe, I am always the special guest: the one that spices up dinner parties with her stories off the beaten track. And makes you feel like such a good soul. Such a gentle spirit. But it’s just for two hours. Just for the evening. Then, I know: You want me to stay on the rooftop. You don’t want me to darken your days.
the truth is that in war you die, and that’s it
«Tell him I’m sorry»
«Tell him I’m sorry,» Grarup tells his translator to tell a father who has just lost his two sons in Mosul. And who is telling him his story? To him, and who knows to how many other reporters after him. «Tell him I’m sorry, » he repeats. And that’s all he can say before moving on and looking for another grieving father. Another war.
Francesca Borri comes from an international relations background. She worked in the Balkans and the Middle East, specifically Israel and Palestine, as a human rights officer. Since 2012, Francesca has covered the war in Syria as a freelance reporter.
Photographer of War premieres on September 19 and will compete at the 30th Nordisk Panorama Film Festival