J. Ross Baughman | Rhodesia
Here at IP, I am devoted to providing accurate and informative backstories about iconic photos, but sometimes, I simply get things wrong. Here is one of such stories: @aalholmes
In 1977, J. Ross Baughman was documenting the bloody guerrilla war that broke out in Rhodesia as the minority white rule slowly disintegrates there; the attacks on anti-government guerillas were especially fierce and Baughman rode with a cavalry unit, Grey’s Scouts, and captured them torturing prisoners. Baughman remembers:
They force them to line up in push-up stance. They’re holding that position for 45 minutes in the sun, many of them starting to shake violently. Eventually, the first guy fell. They took him around the back of the building, knocked him out and fired a shot into the air. They continued bring men to the back of the building. The poor guy on the end started crying and going crazy and he finally broke and started talking. As it turns out, what he was saying wasn’t true, but the scouts were willing to use it as a lead. It had all the feeling of an eventual massacre. I was afraid that I might see entire villages murdered.
In my original post (June 2010), I posited that journalists don’t usually carry guns, since that meant forfeiture of a journalist’s status as a neutral noncombatant under international law. I also erroneously claimed that J. Ross Baughman was the first photographer to tote a gun. In his correspondence to me, Mr. Baughman points out:
While some journalists might like to think that they enjoy special protections and immunity during conflict, in fact, no such practical guarantees exist. When a journalist anywhere near a military force happens to walk into the field of fire, either within the gun-sights or less impersonally anywhere near the radius of an impending explosion, no distinctions are made by the person about to squeeze the trigger. Soldiers often do not want to babysit a civilian asking to accompany their unit. They require fully embedded guests to be armed and capable of defending themselves, especially if such a civilian becomes detached from the unit or lost….
As long as cameras have gone to war, correspondents have been seen and documented carrying arms. A brief but incomplete list includes Alfred R. Waud during the American Civil War (shown in this photo with a revolver on his hip), Winston Churchill during the Boer War (carrying a automatic Mauser C-96 “Broomhandle” carbine), Ernest Hemingway during World War II (strapped with a 45 cal. Colt automatic and sometimes a Thompson submachine gun) and Peter Arnett during the Vietnam War ….
When I arrived in Rhodesia, there were many foreign correspondents (such as Lord Richard Cecil) already carrying weapons whenever they left the relative safety of the capital city limits. In my case, carrying a weapon was a precondition of being allowed out on the patrol.
In my original post, I wrote Baughman has infiltrated Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups in the United States and Rhodesian Army, implication being the photographer secretly documented those groups. This was incorrect, as Mr. Baughman writes:
I infiltrated the Nazi Movement in America because it was the only way I could get access into their meetings and uncover their secret intentions. In the case of the Ku Klux Klan, there was no misrepresentation and I attended their meetings as a journalist. Likewise, I did not “infiltrate” or “join” the Rhodesian military… I arrived as a journalist, and all the soldiers knew that and treated me that way.
Most of Baughman’s work was confiscated by the Rhodesian authorities, but he managed to smuggle three rolls of films — for which (and for three photos featured in this post, especially) he won the Pulitzer Prize, and became the youngest professional photographer to win that prestigious award.*
But the photos were not without controversy. When they met to judge the entries for the Robert Capa Gold Medal, some members of the Overseas Press Club doubted the photos’ authenticity and questioned whether they were posed. As Baughman was unavailable to address these concerns, the photos were rashly disqualified (over objections of some notable photographers and editors); they were displayed in the Overseas Press Club Exhibit with a disclaimer: “A Judge’s Dilemma – This story out of Rhodesia began to receive serious consideration from the judging panel until we were advised that there was some controversy about the authenticity of the situation. Because of the inability of the panel to confirm or deny the rumor, the photographs were dropped from consideration, but are presented here.”
Later, after subjecting the smuggled rolls of film to careful scrutiny, Howard Chapnick — a leading arbiter of photojournalism — noted the photos indeed showed Baughman “working candidly in tight, economical bursts of two or three frames at a time … nothing about them suggested that the situations had been manipulated or staged … It becomes increasingly clear that the Baughman affair has been badly handled.”
Regarding all those “unresolved doubts” about the authenticity of the images, suffice it to say that the primary critics from the Overseas Press Club judging committee finally apologized to me, and even John Durniak of Time and Arthur Rothstein of Parade magazine went on to hire me for several important assignments in the following years. The best absolution came when Sgt. Bruce Moore-King, a principal non-commissioned officer in my Rhodesian Grey’s Scouts report, confessed to committing the same kinds of torture and atrocities in his own autobiography White Man/Black War.
It becomes increasingly clear that the Baughman affair has been badly handled. A saddened Art Rothstein reflectively comments that ‘if Ross Baughman has been unjustly and unfairly accused and his reputation damaged in any way, I would like to see him vindicated. If there was injustice, it resulted from the conditions under which the photographs were submitted, the lack of information, and the fact that Baughman was unavailable to talk to… If in any way I was part of this injustice, I feel very badly about it.
‘In retrospect,’ says John Morris, ‘I feel that Ross Baughman was unfairly treated by the Overseas Press Club jury. We simply did not have all the facts, but I’m not sure that excuses us.’
Maybe we can learn something from this experience to apply to future contest judging. Taking the time for further investigation might have provided the answers to the ‘unsolved questions’ which troubled the Overseas Press Club jury. The price for a precipitous rush to judgment can be too high. It certainly was for Ross Baughman.
I think there was some lesson to be learnt here, especially in our quick-to-judge culture of today.
… oh, and sorry for f**king things up first time around and thank you for correcting me, Mr. Baughman.
Further Reading: Howard Chapnick. “Behind the Pulitzer Prize controversy”. Popular Photography, June,1979; Charles Rotkin. “A Puzzle for the Press Club”. News Photographer, June, 1978.
*(John Filo was still a student and an amateur photographer when he won the Pulitzer for his Kent State photo).