Distress in Lebanon


Scene. The devastated street of an Arab capital. Children and residents flee barefoot as their slumtown is burnt down by the government militia. At the first glance, the photo looks no different from a thousand others we have seen before and since, in color and in black-and-white.

But dear reader, would it surprise you if the elderly woman begging for her life was a Palestinian, while her masked attacker with a World War II rifle was a Christian Phalangist? When Francoise Demulder — one of the pioneering female French photographers — took the photo on the morning of January 18th 1976, the Phalangists in the Lebanese capital of Beirut had just massacred 1,000 Palestinians, set alight the Muslim homes in the unfortunately named suburb of La Quarantine, and forever shattered the myths of plucky Maronites defending their homelands in the Levant.

Demulder had couriered her film by a taxi to Damascus where it was loaded to a Paris-bound flight and delivered to Gamma, her photo agency. They remained unpublished until Ms. Demulder returned to France. Their publication was a watershed moment; according to Demulder, “from then on it was no longer good Christians and wicked Palestinians, and the Phalangists never forgave me”. The photo, now titled “Distress in Lebanon”, would eventually won the World Press Photo award, Demulder becoming the first woman to do so. She later recounted in a TV interview that only the young girl and her child seen the background survived, the militiaman having killed himself in a game of Russian roulette.

For the next three decades, Lebanon too was embroiled what it would seem to many of its denizens a protracted game of Russian roulette. La Quarantine — itself a reprisal for the murder of four Phalangists — was repaid in kind by the PLO with an attack on the Christian community at Damour. Syrian, Israeli, and eventually multinational troops intervened and then interfered, each with differing level of success; Lebanon lurched from crisis to crisis to this very day.

[There will be more on Demulder in my very next post. To be continued.]

Tim Hetherington (1970-2011)

Tim Hetherington, tireless and lyrical raconteur of global conflicts, is dead, a victim of a Libyan mortar shell.

Many will remember Tim Hetherington as a great photographer, but to call him such would be to pigeonhole his contributions. He himself acknowledged his changing role in a new topography of media: “If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.”

And he did. He covered various conflicts in West Africa and contributed to two documentaries on Liberia and Darfur. In 2007, he began a yearlong assignment documenting a battalion of American troops stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley as bait to the Taliban. He published a touching book Infidel, won his fourth World Press Photo award for his coverage, and was nominated for an Oscar for his resulting documentary, Restrepo, which was all too human for it was palpably apolitical. His broad experiences were also recorded an ethereal webvideo, “Diary”.

To the very end, he was determined to reach out to as many people as possible; he began using twitter eight months ago, and his first and last tweet from Libya — posted just hours before he himself was hit  — read: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO”. It was fitting, if heartrending, epitaph.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/18497543]

Excepted from the Times of London:

When he was hit he was with [Chris Hondros of Getty], Guy Martin, a British freelance journalist and Michael Christopher Brown, an American photographer. They were covering the bitter fight for control of a bridge over Tripoli Street, which Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are trying to retake to give them a clear route into the heart of Misrata.

The group, escorted by a Libyan guide, were on the front line when the regime forces spotted them and fired a mortar round. Hetherington suffered massive blood loss by the time an ambulance managed to reach him and take him through the cratered streets to the Hikmeh hospital, where doctors did their best to revive him. Hondros, who was due to marry soon, also died late last night, while Martin suffered serious injuries to the abdomen. Brown was hit in the arm and was not believed to be in danger.

Famine in Uganda

Taken in Karamoja district, Uganda in April 1980, the contrasting hands of a starving boy and a missionary spoke louder than any world leader and any news story about the famine in Uganda. Karamoja region has the driest climate in Uganda and was prone to droughts. The 1980 famine in there where 21% of the population (and 60% of the infants) died was one of the worst in history. The worst recorded famine was the great Finn famine (1696), which killed a third of the population.

The photographer Mike Wells, who would later win the World Press Photo Award for this photo, admitted that he was ashamed to take the photo. The same publication that sat on his picture for five months without publishing it entered it into a competition. He was embarrassed to win as he never entered the competition himself, and was against winning prizes with pictures of people starving to death.

Famine, drought and ethnic violence continue to this day in Karamoja. The Karamojong are a nomadic people, but since Idi Amin years in the 1970s, their nomadic patterns were curtailed due to the increase of cross border security, internal raids, and influx of weapons which enabled them to lead raids.