Internationally acclaimed war photojournalist Halim Henry Berbar says respect for journalism is dead.
POOR public opinion and the lack of camaraderie among media personnel are among the contributing factors to the demise of respect for the profession.
The Parisian, with a resume of close to four decades in the business and 17 international awards, met with Twentytwo13 to share his views about the state of photojournalism and journalism in general today.
Eighty-one journalists and photographers were killed last year. Most were kidnapped and died in conflict zones. Why are journalists being targeted?
Berbar: I’ve seen many of my colleagues die on the battlefield. One was killed in Chechnya; another took a bullet in Tunisia. In the 1980s, a photojournalist at a war zone could easily switch camps to snap photographs. You could be with the national army and the next moment, with rebels. If you carried a white flag and identified yourself as a journalist, you’d be able to cross to the other side. But you can’t do that now. You’d be shot. I never used to wear a bulletproof jacket. But I had to get one in the late 1990s as people started disregarding our presence. We identify ourselves as Press but snipers still shoot us. They open fire for fun. There is less respect unlike before.
How many times have you been shot?
Berbar: Four times. A bullet was lodged in my left shoulder in Cambodia in 1991. This was when a Khmer Rouge leader came to Phnom Penh. I followed him from the airport to his home and got trapped there following violent protests by the locals. The other times were in Beirut and Libya when bullets grazed my body. I’m lucky to be alive.
You have been in Malaysia for 28 years. How would you describe the level of respect for journalists here?
Berbar: I was assaulted in 2008, during the Permatang Pauh by-election. It started after a New Straits Times photographer was attacked by a mob of about 30 people. They were hitting and kicking him. I went to his aid and I was not spared. Following the incident, I sent a petition to your government demanding journalists be treated right. During the Bersih 3 rally in 2012, once again we were assaulted. We are journalists. We don’t take sides and are here to report. We write and take pictures so, in years to come, people can read and see what happened.
Is the spirit of camaraderie among pressmen alive here?
Berbar: No. One news organisation refused to sign the petition I sent to the Malaysian government. There are other instances. I’ve been taught never to leave my colleagues behind, even if we are from different organisations. You can’t close an eye when you see a fellow journalist in the mud. You must carry him on your back. If we don’t do this, then there is no point wearing a Press tag.
How is press freedom and solidarity among members of the press in your home country?
In France, we are the fourth pillar (estate). It is the only country in the world where you will see journalists protesting in front of the Elysee Palace (president’s official residence). We downed our cameras, pens as a sign of protest and did nothing for three days after a journalist was assaulted by a policeman in the 1980s.
The lack of ethics seems to be on the rise in the profession.
Berbar: When the Merapi volcano erupted in Jogjakarta in 2010, I was stationed at a hospital with several local and foreign photographers. There was a boy who was hurt and he was in bandages. With some pencils, the boy put together a design of his house which was destroyed. A foreign photographer wanted a dramatic picture of the boy crying and he slapped the boy. I saw what had happened and jumped in. His camera went flying and he was thrown out of the hospital. A group of us reported him to the authorities. This photographer tried to create something. This is wrong. We should never alter the subject or picture. We are tasked to document the story, not change the story.
What is your most painful experience on the field?
Berbar: I was in Cambodia for over 10 years during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. I saw a man step on a mine and half his body exploded. He was holding his intestines. It was a horrible period.
You capture images of the injured and dead. Do you have problems sleeping at night?
Berbar: When I am on the job, I live in a cocoon. When I’m done, I leave the cocoon. But I have a soft spot for animals. I can’t see them suffer.
Are you heavily insured?
Berbar: Yes. In the past, journalists were not insured. In the 1990s, insurance agencies would turn us away when we told them we were war photographers. I was rejected five times before an insurance company issued me a policy. But it’s not cheap. Some lie to get insured, but it’s risky as when you go to a war zone, there would be no coverage.
What is your advice for budding photojournalists?
Berbar: It’s a job that requires you to give 100 per cent of your time and energy. If you just want to take photographs, be a wedding photographer. But if you want to be a photojournalist, you must dedicate 100 per cent of your life to your job. If you are not willing to do that, this is not the job for you.
Images: Halim Henry Berbar