Todd Pitman, whose name has bylined many of AP’s stories out of Iraq over the past few years, has written a beautiful and reflective piece (also here) about the death-by-fire in May 2007 of his friend and colleague, the Russian news photog Dmitry Chebotayev, 29.
Pitman starts by describing nightmares that he still has about what he recalls happening in the immediate aftermath of Dmitry’s killing, which took place in the midst of what sounds like a fierce fire-fight:
- When the gunshots ease, I survey the scene nervously.
I circle around one body in particular: a man in a maroon shirt, lying face up. Carefully, deliberately, I take photo after photo, capturing it at different angles. The Stryker is just behind, shadowed by a large golden-domed mosque across the street. I think this is an Iraqi civilian in a dishdasha gown, perhaps one of the attackers.
I am expecting Dmitry to come running with his camera, but he does not appear. I think soldiers are keeping him back — photographing American casualties is often taboo.
Inside an abandoned house where we seek shelter, I ask where he is.
“Out front,” a soldier says. “You OK?”
I am relieved, thankful.
I know we will share these stories later: a dangerous time, a brush with death, but we escaped unharmed.
Desperate to talk to Dmitry, I wander outside again. I still can’t find him, and ask somebody else where he is.
Inside the house, a dozen red-eyed, mourning soldiers are sitting against the walls, staring angrily toward the harsh light outside.
Until this moment, I am an observer.
When a soldier answers, I become one of them.
I am numb.
Dmitry is outside on the ground near the door — the one wearing the maroon shirt. His blue flak jacket, helmet and sunglasses are gone. His smashed camera is on the ground beside him. His face is covered in dust.
When I gain the strength to go out and look, he is gone. Soldiers have carried him away.
Now I want to ask him: Can you forgive me taking your picture?
And I ask myself: Why was I taking his picture, any of these pictures, at all?
For a journalist, the world unfolds as an infinite stream of events. Your job is to witness them, capture them, explain them.
But they build up inside you.
I traveled to Iraq half a dozen times for the Associated Press over the years. I saw families crouching in their homes while Americans fought on their rooftops. I heard the screams of a dying Iraqi soldier as we crawled on a roof under a boiling midday sun. I watched helicopter gunships fire rockets across a twilit sky at insurgents holed up in palm groves below.
Unlike everybody else, I was always able to hop on a plane and leave it all behind, returning to a world where you did not cringe, where you could walk — not run — down the street, without worrying about trip wires or bombs or snipers.
I was always able to leave it all behind — until Dmitry was killed.
That day, I crossed through a kind of looking glass, and saw the war in Iraq from another side.
To the daily churn of news, it was just one more tragic story.
To me, it was far more profound. It reverberated through lives thousands of miles away, changing them forever.
I think about all the stories we have written — all the headlines and statistics that comprise the daily death tolls.
I do not look at them so casually anymore.
At the end of May, I traveled to Moscow for Dmitry’s funeral and met his parents, sister and girlfriend.
They didn’t really know what had happened, and telling them, between shots of ice-cold vodka, was one of the hardest things I have ever done. (Dmitry, it turned out, had never told his parents he was going to Iraq. They thought he was in Jordan, shooting pictures of refugees).
His death forced me to slow down my 100 mph life. In less than a year, I had traveled to Iraq twice, with 20 countries and a coup in Thailand in between.
My fiancee and I took a long vacation visiting family and friends, swimming with giant turtles in a sapphire-blue Hawaiian bay. We got married. And now she is pregnant with our baby boy.
I could not be happier — except when I think about what happened.
I have not returned to Iraq, but I’ve been back many times in my mind.
Often, I see Dmitry smiling.
Often, I see him dead.
In my dreams, I lean down and hold what is left of him. I do not care about the blood.
I press my forehead to his — as I did not have the chance to do — then tell him I am sorry, and say goodbye. It is important for me to recognize him, to treat him as a human being — not the object of a camera lens.
I take no pictures, and I am finally at ease.
But this is not a peaceful place.
Nearly a year later, I still wonder what we could have done differently. I feel stupid for seeking the war out. And I’m haunted by the words — “Be careful what you wish for” — that one soldier said to us the day before Dmitry died, as we resolved to go out with the Strykers again.
Now I am left with questions, memories and hundreds of digital photographs that I can no longer look at, that I cannot show anyone and cannot throw away. ..
Pitman asks some absolutely crucial questions about the role of journalists in war situations. I know, because for several years after I finished working as a war correspondent in Lebanon in the 1970s I suffered from several symptoms that today would be classified as PTSD. At times it was only, really, the grinding daily need to be there as the (single) mother for my kids that me going. (The therapeutic effects of folding a pile of laundry made up of small kids’ clothes has never, I feel, been explored as deeply as it should have been.)
Journalists are trained to be professionally present in the most harrowing of situations while keeping their souls and their emotions absent from these situations. Actually, if you’re in a stressful situation, then having something to do is certainly better than not having something to do. So chalk up going out there with a notebook and pen– or, as in Pitman’s case that night, a notebook, pen, and camera– in the middle of a stressful situation as being another excellent coping mechanism, too.
But of course, as Pitman, Elizabeth Rubin, and a host of other fine war correspondents have discovered, you can’t absent your emotions and your soul from these situations. They will come back and bite you later.
So I really admire, certainly, all the journalists who– quite literally– have put their lives on the line in order to tell the world about the grisly and horrendous realities of war. But I think I have special admiration for those who also take the huge professional and personal risk of trying to tell us what it feels like, to them, as they do so.
Thanks, Todd Pitman, for a great and sensitive writing job. I really sympathize about your loss of your friend.