Todd Heisler interview Part B
Please read Todd Heisler's brief biography as well as Part A of this interview.
Please talk about the importance of photojournalists also being effective writers.
Every photojournalist should try to write stories and try to be, at least, a decent writer. It makes you a better photojournalist. It makes you a better photographer and a better journalist. It makes you more astute. It makes you more observant. It makes you listen. I've found that pulling out the camera and listening can really help your photography. It can help get you toward better images because you become more in tune with the subject and what the story is. That helps me especially in that situation.
It's a different way of thinking. You're using a different part of your brain, and it makes you a sharper journalist. It makes you look at facts. Obviously your captions are important, but [writing] makes you sharper.
Do you collect quotes?
Sometimes. It depends on the project. The paper really encourages us to do that and I try to do that as often as I can especially with a project. That just goes back to what I was saying earlier, collecting quotes and collecting information obviously makes you a better journalist and photographers have to be good journalists. In an abstract way, it helps your photography.
For "Final Salute" it's a lot different because Jim and I worked very closely through the whole thing. At the end of the day, I would show him images and he would read me quotes. That would keep us on track. It was a good way to mark where we were in the story, what we were accomplishing and what the story was.
Did it sharpen the story?
Yea. In the end it did. In the middle it was pretty overwhelming. It was just so much that we were seeing and hearing. It can be pretty overwhelming. But, it definitely helped.
When we finally put the story together and we did the captions, Jim had all these amazing quotes that elevated the picture.
It made me understand the situation. It made me remember the situation a lot better too. The one about the Burnses opening the boxes is just such a beautiful quote. Where Bob Burns says, "I just don't want to hurt." But, he doesn't want to forget.
They just guided us through the story while we were telling it.
Please talk about the airplane scene.
That photograph came from a quote. I had photographed that scene a couple of different times. The first time, from the angle I had, I couldn't capture the faces. I just couldn't see it very well. But that quote drove me toward that photograph. When he refers to the people in the windows and it's something that he had seen many times. That made me aware to look for something if I was ever in that situation again.
The second time I was in the situation, the people weren't on the plane. So you couldn't see it, but the third time obviously you could see it very well. I don't think I could have missed it, but because it's such an emotional situation, there's a good chance I could have missed it if I didn't have that quote in my head. And to know for the story how significant the people looking out of the plane is to the story.
Please talk about your collaboration efforts with Jim Sheeler and Bill Johnson.
I like working with somebody because I like to share my ideas, and I like to know what their ideas are. Having somebody else there who can be another set of eyes helps tremendously.
I've known photographers in the past who hate it when reporters will tell them about pictures. They're not always good ideas. They say, "You should come over here and look at that."
I like to be open to that because you're a team and you have somebody that might guide you to something. We're very focused on something and we're waiting on something that might not be panning out and we could be missing something very significant.
Working with a writer, they're looking at things differently. They have a totally different way of looking at things. That can help guide you to better photographs.
Some reporters are better than others at that. Working with Jim was always great because he works like a photojournalist. He's very observant and he listens and he steps back. When he needs to sit down and do an interview, he doesn't do it until the situation is overwith. He doesn't stop people in the middle of a situation.
A lot of photographers see a situation unfolding and a reporter just isn't astute enough to see that something's really happening and they'll interrupt it. But Jim, he writes scenes. He writes what he sees. He can see that. With him especially, he could guide me toward situations that I might have missed through his reporting.
And I helped him too. I would tell him things that I heard. Maybe it something that wasn't a direct quote, but it was something that I could tell him, "Maybe you want to talk to them about this." Or, "When you weren't here, they did this." When he wrote the story, he went back and looked at all my images so he could remember what things looked like.
Bill is obviously a different reporter than Jim. At the same time, Bill was great to work with in that you have a wing man. (laughs)
You have somebody by your side. There were a lot of mornings where we woke up and had nothing to do, and he would say, "What do you want to do?" I would throw out ideas, and he would say, "Great. Let's do it." Bill welcomes great ideas.
I think we have a responsibility as photojournalists to keep our end. To be journalists and contribute ideas - what we see and what we know about subjects because we have to be there. Reporters don't always have to be there.
What's so great about Jim is that he wanted to see it. He didn't just want to hear about it, he wanted to see it. I have a huge amount of respect for that.
Please talk about "quiet" images.
When I started - I think with a lot of photographers starting out - you're taught to look for "the moment." You go for the obvious moments like peak action or peak emotion - a person with their mouth open is surprise or whatever. I found that there's more to life than just peak moments - especially this story.
To witness these scenes, they're very quiet and slow and I wanted to capture that. I've always been drawn to quiet images because I like to look for the moments-between-the-moments and the things that people would overlook. I think there's significance there as well. They're all moments in time.
This story especially, that's what it felt like. It wasn't all just total screaming and anguish and tears. It was a lot of very slow, very quiet times. A lot of times it was people just sitting. The way the Marines move when they're performing these ceremonies, they're very slow and methodic, and I wanted to photograph it that way.
Do you rely on light for these kinds of images?
Light definitely. I'm really passionate about light. In really, really low light - there were a lot of images shot in very low light, but I really try to capture the light that's there and work with what's there. It's harder to make it work, but using a strobe in the story was not an option.
But the payoff really created the mood that you see within this piece.
It was all hand-held. I probably should have used a monopod in some of these situations, but I didn't want to draw anymore attention to myself. I didn't want to move. I didn't want to be slowed down and have cumbersome equipment. I felt like a monopod would be one more thing to get in the way and slow me down.
I didn't want to be banging around. Like the night when I shot the airplane photos, we rode in the limousine with Katherine and her friends to the airport. It was moving in that situation. [I was] riding in the car with somebody, getting out and trying to move a lot slower and quieter. I didn't want to be dragged down by lots of equipment.
[Digital cameras are] great cameras for the image quality - being able to shoot 1600 and the image stabilizers definitely help, but the scene when Katherine opens the casket... [the noise] didn't bother her. She was just so immersed in the moment. Major Beck brought it to my attention later on about how loud my cameras were. I think it really bothered him.
I understand Major Beck had a significant influence on your story. Please talk about Major Beck's involvement in the story.
For the story and the written part, he's the one who could really articulate this situation, this story better than anybody. It really affected him on such a profound level. He wanted the story to be told and access was because of him. He would introduce us to families.
He was also our guide in this - like our emotional guide. He showed us all these minute things that were happening - all the emotional things that he had seen and that we were seeing. There are things that you can miss, like the airplane photo. He really guided us through a lot of situations.
It was pretty risky for him to open this up for us.
We talked about "perception." He might perceive a scene one way and Jim might perceive it another and I could perceive it another way. Somewhere in the middle, those perceptions overlap and that would be the truest representation of what we were seeing.
He was very protective over the families. He says at one point in the story that by notifying these families, he feels like he's causing them this pain. So he was very protective of their grief and how they would be represented and that we were going to be sensitive to that. In a lot of ways, he showed us what the story was all about.
After nearly being killed in Iraq did the dynamics of your relationship with Major Beck change?
He knew [about the IED] because he saw it in the paper the day after it happened. We never talked about it in specifics, but I think it showed how dedicated I was to telling this story. It changed. I don't know if part of that was because of time - that we kept spending more time together. I think it drew us closer in many ways because he knew that I was gaining a deeper understanding of all this.
We never really talked about it too specifically. Just the fact that I had been through that, I think he really respected that.
Please talk about "being a human first" and how it applies to your personal and professional ethics.
It's about what my presence and my taking images - especially in times like this when [it's painful for] people - that made me look at how much of this do I need to be photographing. I really tried to get what I needed to get and then fall back a little bit because I didn't want to make the pain any worse. This story made me so much more cognizant of what I see in front of me and try to gage what people are feeling and when it's time to put the camera down and listen or just leave.
Some cultures believe that taking somebody's photographs is taking their soul. I don't believe that, but I believe a really great photograph captures somebody's soul. That's very personal to them. That's a gift. They're giving. They're exposing themselves on such a deep level. That's where responsibility comes in - of trying to be true to them and be sensitive of how they're represented.
You have to be a journalist and you don't want to hold back. You can't sacrifice your journalistic integrity, but you can still be sensitive to people and still get the message across from the images.
If you don't care, people know.
Was Katherine Cathey with you when you were announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner?
She came after. We told them the weekend before that we were finalists. We decided, if we do win, we wanted to have them to the newsroom. John Temple - anytime anything significant happens - he always likes to have a meeting in the afternoon when the day shift and the night shift overlap. We told them we wanted to have them in the newsroom with us when we had this recognition. It's a ceremony. We were going to have champagne and whatnot. So we wanted to have Katherine there.
Major Beck was there. Terry Cooper, her son was the first service member killed in Iraq from Colorado in the Iraq War. Jim Sheeler - that was the first story he had done on the Iraq War - so they had become very close and her story had really affected Jim. That's kind of where "Final Salute" came from. It came from all these stories. So we wanted them to be there to know that they're a part of it. In a way it's their's too.
Did they take pride as well?
They did. They did. We had been in touch and we followed up when Katherine had her baby and she really liked the story and felt that it was accurate and all the other families really liked it. We knew that they were proud of this story, but I still felt awkward winning an award for this.
I'm very honored, but it still feels a little awkward and I wondered how they would feel about it. They all said really amazing things about us winning. Katherine said she felt that we really deserved it. [She said], "These two awards couldn't have been given to anybody other than these two guys." That really meant a lot to know she felt proud of it.
Terry Cooper said similar things and that this was another memorial to her son. That really meant a lot.
We had champagne and stuff, but we didn't go nuts with it. We wanted it to keep a certain level of respect to what the story was. It was tradition and we wanted to have a toast. That's what we did.
An IED hit the Humvee with you in it. Did you take any extra precautions in the vehicle?
It's funny. In hindsight I found out that we were in the absolute worst place to be. Being in the vehicle, I was in the best place. I was behind the driver. That's the safest place to be. It was a brand new, up-armored Humvee, which obviously, I can attest: they work. (laughs)
What I found out was there are a lot of things to know. I found out we were the first patrol of the morning, which is the worst possible patrol. That's when all the IEDs go off right at dawn. We were the second vehicle, which is the worst vehicle to be in. We were also one Humvee in a convoy of a Bradley, a Humvee and a Bradley. They're going to go for the Humvee. Generally, they're not going to go for the Bradley unless it's something really big that they have.
So, the deck was stacked against us, but we didn't know till afterward.
But, driving around in a Bradley all day, you don't get to see much. You're stuck in the back of an armored vehicle and you can't see anything. I've made cool pictures of the guy riding in the back of the Bradley. But after 15 hours, how much can you send?
I learned from that. I also learned how to react after it happens from asking and really paying attention when people talk about convoy security and what happens if there's an attack. You really need to know what to do. You don't just want to be sitting there. When everybody's running, you need to know.
So, I would say to somebody, "Ask questions." Ask what to do. I don't think you want to go into a situation like that blindly with no knowledge of what you're getting into.
Please talk about shooting under those conditions.
The photography part of it - the technical part of it - in a way, that didn't even exist. That should be something that happens on instinct. The first couple of frames I took, I didn't even remember to focus the camera because I was so jarred after it.
Your safety is the most important thing and then trying to get at the images to document something because that's the only reason you're there. The only reason you're there is to make pictures and tell this story. If you can't do that - if you're not going to do that - then you just risked your life for nothing.
That was definitely a motivating factor. The adrenaline pushes you to do the work, but the actual photography aspect is instinct from knowing it, from doing it for so long.
Part of that was necessity too. We were pretty far from anybody. I was going to stay with the guys that were in the vehicle and what they were doing. I wanted to be where they were. You really don't want to go running down the road after that.
I found out later that I broke my finger, but I really couldn't tell at that point. After that happens, you check yourself out, see if you're bleeding. You have no idea. Initially, you're thinking worst case scenario. Then, if you're able to get up and run, you're thinking, "Well, I don't know if something's wrong with me." You're just on adrenaline overload at that point.
What special precautions and/or equipment do you take when you're going to a combat area?
You need to get a good flak vest. You can get a decent one now - just like the military uses - I think those are probably $1,000, maybe a little more. You want to get a good flak vest, but one light enough that you can move around in and be able to run in if you have to. You want to get the right kind of body armor that's geared toward what type of rounds you'll be seeing - I think it's Type 3 or better [with a heart plate].
They improve [body armor over time] and I don't want to send somebody in the wrong direction. [Get a] decent Kevlar [helmet] and for safety, that's key.
Equipment-wise, I don't want to bring too much equipment. Two bodies, I like to have a back up body just to leave in a backpack in case something goes down. [Take] minimal lenses, like a zoom on each camera - a wide zoom and a telephoto zoom and a converter. You're climbing in and out of vehicles so much that you want to be able to move and not get snagged on anything.
Laptop. We used a satellite-modem. That's great. I could put everything I needed in a backpack and actually carry it. If I had to carry it quickly, it wasn't too cumbersome.
Any kind of Sat phone/cell phone and anything you can back up. If you bring a power inverter, bring two. That's what's great about traveling with a reporter. I could stick him with a bunch of stuff. (laughs)
I would bring an inverter. He would bring an inverter. I would bring extra cables for everything - extra cords. We both used Macs. Instead of having a Mac and a PC, we both used [Macs] in case mine got crunched or something, I could use his.
A small, external hard drive so you can back-up your images.
Minimal clothes like a good pair of boots and a back-up pair. We were out once where we were walking up to our knees in like sewer water, and I had my best pair of boots on and didn't have a decent pair as a back-up.
Some people are different. I like to carry everything with me. If I [must] move from one vehicle to another, or I have to go, I like to be able to put everything in two backpacks, so if I have to carry it all - into like a helicopter - I like to be able to carry everything with me. I don't want to rely on somebody to carry my gear.
Some people, like Rick Loomis, he was telling me he brings almost no clothes: two pairs of pants and two shirts and then a lot of socks and underwear. He travels really light.
The first time I ever did it, I called Loomis and asked him, "What do I do?" What I say to somebody is if you have a question, call somebody you know has been there. Things change. Everywhere you go, try to call somebody who's been there recently and ask them what's different.
What ethical considerations do you keep in mind while shooting in combat zones (civilians and military)?
I've never been in a situation where I've needed to make too many judgment calls. I haven't been around them when they made a mistake. Like the photos that Chris Hondros made where they shot up a family at a check point. I've never had to make those calls. You don't know what you're going to do until you're faced with it.
I've had some situations where I've had a commander - actually, we had a very good relationship - who asked me - when we got hit by an IED - he asked me not to mention that a certain person was there. I told him, "I can't hold back. You asked me to tell the truth for better or worse and now you're asking me not to tell the truth, and I can't do that."
We actually worked it out and he understood. I had to make the case. I said, "Look, I'm going to file these pictures. I can't not do that."
I think the ground rules are pretty fair. I've been pretty lucky where I've never been faced with anything where anybody told me to not make photographs or anything like that.
What's your line?
I've had this conversation with people - I was never faced with it - but I told them, "I'm here to do a job and if something goes down, I have to document it." You have to think about what you're documenting. For instance, somebody asked me, "Well, if my guys are lying down on the ground bleeding all over the place, are you going to help or are you going to shoot photos?"
My line is, if I'm the last person standing between somebody's - and I don't care if it's an Iraqi or an American - life and death... because I helped or because I didn't help, somebody would die. Then, I feel like I have an obligation to help. But if there's help, everyone is being attended to and my presence does not change that, then I have to do my job.
I've never been faced with that. I think it's gray. I've talked to a lot of photographers who had to make split-second decisions, and they've helped. As a human being, you have to think about that. What's harder to live with? The fact that you let somebody die and you got a photo or you missed a photo and you saved somebody's life. I'd rather live with saving somebody's life.
Consider Leeson's treatment of dead civilians.
I think the way David made those photographs was outstanding. I'm going to sing his praises. I've never met him, but everything that I've heard him say about how he worked over there, I'd agree with totally.
What's the point of showing certain things? What's it going to do? There's a way people see the impact of war. There's a way people can still see it, but you want people to understand that impact. If you're editors aren't going to be able to use it, people aren't going to see it. What's the point?
Also, it's about dignity too. That's what he's talking about the dignity of showing somebody's face.
I would follow the steps something similar to how he handled it. Fortunately, I haven't been faced with that. I don't care who it is or if it's someone I've never met before or who they are, they're human beings.
With all that being said, I'm not a war photographer. So, I don't think I'm an authority on things like that.
I wouldn't consider myself a war photographer. That's not the bulk of what I do. I've done a little bit of it, but I wouldn't want to take that title. There are so many people that are so dedicated to it and do it so well. I think they'd be better fit to answer those questions.
Enough for now,
Please see Part C of this interview.