"I don't get it, I have to be here. You don't."
I can't tell you how many times I've heard that from a service member while on an embed, and I'm still struggling to figure out why I do this.
I'm not a war photographer. I spend the majority of my life kneeling on hearing room floors in the Senate in Washington, or lined up with fifty other photographers in front of a podium.
But working in Iraq or Afghanistan is my passion. Like many photographers I was inspired by James Nachtwey, Christopher Morris, Robert Capa, and Sebastiao Salgado among others. Like them, I wanted to be a famous war photographer. But the first time a bullet snaps past your head, those shallow motivations go out the window.
For every new trip there is a certain level of excitement and fear.
While on assignment I rely on the U.S. military for protection, food, transportation and shelter. I spend long days with these men and we pass the time by getting to know one another. I'm always amazed by their openness, willingness to talk, and hospitality. Not all the stories are positive, but they're honest. It's not easy walking into a platoon's life after they've lost a member to injury or death, but the guys "in the suck" just want their stories told.
The last day of our embed a young man lost his leg in an IED blast. It was a horrific scene, and another reminder of just how dangerous Combat Outpost Nolen is. Dangerous enough that we cut our embed short by a few days. We made a decision that no one in the military can make -- we left. As you are reading this, the young men at Nolen are still leaving the relative safety of the combat outpost to go on patrol, still dealing with the heat, the flies, the gunfire, the homemade bombs and the rocket propelled grenades. They can't pack up and leave.
I'm a war zone tourist -- I fly into an outpost, spend a few weeks telling the stories of those men, and then I leave.
So why do I do this? I guess I'll never have a great answer. But I do believe in the power of photography to spark a conversation. The image of a lone Chinese man standing in front of a column of tanks, an execution in a Saigon street, a Vietnamese girl running naked after a napalm attack, charred remains hanging from a bridge outside of Fallujah, a young soldier fighting in a pair of pink boxers all add to our collective understanding of war.
But at the end of the day, it's about capturing a moment that leads to insight of a battle fought a world away. It's about coming to grips with man's ultimate inhumanity.