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Reuters photographer Umit Bektas reflects on the essence of war

Umit Bektas / Reuters

U.S. Army soldiers of the 125 BSB Medical Company surgical team of Task Force Mustang and Afghan National Army soldiers carry a U.S. Army soldier, injured by gun shots, on a stretcher in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan Dec. 1, 2011.

By Umit Bektas, Reuters

As the medical staff rushed to prepare the seriously wounded soldier for immediate surgery, I stood in one corner of the emergency room wondering how publishable the pictures I would take of this bloody and violent scene would be and what would be the benefit of it, if they were indeed published.

No photo of the soldier who lay there covered in blood and unconscious would ever be sufficient to express his agonizing pain. There was no way I could ever sum up the earlier life of this soldier, the life which would never be the same again. I could never explain why this happened to him. I could never relay in a single frame what really happened to him and what purpose his injuries would serve. For some time I watched the medical staff working frantically around the soldier, making superhuman efforts to keep him alive. Their efforts would probably save a life. What would mine accomplish? What would I have achieved if in the middle of this bloody scene I succeeded in taking a photo appropriate to be printed in newspapers and people thousands of miles away would bring into their homes to look at. What photo or photos would ever help the soldier to regain his limbs which would likely be severed very soon. I happened to catch a glimpse of the soldier’s boots lying on the floor. As the soldier was wheeled into surgery after emergency first aid, and the commotion in the room died down, I approached the bloodied boots and snapped them.

Umit Bektas / Reuters

An Afghan National Army soldier's boots covered in blood lies on the floor at 125 BSB Forward Surgical Team Task Force Mustang's clinic in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan Nov. 12, 2011.

It is now more than a month since I returned from my assignment as an embedded photographer with the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Now, as I write this blog I am looking at that picture. I want to talk about what a pair of blood-soaked boots means to me; as a human being and as a photographer.

For a month I reported with photos from a number of different assignments the American troops were engaged in. But I admit the days I spent with the 628th Forward Surgical Team were the most trying. It is not only the issue of seeking a meaning and an outcome in what I witnessed that still occupies my mind – it is a problem of the essence of the whole thing.

Umit Bektas / Reuters

Medical staff of 125 BSB Forward Surgical Team Task Force Mustang treat a wounded Afghan National Police Force member who was injured by gun shots in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan Nov. 12, 2011.


Let me explain what I mean by essence. The premises where three patients can simultaneously receive emergency treatment is in fact a tent. Unavoidably, it is cramped and the space left after three gurneys are placed side by side, is barely enough for the medical teams to squeeze in. If you are a photographer allowed to take pictures, obviously you cannot move an inch. Not because anyone has prohibited you, but to avoid hampering the medical staff, you take care not to change your position unless you absolutely need to. From where you stand you can clearly see what is happening but most of what you see cannot be photographed, cannot be transmitted if photographed and cannot be published if transmitted. It is bodies bloodied and mangled.

Umit Bektas / Reuters

A medical staff of 125 BSB Forward Surgical Team Task Force Mustang is flanked by a Jordanian army medical staff as she treats a wounded Afghan civilian who was injured by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan Nov. 13, 2011.

As a result it becomes extremely difficult to convey the drama unfolding right before your eyes. The photo you should take must be vital enough to relay the gravity of the situation and it must also be bearable. While striving to achieve this balance I discovered two things: Hands and faces. I thought I would take photos of the hands of the wounded.

Umit Bektas / Reuters

U.S. Army Specialist Katie Dirkints of the C Company 3/82 Dustoff MEDEVAC checks an Afghan National Army soldier injured by an IED (improvised explosive device) in a MEDEVAC helicopter in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan November 20, 2011.

Hands clenched in pain, a hand seeking another hand to hold on to, hands covered in blood pressing down on open wounds and hands too heavy for the exhausted bodies to hold up. And I took photos of the faces of the staff striving to keep those soldiers alive and their expressions. I focused on their expressions shaped by the drama which you will never see but which they lived and experienced.

Umit Bektas / Reuters

U.S. Army Colonel Lewis Somberg MD. (front R), Chief of Surgical Services of 628 Forward Surgical Team, and Chaplain Captain Edward Wright (rear R) pause as an U.S. soldier, heavily injured by an IED (improvised explosive device), waits to be transferred to a higher level military hospital at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan Nov. 19, 2011.

Let me now talk about the meaning. Like everyone, I have my personal outlook on life and my own political stance. I am confident that I always set aside my political beliefs when I am taking pictures. Impartiality and observance of ethical values are my main concerns. But the right to live, to enjoy this fundamental right and to enjoy a life of peace is the privilege of every human being. It is unacceptable that any person should lose his body, his most valuable asset, and his right to life especially by dangers that can be avoided. No American soldier in Iraq or in Afghanistan, no African dictator, no child, no old woman should be deprived of the right to live or be threatened with its loss by someone else’s weapons, bombs, or someone else’s power. If a person is to be punished for what he or she has done, the punishment should not be death. Will the photographs I took in that tent in Afghanistan communicate this message? Well, it depends on how you look at the pictures.

Personally, I believe my photography does carry this message. If you read them correctly, you will be able to say this: “My hands should never be bloodied as in those photos, no one’s boots should become so blood-soaked, no one should lie surrounded by medical teams trying to give him back a life almost swept away by weapons with unknown purpose, no one should suffer this pain.” To me, news photography is the unadulterated and stark reflection of reality. But what you make of that reality is yours to decide.

For a week, every injured soldier carried into that cramped tent helped me realize again the value and the significance of life. There, I came to know doctors whose responsibility to the patients ended after their situation stabilized and they were transferred out, but who still continued to monitor their healing process even after the patients were flown home to the U.S.

I thought: We should all feel the same concern as those doctors. I dreamed that there were people who saw one of my pictures in the newspaper or on the Internet and wondered what became of that injured soldier, wondered what he or she can do individually to prevent such incidents. People ready to make an effort to prevent all this – good people!

And I hoped that they would not only look at my photos but try to read a meaning into them.

Umit Bektas / Reuters

U.S. Army Major Steven Potter M.D. (L) and Captain Kimberley Kubricht CRNA. of the 628 Forward Surgical Team do yoga during a break in a intensive care unit in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan Dec. 1, 2011.