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From war zones, photographer brings scars and searing images

Sebastian Rich has covered every major war and conflict of the past 30 years. He has been wounded several times, kidnapped and held hostage while on assignment as a photographer and television cameraman.

Children in Conflict, an exhibition at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., is showcasing a selection of images from Rich's career alongside a new body of work produced for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The new collection illustrates the plight of Afghan refugees in the Jalozai refugee camp in Pakistan.

Sebastian Rich

Young Afghan refugee in the Jalozai UNHCR refugee camp, Pakistan, 2012. Jalozai is one of the largest of 150 refugee and transit camps in Pakistan, holding Afghan refugees from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the present day.

By Sebastian Rich

The reason I became a photojournalist is summed up eloquently by this saying:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

Being a chronic dyslexic to the point of near-illiteracy, I guess taking photographs was a natural progression, given the old adage, "A picture speaks a thousand words."

I left school, or should I say, ran away from school, at the tender age of 15 and have been looking through cameras of one sort or another at the world's wars ever since.

Sebastian Rich

Pakistan, 2012. An outside classroom for Afghan women and young girls in the UNHCR Jalozai refugee camp.
One of the women had brought her small son with her, and he cheekily leaned back from the group to look at me.

Sebastian Rich

Bosnia, 1993. A local priest talks to the crew of a British United Nations tank. He is trying to negotiate some sort of cease-fire between a local Bosnian militia and a group of heavily armed Croatian fighters. The cease-fire lasted all of ten minutes then the priest and myself ran for cover!

These past decades have not been without personal loss and pain. I have lost so many friends in the theater of war that I am ashamed to admit I have lost count.

I have lost most of the hearing in my right ear and 30 percent of the vision in my right eye -- courtesy of a Serbian sniper with a high velocity rifle. Obviously, not a very good sniper, otherwise I would not be telling the tale, but good enough to cripple.

Sebastian Rich

The first prisoners of war taken by the United States Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A large chunk of my lower intestine is missing due to the shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. I was lucky that the hot shrapnel was slowed down by two Lebanese soldiers standing in front of me. They were not so fortunate.

My sternum is cracked and deformed, once again from a Serbian sniper, this time hitting me directly in the center of the chest smashing the ceramic plate in my flak jacket and crushing my rib cage. Last, but not least, I have experienced being kidnapped in Lebanon and a mock execution in an unpronounceable town in the former Yugoslavia with far too many consonants in its name--particularly difficult for a dyslexic.

Sebastian Rich

Fighters of a warlord in Mogadishu, Somalia. They tolerated me as they fought but as you can see there were those whose burning eyes did not fall too kindly on this photographer.

I am often asked how I keep my objectivity while constantly photographing and filming the worst the world has to offer. Well, I believe we all have an agenda to some degree or another, however subtle. My agenda, if you like, is not left or right of the political spectrum, but in the center of the insanity that I witness. Hoping somewhat (very) naively, that a single image one day might change the course of that conflict, ergo an agenda.

Sebastian Rich

A terribly malnourished Afghan baby boy in a UNICEF Therapeutic feeding center in Herat, Afghanistan. His fate is unknown to me.

Objectivity was ironically summed up for me by my mentor and friend, the extraordinarily talented American combat photographer John Hoagland.

John and I had been trying not to get shot by Salvadoran troops in that bloody civil war by hiding behind a cow. To the left of me was the dead body of a pregnant woman, who had been shot through the stomach revealing part of the fetus. In a moment of calm from the hail of bullets, I lay on my back shaking and asked John, "How do you stay objective in all this horror?"  He answered, "It's easy Sebastian. You do something good, I will take your photograph. You do something bad, I will take your photograph."

John was shot and killed just a few weeks later photographing Salvadoran troops doing something very bad. He was 36 years old.

Sebastian Rich

U.S. Army Medics fighting hard to save the life of a young baby girl on board a Blackhawk medevac helicopter in Afghanistan, 2011. She had been hit by shrapnel from a Taliban RPG. Inside an airborne Blackhawk helicopter you can hardly hear yourself think. But I could hear the little girl's screams of terrible pain clearly above the roar of the rotors.

 

Sebastian Rich's exhibition, which is supported by UNHCR and The Diplomatic Courier, runs at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. from October 2 to October 12, 2012.

Rich will be giving a talk at the Drexel University Westphal College of Media Arts and Design in Philadelphia on Thursday, October 4th.

Click here to see more of Sebastian Rich's work and here to view a trailer for Crossing the Line, a documentary about his experiences in Bosnia.

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