The Economics of War Photography

Editors have always been wary of sending photographers into war zones since the practice began in the early 20th century, but the speed at which the Internet distributes photography is increasing both the danger to photojournalists and the reluctance of the backers. The British Journal of Photography has an interesting look at the costs of conflict photography:

This situation, said [Jon] Jones, had led to a catch-22 in which young photographers are unable to get assignments because magazines and agencies refuse to take responsibility for the risks involved. “I think there’s a reluctance to send people into conflict zones. It doesn’t mean it’s right, but it’s the economic reality.” But that’s nothing new, he added. “When I went to Bosnia [in the 1990s], I didn’t have any support. I went with no money, then went back with £300, then again with £400, and built it up each time. It takes a while. But the initial step was just to go. Today, you get the same answer I was given 20 years ago: ‘Great. I’m not going to assign this to you, but I’d love to see you when you come back.'” And somewhere down the line, after a young photographer has proved his worth, it changes, he explained.

“You basically have to earn the right to get an assignment,” Knight added. “Nobody is going to assign you to a conflict zone right out of college. They want to see what you’ve done and what you are capable of. When I started it was the same. Once you’ve done that enough times, they might give you an assignment,” he told the audience. “When I started, I had to sell my own blood to eat.”

“I had to sell my own blood to eat”… Now that’s dedication to photography.

Photojournalism: The cost of covering conflicts [BJP via APhotoEditor]

Image credit: amc_in_bosnia_mid_1990s by U.S. Army Materiel Command

  • Tony Leonhardt

    Ghastly to think about, but I’ve thought of doing the same myself a few times.

  • Rob S

    I have a hard time understanding most “conflict” photographers. I dont care how small it is, if your in the middle of it, its a war, not a conflict. You have a conflict with your neighbor over dog poop.

    War is terrible. No sane person would want to be in, around or even remotely near a war. It is an activity whose purpose is to end life in order to impose something so one side opposes so much they are willing to risk death to oppose it. Unless you have been put in this situation you do not understand what that does to you. Nice, kind, rational people become monsters who will crush your skull with a rock if need be. Death is everywhere and often unseen. Snipers, IEDs and mortar rounds give no warning, no hit of danger before they kill.

    Give that, to choose to go into such an evil situation with the GOAL of capturing the height of evil is to me insane. “Conflict” photographers dont go to a war zone to get pictures of soldiers sunning themselves and people going about their lives. They go there specifically to get images of death and destruction, of blood and tears.

    As a professional soldier I am more than a little insulted by most “conflict” photographers. I am there so they dont have to experience these horrors. I am there so this evil is not visited on them. Yet they come just like tourists and do stupid things like the idiots at Yellowstone getting too close to wild animals. There are a few, a very few, who are not like this and I have immense respect for them. They are the ones who like me have made this their profession. The come for the long haul, learn the do’s and don’ts and listen.

    The military has hundreds of its own “conflict” journalists – Combat Camera. Before someone decides they want to give “conflict” photography a try, they should ask themselves why so few former “Combat Camera” veterans choose to return to “conflict” photography after their military time ends. The answer is that having “been there, done that” they dont ever want to do it again. While they will never unsee what they have seen or unfeel what they have felt, spending your remaining days shooting flowers, puppies and brides goes a long way.

  • C.S. Muncy


    I respectfully disagree.

    Conflict photographers provide an impartial look into what’s happening within a war zone, something that Combat Camera cannot do no matter how talented the shooter. Since Combat Camera and Public Affairs work for their respective services, they can in no way be considered impartial; a crucial element to showing the news.

    As a military photographer (been in since 2002, graduated from the Defense Information School in 2009) I have nothing but respect for civilian photographers who put their lives on the line to show the world what’s happening in some of the worst places on Earth.