C’est la guerre…or such is life…

The six-year internment of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay still inspires heated argument here in Australia about justice and human rights. The publication of his memoir and the low act of bastardry of the Federal Government in seizing the profits from its publication brings into serious focus the issue of freedom of speech. In the main, those who condemn him, do so almost entirely on the evidence they believe is contained within this single photograph.

David Hicks posing with an RPG launcher in Bosnia

Here Hicks is posing with an unloaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his first day in Bosnia, where from misplaced idealism he had volunteered to help the Muslim forces resist the “ethnic cleansing” of the Serbians. That he later came to the attention of US forces after in Afghanistan and spent six years imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay is well documented, in the media and in his memoir.

Opinion on the justification of his actions is highly polarised, but characteristically young men often take risks and make foolish decisions. Sometimes, to test themselves, they will choose paths in the road that take them away from the commonplace. They occasionally make choices they think will allow them to experience life with an intensity above and beyond the ordinary. Some will take up extreme sports, some will place their lives on the leading edge of danger in more unconventional ways. It was ever thus.

Forty three years ago, at Umuahia in southern Nigeria, I handed one of my Nikons to a Biafran rebel soldier and asked him to take a picture of me. In the closing days of January 1968, I had landed in Port Harcourt, Nigeria after a 27 hour flight on a very old, 4-prop, Lockheed Constellation running arms and ammunition out of Lisbon. Simply put, my entry into the secessionist Republic of Biafra was illegal.

I was there as a freelance photojournalist for United Press International and was eager to test my mettle as a war correspondent. Because of the need for secrecy, I had not told my family what I was doing or where I was going. I was 26 years old, had been a photographer for barely six years and I confess there was a certain amount of swashbuckling ego involved. I wanted to discover how I might handle myself covering a war. I planned on sending the picture to my parents in Australia when I got back.

Umuahia, Biafra, January 1968 © Rob Walls

In the picture I’m wearing an African dashiki embroidered with the rising sun emblem of Biafra. This shirt had been a gift of the very efficient Biafran media office which was coordinating press coverage of the new nation. Earlier that day, travelling in the back of a Land Rover, an old Africa hand from one of the London broadsheets, in rather haughty upper-class tones said. “If I were you, I would not risk being be caught wearing that shirt at the front line, dear boy. The Nigerians will assume you are a mercenary or a spy and they’ll probably shoot you.” I ignored his advice. I was young, foolish, full of testosterone and adrenalin and wearing the shirt, I thought, was a simple courtesy to my hosts whose cause I had begun to sympathise with. Like the photo of Hicks with his RPG launcher, the photo would have been “conclusive” evidence of my collusion with the rebels.

Less than 10 seconds after the shutter was released on that picture, two MIG 17s of the Nigerian Air Force were screaming high overhead and that heavy machine gun was banging away busily into the sky, its spent cartridge brass ringing and rattling into the body of the truck. Flown mostly by South African mercenary pilots, the MIGs were too high to be more than a barely discernible con-trail against the sky, but at a moment it wasn’t difficult to join the dots and surmise that these fighters may have released bombs, or be about to make a strafing run.

We were in the grounds of the home of General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the charismatic president of the breakaway republic, an obvious target for an air-raid. It was then I discovered at moments like this you tend to feel quite naked and looking for safe hiding places becomes a nervous pre-occupation. As it turned out the choices were so few, I ended up standing rather foolishly in the open under the ineffectual boughs of the large tree I had been photographed under a few moments before. About the only consolation was that I thought I could not be seen from the eir.

The MIG pilots, sensibly uninterested in coming down to an altitude where they could be shot at, made no attempt at accuracy. The bombs dropped in our general direction exploded harmlessly about 500 meters away..

A week or so later, I was told that I would be taken back to Lisbon on the next plane running the blockade into Port Harcourt. Feeling that I hadn’t got enough pictures, I wanted to stay on. I decided to ask the advice of some of the more experienced journalists I had travelled with. A journalist from Agence France Press I had befriended, told me that if I wanted to do that, there was only one option; before they come to collect us for the flight I could go hide in the jungle until the plane left. I asked him what he would do.  “Get the fuck out, this is too dangerous, you could die here!” I decided to take his advice. An Italian photojournalist, braver than I, Romano Cagnoni, did go and hide in the bush. His famous photograph of shaven-headed Biafran recruits published around the world with double-page spreads in both Life and Paris Match.(see here)

Back in Lisbon, I discovered the harshest reality of war photography: right time, wrong war! It was the beginning of the Tet offensive in Saigon and 19 Viet Cong had blasted their way into the US Embassy. Now that was news! Under those circumstances there was little interest in a civil war in West Africa. C’est la guerre. Or in the final words of Ned Kelly, “Such is life”. With this lesson, I decided that my embryonic career as a combat photographer should come to an end.

It was only this week, in thinking about the implications of the Hicks case, that I dug out that old photograph and thought of what might have happened if I had been captured. The result: probably somewhat similar to the consequences Hicks suffered…or worse. I note the words I scrawled, tongue-in-cheek, on the back of the picture: “I’m the one behind the machine gun”.

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6 Comments

Filed under Australian, Autobiography, Biography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

6 responses to “C’est la guerre…or such is life…

  1. Irene walls

    Wonderful historic post Rob.
    I still have the Biafran dashiki and love that photo of you.

  2. Hi Irene, your comment is a totally unexpected footnote to this story. I’m astounded that shirt still exists. But I do remember how very well made it was…and that you adopted it. I thought it would have gone to an shop, 30 or 40 years ago.

    • Irene walls

      No way, it is part of history. Remember being called in the middle of the night to let me know your on the way to Africa flying with no lights on to be safer.

  3. Thanks for an interesting read Rob! I often wonder how the seemingly smaller decisions we make – like which shirt to wear, or whether to have a photo taken – will impact the bigger picture. I’m also facinated by your war correspondent experience – thanks for the little insight!

    • Your comment on what we wear raises some interesting issues, Nic. I’ve always felt that it’s a good idea for a photographer to present themselves in a way that does not make them stand out. To me this often means dressing to match the job. If I’m working on a corporate shoot, I’ll dress in a fairly casual way but in a style that will not look out of place in the board-room or conference venue. I may wear jeans, but they’ll be my best jeans, a good jacket, ironed shirt and polished shoes. I cringe when I see photographers wearing shorts, baseball caps and trainers inside boardrooms or Parliament. Old-fashioned, I guess…or just old.

  4. Great picture and interesting, fascinating article, Robert!

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