Depth of Field
When I asked Trevor what draws him to places with deep conflict, he said, “I want to know that, even if just for a night, I can sleep in a slum or hang out in a prison full of gang members.” Peering into lives unlike his own made him feel comfortable with his place in the world. Though his images never quite became him—he talks about his camera as though it were a shield—they did influence him. And some were etched deeply in his mind. One night, we were driving north along the coast when he told me a story from South Sudan. “It’s hard for me to even talk about this,” he said. “There was a boy in the Nuba Mountains who had half of his face blown off—a bomb dropped from a cargo plane. A local doctor had sewed it up somehow, and it was infested with worms.” The boy’s father took him to the only hospital in the region, where Trevor visited one day. A doctor showed Trevor into one of the wards, where he met the boy’s father and asked permission to take his son’s photograph. The father agreed; he wanted people to see how his family had suffered. But when Trevor saw the boy, he couldn’t lift his camera. “It was like nothing I had ever seen,” he said. “And now that picture’s not in my camera, but in my mind.”
Before the digital camera, striking images of conflict took a longer time to fetch—journalists often spent weeks in the field before sending film to editors—and so there were fewer of them. Ask baby boomers to recall iconic photographs of the Vietnam War, and they’re likely to mention the same naked girl running from a napalm cloud or Viet Cong officer taking a bullet in the head. Ask about the Iraq War, and they’re likelier to stumble. Tim Hetherington, a journalist killed by mortar fire in Libya last April, once asked his colleague, João Silva, if there were any great images to come out of Iraq like there were from Vietnam. Silva replied, “The problem isn’t that we haven’t taken that classic image. The problem is that we have taken too many.” Journalists in Iraq were some of the first to use digital technology, landing in the field with new cameras and manuals. Capturing a quick, clear image was suddenly much easier, a snap of the shutter as simple as a trigger-pull.
The Internet, too, has created space for more photographers, professional and amateur, to publish. The ironic result is that the images we pay most attention to are not the beautifully composed but the shockingly raw, mindless of form, light, and clarity. I recall, first, Lynndie England holding an Abu Grhaib prisoner by a leash. The next that comes to mind is a blood-soaked Qaddafi, the same photograph the Libyan girl mentioned to me that night at the embassy. When I asked Trevor about the image, he said it nearly made him sorry for the man. Indeed, critics had called it tasteless, disrespectful, and, according to one, “death porn.” But there was truth in its rawness, he said—under Qaddafi, after all, executions aired on national television—and the grotesque honesty struck people. “Maybe photojournalists would have made more esthetic choices,” said Trevor. “But maybe their photographs wouldn’t have felt as true.”
Photojournalists tread a precarious line in documenting conflict. “It’s our job to get people to look at things they would not otherwise see,” said Trevor. But most newspapers won’t publish highly grotesque images, so photographers often rely on artistic suggestion to make a point. No agency would have accepted an image of the boy he met in the hospital, he told me. But last year, the cover of TIME Magazine featured a photograph by Jodie Bieber of an Afghani girl with her nose cut off. “It was shocking, and a risk, but you could tell the girl was beautiful,” said Trevor. “She looked like Mary.”
Navigating a news-driven, digital market frustrates Trevor, who is drawn to stories that take months, if not years, to report. Violent images are worthless unless in context, he says, but developing contextual stories takes more time than most outlets are willing to give. This past year, he began assembling a mixed-media iPad book about Sudan with TIME correspondent Alan Boswell. “The iPad is very tactile. You can touch the picture, move it around. Text or audio pops up. It’s a layered experience.” Trevor is exploring other ways to make his work relevant by collaborating with the online literary organization, Triple Canopy, to create a wider platform for in-depth visual stories. Meanwhile, he is assembling an exhibition of large photographs showing the impacts of small arms in South Sudan and has considered exhibiting on newsprint, as well, to make the story more distributable. He imagines people in Sudan tearing up images and pasting them in their homes, or Americans coming across a city wall, papered in photographs.