War coverage: 'We're the ones who stick our heads out'

Camera operators are mentioned last in reports of casualties, but they take the greatest risks, says Sholto Byrnes
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The Independent Online

Simon Cumbers. Taras Protsiuk. Mazen Dana. The list of camera operators who have been killed while working to capture the images that fill our TV screens is a long one, but it consists of names barely known to a viewing public more familiar with the war reporters in front of the lens. Kate Adie and her flak jacket and the white-suited Martin Bell gain the attention - it was noticeable that many newspapers covering the shooting of BBC journalists in Riyadh last Sunday began their reports with the injuries of the corporation's security correspondent Frank Gardner rather than the death of Simon Cumbers, the Irish cameraman who accompanied him - although the crew who record the despatches are often in even greater danger than those who sign off from Baghdad or Jenin.

Simon Cumbers. Taras Protsiuk. Mazen Dana. The list of camera operators who have been killed while working to capture the images that fill our TV screens is a long one, but it consists of names barely known to a viewing public more familiar with the war reporters in front of the lens. Kate Adie and her flak jacket and the white-suited Martin Bell gain the attention - it was noticeable that many newspapers covering the shooting of BBC journalists in Riyadh last Sunday began their reports with the injuries of the corporation's security correspondent Frank Gardner rather than the death of Simon Cumbers, the Irish cameraman who accompanied him - although the crew who record the despatches are often in even greater danger than those who sign off from Baghdad or Jenin.

"The people facing the greatest dangers are cameramen and photographers," agrees Andrew Marshall, Reuters' chief correspondent in Iraq. "They are the ones who have got to be where it's happening." Elizabeth Jones, who has filmed extensively in Africa, says: "We are the ones who have to stick our heads above the sandbags."

But among the small community of mainly freelance camera operators who film in war zones concern is rising that their job is becoming more dangerous. "Camera people are particularly at risk because holding a camera can look like holding a gun," says Tina Carr, director of the Rory Peck Trust, which was set up in memory of the war cameraman killed during the attempted coup in Moscow in 1993. Just such a misapprehension led to the death of Mazen Dana, a Reuters cameraman killed by US troops near the notorious Abu Ghraib prison last year; the troops said they thought his camera was a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

With Western crews increasingly being targeted, the camera operators are even more exposed than reporters. "Anything in visuals is particularly dangerous," says David Schlesinger, the global managing editor at Reuters, "because you have to get so close to get the good shots."

Tim Lambon, a cameraman who works mainly for Channel 4, says the difference in risk is huge. "A reporter or even a snapper can go out there, get what they need and then move out," he says. "I have to get a sequence. The shortest I can do is four seconds, and you'd be surprised how long four seconds can take when the shots are going down all around you."

Lambon has been held up at gunpoint in Iraq, almost lynched in Mali, and dodged Israeli tanks in Jenin. In Palestinian territory, he says, it used to be best to film from the Palestinian lines during a firefight. "It's better to be on their side because they're not great weapons handlers and their fire goes all over the place. At least the Israelis are accurate."

Recently, however, he worries that the attitude of the Israelis has changed. "They seem to have taken on a policy of targeting camera people and journalists." A year ago the award-winning British cameraman James Miller was shot by Israeli forces in Rafah, even though witnesses said he was waving a white flag while filming an Israeli tank.

Last week the BBC announced that it was considering employing armed guards to protect teams reporting from dangerous areas.

James Brabazon, who once filmed for 28 days under combat conditions in Liberia, does not believe this would help the cause of good reporting. "Security is one thing, and telling a story can be another. In Somalia and increasingly in Afghanistan the dynamic of the situation is that you have to have armed locals. But if you were to arrive in Mogadishu with an ex para toting an AK you wouldn't even get off the plane. If you alienate the people whose story you're there to tell it's just self-defeating." Neither does he feel it would be welcomed as regular practice by any but a minority of camera operators. "I feel very strongly that journalists shouldn't carry weapons, and if it becomes an industry norm I will stop working." The hazards of filming in war zones are something camera people get used to, says Elizabeth Jones. "You build a tolerance. The first experience of gunfire is scary, but you survive and you know you can survive it again. I've never got used to being shot at, though."

Lambon says his colleagues are more aware of risks than other journalists. "We're looking for shots all the time, so we tend to see." In Iraq with a producer from Channel 4, Lambon put this to the test, disappearing from the stationary van they were both in, walking around a corner and then returning. Once in the van, he put two fingers to the head of the producer, who was still not aware that Lambon had moved. "He nearly died of shock. You have to be aware."

That's certainly true of those who contend that the best results are often achieved only through the maximum risk. "The people who win awards are those who hang in there," says Lambon. Sometimes that results in injury - Brabazon reports having had "a lump taken out of my arm by a crocodile while in Zimbabwe" - or worse. As Lambon, who was a friend of Cumbers, says: "I've lost too many of my mates in the last 20 years."

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