"There Goes My Hero" Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters
Updated: Aug 26, 2021
To quote a line from one of my favorite rock & roll bands, Foo Fighters, it's been suggested that the song "My Hero" was inspired by songwriter Dave Grohl's former bandmate from Nirvana, the late Kurt Cobain. However, Grohl also indicated that it's about his ordinary everyday heroes as well. Whenever I hear that song it makes me wonder who my photographic heroes are. These are the people that inspired me to spend 40 years in news photography.
Dating back to my college days, the first name that always comes forward is Larry Burrows. The LIFE Magazine photographer was, in my humble opinion, the greatest war photographer to date. Burrows died in 1971 when a helicopter, also carrying Keisaburo Shimamoto, Kent Potter and Henri Huet, three equally talented colleagues, was shot down over Laos while covering the Vietnam War.
Also, I have great respect and appreciation for other legendary war photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White, Dickey Chappell, Lee Miller, David Douglas Duncan, Don McCullin, Catherine Leroy, Nick Ut and Eddie Adams. I hate to start naming names, but of course there's Tim Page, who was the inspiration for the American photojournalist character in the movie "Apocalypse Now" played by actor Dennis Hopper. There's also Sean Flynn, son of the actor Errol Flynn. Also there's Dana Stone. Flynn and Stone disappeared in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, never to be seen again. And of course I can't leave out the great Robert Capa, perhaps the most famous war photographer. He was the first civilian/photojournalist to die in the southeast Asia conflict. Many more good photographers would follow, unfortunately.
Capa is widely remembered for his images from D-Day, the few blurry frames that survived. As the story goes, his film from the landing was mostly destroyed by a lab technician who cranked the heat up a little high when drying the negatives, literally melting the emulsion. Only a few famous images survived. And ironically enough, up-and-coming photographer Larry Burrows was a lab tech at the London LIFE Magazine office at the time and for years it was rumored that Burrows had been the person who melted Capa's film. It was finally clarified after many years that it was not Burrows who was responsible for damaging Capa's film.
I'm not exactly sure what my obsession was/is with war photographers but I was very intrigued and inspired by men and women who risked their personal safety in pursuit of news and history. Surely their intentions were noble. The importance of spreading truthful images from conflicts around the world was motivation enough it seemed. This imagery would help prevent future wars, right? So I used this type of motivation in my approach to the job. I've worked in the war zone. But I'd never compare my experiences to these legends or today's conflict photographers like James Nachtwey and other current photojournalists who cover conflict regularly. If you haven't read The Bang Bang Club, in which Nachtwey works with Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva in South Africa, it's a must read if you want to understand what it takes out of individuals to do this kind of work. It's not pretty. But it's real.
I also have to recognize others today, a couple of people with North Carolina ties like Tyler Hicks. There's the late Chris Hondros who died along with Tim Hetherington in Libya. Also Anja Niedringhaus was assasinated in Afghanistan. Other great photographers like Manu Brabu and Ron Haviv continue the craft today. And I must add Lynsey Addario who was kidnapped along with Anthony Shadid, Tyler Hicks and Stephen Farrell in Libya.
After being embedded during the War in Iraq, I spent several months on the night photo desk at the Charlotte Observer diligently plowing through daily images from a war where I'd just returned. A few photographers images always stood out. Joe Raedle was one of those, along with Hayne Palmour. The images they produced were gritty and very real. They were on the front pages of The Observer many days. There are too many great photographers that covered Iraq to begin naming names. But photographers like David Swanson and James Hill stand out. Ashley Gilbertson and Laura Rauch also stand out. Jerome Delay, John Moore, Julie Jacobson are a few more outstanding photographers. I must say that Gilles Bassignac made some of my favorite images of the in Iraq.
I've since reconsidered who my real heroes are. They're the ones we leave behind to worry about us and pick up the pieces after we come home with PTSD, or injured, or not at all. It's a personal and sometimes completely selfish pursuit, this news photography business, particularly covering war. We have a choice in many cases. I was mistaken about who my real heroes are. Given the choice of making the decision to go to war again today, I might have a different answer.....but probably not.