Freelance photographer Bryan Denton has spent most of his career photographing news in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Now a mid-career photojournalist, he is one of the few who makes a living on assignments. Blink’s Laurence Cornet chats with him about the evolution of journalism in the region, the current challenges for young photographers on the field and his future plans.

 

2/22/2010 Marja, Helmand Province, Afghanistan Cpl. Andrew Ryan, 26, of C. Co, 1-6 USMC rested between combat patrols as his unit assaulted the Taliban stronghold of Marja, in Helmand Province, during Operation Moshtarek in February, 2010.

2/22/2010 Marja, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Cpl. Andrew Ryan, 26, of C. Co, 1-6 USMC rested between combat patrols as his unit assaulted the Taliban stronghold of Marja, in Helmand Province, during Operation Moshtarek in February, 2010.

2/14/2013 Layadira, Afghanistan Afghan Army soldiers spoke with a poppy farmer in the small hamlet of Layadira in Pashmul, Kandahar Province, as Lt. Melin of 3rd Bat. 1st Armored Div. listened in.  President Obama announced in Tuesday's State of the Union address that an additional 34,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2013, reducing the number of combat troops even further after reductions in 2012. In Kandahar Province, where US forces have consistently seen combat during the warmer summer months while other areas of the country have become more secure, troops from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Armored Division, currently deployed across the Zharay district are preparing for another summer of fighting with the Taliban, while at the same time, closing positions that were established at the height of the surge, and transferring them to Afghan National Army, who's battle readiness will likely be tested in the months to come.

2/14/2013 Layadira, Afghanistan
Afghan Army soldiers spoke with a poppy farmer in the small hamlet of Layadira in Pashmul, Kandahar Province, as Lt. Melin of 3rd Bat. 1st Armored Div. listened in.
President Obama announced in Tuesday’s State of the Union address that an additional 34,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2013, reducing the number of combat troops even further after reductions in 2012. In Kandahar Province, where US forces have consistently seen combat during the warmer summer months while other areas of the country have become more secure, troops from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Armored Division, currently deployed across the Zharay district are preparing for another summer of fighting with the Taliban, while at the same time, closing positions that were established at the height of the surge, and transferring them to Afghan National Army, who’s battle readiness will likely be tested in the months to come.

 

Laurence: Do you want to start with a few words about your latest story?

Bryan: My latest assignment was in Southern Turkey, outside of Gaziantep, for the The New York Times. Chris Chivers and I went to see a family that had been struck by what they later discovered was mustard gas fired by forces from the Islamic State. The family’s newborn child ended up dying from the exposure and the story unravels the introduction of this terrifying weapon on the battlefield along with this family tragedy.

 

7/18/2012 Almar District, Faryab Province, Afghanistan A massive dust devil spun it's way across the landscape in Almar district of Faryab province, where insecurity has increased in the past year.  Faryab, one of the least secure, and remote provinces in Afghanistan's Northwest will soon see the departure of NATO forces, namely a Norwegian contingent. The withdrawal is taking place at a time when security in the province is deteriorating, according to local officials, as a complex mix of Taliban infiltration, and local ethnic feuds over land and power between powerful Uzbek warlords, backed by General Dostum, and their Pashtun neighborsñfeared to be Taliban waiting to rise up once western troops have left, are on the rise.

7/18/2012 Almar District, Faryab Province, Afghanistan
A massive dust devil spun it’s way across the landscape in Almar district of Faryab province, where insecurity has increased in the past year.
Faryab, one of the least secure, and remote provinces in Afghanistan’s Northwest will soon see the departure of NATO forces, namely a Norwegian contingent. The withdrawal is taking place at a time when security in the province is deteriorating, according to local officials, as a complex mix of Taliban infiltration, and local ethnic feuds over land and power between powerful Uzbek warlords, backed by General Dostum, and their Pashtun neighborsñfeared to be Taliban waiting to rise up once western troops have left, are on the rise.

12/24/2009 Washir Valley, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. A US Marines of 3rd Recon Battalion stand watch over suspected Taliban insurgents in the Washir Valley, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  US Marines from 3rd Recon Battalion patrolled through the Washir Valley in late December, entering villages in an attempt to draw attacks from suspected Taliban elements located in the area. While no ambushes were laid, the Marines took 5 detainees who are suspected of operating mortars and/or building improvised explosive devices.

12/24/2009 Washir Valley, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
A US Marines of 3rd Recon Battalion stand watch over suspected Taliban insurgents in the Washir Valley, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
US Marines from 3rd Recon Battalion patrolled through the Washir Valley in late December, entering villages in an attempt to draw attacks from suspected Taliban elements located in the area. While no ambushes were laid, the Marines took 5 detainees who are suspected of operating mortars and/or building improvised explosive devices.

 

Laurence: You are working on a lot of stories that put both you and your subjects at risk. How do you cope with that?

Bryan: I am not so much worried about myself, but I am worried about respecting the concerns of my subjects. My job consists of illustrating a story as best I can with limited access to people’s identities because they are afraid for their lives. In this case, it was challenging because I couldn’t show the father’s face completely.

He had been exposed to mustard gas, which is a blistering agent that burns your skin as well as your esophagus airway and lungs. He was about six weeks into his recovery when I photographed him, but he still had this terrible cough, which is a trademark of the gas. Every time he coughed, he would put a tissue up to his mouth to cover it. He was also very sensitive to light because the gas burns the surface of your eyes so he was wearing very large sunglasses indoors during the day. All you could really see in terms of his features were the bridge of his nose and his forehead so I thought that taking a portrait at that very moment would describe his condition, and at the same time protect his identity.

 

2/13/2013 Tieranon, Pashmul District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan The wall of a schoolhouse in the Pashmul district of Kandahar Province bore the marks of US ordinance. Pashmul was on of the most heavily fought over areas in all of kandahar during the US's surge there.

2/13/2013 Tieranon, Pashmul District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
The wall of a schoolhouse in the Pashmul district of Kandahar Province bore the marks of US ordinance. Pashmul was on of the most heavily fought over areas in all of kandahar during the US’s surge there.

 

Laurence: I am curious about your level of involvement in the investigative aspect of a story when you are working with a writer. Do you have an example of a highly collaborative story?

Bryan: Some of the stories that I did in Libya for Chris Chivers were very collaborative. In Libya, during the siege of Misurata for instance, Chris knew that I had been spending a huge part of each day in the triage tent that served as a refuge for people who had been wounded while fighting in the city. Chris would see me edit the pictures every night and he decided to write long captions for the photographs. He felt that the war was pretty known at that point and, while the story of the hospital wasn’t something he was interested in writing up as a big feature himself, he knew that the photographs should be seen. That was one case where photography dictated writing.

Often times, just by nature of how magazines and newspapers work, I spend a lot of my time illustrating other people’s words. I like it, actually. I’ve always thought that good visual journalism and good writing can amplify each other in a way that makes both better. And I actually enjoy working with a writer to bounce ideas off of one another. It’s a great part of the process of reporting in the field.

 

2/9/2011 Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan Crpl Brock Bean of Ainsworth IA, holds a "Holly Stick" used for searching for IED's while on patrol in southern Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Members of 1st Platoon, Echo Co. 2/1 found 5 different IED's within aprox 1 km while on this patrol. In early December, Corporal Chad Wade of 1st Platoon, Echo Co. 2/1 USMC stepped on a Taliban improvised explosive device while on patrol with 1st Squad near Patrol Base Hernandez in southern Garmsir district, Helmand Province. His best friend, Corporal Seth Voie, a bomb dog handler had deployed with Wade, and was walking in front of him when the blast went off, kocking Voie to the ground. On February 9th, Crpl Voie returned to the place where his friend was killed for the first time since the incident.   Despite the tough, Alpha-male and "suck it up" image they are known for, after almost 10 years of war, the USMC has recently been putting it's units through the new OSCAR program(Operational Stress Control and Readiness), which seeks to assist Marines in combat who may be having difficulties dealing with their wartime experiences. Rather than removing Marines having issues from the battlefield, Chaplains, senior Non-commissioned officers, and Corpsman, among others, are being encouraged to keep lines of communication open on the front lines, in the interst of keeping an at risk Marine with his tight-knit squad—which officials believe is the best support structure available.  Credit: Bryan Denton for The Wall Street Journal

2/9/2011 Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Crpl Brock Bean of Ainsworth IA, holds a “Holly Stick” used for searching for IED’s while on patrol in southern Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Members of 1st Platoon, Echo Co. 2/1 found 5 different IED’s within aprox 1 km while on this patrol.
In early December, Corporal Chad Wade of 1st Platoon, Echo Co. 2/1 USMC stepped on a Taliban improvised explosive device while on patrol with 1st Squad near Patrol Base Hernandez in southern Garmsir district, Helmand Province. His best friend, Corporal Seth Voie, a bomb dog handler had deployed with Wade, and was walking in front of him when the blast went off, kocking Voie to the ground. On February 9th, Crpl Voie returned to the place where his friend was killed for the first time since the incident.
Despite the tough, Alpha-male and “suck it up” image they are known for, after almost 10 years of war, the USMC has recently been putting it’s units through the new OSCAR program(Operational Stress Control and Readiness), which seeks to assist Marines in combat who may be having difficulties dealing with their wartime experiences. Rather than removing Marines having issues from the battlefield, Chaplains, senior Non-commissioned officers, and Corpsman, among others, are being encouraged to keep lines of communication open on the front lines, in the interst of keeping an at risk Marine with his tight-knit squad—which officials believe is the best support structure available.
Credit: Bryan Denton for The Wall Street Journal

 

Laurence: You work on a lot of assignments but you also work on personal projects. Can you talk about your Hezbollah story and the way you work on your own?

Bryan: The Hezbollah story initially started as an assignment for the Times and I continued for about two years afterwards based on the access that I had had on the first assignment. Early on, I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan doing personal work, which ended up becoming a big part of my assignment work in 2012/2013, and a lot of 2009-2011. Before then I was embedded in Afghanistan, but without any real assignments. It’s a daunting way of working but at the same time it’s also a way to afford yourself time to explore a subject and build your story.

At some point in everybody’s career, you have take that scary step and embark on something really personal and long-term without necessarily knowing if you are going to get paid for it. These days, I think you are very rarely sent on a long-term story on a subject that you haven’t already spent time covering before.

 

2/4/2010 Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. A large sand model was set up for a rehearsal of concept drill for Operation Moshtarek, the US Marine Corps offensive on the district of Marjaóthe centerpiece of the Marines' deployment to southern Afghanistan.

2/4/2010 Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
A large sand model was set up for a rehearsal of concept drill for Operation Moshtarek, the US Marine Corps offensive on the district of Marjaóthe centerpiece of the Marines’ deployment to southern Afghanistan.

 

Laurence: You moved to Beirut in 2006. Can you reflect on the evolution of the situation in the past 10 years from a journalistic perspective?

Bryan: Evolution, or devolution? When I came here in July 2006, I was on assignment to cover the war – my first big assignment for the Times. They sent in Tyler Hicks and Joao Silva later on, but I was the closest to Beirut at the time so they sent me before we knew how big the war was going to be.

I arrived and it quickly became clear that it was going to be a huge story.

They kept me here on assignment for 40 days but I was mainly doing smaller features in Beirut while Tyler was down South covering the impact of air strikes. That was my first really big news story and, maybe I’m misremembering it, but what I remembered is that you would show up at these scenes and it would be an absolute bedlam in the number of photographers that were there. There were a lot of mid-career photojournalists, photographers distributed through agencies along with some who had a guarantee from a magazine. There was enough money in circulation to warrant this entire section of the industry that no longer exists on big news stories like this one. I think that was about the last time I really saw that.

It’s sad, especially in terms of conflict photography, because those slightly older freelancers were the ones who kept the younger ones like myself alive a lot of times.

 

2/18/2013 Kakeran, Afghanistan The smoke from a controlled detonation of an improvised explosive could be seen through tall grass in the hamlet of Kakeran, where US and Afghan forces conducted a joint clearing operation, in Zhari district, Kandahar Province.

2/18/2013 Kakeran, Afghanistan
The smoke from a controlled detonation of an improvised explosive could be seen through tall grass in the hamlet of Kakeran, where US and Afghan forces conducted a joint clearing operation, in Zhari district, Kandahar Province.

 

Laurence: Maybe now you are the mid-career journalist who protects and advises…

Bryan: That’s true, and I do try, but I don’t think there are enough people at that mid-career stage anymore, while wars today are incredibly more dangerous in terms risk.

I don’t work in Syria anymore because of the risk of abduction, and I don’t know of a single reputable outlet that’s really sending people into rebel areas at this point. But, I still get a lot of requests from freelancers who are trying to plan trips – young people starting out mostly. There’s nowhere to go to school for that type of work, you have to learn through experience, and one of the ways that we all learn is through older people.

Unfortunately, that institutional knowledge and experience is getting less and less common as time goes on because the older you are, the less likely you are to work without institutional backing from a media outlet. You want to know that you’re covered for medical expenses if something happens to you.

 

4/10/2012 Sangsar, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commander of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments Second Battalion, spoke to a village elder, placing his hand on his knee, during a shura with locals and a visit by the provincial governor, in Sangsar, Kandahar Province. Sangsar currently has no representation in the district shura, because they have not agreed on who will represent them thereóin turn prohibiting them from receiving funds for projects. Elders say that they are afraid of reprisals for cooperation.

4/10/2012 Sangsar, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commander of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments Second Battalion, spoke to a village elder, placing his hand on his knee, during a shura with locals and a visit by the provincial governor, in Sangsar, Kandahar Province. Sangsar currently has no representation in the district shura, because they have not agreed on who will represent them thereóin turn prohibiting them from receiving funds for projects. Elders say that they are afraid of reprisals for cooperation.

 

9/28/2010, Combat Outpost Nolen, Arghandab District, Kanahar Province, Afghanistan. Sgt Zavala (L) reflects on the days events on the roof of Strong Point Lugo as his comrades ate dinner nearby, following a heavy firefight that began when Taliban militants attackedtheir position, in Kandahar's Arghandab River Valley. Soldiers of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery, 101st Airborne Division, have had a hard deployment. Since they occupied COP Nolan in July--taking on the roll of provisional infantry in one of Kandahar's highly contested districts, they have sustained at least 20 combat casualties to their company-sized force--mostly to Taliban improvised explosive devices causing gruesome amputations for the less fortunate, and sever concussions to the more lucky. Combined with a lack of available replacements, this has stretched their operations to the brink of combat ineffectiveness.  The IED threat, combined with almost daily fighting from the walls of their combat outpost and strongpoint has left many of Alpha's remaining soldiers with visible combat stress, and morale that at times seems to hang by a thread.

9/28/2010, Combat Outpost Nolen, Arghandab District, Kanahar Province, Afghanistan.
Sgt Zavala (L) reflects on the days events on the roof of Strong Point Lugo as his comrades ate dinner nearby, following a heavy firefight that began when Taliban militants attackedtheir position, in Kandahar’s Arghandab River Valley.
Soldiers of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery, 101st Airborne Division, have had a hard deployment. Since they occupied COP Nolan in July–taking on the roll of provisional infantry in one of Kandahar’s highly contested districts, they have sustained at least 20 combat casualties to their company-sized force–mostly to Taliban improvised explosive devices causing gruesome amputations for the less fortunate, and sever concussions to the more lucky. Combined with a lack of available replacements, this has stretched their operations to the brink of combat ineffectiveness.
The IED threat, combined with almost daily fighting from the walls of their combat outpost and strongpoint has left many of Alpha’s remaining soldiers with visible combat stress, and morale that at times seems to hang by a thread.

 

Laurence: For that matter you are lucky enough to work mainly for The New York Times. Is there something else?

Bryan: What have I done this year? It has been a little funny with my wife’s pregnancy and the baby. I took three months off, which was a terrifying experience. But yes, I’ve done work for other editorial clients and in terms of income I’m starting to do a lot of print sales, which I haven’t done in the past. This involves being organized about your editions, printing, retouching, keeping track of everything and also pricing. That’s been the interesting new field of my business!

 

10/7/2010 Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Flight Medic SGT Ian Bugh of Charlie Co. 6-101st prepares to treat Private Ivan Sears, 20, 2-16 USMC who lost both of his legs after stepping on a Taliban improvised explosive device, immediately after picking up the wounded marine from the point of injury in southern Marjah, Helmand Province. The Helicopter Medevac teams of Task Force Destiny, based at Forward Operating Base Dwyer in Afghanistan's war-torn Helmand Province have a tough job. Servicing a large area that includes still restive southern Marjah, and much of the Helmand River Valley, TF Destiny answers the call to transport gravely wounded US Marines and Afghan civilians from the point of injury in the field to Role 3 trauma centers on bases in the area--often times landing under fire to extract Marines and soldiers that would otherwise succumb to their wounds. After the Medevac helicopter and it's "chase" UH-60 Blackhawk companion aircraft get a call, they can be on the ground picking up a patient in as little as 20 minutes--delivering the fallen to a surgical theater within what flight medics refer to as "the golden hour"--or the hour after a catastrophic injury during which a patients transfer from basic battlefield triage care to a modern trauma surgical unit can mean the difference between life and death. .

10/7/2010 Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Flight Medic SGT Ian Bugh of Charlie Co. 6-101st prepares to treat Private Ivan Sears, 20, 2-16 USMC who lost both of his legs after stepping on a Taliban improvised explosive device, immediately after picking up the wounded marine from the point of injury in southern Marjah, Helmand Province.
The Helicopter Medevac teams of Task Force Destiny, based at Forward Operating Base Dwyer in Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand Province have a tough job. Servicing a large area that includes still restive southern Marjah, and much of the Helmand River Valley, TF Destiny answers the call to transport gravely wounded US Marines and Afghan civilians from the point of injury in the field to Role 3 trauma centers on bases in the area–often times landing under fire to extract Marines and soldiers that would otherwise succumb to their wounds. After the Medevac helicopter and it’s “chase” UH-60 Blackhawk companion aircraft get a call, they can be on the ground picking up a patient in as little as 20 minutes–delivering the fallen to a surgical theater within what flight medics refer to as “the golden hour”–or the hour after a catastrophic injury during which a patients transfer from basic battlefield triage care to a modern trauma surgical unit can mean the difference between life and death. 

 

Laurence: Now that you’re a father, do you feel that you want to step back and work on other types of stories?

Bryan: It’s really a pivotal time in this region’s history, more so than at any other point in the few years I’ve been here. The process will probably redefine itself and there’s still a lot to be decided. I am interested in commenting on the direction that this region is taking.

Iconic photographs from the 20th century stand alone as individual pictures, but I think we have now entered the age of iconic bodies of work. The emphasis is less on single images, and more on storytelling narratives that bridge photojournalism and fine art. So, I am refocusing and thinking about ways to tell stories that would enable me to be home without sacrificing the quality of my work. That probably involves doing more personal work sometime in the very near future and branching out a little bit if I want to be keep myself interesting.

 

 

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