Opinion: I’m a former war photographer. The world looks more familiar than it should, and more horrifying

Corinne Dufka worked as a photojournalist and researcher for Human Rights Watch, and is now a consultant on African security issues. She is the author of This Is War: Photographs from a Decade of Conflict, from which this essay is adapted.

I worked as a war photographer from 1988 to 1999 during which I covered some of the bloodiest conflicts of the latter part of the 20th century, mostly for the “wires,” as the leading news agencies are known.

My job at the time was to produce a near-daily stream of photographs charting revolutions and coups, separatist movements and mass atrocities. The images were largely intended for a Western audience and for use in printed newspapers.

It was a time before mobile phones, citizen journalism and ubiquitous internet connectivity. The conflicts were unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous. Local photojournalists were often subject to the same patterns of violence as the rest of the population, making it extremely perilous for them to work.

As outsiders, foreign journalists usually enjoyed a modicum of protection. People whose lives were being torn apart by violence wanted their stories to be told and, seeing us as a channel to communicate their desperation, opened up their homes and hearts to the small tribe of journalists covering these conflicts.

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Corrine Dufka has a new book, This is War, chronicling her work in El Salvador and elsewhere.

I first picked up a camera while working as a social worker in El Salvador. It was the mid-1980s. I had just turned 30, and I began my career documenting the handiwork of death squads, photographing the bodies left on street corners at night and mothers whose children had been “disappeared.” When, in 1989, two Salvadoran photographers were shot at an army checkpoint, one fatally, I was asked by their employer, Reuters, to help fill the void. The funeral felt like a rite of passage into the world I would occupy for the next decade.

By the early 1990s, the Cold War and its more ideologically driven proxy wars, including those in Central America, were winding down, and I was posted to the former Yugoslavia and later Africa. Countries had started to go to war with themselves. Unscrupulous leaders, many inspired by a toxic mix of ego, profit, and ethnic, religious or nationalist agendas, waged war on civilians and turned villages into killing fields.

To be a war photographer is to have an intimate relationship with the dead and dying. We navigate disparate worlds: both empathizing with those reeling from profound loss and interacting with those who blight and take human life, all while getting a job done. Inherent in it all is the psychic damage done to any witness to brutality. What the eye sees, the brain records. There is no erase button. For the war photographer, the job twists things even further.

For example, on a particularly tense morning in 1996, as rival militias in Liberia fought street battles in the capital of Monrovia, I followed a group of fighters brandishing AK-47s and knives. As I tracked them with my camera, they came upon a man who had dared venture out to forage for food in a destroyed shop. Deaf to the man’s pleas for mercy, the militiamen dragged him through the streets and, moments later, executed him.

Developing the film in the quiet of my hotel room, I retched, reliving how less than an hour earlier, an unarmed man who did not expect to die that day was stripped to his underwear and socks by a group of teenagers and murdered in a ditch for no apparent reason. I agonized over whether I could have prevented his random, unexpected killing. I knew I could not. But discovering the photos were in focus, and powerful, I was also elated, knowing they would, and did, distinguish my career.

In April of 1996, Liberian fighters carry a wounded comrade through Monrovia, while a woman does the same with a child relative injured in the street battles. The Liberian civil war would continue into the following year, then erupt into a second war from 1998 to 2003.

My life as a war photographer was punctuated by such contradictory moments. Over and over, photographing the wounded in frenetic hospitals, mothers rocking in grief; soldiers stepping on land mines, and militiamen taunting, torturing and killing one another, I wrestled with the awareness that, back then, the most painful, consequential moments of a victim or combatant’s life were often moments in which a part of me thrived.

I worked at a frenzied pace: airport, war, photograph, airport, war, repeat. It was a dizzying time, in which my colleagues and I lumbered across chaotic and militarized borders lugging portable darkrooms, small generators, petrol, water, and satellite phones the size of suitcases, often not knowing where we’d spend the night and not caring what peril was on the other side.

Our images exposed atrocities, signalled the beginning of epidemics and set off alarms in state capitals. But as the years passed, I became aware that, with each war, what I gained in stature as a photojournalist, I lost in human empathy. It was this realization, starkly illuminated by a particular incident, which ultimately drove me from the profession.

At the top of my game, and on my way to cover Africa’s newest war, I boarded a plane for the Congo from my base in Nairobi, Kenya, on Aug. 7, 1998. Shortly after we hit cruising altitude, an al-Qaeda truck bomb struck the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, killing over 200 people, most of them Kenyans, and maiming hundreds more.

Spot news photography has, by definition, a short shelf life. As the biggest story to hit my region in years unfolded on the streets of Nairobi, I watched it on television from a neighbouring country. Days later, hearing how dozens of Kenyans had been blinded when the glass building adjacent to the embassy imploded, I was stricken with shame for minding far more about missing the story than the victims. Whether my shame was triggered by my own mother’s blindness or the cumulative fatigue of a decade of war journalism, I wasn’t sure. But one thing was clear: I was getting out of this life.

A few months later, in 1999, I put my cameras into storage and started a new career, documenting war crimes in West Africa for a human-rights organization via witness testimony. I spent hours with survivors of atrocities and used their own words to tell the story of war and its consequences. Immersing myself in a world of policy, justice and state-building, I worked to stop the atrocities I had witnessed as a conflict photographer. I had a daughter, I fostered a son and I didn’t look back.

The fighting in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, destroyed the church where this woman stopped to pray for a few minutes on Christmas Eve, 1992. Two years later, wounded civilians wait for medical attention at a hospital after a mortar attack on a crowded market.

More than 20 years later, I dragged out the boxes of negatives I’d stuffed into footlockers and looked at my images with a heavier heart and through different prisms.

I had spent two decades analyzing how states fail, why wars and extremism persist, and how they could have been prevented. Raising children had forever altered my understanding of the aching magnitude of loss felt by a bereaved family, and how this loss, if not managed, drives ever more violence.

As I went through my archive with perspectives shaped by the ensuing decades, I discovered many images capturing moments of tenderness, loss and sacrifice that, decades before, I’d not deemed newsworthy. In all honesty, many I hadn’t really seen or felt at all.

I discovered photos that made me feel a mother’s weight as she dropped to the floor after a lethal mortar attack, burying her face in her daughter’s blouse. Photos that allowed me to hear the quiet desperation of 10,000 feet walking into exile; photos that captured the profound terror of a prisoner in the moments before his execution.

Publishing some of these images now allows me to do belated justice to those moments.

I am still reckoning with what I witnessed over a tumultuous decade, the impact it had, the personal toll it took. But by publishing these photographs, I wanted to contribute to the historical visual record of what transpired during these conflicts, some of which were – and continue to be – chronically underreported, and to the record of the role women have played in conflict photojournalism.

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A Sudanese boy carries his malnourished baby brother to a feeding centre in 1998. Sudan erupted into conflict again earlier this year, a power struggle between two generals who overthrew strongman Omar al-Bashir a year and a half earlier.

Further, I hope they will spur reflection on the reasons for conflict recidivism, or relapse. Far too many of the images I took decades ago could have been taken today: Sudan is back at war as hundreds are murdered in Darfur and elsewhere, while a tenuous ceasefire holds in Ethiopia. Perpetual conflict plagues the Democratic Republic of the Congo. El Salvador’s ideological war has been replaced by bloody gang violence. In Bosnia, the alarm is ringing as ethnic tensions rise again. And while I haven’t worked in Israel, Gaza or Ukraine, the reprise of violence in these conflicts is exacting a devastating toll on civilians.

In many of these nations, ordinary people are faring no better while their unscrupulous leaders, and those who embolden them, carry on. The factors that drove conflict then – predatory governance, corruption and crushing poverty – continue unabated. These images hopefully serve as a reminder that we desperately need a lasting fix for the parts of our world that are broken, the continuing human cost being as tragic as it is immeasurable.

To be the last person on Earth that a dying woman or condemned man sees brings with it terrible moral uncertainty. But also, more importantly, it brings clarity and a certain responsibility. War photographers are historians, artists, trespassers and emotional bandits with complicated and contradictory motives, some virtuous, some not.

But whether conscious or not, their images, including those that capture profound violence and lacerating grief, bear witness to our shared humanity, our universality. Their work, my work, seeks to extract the very essence of conflict, distilling it for deeper reflection by both the heart and intellect. These images beseech us to work harder to honour those who have perished and protect the rest of us from humanity’s worst, most abject failure: its capacity for war.

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