Writing History with a Camera
Growing up I was fascinated by the Life Magazine photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Larry Burrows. My passion for photojournalism started with a romantic notion of traveling the world and quickly evolved into a desire to witness and report. I am very much influenced by literature and great reportage of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski. I still try to read as much as possible as I feel that literature helps you see and feel the world in a much more intimate way. As a photojournalist, I am simply writing with a camera, using empathy and experience to connect with my subjects.
My subjects in this image are young people driving in a red Mini through the devastation in Beirut.
I took this image after a long morning walk through rubble while documenting people returning to what was left of their homes. Let me be very clear about this, because there has been some misunderstanding about the matter – the image did not win an award because it was a portrayal of rich or poor Lebanese; it did not win because it showed people sightseeing. The jury in Amsterdam spoke about its contradictions and how it is an image that tells a story about war, an image one can keep looking at.
Long before anyone met these people in the car, I stated in an interview that it is not right to judge these individuals. As far as I knew, they had lost their home, or loved ones, in the war that summer as many thousands of Lebanese had. It does not matter if you were from New York or in the neighborhood where I made the image; we were all struck by the total destruction and carnage. They were just viewing the scene with a lot more panache than the rest of us.
They are not flattered by the image; I did not take it for them. What is important is it is reality, not staged or manipulated in any way. Moments like these can tell us volumes about cultures, individuals and the ability of people to persevere in war. Some have tried to alter the reality that this image celebrates, and that disturbs me greatly. In the end, I have a strong bond with and deep respect for the Lebanese people. This picture could not have been made on any other patch of land in the world. It is a picture about Beirut…lovely, sad, surreal Beirut.
We often think we know what war looks like, but it is not until we get to war when we realize it looks like us. I am not a war junkie. I do not consider myself particularly brave. It is a job I got into out of a passion for travel and reporting. I now consider it a duty to venture to parts of the world too often ignored. I always take precautions and follow advice from locals. While there are some very intense moments, mostly you wait and look and wait some more.
Hear more of what Spencer has to say on NPR. Spencer’s interview airs in most markets the weekend of May 5-8. You can find local times and broadcast frequencies by clicking “local listings” at the top of our website.