Is it likely you can get embedded with British forces again? What about other different countries – does the attitude differ country to country towards embedded reporters?
The British invited me several times when news broke of my disembed with U.S. I had planned to go with them this summer, but after what happened with U.S. (and disembed with U.K. last year), it makes more sense to go alone. U.S./U.K. will not hesitate to waste your time and money. No longer makes sense to embed. Not with so much censorship creeping in under McChrystal and the unpredictable, moody nature of senior public affairs officers such as Admiral Gregory Smith.
What made you take up being a photographer?
Photography is fascinating. Insofar as communications, I would argue that still photography is by far the most powerful and versatile communications vector for reaching large audiences quickly and powerfully.
You’ve previously said that you initially used the camera as a notepad for your writing – when did it start to kick in as a proper creative tool?
In the earliest days, I just liked taking photos so I bought a new Nikon FE2. This might have been 1983. I shot mostly plants, birds, weather, whatever interested me. But for years I hardly picked up a camera. Then I started writing in about 1996 and eventually bought a cheap digital as a note pad. I shot thousands of images mostly as notes and finally photography started taking a life of its own.
What were you writing about when you first started out then? How do you feel that has developed over the years alongside your photography?
My first book is called “Danger Close” and you can see it on Amazon.com. My other writing projects are still somewhat confidential as have had to put them on hold during the war. Insofar as the relationship between writing and photography, the more you do both, the more they meld into one. Writing and photography used to seem like completely different art forms, and on some level they are, but on another level they are the same thing.
What sort of gear do you use – how much do you have to hump about? How robust does equipment have to be to work in the desert?
For the first few years, I was a minimalist. Not because I was truly a minimalist but because my skills were not sufficient to warrant buying top of the line gear. I went to Iraq in December 2004 with a Nikon D70 and a cheap 50mm prime. I made a readers’ choice Time photo of the year with that camera and lens. (Dispatch title: “Little Girl.”) For probably the first couple years of work, nearly all of my images were made through 50mm prime. In mid-2005, I bought a Canon Mark II 1ds and on nearly the first mission, shot some of my most well-known photos during a firefight. (Title: “Gates of Fire.”) These days I shoot with only the best bodies and lenses available, using everything from fisheye to 400mm f2.8. The gear has no serious problems in the desert but often you need to bag it up from the dust.
I read an article recently which detailed other photographers using their iphone to get smaller, more intimate pictures in a war zone – is that anything you’ve been tempted by? Are you also thinking about making more use of video?
Had planned to use more video this year until the disembed. Have not heard of photographers using their iPhones for smaller, more intimate pictures, but I did buy a phone with a good camera. When you walk in with a Canon Mark IV, everyone notices and it changes the situation which is bad for writing and for photography. Few people pay attention to the small cameras.
Does your approach differ on reporting from a small, tightly compacted conflict like in Bangkok to one spread over a wider time and space in Afghan/Iraq?
The fighting I saw in Bangkok was very localized. You could walk to everything or take a motorbike. Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is/was spread over vast distances and requires far more logistics. In Thailand, the fighting was happening near the base of my hotel (which hotel was hit with a grenade while I was talking on the phone). At times at night the fighting was so close that I could crawl onto the balcony or just walk downstairs and watch. It was odd. I would eat breakfast and walk straight out into the mix by walking across the street into the Red Shirt camp.
How do you find a balance when writing or shooting delicate moments?
Tough to do sometimes. Especially with a big camera which changes the situation. It’s all judgment.
Does people’s behaviour and attitude towards you in those moments vary between countries?
Yes, much. Was just in heavy fighting in Thailand and they were letting people photograph anything under the sun. U.S. or U.K. troops would never have allowed photographers to shoot some of the gore they were shooting. I am not in for shock photos but some were and they were getting plenty of shock photos and nobody was stopping them. Every culture is different. Some are camera hams, some are the opposite, and there is everything in between.
Some of your best photography work is outside of the actual conflict, things like the Kopp-Etchells effect and the glowing star field pictures. Apart from probably being relatively relaxing to shoot, what do you feel you get out of this particular aspect of photography?
That is pure enjoyment! That’s why I love photography. Photography can be like that box of chocolates. You know there is a great shot, but are not sure what you are going to get. This is especially true of low light shooting.
What other photographers, writers or artists do you like?
No particular favourites because there are so many great ones. There is no shortage of outstanding photographers, writers and artists. It’s like sampling food across Asia or Europe. Don’t force me to pick a favourite because I don’t have one but get to enjoy widely. That said — when I think of art, Italy often comes to mind.
Is this something you see yourself doing in 10/20 years time? Could you see yourself reporting on a different area or subject?
Exploration has been a lifelong passion. Writing and photography are also passions, and I like to combine these things with something worthwhile. Something that benefits mankind and the planet. Something that promotes peace while recognizing reality.
See more of Michael dispatches, go to http://www.michaelyon-online.com/
For more background on Michael, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Yon