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Interview with Michael Yon

A few weeks ago we contacted Michael Yon, a writer and photographer who is best known for his Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan covering the wars there. After giving us permission to use his photograph of Major Mark Bieger and Farah as part of our discussion of historical photographs, Michael Yon also agreed to answer a few questions we had about his work and life. A few quick biographical facts on Michael Yon: He was born in 1964. He grew up in Winter Haven, Florida and joined the Special Forces in the 1980s. In addition to his dispatches, Michael Yon has written three books: Danger Close and Moment of Truth In Iraq, and Iraq: Inside the Inferno. His fourth book, nearly completed, is The Bomb Boys. And now, without further ado, our interview with Michael Yon!
You became interested in traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan because friends in the military told you that the media was not reporting the whole story. What has kept you going back time and time again?
"There was more to it than just friends saying that the whole story was not being told. I also lost a couple of friends there in early 2004. After attending their funerals in Florida and Colorado, I became more focused on the wars. It was apparent that few if any people actually knew what was going on, and the few who might know were hard to identify against all the background noise."
Before you started traveling and posting your dispatches, had photography been a hobby of yours?
"Yes, I have enjoyed photography since I was about 19. I bought a Nikon FE2, which I enjoyed immensely. I would spend many hours trying to photograph hummingbirds and so forth. I experimented with IR film and generally just had a great time. There was and remains something about photography that is satisfying and enjoyable. I often take pictures just to be taking pictures."
What cameras do you prefer to use? What additional equipment (lenses, flashes, etc) do you find most useful?
"Before going to the wars, I went to digital due to my heavy travels. I made many thousands of images but they were more for note-keeping; primarily I am a writer. So I was using only a Sony F 707. I took that camera around the world more than half a dozen times. Just before going to Iraq in December 2004, I bought a Nikon D70, and used a standard 50mm lens for about half a year. I took one of the most well-known photos of the war with the little D70 and 50mm. By mid 2005, I took a leap to the Canon Mark II 1ds and started shooting with all-pro glass. Still mostly 50mm for a while. Again, I took some of the more well-known photos of the war with that Mark II 1ds, with 50mm f1.2 prime. There was a lot of night combat, so low noise and fast glass were advantages."
What is currently in your gear bag?
"I have accrued all sorts of gear. Much of the pro Canon glass, from ultra-wide to the big 400mm f2.8. Camera-wise, I will soon start selling off a bunch. Canon Mark II 1ds, Mark III 1d, Mark III 1ds, Mark IV 1d, three Mark II 5d, one of which is converted to IR with an IR converted flash, and one Mark III 5d. Soon I will pick up a 1DX. Low light and fast focus have been most important during combat. The only flash I ever use is IR converted. Otherwise, I never used a flash on the battlefields".
What story has been the most difficult for you to report?
"Deaths of US and British troops and civilians is definitely the hardest."
Contrary to that, which story was your favorite one to tell?
"Winning battles."
What is life as an embedded reporter like? Were you welcomed by the soldiers? Did any harbor hostility towards you? And how did reporters without your military background get on with the forces they embedded with?
"Well, I have never been a reporter, but as a writer I can tell you. The combat troops welcome you nearly universally. Sometimes there were troublemakers, but normally those were people you never actually met. A handful become angry or resentful when they see other units getting press while they get none, and on my last embed that actually led to real problems. But for the most part, writers, journalists, and photographers are made to feel very welcome. Combat troops who actually are doing combat are generally easy to get along with. The few troublemakers tend to be people who see little or no combat."
Have you encountered any problems with more traditional reporters and photographers?
"I have never had a problem with a reporter, a photographer, or another writer. They have been easy to get along with. Let me qualify that; I have never had any problems with war correspondents or reporters who were actually in the wars or who spent much time in combat. I have had severe problems with some milbloggers, most of whom never went to war, and the few who did usually went for short periods and saw little or no combat. The stay-at-home milbloggers can be a vicious lot. I started calling them milkooks because, well, they do kooky things like spamming my Wikipedia page with false biographical information. One prominent milblogger reported that I had been kicked off of an embed with Canadian forces for a security violation. I had never been embedded with Canadians. Most of the milblogs lack credibility and so they seem to latch onto other people in an attempt to gain attention. And so, yes, with these people, almost none of whom I have ever met, there have been problems. But the serious journalists, photographers and writers, and especially the real war correspondents, like real combat troops, are usually easy to get along with."
What was the first camera you took with you?
"The first camera to the war was a Nikon D70 with a popup flash that I taped down to avoid accidents in combat. One of the most known images of the war, a very sad photograph of a little girl named Farah dying in the arms of an American Soldier named Mark Bieger, was taken with the D70 and a 50mm lens. I used the Nikon D70 for roughly six months, and in mid-2005 switched to Canon Mark II 1Ds, with which I made the “Gates of Fire” series." "Just over the course of this handful of years, digital camera technology has improved dramatically. If I had the gear that is available now just eight years ago, the work would have been remarkably different. I can only imagine Capa on D-day with a Canon 1Dx and a GoPro on his helmet. It could have defined how we view that day."
What, if any, special techniques do you use in your photography?
"Most important to me was low light and fast focus. Nobody can be expected to make fine photography on the battlefield. It can be a challenge to make any photography at all. And so that is why I have made the steady march through all the latest gear in search of ever more ISO, using the best lenses I can find. I traveled to Hong Kong to find and buy a 50mm f1.0, which in the end I seldom used downrange, sticking more to the 50mm f1.2 and other lenses."
If you heard that someone else was interested in becoming a war photographer/journalist like yourself, what advice would you offer them?
"Practice, practice, practice. They must memorize the settings so that they can quickly make selections in pitch black, combat conditions. Often no light can be used at all. Practice night work. When actual combat breaks out, it can be easier because normally fires start, and of course there is fire from the weapons themselves, and so that can provide focus light. Many people say that you need a long lens, but in reality if you are doing serious combat work, you will far more often need wide angle because you will be in the middle of it. Learn how to sing “Que Sera Sera, Whatever will be will be” while you are in firefights and bullets are snapping and splashing close. If you can sing Que Sera Sera while bullets are snapping by, and still successfully set your camera, you are ready. Don't skimp on gear. Some people will say that a great photographer could do it with a box camera, but that is bull. That is like telling an F-22 pilot that he should be able to do the same things with a biplane." "US and British combat troops tend to be great to work with. (If you are embedded.) Just listen to them and do as they say when it comes to combat. They will look after you, but you also have to look after them and yourself. Bullets and bombs have taken many correspondents in Iraq and Afghanistan. One minute you have legs, and the next minute you don’t. Nobody can guarantee your safety and you are guaranteed to be in great danger. It often becomes hardcore." "Some correspondents, such as the famous Michael Ware from CNN, come back with severe, life-altering PTSD. I heard from him just today. He was out recently with Charley Sheen on assignment, of all things, in Hollywood. As with many war correspondents, Mr. Ware lost his job, his family, and any peace of mind he may have had. He was a courageous reporter whose cup got full. It can happen to any and everyone. Even if you do not get shot or blown up, if you stay in the wars long enough you will see an endless barrage of horrible things. You might come back with your ears ringing—you can’t keep earplugs in all the time—and an endless movie of war replaying in your head." "Before going off to war, one must consider these high risks, including the risk of returning with severe PTSD, which can cost you everything. If you are good with all that, there is more war out there than any one man or woman can ever cover. War, like the rain, never ends." "Finally, I believe that still photography is the most powerful method of communication, bar none. Nothing else, in a general sense, even comes close. Not writing, not video, not music, not oration or anything else. There will be examples where writing, for example, eclipses the power of photography, but in a general sense photography is king comm. That Canon in your hands is more powerful than any cannon ever made. It has the power to stop, start, or alter wars." "Why are photographs the most powerful conveyance? There are many reasons. Firstly, transmissibility. If photographs were a disease, they would be the most transmissible disease ever. They would be viruses that spread through soil, saliva, blood, air, animals, water, fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, and eating unwashed vegetables. With writing, the audience needs to be literate. Not only literate, but literate in the languages that it appears in. Writing takes time to read, and you have to be up close. Photographs are instantly transmitted in every language—including to illiterate people. Photographs can be seen from afar, and can be included in videos, printed on coffee cups, or rendered in a million ways, such as Che Guevara’s mug that we see on everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers around the world. Photographs can be “reprinted” on the radio and in writing. Do you remember the image of the naked girl running from the bombed village in Vietnam? Chances are, everyone reading this remembers that image, and that sentence just “reprinted” that image in the mind’s eye. Writing does not reprint that easily, nor does music or any other form of mass communication. And if a radio host says, “Do you remember the photographs of the Hindenburg disaster?” no doubt he just reprinted that in every mind that is listening. Generally speaking, no writing is ever that powerful. A powerful photograph with a potent caption is a little book, a little movie, that unfolds in your head." "Millions of copies of a photo can be made and transmitted around the world in seconds. (Already translated into every language on the planet.) Unlike video, you do not need electricity or a computer or television to see it. One momentary glance at a powerful photograph will suck you in like no writing or video can do, thereby increasing its transmissibility. Photographers must respect the power in their hands, and they should strive to use that power with the utmost ethics and caution. One photographer with one little camera can change history in the blink of an eye." Thanks again, Michael Yon, for both the interview and for your work! – da Bird
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