Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
Running up the street toward the Alfred Murrah Federal Building I could see that it had been blown up. The eight-story building was now a cratered mess, debris, collapsed floors and then there was the blood.
It would later come out that an American who had served in Gulf War 1 and others had driven a Ryder truck filled with fertilizer and accelerant into the drive-through of the building, lit a fuse and walked away. At 9:03 on the morning of April 19, 1995, the blast killed 168 including children in a second-floor daycare center.
The iconic photo from the event, taken by an ameuter photographer and purchased by me was of an Oklahoma City fireman holding the body of Baylee Almon.
My life that day changed forever. Six months after the bombing I found myself in a rage while covering a workshop of mental health professionals and physiologists, who were showing photos that I had taken and others that day and discussing their negative impact on the United States.
I went straight into total meltdown mode, shouting at the panel, calling them idiots and storming out. A young doctor followed me to my car.
"I can see you're upset," she said. Then she reached out, touched my hand and looked me straight into my eyes. "You need help," she said.
They call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it affects people in different ways. If you are the strong silent type, like me, your feelings are mostly suppressed as you deal with what you have to deal with.
A few days later I was on the couch in a physiatrists office pouring out my soul. I was to spend several months with him before accepting a position as the Chief Photographer for the Associated Press in Bangkok.
The next several years of my life were mostly a mess. The only good part was that I loved working in southeast Asia and had no desire to ever leave.
Then the Asian Tsunami happened in 2003.
I was better prepared this time but I still reflect often on the amount of death I have seen and photographed as part of my job as the Associated Press.
For me, April 19 is always a sad day.
Almost no light filtered through the hallways of the Kuwait International Hotel as I made my way to a seventh-floor suite the night of Feb. 27, 1991. It was the day that Iraq surrendered.
I could see by flashlight that the door to our rooms had been kicked open, the base around the heavy frame most likely splintered by Iraqi soldiers when they burglarized the hotel.
Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbor because Kuwait had money and after 10 years of fighting a war against Iran he was broke. The story goes that he asked for help and the Kuwaitis turned him down. So he decided just to take the country. The U.S. stood by and watched as the invasion began on Aug 2, 1990.
It took only about a month of coordinated airstrikes to put the vaunted Iraqi army on its knees. And it only took General Norman Swartzcroft about four days to defeat the Iraqis in an end around through the desert that surprised everyone including Saddam.
After all of that, I made my way to Kuwait City as part of a Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information Press pool. The Americans had already filled all of theirs in an attempt to control the narrative.
Over dinner one night earlier in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, an American naval captain told me that the public affairs mission during the Vietnam War had gone wrong for the U.S. He said that that wasn't going to happen again.
Spots in the Allied press pools went to those reporters and photographers friendly to the American military. Journalists were issued credentials by the Saudi government. If you lost your credentials or had them jerked by the U.S. military or Saudis you were screwed. Those credentials gave you free movement through just about all of the military checkpoints. You also had access to all of the military press conferences and were eligible for a slot in one of the highly sought after press pools.
Since I had arrived late to the party -- I had broken my elbow six weeks earlier -- the Saudi press pool was my outlet. When the pool arrived in Kuwait City during the middle of Iraq's retreat, I saw a chance to go off on my own and took it.
After my break from the pool, I soon managed to get a car and driver. My driver, as it turned out, was a well to do Kuwaiti, who was out and about with his son when we met.
He spoke some English and immediately took me to local police headquarters. He escorted me past guards and then introduced me to whom I took to be the commander.
Being the polite host, the commander offered me thick expresso-style black coffee and sugar cookies. In the background, I could hear men screaming, the kind that comes from men being tortured.
I was allowed to photograph some of the Iraqi prisoners. The commander even offered to execute a couple of them for photos. The day was getting to be surreal.
I politely declined, returned to his office, and sat down to fill out caption bags for my film on a comfortable leather couch. I woke up hours later with drool running down my face. It was dark outside and another driver and another Buick Le Sabre were offered to take me to a hotel where there were other "Americans."
As we drove, barrels filled with burning trash marked almost every intersection and heavily armed Kuwaitis, their faces covered, stood guard. My driver stopped at each checkpoint and offered a conversation. All around were the haunting sounds of automatic weapons fire but it was unclear if the shots came during gun fights or celebrations.
When we arrived at the Kuwait International Hotel, it seemed as if there were no guards or employees on duty. Everything was dark. There was no electricity. At a toll booth for the hotel's parking garage, a Filippino pulled a set of keys from a wooden box and handed them to me.
"We love you George Bush," she said.
I took the keys and then began looking for the room, which turned out to be a large suite on the seventh floor.
As I climbed the unlit stairs to the suite I ran into Paris AP photographer Laurent Rebors. "Holy Shit" I shouted and then we hugged each other as if we were long-lost brothers.
Laurent had a gaggle of French agency photographers tagging along with him. Once the introductions and handshakes were finished, we headed straight for the hotel's kitchen to see what we could scrounge. All we found were metal grates that we later used as grills while cooking with sterno.
We ran freely throughout Kuwait City over the next few days as we chased the story. Each day you would notice fresh bodies in the streets. Most were those of Iraqi soldiers who had failed to get out of town in time. A single bullet to the back of the head was usually the cause of death.
By our second day in Kuwait City, AP photographers Scott Applewhite and Don Mell arrived with much needed equipment. The gear included a heavy satellite dish, a portable generator and all of the stuff necessary to process film and transmit it to AP Photos in New York. Each piece of that equipment had to be lugged up seven flights of stairs to the suite we had commandeered.
NBC News was across the hall and other media outlets were nearby. It took all day to lug our stuff upstairs. The generator was our only source of electricity. Outside, oil well fires burned, the sky was black and the air smelled of sulfur.
Brian Horton became our photo editor and I ended up processing most of the film. The AP being a cooperative was keen to keep good relations with its members newspapers. Around 10 big-market newspapers had made it to Kuwait but none of them brought any film processing equipment or color negative chemicals.
Horton kept the members mostly happy thanks to our equipment but when they learned that they would only get two rolls of film each, a near mutiny ensue. They shouted and threatened to call New York to complain. Horton looked them in the eye and said: "not on our phone."
I'm positive that Brian took some angry phone calls from our editors in New York. But in the end, it was a lack of fresh water that killed our operations. Without it, washing the chemicals from the film was impossible.
Camping from hell was what Horton called our experiences in Kuwait City. Journalists and US soldiers wandered through the the halls of the hotel all day and night. It was next to impossible to keep the stragglers out of our space.
However, at least on one occasion not having a front door to our suite paid off. But that's a story for another time.
Meanwhile, across the hall wafted the unmistakable smell of fresh coffee and eggs and bacon. NBC had forgotten to bring a satellite dish but they had a cook and a buffet line for their staffers while we dined on MRE's.
Things were about to change, though. I was being sent back to Dharan. I would drive Horton out and stay in Dharan to staff our Saudi office. I had in all spent about three weeks in Kuwait and Kuwait City. Officially the war was over. It was now all about mop-up photos of a destroyed city and a war that lasted only a short while. I had always envisioned riding aboard a tank into Bagdad with US forces. It was not meant to be.
All around me the carnage of Gulf War 1 spilled out on the sands of Kuwait. There was destruction In every direction -- tanks, vehicles., too many men. The retreating Iraqis had set many of Kuwait's oil wells on fire. It looked like hell on earth.
I was 39 years old and in my eighth year as a photographer for the world's oldest and largest wire service, The Associated Press. I had served in the US Navy, ran loose with Navy Seals in training exercises. I had been shot off the flight deck of several aircraft carriers and earned expert marksmanship with both rifles and pistols. My last posting in the Navy was with the Atlantic Fleet Combat Camera Group. I had military experience, more than most of my AP brothers who had none.
I was one of the first AP photographers to arrive in Saudi Arabia prior to the first Gulf War. Sadam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and I and three other AP photographers were covering the war build-up that we thought was forever.
After three months of photographing US forces in training, I went home convinced that there was never going to be any fighting.
Then in mid January 1991 while in Tampa, Fla., to cover Super Bowl XXV, I fell one morning while jogging and fractured my elbow. It seemed my involvement in coverage of the war was over as I was in a cast from knuckles to mid right arm.
But six weeks later, the Allied air war had destroyed numerous Iraqi tanks and other armored vehicles. As it happened, the vice president of AP Photos, Vin Alabiso, called around Feb. 20 and asked if I wanted to return. I said yes and was on my way back the next day. I met up with AP photo editor Brian Horton and two others and soon we were on a Saudi Arabia Air 747 to Jeddah. It took some wrangling but we were flown into Dharan by the Saudi Air Force.
Once there AP photographer Don Mell got me a spot in a Saudi media pool. Mell was the best scrounger/fixer I had ever worked with. From his time in Lebanon, he knew the Middle East and how to make things work. Nothing happened unless Mell first checked it out.
The morning that I left with the Saudia photo pool Horton came over to say goodbye and good luck. My friend reached up and tightened the straps on my web gear and then stuffed a granola bar in one of the pouches. It turned out to be my only meal in the next 36 hours.
The pool was loaded and driven to a waiting Saudi C-130 cargo plane. It was a hell of a ride from there. We flew through some dangerous thunderstorms but arrived safely at an airstrip near the border city of Khafji.
We then rode into the ongoing liberation of Kuwait aboard an airlines shuttle van, the
kind that one hops at LAX to go from the terminal to the rental car lot.
A gaping hole in the concrete wall between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was the crossing we took into the battle zone as we followed behind an Abrahams M1A tank on our way to Kuwait City.
The reporting pool soon arrived in Kuwait City and there were still street battles between Iraqi stragglers and Kuwait resistance fighters. All around buildings had been torched or bombed. Fires burned everywhere.
We were given about 30 minutes to photograph or interview people on the scene before having to get back in the van for the return trip to Saudi Arabia. "Not me," I thought. I moved next to an open window in the van where an AP reporter was sitting. "Hey man give this to Horton", I said and then slipped him several bags of exposed film.
He looked at me and asked where I was going. "Not back", I told him. A burned-out Sheraton across the street became my rally point. A Kuwaiti handed me a warm 7-Up, hugged me and yelled: "We love George Bush".
In the time it took me to chug the drink the hotel manager had wrangled me an English-speaking driver and a late-model Buick LeSabre. Soon I was riding along in the middle of the carnage known as "the Valley of Death."
The six-lane road used as retreat by the Iraqis had been heavily bombed and strafed by US fighter jets. Dead soldiers and destroyed equipment was everywhere.
Eventually, I ended up at the Kuwait International Hotel where a Filipino maid handed me the keys to a suite. Iraqi soldiers had kicked all the doors in so the keys were really pointless. I slept that night on a very nice bed but kept my Swiss Army knife at the ready. I was joined the next morning by other journalists and we scrounged food and coffee from US ration kits that had fallen off the back of supply trucks.
Everywhere was chaos. The Kuwaitis who had not fired a shot in anger were hell bent on shooting up the sky. Burst after burst of automatic weapons fire was constantly shot off all around.
AP photographers Don Mell and Scott Applewhite arrived the next day with the equipment needed to process film and send the images back to the US. Most of the stuff was heavy, especially the generator and the maritime satellite dish.
Meanwhile, all of the reporters were running loose, chasing stories on mass executions at the Kuwait City zoo. It was all bullshit. Chaos is a difficult thing to manage. I found that just getting out to take photos was the only realistic plan.
The following morning Horton arrived in a rented Audi with FOOD. Bags of delicious pita bread, corned beef and lots of Spam. He settled into the workroom and began editing photos and coordinating with the reporters and print editors.
Each day was a new experience. Horton, myself, and the other journalists clung to the fragile belief that if we got into trouble someone somehow would help us.
In what seemed a short time, the Kuwait Hilton had generators brought in and electricity was restored. A week later there was water for showers. The chaos all but vanished as law and ordered slowly returned.
And then it was time to leave.
Horton was needed back in the States and I was assigned to run the photo operations in Saudi Arabia.
The only way back was a road trip through the Valley of Death. So off Brian and I went with just a couple of bottles of water, some canned tuna and noodles and a cassette tape of Tina Turner's greatest hits.
About three hours into our drive the Kuwait border and its guards appeared. Not wishing to encounter trouble I swung in behind an Egyptian six-wheeled troop carrier. We were headed for that hole in the fence. The Egyptians easily made it through but seconds later I was stuck in high center, one half of our car in Saudia Arabia and the other in Kuwait. Panic does not begin to describe my emotions. What now? Horton and I got out and surveyed the problem. We were stuck on what was left of a concrete barrier that tanks had knocked down. There was no way we could push it out. As we pondered our next move some other Egyptian soldiers thankfully came to our aid.
They lined up their troop carrier and the bumper of our Honda and then "BANG" rammed us through the border hole. Horton cheered as I stopped just long enough to get him back in the car.
Tuna and noodles never tasted so good and Tina Turner never sounded so good as we safely headed to Dharan.
As a wire service photographer for more than 30 years, I have seen my share of death and misery. It started back in 1984 when I was assigned to help AP Photographer Lenny Ignelzi cover the funerals of the victims of the San Ysidro massacre where a lone gunman shot and killed 21 people in a MacDonalds.
Watching people grieve over the loss of a loved one and then attempt to photograph that without being disrespectful to the family of the victim is done with either empathy for the people or you can just be a jerk and blast away figuring you will never see these people again so WTF.
During the funerals of the Edmond, Oklahoma post office massacre I realized immediately the victims were almost family to me. Suddenly a fine line between doing my job and just walking away was drawn for me.
For a long time when I had to photograph a funeral, I chose a telephoto lens and just stood back. No need to get close, just frame it up and shoot.
Fast forward a couple of years, I had taken the post as the southeast Asia photo editor for the Associated Press responsible for covering such things as the independence vote in East Timor.
Now I bet money that the average American can't spell East Timor much less find it on a map.
But for the past 25 years (back in 1998), it has been a part of Indonesia and is not far from the island where the famous Komodo dragons live. Indonesian President B. J. Habib had brokered a deal with the United Nations by where they would monitor the independence referendum making sure it was fair and square.
Leading up to the vote there had clashes between pro-independence factions and paramilitary thugs loyal to Jakarta.
Almost the entire population of East Timor came out to vote, seventy-five percent approved the measure to leave control of Indonesia who had invaded some 25 years earlier. The violence began almost immediately following the vote. I had arrived a couple of days before the vote and in my posting on East Timor 1998, I detail that.
What I want to share here is a moment. It is not a pretty one though.
This is the moment when this family realizes their worst nightmare has come true. Their son killed the day before in a clash between East Timor Pro Independence factions and paramilitary thugs has been placed in a makeshift morgue in Dili.
This photograph haunts me to this day some 20 years later. I can not look at it and not feel sad for this family and their loss. I can not look at it and not feel anger for those that killed him. I feel certain no police came, no report was taken and then just a funeral for this young man that afternoon.
I photographed that funeral as part of the ongoing news coverage of the East Timorese story. Many times I have been welcomed into a home where tragedy has struck and so, in this case, it was similar to others I had photographed. A very poor family dealing with the loss of their oldest son while outside in the capital of Dili the situation was going from bad to worse.
When I first began as a wire service photographer, I shot mostly, Tri-X black and white film. For those of you who never had to carry a light meter or work with a manual camera, it was the best possible choice. I mention this because back then photojournalism and photography, in general, required a thought process. I spent countless hours in both a print and film processing darkroom honing my craft. I was always on the lookout for new processing methods and developer combinations.
It only became a point and shoot world when either you were chasing criminals being arraigned at the county courthouse or trying to shoot a subject without first asking permission. “From the hip at f/8” became a standard for me in my early days.
It wasn’t long before the managers of newspapers in the United States demanded an all color look. Most only had the technology to put that color photo on the front page but soon to serve the clients, out went the Tri-X and in came Kodacolor 400. In a word, it was... awful. The film was made up of three layers of emulsion that recorded, red, green and blue. Tri-X had only one layer. Making matters worse you had to print color negative on a special paper in total darkness. For the next few years, I don’t recall seeing a sharp image. The industry was changing, and all film was on life support. I continued to slop color negative film while on deadline for the Associated Press through a bunch of motel 6 bathrooms. However, something revolutionary was just around the corner. It would change my professional career forever.
I first saw a digital camera while attending the first ever class for wire photographers on the AP News Camera 2000. The Associated Press was moving in the digital age, and myself and 14 others had been chosen to take the first steps. The old guard poo-pooed the camera and technology immediately. “This will never work” I heard most of them say. Vice President for Photos Vin Alabiso and Associated Press President Lou Bocarrdi saw it differently. Not only was it going to work, but we would also be the ones to make it happen. Soon there would be no more darkrooms and none of the messy chemicals that came with them. I could not have been happier. I discovered early on that the world of wire service photojournalism was never about quality.
Oklahoma was my first posting as a wire service shooter. The photo staff consisted of just one person, me. The entire state was my responsibility. That meant if a tornado wiped out a town 150 miles away, it was my job to go there, shoot the scene, find a motel, put together a darkroom, process a few rolls of film and then make a print. As soon as possible no more than two photos were transmitted, usually taking about 10 minutes per photo. All the gear necessary to do that filled the trunk of a compact car. The transmitter alone weighed 70 pounds.
Prior to the digital camera though there were some improvements. A transmitter that sent images without making a print was used for a few years making the print darkroom unnecessary. All the images I shot in Gulf War 1 was transmitted back to New York using this technology.
Today the iPhone you carrying in your pocket has more power than any of the early digital cameras. When I photographed Pol Pot dead in the jungle with digital I had no idea how things were about to change. The shot of the young Khmer Rouge soldier looking lost while standing in the hut with Pol Pots body was a 1.7 meg file. Most phones today have at least 8 to 12 megapixels. It looked great in color on the front page of the New York Times the next day. But that camera was all manual.
In a very few short years of technology as it is so often the case digital photography has taken huge leaps in solving the quality and speed of the image. It seemed we were swapping out cameras every 18 months. New and Better was the rage.
Currently, everything is automatic. My iPhone shoots photos that have been used in news websites and everyone is a photojournalist now. I am so glad my career ended in 2011.
This blog is my way of sharing what I learned along the way.
World famous Magnum Photographer Phillip Jones Griffiths use to visit my office in Bangkok regularly. He was this larger than life Welsh man who had what I considered the driest sense of humor I had ever known. He caught me often with that fish hook in my mouth look and then he would give a faint little smile and say something that let me know he was not serious.
He arrived at my office in that late '90s wearing a Cambodia neck scarf and what we often referred to as a "Boonie" a floppy hat that soldiers in the jungle wore.
The digital photography revolution had arrived in Bangkok, my photos of Pol Pot dead in the jungle, taken with an AP 2000 news camera, had changed things. The quality back then was horrible. The file size was 1.7 megs and required quite a bit of working in an editing program before transmitting. Looking back on it now I can see why Phillip was skeptical. Phillip carried 40 rolls of Tri X black and white film and a smidgen of color slide film in his bags every time he arrived in Bangkok.
I never paid much attention to the cameras Phillip was carrying, so many people showed up in the Associated Press' office wanting something back when I was running things. Phillip was not one of them, other than to say hello and company for lunch. He did, however, inquire at great length about the digital revolution. At the time he was shuttling back and forth to Vietnam working on one of his books, "Vietnam Inc."
We would spend hours talking about black and white photography, my first love. Just listening to his stories made me think. I began my career with the Associated Press, and it was only black and white. A few short years later we had moved to all color, it was awful. I don't think I saw a sharp image for years.
At the time the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was on the run from Royalist forces. Key leaders had either been captured or killed, and the average soldier and their families were fleeing to Thailand.
We had traveled together to the border area near Surin, Thailand. Just about everywhere you looked Khmer Rouge soldiers in their baggy green Chinese made uniforms were on the move. Refugee camps were filling fast.
At one point I shot this Izusu truck loaded to the roof with refugees. When I started to file the image, Phillip, looking over my shoulder spoke to me as I worked. "For fuck's sake David it's not an Isuzu add." I had made the image vertical showing the full truck on the road. It was clear suddenly that none of that truck was important, what was the photo was the mass of people on top of it fleeing the fighting. "Oh, and get rid of that color," he said, "It complicates things." The next day it ran on the front page of the New York Times in black and white.
The early days
I don’t go on great adventures much these days. I am retired from my post as Chief Photographer for the Associated Press based for 15 years in Bangkok, Thailand. As a young US Navy photographer back in 1972 I first heard of Bangkok from a Chief Photographer who described it and Thailand as the most photogenic place in the world. The first time I saw some of his photos of Thailand Buddhist monks and others in southeast Asia I was hooked.
I left the US Navy in 1979, worked a two-year stint as a newspaper photographer before taking on a part-time position with the Associated Press. That was 1981 an in a year it was full time with all the benefits of company equipment, salary and health care. John Shurr, may he rest in peace, had great faith in me and got me hired.
It was a dream come true for me. Since I was the only photographer I did mostly what I wanted but that changed. There were reporters to deal with and stories that the AP covered that I felt were largely a waste of my time. In Oklahoma, it was anything that had to do with the state house. At one point the only assignments I was getting was a weekly news conference by the Governor. I, however, spent my other time chasing police scanner calls and wandering the streets shooting feature art or working on a photo story. I also covered most of the sporting events at the major universities.
My mentor, Frank Hoy, may he rest in peace, did a great job of guiding me along the way with critics of my work. Franks always knew how to punch my buttons and when I got lazy I would hear from him for sure. I first met Frank back in 1975 when he was my news photography professor at Syracuse University.
In 1982 I was married, had a young daughter and needed stability. The sh position at the AP was just that.
In 1984 I was assigned to help with coverage of the Democratic convention in San Francisco. On a tag along assignment with veteran AP shooter Charles Tasnadi, a legend, I made a photo of Geraldine Ferraro, the first female Vice Presidential candidate, and Calif Rep. Barbra Boxer. (http://latimes.tumblr.com/post/4140855994/geraldine-ferraro)
That image set things in motion for me. That week a gunman walked into a McDonalds in San Diego and went on a shooting spree killing more than 20 people. At the end of the Democratic convention two days later I was tapped by management to help out in San Diego with the story and coming funerals. I am sure this was a “let’s see what the kid can do” moment for AP Photo managers out of New York. When I reported to San Diego a message was waiting on me from my local Chief Of Bureau at Oklahoma City to come home.
I stayed a week and when I returned to my home base I met a furious manager. He was upset that I had not told my New York boss that I had a state meeting to get back to where my job was to run a slide projector showing the winners of an AP-sponsored contest. I could have surrendered to the manager but I felt that while Oklahoma was my assigned territory the Associated Press was my career. I was not about to turn my back on future assignments no matter how much heat I would take.
My work had been noticed and liked by my New York handlers. This was the beginning of my adventures in photojournalism. It would take more than 10 years before the posting Bangkok was open. On my annual performance evaluations you had to list your domestic choice of next duty station and your international a well. Bangkok was always on my list.
Tales from the Trail
David Lee Longstreath is a retired wire service photographer with more than 40 years experience on assignments around the world. He currently lives in upcountry Thailand.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org