If actors learn to avoid children for their tendency to upstage their professional elders, soldiers -- and the photographers following them -- learn to avoid donkeys and chickens for a similar but much more dangerous tendency: to make noise when humans pass them by. On a sunny day in Afghanistan in 2010, while out with a squad of Canadian soldiers, the renowned photographer Anja Niedringhaus learned this particular lesson the hard way. Moving along a pathway sandwiched between 10-foot walls, the squad came upon a chicken, which one soldier kicked out of the way. In an instant Niedringhaus captured the moment: the sunshine and dust, the chicken tumbling feet over head, the soldier's leg locked straight with boot mid-air, his fellow squad-members grinning behind him. But the squawking chicken had alerted others and seconds later, a grenade was thrown over the wall, hitting the soldier on the helmet before falling to the ground and exploding, its shrapnel catching both the soldier and the photographer. Niedringhaus, injured in the rear hip area, was evacuated to a military hospital in Kandahar. A few days later, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer flew to India for another assignment.
"You have to get back on the horse," she says with a knowing smile, adding that she was jealous of the injured soldier who was able to return to his unit after a couple of days. Getting to know a unit is important and helpful, and the Canadian Regiment would leave Afghanistan before she could return to them. Niedringhaus was also missed: She later received a t-shirt from the squad reading "Kiss My Shrapnel."
Niedringhaus was in Berlin recently for an exhibition of her war photographs at C/O Berlin, which shared the space with a larger exhibition, "The Uncanny Familiar: Images of Terror." That exhibition shows the way images of terror are used by, and make their way into our subconscious via, the media. On the one hand, it's clear why Niedringhaus is here -- her images are a direct result of one sort of terror or another. On the other hand, she's an odd choice, because she doesn't trade in images of terror so much as images around terror -- images before, after and despite the terror: Afghani boys riding a merry-go-round, one of them pointing a toy submachine gun; a menacing G.I. Joe doll sticking out of a Marine's backpack; an Iraqi woman enduring a U.S. raid, her piercing, haunted eyes calmly finding the camera between two moving, stressed-out Marines; young Afghan girls hugging and smiling as soldiers prepare camp behind them; laughing U.S. Marines dressed as gladiators two days before one of them will lose his leg; President Bush serving Thanksgiving dinner to U.S. troops, carrying a tray holding a turkey several hours old and fake fruit; hundreds of khaki-clad U.S. troops in Kuwait, gathered around a bright red Santa Claus.
Niedringhaus says she detests the term 'war photographer' -- "I take pictures, I don't shoot them" -- and while she has taken images of dead soldiers, she doesn't use them. "I don't think these pictures are helping. They are not necessarily telling the partly gruesome stories of war better. I believe it's actually the contrary -- an image of a dead person makes people turn away."
Rather than horrify, Niedringhaus's aim is to show 'normality,' or what passes for it in war zones. And whereas many of the artists showing in "The Uncanny Familiar" used news images as a stepping off point for art works, Niedringhaus is all about the original moment in time -- the truth, or as close as she can get to it. "I want eye contact with my subjects, I don't want to steal anything. I don't want to hide anything, to sneak." And eye contact you get in her work. Although you sense that she would rather her gender not come up as a subject, she acknowledges that she might not have gotten certain images were she not a woman -- or at least were she not the woman she is. The young Afghan girls would not likely smile at a male photographer, nor would the member of an Afghan honor guard likely tip his hat with a flirtatious smile.
More importantly, Niedringhaus brings to the table of war imagery scenes we might not otherwise have but for her sensibility: a single line of U.S. soldiers seen from behind as they move quietly across a plain, shoulders slumping slightly in apparent resignation. When I ask her about this image, she tells me that the first thing she had noticed that day was the light, and that the soldiers appeared to her as a line of dancers. She had stepped out of their line to get the shot, a serious risk given that the reason the squad is in one line is to avoid explosive devices.
Niedringhaus, in other words, could have been seriously maimed or killed getting the shot. That said, she is no risk freak. One of her more arresting images is taken from the inside of a medevac Blackhawk helicopter, as a soldier yells directly into the camera -- at the photographer, whom he mistook for a medic. She explains that medevac copters normally come in for a very quick landing -- ten seconds -- and then take off again. But on this day, they decided they were going back in, under fire, to pick up this soldier, who had been hiding in a nearby row of palm trees. And she found herself thinking, "'No, I don't want this, no.' We have this saying in German, 'Mit gegangen, mit gefangen' -- walk with them, get caught with them." In the end, everyone made it out alive and well, and she's still in touch with the rescued soldier. "He's just become a father," she says.
A few days after our talk, and her boyfriend's birthday party, Niedringhaus set out for the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where she embedded with the Pakistani Army. She may be relatively cautious, but it's no life for a mother, she says, and the photographer has no children. But despite being based in Geneva she maintains a home near her siblings and their children, in the small central German town of Kaufungen. Her accountant thinks she's crazy, she tells me, for having a mortgage while only being there for two months out of the year. "But it's important for me to have a home to come back to."
I ask Niedringhaus if she felt herself a product of the media at the center of "Images of Terror," if she had been inspired by iconic news imagery into becoming a photojournalist. But her beginnings were in fact more prosaic, and perhaps better for it: As it happened a neighbor was the editor of the local paper, and she admired his unconventional lifestyle. She began working for the paper at 17, even before she had her driver's license (which didn't stop her from lying about it and driving the company car to her first job). At 24, she covered the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and then began working for the European Press Agency. The following year she went to Yugoslavia, and spent much of the next ten years documenting the Balkan wars. Of that experience, she says, "I was very young and was thinking at that stage that I could stop a war with my photography. Sadly since the early 90s there was for me never a year without any wars or conflicts." She has covered the post-9/11 events, and the fall of the Taliban, and in 2002 began working for the Associated Press (AP), for whom she continues to work.
Though less known for it, Niedringhaus also photographs sporting events such as Wimbledon and the world track championships, and makes a comparison between the two -- between the front line and the finish line. "It's the same, you work under enormous pressure because you know you have that one single chance to capture that very moment." But she will be remembered for the war photos, or rather the photographs of people drawn into conflict, and the message she successfully imparts from them -- "that these are human beings who day by day, minute by minute are suffering. What has haunted me from the time of the Balkan wars on is to see the extraordinary will and energy human beings can have to survive."