While trying to wrap up a long and tedious project at the office a few nights ago, I turned up my radio, which is perpetually tuned to the local NPR station. I rarely listen to the radio at work, but something told me to turn it on. I pushed the button just as an astonishingly frank and utterly gripping interview with Tyler Hicks was beginning. Seconds into the interview — and for the first time in a long, long while — everything around me fell out of focus. The papers strewn about my desk. The empty coffee cups on top of the papers. The voices of colleagues on very “important” conference calls down the hall. It all blurred as though filtered through my fastest prime lens opened all the way. For half an hour, my cognitive depth of field became razor thin and sharp. The only thing I could do was listen to Tyler Hick’s words and stare into his images.
You’ve all seen and been stopped in your tracks by Hicks’s photographs — you may just not be consciously aware of who he is. Tyler Hicks has been covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a staff photographer for the New York Times since 2002. He is frequently embedded with the combat troops. If you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the world around you for the past eight years, you know his work. And regardless of what you think about war — those presently being waged or the concept in the abstract — your understanding of modern warfare and the toll it takes has likely been informed by the photographs Hicks has captured.
Before reading any further, I urge to click on the links and (re)acquaint yourself with some of his photographs. The Pictures of the Year International website is a particularly good place to start — in 2007 Hicks was named the Newspaper Photographer of the Year and in 2009, he was part of the NYT team that shared the Pultizer Prize for International Reporting. His award-winning photo essays will enrich and enlighten you in ways that my words never will.
Since listening to the interview, I’ve been immersing myself in Hicks’ work. It’s overwhelming. Visually and emotionally. I look directly at the photo for a long while and then feel the urge to look away. Yet, averting my eyes doesn’t change anything. These are images that remain with you. As I photographer, I am left to wonder what seeing — and then showing — all the things that Hicks has witnessed — and exposed — does to a person. I’ve listened to the interview on The Story three times and tried to imagine what it must be like to be him. I doubt I’d ever have courage to photograph in combat, belly to the ground, head down as the bullets fly over head and lives come to an abrupt end.
But I do aspire to document human struggle, triumph, and emotion in its most real, raw and undeniable expression. I want to bear witness. And perhaps, in small ways one or two of the photographs I’ve taken to date accomplishes that. Hicks does that almost every day — and his images have become an inextricable element of our collective consciousness. The world sees what he sees. It feels a touch of what his subjects feel. But his experience has remained personal and largely uninvestigated by the majority of those who view his work.
All week long, I’ve intended to write about Tyler Hicks and the interview. But I’ve struggled to figure out what I could possibly add. After all, the only soldiers I’ve ever shot in action are of the mechanized toy variety. I thought about posting a few links and leaving it at that. But I’ve decided that there is value in this exercise — my halting words and ill-organized thoughts demonstrate the profound influence that Hicks’ reportage and the way in which it is created has had on me.
On the NYT website, Tyler & his work are summed up in three brief sentences, attributed to Michele McNally, the newpaper’s director of photography: “Tyler takes concise, penetrating images that are aesthetically perfect. He does this while under fire or shooting a day picture. He is relentlessly unsatisfied and gets better and better every day.” It’s true. And the fact that it’s true amazes me & makes me want to understand how it’s done.
If you read about the way Hicks works, you quickly realize that we don’t pay enough attention to the parts of the process that matter. Meanwhile, we obsess over things that probably don’t matter nearly as much. Hicks shoots in JPG and uses equipment that is a generation or two back — tried, tested, & true. Instead of obsessing over RAW formats, color spaces, and megapixels, Hicks just shoots to tell a story: “Every picture plays off of another picture… I see the first 4 or 5 days of the operation as a story… you can get 10-20 pictures seen all over the world within hours after the event, so I think more that way now — in a series of pictures.” He takes as many pictures as he can –even during the most perilous and explosive moments, reasoning that it’s not more dangerous “to stay low and take pictures” than it is to lay there and hope not to get shot. Hicks describes a feeling that I can relate to — composing and focusing (in his case, through a firefight) is a distraction he needs. It brings him comfort. Hicks has a job to do — he can’t cower or back off. He can’t stop in the aftermath. So he’s learned to be sensitive and respectful when he photographs soldiers in shock and mourning. And, yes, on rare occasions, even he puts the camera down. The mindset — and not the kit or even the technique — drives his image making.
I’m still processing Hicks’s work and the interview, figuring out how to integrate the lessons into my craft. So I’m not sure I can provide you with a tidy moral to this story. But this much I know to be true: Fundamentally, there isn’t all that much of a difference between what Hicks does and what many of us aim to do. And so, I firmly believe that we can learn a lot from considering his work.