David Butow: Capturing Images of War

Editor’s Note: This is the 31st in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

David Butow began his photojournalism career by taking photos on family vacations at age 12. His initial interest in the field led to internships at the Dallas Morning News and other papers across the country. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin (with no formal journalism or photography training), he worked for the Los Angeles Times and later Los Angeles CityBeat. His photo essay for CityBeat, “Let’s Have a War,” which is set in Iraq, won a first-place AltWeekly Award for Photography.

The black-and-white photos in the spread portray two British soldiers having a smoke during the siege of Basra in 2003, sisters standing in the rubble of their home, and other scenes of war.

Butow now works as a contract photographer for U.S. News & World Report and is a member of the Redux photo agency.

How is working for alternative papers different from working for the mainstream press?

Well, the staffs are smaller and it’s easier to negotiate with the newspapers to get pictures in. I’ve known the editor of CityBeat, Steve Appleford, for about 15 years, and he’s always been receptive. When I was less busy than I am now, I would shoot projects locally with the intention of getting them published in an alternative paper.

The great thing about the alternative press is that papers don’t feel like they have to cover every single issue, so that means that if they have some space, they can put in things that aren’t necessarily tied to the news of the moment. Larger papers would be reluctant to do that because they feel like it’s going to push something else out of the paper.

The alternative press is much more flexible and receptive to stories and ideas based on their own merit. That’s a big advantage. I can go straight to Steve and the art director and just lay something out and get it done without a lot of bureaucracy, which is basically what we did for the Iraq story.

Do you think your photos have an artistic element, or is your job just practical?

I don’t consider myself an artist. When artists create, they’re making a statement about themselves and their own relationship with the world. Ultimately, I want people to be interested in the subjects of my pictures and not in me. I can’t disappear completely, because I want to use my sense of composition, and I interpret things the way I see them, but it’s really about the people and the situations. However, I hope my best work has artistic qualities and the photographs are interesting on an aesthetic level as well.

How do you stay focused on taking a picture in a violent or intense situation?

The funny thing is that it’s more nerve-wracking in those situations when I can’t find something to photograph. Then I feel like I am driving around exposed to danger without accomplishing anything. Once I am in a situation where I can concentrate on taking pictures, some of the other stuff gets blocked out. It’s not that I am unaware of the potential danger, but trying to figure out how to best photograph the situation actually helps me by giving me something important to do. I always put safety first, but you evaluate each situation and figure out what the risks are.

Do you ever come up totally empty?

My subjects are usually people, so if there’s nobody around, unless there are some really interesting still-lifes, there’s nothing to shoot. In the essay I did for CityBeat, some of the photos were in Basra, where there were civilians trying to leave and others trying to get in, and there were British soldiers around, so there was a lot of interaction. That’s the kind of thing you seek out.

What do you think photos can do that writing on its own can’t?

You can look at Nic Ut’s famous photograph of Vietnamese children running down the road after a napalm attack; the horror and fear you see in those kids’ faces hits you immediately. It doesn’t even take a second to register. If you read about something like that, it takes much longer to absorb. Also, a photograph like that has a credibility that’s undeniable, in part because it has recorded a moment as it happened, using a machine that is itself dispassionate and objective. Obviously, the photographer has made many choices in taking the picture but I think most people still believe that pictures are real. That’s why I think we should be very cautious when we get into digital manipulation.

I don’t think one form has more of an impact than the other, but it’s a different kind of impact. The advantage of words is that they can put things in context more, they can give you more depth, whereas a photograph is a much more edited version of an event. Any kind of good visual art touches a certain part of you and goes at your emotions in a way that’s different from words. Good music does the same thing. I try to take pictures that are a little bit mysterious and evocative of what it feels like to be in a place. More often that not, I’m not successful, but sometimes the elements come together.

What are your favorite places to take photos?

I always feel privileged to be able to get into places that you might not be able to be in unless you were a photographer or journalist. I have been really interested in China in the last few years because of the incredible changes that have been going on and because it’s relatively easy to work there. Afghanistan is also a fascinating place to work.

What’s the ratio of photos you take to ones you use?

You take hundreds of pictures for every one that gets published. My general rule of thumb is that for a roll of 36 exposures, I’ll have one or two good pictures. I usually shoot about 10 frames of a specific situation. Unless it’s just spectacular, in which case I just keep shooting. That works out to about three or four situations per roll, and usually they aren’t as good as you thought they might have been when you took them.

What sort of technical concerns do you deal with when you’re taking a picture?

You want the technical elements to be almost automatic. The technical aspects of photography are really not that complicated, so once you have enough practice, you can get ready in a few seconds. Lighting is a huge thing. The quality of light in your picture can make a “C” situation look like an “A” situation, and vice versa. A lot of photographers who have the time work in early morning or late afternoon, when the light is lower and softer, and you don’t have the harsh shadows to deal with. Even indoors you can get a combination of light sources that gives you really interesting color.

Have there been times that you’ve just been really lucky with a shot?

Every now and then you get into a groove when you’re working. For me it occurs when there’s a lot happening, and my concentration really kicks in, and I’m having fun doing it. I notice more things, my senses become heightened, I see more and move faster. A picture I took in China, of a man on a dirt road, was like that. It was just one frame. I turned around, saw him and clicked it. It just so happened his coat was just getting caught by the wind, that it had a certain angle, which makes the photograph. It was pure dumb luck, but it was something greater than the sum of its parts. It just fell into place.

Is it hard to come up with photographs on a deadline?

Because I work primarily for a weekly, my deadline pressure is usually only one or two days a week. I don’t have the pressure of a newspaper or wire service photographer who has to file every single day. I like being able to shoot for a few days and get into the rhythm of what I’m doing, then compile everything at the end of the week. Sometimes on long assignments, I don’t have to file at all. I can just come back with everything.

One of David Butow's winning photos
One of David Butow’s winning photos

Do you think photography sometimes gives people a skewed idea of the level of conflict in some places?

In some ways that’s inherent in all journalism. If there’s a hurricane, and you have a neighborhood where three houses are destroyed, but seven are still there, obviously the journalists will focus on the three.

Whether someone is watching the news on TV or reading it in a newspaper, it’s often hard to get a sense of the scale of what’s really happening. You don’t want to create a false impression of what’s happening, but you do have to get the significant things.

Were you scared to go to Iraq?

I had asked U.S. News and World Report to send me to Iraq, and my original assignment was to cover the environmental or the humanitarian impact of the war. However, just before the invasion, they said: “Go right now!” I was emotionally unprepared to do that, but once I got there, I tried to make the best of it. I wasn’t set up to cover the war as it was happening. I was certainly nervous. I was un-embedded, which had its unique difficulties.

Do conflicts or wars you’ve covered blend together in your mind?

They’re very distinct. They don’t blend together for me at all, although there is a common thread of negativity. And the way you work is very different. For instance, when you’re working in Israel, you can be in your hotel in Jerusalem and drive 45 minutes to Ramallah, and you can be in a very tense situation. At the end of the day, you can drive back to the hotel, and everything seems totally normal. In Iraq when I was covering the invasion, there was none of that: no hotels, no restaurants; we were living out of our cars.

How is it to return to normal life in the U.S. after being in a combat zone?

It can be a bit surreal. After being in places where you see people really struggling to survive in their daily life, and then coming back to L.A. in particular, right in the middle of the celebrity culture, it can be pretty weird to see people in cafes bemoaning how they didn’t get some part or how people aren’t returning their phone calls.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t take me that long to get back in the mindset myself. There are some journalists that have a hard time making that adjustment. It becomes so great of an interest for them to be in places that are very viscerally exciting that they want to do that all the time. My interest is not really in conflicts. My interest is in geo-political events and social issues. In the case of Iraq or Israel, those events include violence, but I don’t really enjoy being around violence.

What are some of the most surprising things you’ve seen in areas of conflict that most people wouldn’t know about from just watching the news?

One of the great things is that people are always looking for some humor in a situation, particularly if there’s a period where there’s a lot of bad news, tension and fear. People try to find a bright side, whether it comes from a tender moment or from humor. A lot of times you’ll do something scary, and when it’s over you’re with your friends or your driver, and you make some kind of joke about it. It becomes a stress reliever and a bonding experience.

On TV news you see a very narrowly edited impression of what’s going on. There may be car bombings and leveled buildings, but what you don’t see is that two streets away from that, two hours later, people are back on the street getting take-away sandwiches and buying refrigerators. The violence can get into people’s psyche, but almost no one completely breaks down from it. People are always looking for those everyday comforts of routine and escape, no matter how bad things get.

Derek Schleelein is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. He was a 2005 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has written articles for the Detroit Metro Times, the Chicago Reader and the Ithaca Times.

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