Indie Memphis Outtakes: War photographer Robert King

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Robert King on frontline for the 1st time. Bosnia 1993
  • Robert King on frontline for the 1st time. Bosnia 1993
Tonight at Marshall Arts Gallery, the Indie Memphis Film Festival kicks off, not with a film, but with the first ever exhibition of photographs by Memphian and war photographer Robert King. King's incredible, tension-filled evolution from green art-school grad to seasoned photojournalist is documented in the film Shooting Robert King, which screens at Studio on the Square on Thursday, October 8th at 7:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.. This is what King had to say about his development as an artist and documentarian living on the absolute edge of chaos.

Memphis Flyer: You seem to have changed so much since you started shooting war zones 15 years ago. When you watch yourself is it like watching fiction?

Robert King: Parts of it I wish were fictional. Being a documentary, it's not. That's where I was in that time period. It makes me cringe a little. I kind of want to cover up my ears and close my eyes. I'm no different than any other aspiring journalist going into the industry. I was full of ideals and dreams and willing to set goals. One positive thing its that I was capable of setting high goals.

But the film makes it look like you know nothing when you're starting out. Were you really that unprepared?

We're watching that documentary in the digital age. In 1993, everything was analog. If I wanted to study up on my political leaders, I'd have to go to the library and study up. When I went to Sarajevo, the digital age was just beginning. Now people can get on a plane with their palm pilot, iPhone, or laptop and by the time they arrive at their destination they're experts.

I've known a lot of art students like you who felt they had something to say to the world. None of them hopped a plane to a war zone.

I graduated from Pratt Institute and got a travel grant. I took that grant to go and photograph the indigenous tribes in the Zagros mountains [between Iran and Iraq]. But the political situation changed when Turkey started fighting the Kurds... Then I met a Time photographer who said, 'Hey, why don't you go to a war zone.” knew there was a civil war going on in Southern Europe. I really didn't know what the story was but this Time photographer said [he'd take me under his wing].

You seem very depressed at first. You really seem like you're not going to make it until you get the shot of those French soldiers with the alleged prostitutes in the Guardian. Was that the turning point?

I was a realist. I knew I was out of my league. And it was a bit discouraging, but whatever joy I had from seeing that picture had cold water poured on it really quickly. The French were angry. I was told to leave. But it helped me understand that it's a very competitive profession: Dog eat dog. I'm being threatened for making $150. All of us fighting over crumbs. There are very few friends and the friends you make are friends for life.

Robert King photographs one of Shamil Basayev’s election rallies in Grozny, Chechnya. Winter 97.
  • Robert King photographs one of Shamil Basayev’s election rallies in Grozny, Chechnya. Winter 97.
There's so much tension. The first time you go to the front you're so out of breath and wearing a white flack vest. You seem unprepared in every way.

That was a pointless exercise. What was I photographing? Just running to a house. There were no pictures to be made. Today somebody says “Let's go photograph the front line” I say “Let's cross. Let's figure out who's in charge and meet them personally. There's no point in trying to photograph some grainy turret through a pair of binoculars.

When did you smarten up?

Probably right after that first run. You smarten up pretty quickly. There has to be a payoff for all the risk. And that whole trip was a disaster. First we got shot at. Then we got robbed at gunpoint. Some guy came up and put a gun in our face. They stole all of our fuel. They stole our flack vests except for mine because it was white.

But we weren't discouraged. We heard CNN was paying a lot of money to anybody who could get into Mostar. The slaughter was taking place and there was nobody really there. It was pre-digital, everything was satellite so we were thinking, if we can get there we can be the first to let the world know about these atrocities. [At a checkpoint] Richard [Parry, the director of Shooting Robert King] goes down to talk to the local warlord to get permission to cross over. They steal his car and take him into this restaurant where this 13-year old tries to play Russian roulette with him — jabbing the handgun in his groin. Spinning the gun around and around and tempting Richard to take it. Then they come get me and I knew something was wrong when I saw Richard's face. They stole everything we had and there we were stuck in this village. The thugs would drive around the village in our vehicle and when they'd see us they'd just flip us off.

And you'd never really intended to be a battlefield photographer, right? You wanted to focus more on everyday life.

There's a saying, if it bleeds it leads. That's not always the case. But if there are market massacres or people dying from sniper fire trying to get water or their daily ration of bread, that's a big part of their existence. I wasn't there for the blood. I don't think there's any story where I've been there for the blood. But of course if there's a battle going on the photographer doesn't really have a choice. You can photograph the battle or the aftermath but a photographer has to be there. Reporters can do interviews. But the photographer has to get closer.

Does living close to the native populations work in your favor?

There's a trust factor. You eat with them, you smoke with them, you drink with them.

Robert_and_fire__composited_.jpeg
And you couldn't have that experience of being close to the people when you went to Iraq as an embedded journalist?

They [the military] isolate the media community. We're not with our family, we're within the military. There's no way to find truth among your peers by sharing information. They feed us what they want and get angry when stuff happens they don't want us to see. And they put restrictions on us. We're almost begging for food in a lot of cases. And I have to rely on these kids with guns. I don't want to piss them off.

You were eventually kidnapped in Iraq, right?

When the Abu Ghraib photos came out everything changed. The Abu Ghraib photos lost the war. The U.S. military lost that war with photographs the soldiers took. It wasn't because of the media. It was an example of giving somebody enough rope and they'll hang themselves. And that's what happened. When these photos came out the whole place burned. It went nuts. Nick Berg goes missing. The bodies of the Blackwater people are hung from a bridge. I'm with the first group to go photograph the bridge. So we start making these trips into Fallujah and we make one too many trips and end up being kidnapped. Of course we finally escaped after about 12 hours.

And this was serious. This wasn't warlords trying to get your car.

They had suicide vests on. It was the real deal. The kidnappers would say, “You've killed my mother, you've raped my sister, why shouldn't I kill you?” And I'd tell them I honestly couldn't think of a reason why they shouldn't. In that situation, there's really no right answer. Every answer is wrong. That was when my approach to what I was doing [in Iraq] changed. That's when I realized that the Iraqis don't want me around as an American journalist.

Was that revelation unique to your experience in Iraq?

It was unique in the sense that it was universal. It wasn't just one corrupt asshole, it was everybody.

The opening reception for Robert King's photographs begins at 5 p.m. today.
Location: Marshall Arts (639 Marshall Ave.)
Admission: Free and open to the public.

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