War Photographer Reveals Most Harrowing Picture He’s Ever Taken

paul conroy war photographyPaul Conroy/Instagram

On February 22, 2012, journalist Marie Colvin was killed in a government ordered airstrike while covering the siege of Homs in Syria.

The formidable foreign affairs correspondent had been uncovering a story in Syria the world needed to hear, one that saw 28,000 civilians being shelled in unrelenting bombardments.

On the day before her death, Colvin appeared on the BBC via satellite phone, describing the situation in Syria:

I watched a little baby die today, absolutely horrific, a two year old – found the shrapnel had gone into the left chest and the doctor said: ‘I can’t do anything,’ and his little tummy just kept heaving until he died. That is happening over and over and over.

There are 28,000 people in Baba Amr. The Syrians will not let them out and are shelling all the civilian areas.

marie colvinPaul Conroy

Colvin’s story is the focus of new feature film A Private War, which is based on the 2012 Vanity Fair article ‘Marie Colvin’s Private War’ by Marie Brenner.

Rosamund Pike takes on the lead role, while Jamie Dornan plays Paul Conroy, a British photographer who was badly injured in the same airstrike which killed Colvin.

The 54-year-old first worked with Colvin in 2003, starting a long-term partnership which took them to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Speaking to UNILAD, Conroy described Colvin as a journalist like none other; determined and ferocious.

He explained why she was different:

I had seen journalists get similar stories, but I have never seen anyone follow that story in the way she did, and the only way I can describe it is like peeling back an onion. She would get so far and be like ‘hang on, what about this’, and that would be another layer.

As the layers unpeeled, it took us further down this path. We would end up in some quite dangerous and volatile situations, but it wasn’t the purpose. We weren’t chasing danger, it’s just that’s where the stories took us.

To get to the women and kids, you had to go through some quite extreme conditions and events. We were so unified on it. I knew what we were doing, she knew what she wanted. And that’s what made her stand out. She was quite unflinching when it came to getting to the truth.

marie colvinPaul Conroy

Before becoming a photojournalist, Conroy served as a soldier with the Royal Artillery between 1980 and 1987.

Working as a sound engineer in recording studios, the Liverpudlian returned to conflict zones when his friends asked him to come to the Balkans to take photos for their charity.

While the charity gave out aid, Conroy and a journalist went to the border of Albania, where they were thousands of refugees.

paul conroyPA Images

Speaking to the refugees for the first time, Conroy saw a different side to war his time in the military didn’t give him.

As Conroy explained to UNILAD, he realised these people wanted the world to hear them:

I noticed that they had come out of this horrendous situation, and they were all traumatised and because they had all been through it, they didn’t talk to each other much about it. So when they started talking to us about it, initially I felt like ‘oh my god’, I felt like I was intruding, but they wanted to talk. They wanted someone to listen.

For the first time at that border, I got an idea of the other side of the war, the side of war that saw a pattern develop. The actual reality is most weapons of war are very dumb, and land on people who have very little ability to protect themselves or have any voice.

I wanted to tell the story of the conflict through the eyes of the women and children. To really humanise it, that’s something we can all relate to. And if you want to get the actual cost and horror of war across, that’s the way to do it, through their eyes.

Colvin had also covered war and conflict in a similar way, focusing on the women and children, with this laying the foundations of their working relationship.

marie colvin war journalistPaul Conroy

One of the hardest-hitting scenes in A Private War sees Colvin (Pike) and Conroy (Dornan) enter a basement in Homs.

The cramped, dark space is filled with women and children, desperately hiding from the shelling that is destroying their country.

One of the mothers tells Colvin she doesn’t just want to be ‘ink on paper’, she wants to send a message to those reading.

a private warAviron Pictures

It is truly distressing, with Conroy telling UNILAD what he saw in that basement in 2012 was equally shocking.

He said the moment he walked into that room, he and Colvin knew they had got what they’d came for:

We were going to tell this story, and capture it. A siege was a big thing to capture and most of it was laying in dust and rubble getting shelled. That’s a hard thing to get into a photograph and a hard thing to write.

But when we went down them stairs, and walked into that room, it hit both of us immediately, this is how we are going to tell the story of Homs. You walked into this room full of women and children, and the reason they were there is all their men folk were dead, their husbands and brothers. That was palpable.

All of a sudden you got what you came for and it was your duty to translate that into a language, humanise it enough for people to care, for the world to intervene and stop, and perhaps change the course of what we thought would happen. That was the ultimate challenge.

Conroy and Colvin repeatedly witnessed destruction and death as they sought to tell the stories of the people suffering in these conflicts.

For Conroy, there is one harrowing scene in particular he will always remember; one he photographed in Misrata, Libya.

Conroy, Colvin and two other journalists were given a room in a hospital to live in as they covered the siege.

As well as getting footage and photos from the frontlines, Conroy also captured what happened at the hospital, something the doctors asked for.

For the two months he stayed there, every day Conroy saw what he described as ‘the most devastating scenes of human carnage’, with the doctors calling on him to capture the scenes ‘for history’.

Although Conroy said it ‘was incredibly traumatising’ constantly seeing ‘people who had been cut in half, but were alive somehow’, he knew it needed to be documented.

One image in particular stuck with Conroy:

The doctors came out one morning and said Paul, come take some pictures and I did it no problem. There was a young lad with half of his face and head blown off, there was just an empty skull. I took the picture and went back to the room.

They came back half an hour later and said can you come take another picture. Someone had gone out and found this young lad’s brains and put them in a baseball cap next to his head and they said ‘now we got all of him’. I remember taking that picture and his brother was there as well.

The picture that was actually used was a wide shot of his brother pulling up the sheet that was covering him. I will always remember that young lad, with that baseball cap next to him. The just sheer symbolism, it was just like, wow.

a private warAviron Pictures

Spending time in conflict zones and witnessing such scenes of course had an impact on both Colvin and Conroy’s mental health.

In A Private War, we see Colvin addressing her PTSD, seeking help with Conroy’s support.

He emphasised to UNILAD while Colvin is often described as ‘fearless’, she ‘absolutely wasn’t’:

She had an utter normal, healthy fear of being shot at and attacked. She had already lost vision in one eye. She had every reason to be terrified. Her bravery was going back to the field and doing what she did; that was one of Marie’s greatest strengths.

I did used to keep my eye on her. We would be driving along and there would be silence, and I knew that was when she was particularly affected by the fear. We would usually joke with each other, that’s how you dealt with it in the field. You had to keep each other on the straight path.

Those dark periods, for both of us, were when we were back home. It was always harder coming home from war than going to one. You hit the ground running when you get there, when you come back that’s when you have to deal with everything.

a private warAviron Pictures

The day before she died, Colvin appeared on several news channels, reporting from Homs describing the conflict in Syria as the worst she had ever seen.

Conroy agrees, saying the two came to that conclusion within half an hour of getting into Baba Amr. He described the destruction they saw as ‘unparalleled’.

During the attack which killed Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, Conroy sustained a serious leg injury, spending six months in hospital.

Since then, Conroy has dedicated his life to telling the story of the Syrian conflict, spreading the word about the horrors and atrocities which are still happening in the country.

Conroy’s book, Under The Wire, which focuses on his escape from Homs, was turned into a documentary last year, and he also worked as a consultant on A Private War.

He told UNILAD why he is so dedicated to this cause:

Once Marie had been killed, I was badly injured. It took five days for me to escape, and in those days we lost a lot of people, on the activist side and the rebel side. So when the time came to escape, we had to go back to this three kilometre tunnel, and they tried to get me onto a motorbike. But I wouldn’t get on as there were lots of women and kids waiting to go.

Eventually they said your friends are dead, our friends are dead, you have to go out and tell the world and get the world to listen to us. So I made that promise, that I would tell the world. I didn’t expect to still be telling the world seven years later, but it is still going on.

That was a promise I take very, very seriously, and every day I stick to it. Making this film, it is all part of that promise. It does boil down to the conversation that I had. And so I will do everything in my power to keep telling that story, because it is still happening.

Earlier this year, as reported by The Guardian, a US court ruled the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad as being liable to Colvin’s death, ordering that they pay $300m in punitive damages.

Judge Amy Jackson, of the US district court for the District of Columbia, declared that Colvin was:

Specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country. [The] murder of journalists acting in their professional capacity could have a chilling effect on reporting such events worldwide.

A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of war zones and of wars generally, is outrageous, and therefore a punitive damages award that multiples the impact on the responsible state is warranted.

As the judge noted, journalism, particularly in conflict zones, is both ‘important’ and ‘vital’.

marie colvinPaul Conroy

Conroy agrees, adding with journalism being under attack right now from so many different angles, now is the perfect time to remember both Colvin and the importance of the media, with the release of A Private War.

He concluded:

Journalism is under fire, both physically and metaphorically. Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in his own embassy and investigative reporters were blown up in car bombs in Europe. There’s this whole kind of strata now of these kind of apologists, the online Twitter trolls, they don’t even have to disprove anything.

It really is taking hits in all directions. So the film is a good thing, to perhaps remind the world it’s not like all that by any stretch of the imagination. There are other people as dedicated as Marie still out there, still doing it. But you know, it’s a time like this we need an icon to hold up as an example of what true journalism is about.

Even more people can look and see, are we missing something, yes we are. Especially in a feature film, which gets it out to an audience who perhaps wouldn’t see a documentary or read a book. It is of its time.

A Private War doesn’t just honour Colvin’s memory, but it pays tribute to journalism, emphasising why it is both necessary, and should be celebrated.

A Private War is out in UK cinemas now. Under The Wire is currently available on BBC iPlayer.

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