Monday, February 13, 2006

Interviewing David Leeson

David Leeson is a senior staff photojournalist for The Dallas Morning News. He, along with colleague Cheryl Diaz Meyers, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography for covering the 2003 war with Iraq.

David Leeson has a long career full with outstanding assignments. Here's part of his assignments (Via The Dallas Morning News):

His assignments have included coverage of the FDN "Freedom Fighters" in their war against the former Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Other Central and South American assignments have included: El Salvador presidential elections (1984 and 88), civil unrest in Panama (1988) Peru (1989) and coverage of Colombia's drug wars (1989).
In 1986 he lived on the streets of Dallas with the homeless for two months. The photos, published in a 24-page special section by The Dallas Morning News, won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Problems of the Disadvantaged.


Today, he's our guest. I thank him for giving us the chance to understand the work and life of combat photojournalists.

  • Fay: You were embedded with a 3rd Infantry unit during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Please explain how embedded journalists work around the troops. How flexible is such a task? Were you free to report the good and bad acts unfolding during your Iraq assignment?

    David: The only restrictions were a list of ground rules all journalists were asked to read and sign. They were mostly things that could be described as a code of ethics and sensibility. For instance, one rule required withholding images of U. S. deaths for a couple of days until notification of next of kin. That's something I would probably do anyway simple because it's a matter of high ethics. I wouldn't want a family member learning of their loved ones death on the front page of their newspaper.

    Another rule among the list could be called "common sense." It forbade any mention of exact locations of bases or discussions/reporting of future operations. In other words, breaking this rule could place your own life at risk since we lived and traveled among the troops, not to mention the lives of the soldiers.

    But that's the whole of it. The soldiers and commanders treated me as a member of the unit, though I reminded them often of my role as a journalist. I explained that I was not there to make them look good but neither was I there to make them look bad. I was merely an observer of unfolding events.

    The commander gave me complete freedom to function as a photojournalist. I was never censored or asked to submit photos or notes for military review. Nor were my satellite phone conversations limited or monitored. I realized in the midst of this that I would have far less freedoms on the streets of virtually any city in the United States.

    However, being an embedded journalist means that you are with the soldiers, all the time. There is no allowance to leave the unit to do a story and then return at a later date.

  • Fay: I heard of the word "fixer" many times during the last three years. What is a fixer? How do you find a reputable one?

    David: Fixers are people who have the contacts you need to tell a story. They know the language; the lingo and the land better than you do. These are locals who know the history and culture of their city and usually have a range of contacts that range from government officials to the common person on the streets. They usually know a safe road from one fraught with peril. In short, they can be vital to the success of a story.

    It's hard to say how fixers are found. Mostly other journalists pass their names and contact information on as a professional courtesy. However, in the event you are in a country without any contacts, a good place to begin is with the local press. Just be cautious when finding someone entirely on your own with no references. It can be hazardous.

    I have another name for fixers that I use to describe local individuals in your own city. I call them "the every man." It describes that sought after individual who is trusted by others, knows everyone and is willing to introduce you like a friend. Find the "every man" and you've found your best route into the story.

  • Fay: What are the challenges for photojournalists in combat zones?

    David: The glib answer would be to answer, "to stay alive." But that's overly simplistic. Hopefully no one doing this work has a death wish. However, it's a very personal decision to place one's life in harm's way. Journalists have to determine why they are doing what they are doing.

    In my case, the challenge is also the answer to the mission itself to speak of lives beyond the veil of death. My role was to reduce the statistics to a name, face and story and hopefully bridge gaps in understanding between race, culture and creed. I have long believed that somewhere out there were a series of images that could possibly end war.

    I know today that such a thing probably doesn't exist. However, I do believe that the risks I have taken to show the horror of war can change the life of at least one person out there somewhere. In many ways, that is enough. How much more could we ask of our life than to be used in service to a fellow human being? So, somewhere out there someone's life has been changed.

    In a particularly difficult moment late one evening as I fought back the tears that sometimes come to me when I least expect it from memories of the things I have witnessed, I told my wife that were it not for this simple belief, I would feel truly lost.

    Other challenges are as varied as the wind. Perhaps the best way to prepare for them is to acknowledge that they will find you. It is the shark we never see that we should fear most.

  • Fay: How do you keep neutral while reporting from war zones?

    David: Physically we are always neutral since we are non-combatants and do not carry any weapons. Unfortunately the world is media savvy. Even the most undeveloped nation in the world realizes that our images are often more damaging than bombs and bullets.

    But, objectivity is a myth. We are products of our own life experiences. However, we can hold to high ethical standards of journalistic practices such as fairness and honesty. In this way we can hope to achieve something akin to objectivity.

    Embedded journalists came under fire from critics for our relationships formed with soldiers. It is a gross misunderstanding about the practices of a professional journalist to assume that our efforts to win trust are synonymous with abandoning our role. Such a notion is preposterous. I answered one critic with a question. If I was assigned to do a story about him, then how much truth would I be able to tell about his life if we didn't trust one another and made no efforts to develop any relationship? The answer is pretty clear.

  • Fay: How do handle photographing the dead while preserving their dignity?

    David: Photographing the dead is a constant challenge. I look for the stories they try to tell us in their eternal sleep. If you approach death with respect even the fallen may speak again.

  • Fay: How did you handle shooting still and video photography during your assignment in Iraq? Which one do you prefer?

    David: I had a promise to the newspaper that stills would always take precedence over video. Thus, the first camera I reached for was my still camera. Once I believed I had the photo I needed, I would then raise the video camera.

    Occasionally I had to leave the video camera running and used it interchangeably with the still camera. Other times it was evident to me something was best suited for video so I put aside the still camera. It was a matter of constant decision making, that is, until my video camera succumbed to a dust storm and was destroyed.

    It is not a matter of preference to use one tool over another. A construction worker does not expect to build a house with only a saw. A plumber does not prefer a pipe wrench to a crescent wrench. Each uses the tool to achieve a goal and complete the work. It is the same with video, a tool to be used for effective communication.

    Unfortunately some in our profession have become enamored with the tool and forget the reason why the tool exists. I think that's why I do not normally refer to myself as a photographer. I am a journalist and I use the camera as a powerful tool to speak life-changing truths about our world.

  • Fay: How do you return to normal life after combat? How do you deal with Post Traumatic Stress?

    David: That's a good question. I don't think anyone ever learns to live with such demons. We merely abide with them and try to keep the peace. I have found the best answer for me is to surround myself with the love of family and friends, cling to my faith in God, and, try not to think about it.

  • Fay: How do you transition from combat zone to covering local city news or events?

    David: I have always said it is far easier to leave than it is to come home. Over the years I slowly realized that one never comes back home the same as they were when they left. My first wife once said to me as I prepared for another trip to cover a conflict, "Every time you leave, I lose another part of you."

    In many ways, she was right. However, I believe what neither of us knew back then was that I also came home with new "parts" of me. The issues we both faced were not as much about what was lost but rather what was "found."

    It has never been easy to come back home even though it's sometimes all you can think about while you are away. The familiar becomes hazy, like meeting a close friend you haven't seen in decades or having a dream that made perfect sense in sleep but is indescribable upon waking.

    But the transition is manageable if we can grasp that we are no longer the same as who we were before and accept the challenge to make good choices about the person we have become.

  • Fay: On your blog you talked about the mishandling of your Iraq images by someone in the Army. Has that matter been solved?

    David: It was more my mistake than theirs. I knew better to hand over 200 full resolution images on a CD. It was, perhaps, one of the biggest technical mistakes of my career. I don't blame the Army. I blame myself for bad judgment. You can read the blog here: The home for the blog is
    Unfortunately I doubt this situation will ever be solved.

  • Fay: Many bloggers publish photographers' work without credit or permission, what advice would you give bloggers about copyright and credit?

    David: Most photographers are mostly concerned with three things regarding unauthorized use of their images: 1) If the image is used without proper credit and copyright notice 2) The image is being sold or used on a commercial site 3) The image is being used with an erroneous caption and/or in conjunction with an improper website or publication.

    In short, it is common courtesy, and usually a legal requirement to gain permission from the photographer before using his or her work.

  • Fay: Would you advise your kids to become combat photojournalists?

    David: I would not advise anyone to cover conflicts. However, I always encourage people to pursue their passion and combine it with a sense of mission. This applies to my own children too. If it leads them to war then I would support them. I would prefer they did not. However, both of my older sons are excellent photographers. Of course, they've had some excellent training since they were old enough to hold a camera.

  • Fay: How did Kim deal with you being in a combat zone?

    David: My wife is very supportive of me in virtually all of my goals. She believes in my passions and me. However, she has told me it was a very difficult time for her.

  • Fay: I noticed black and white photo prints at your home. I always wanted to ask why the prints are so dark?

    David: LOL. Well, I was given a nickname based on my printing style by a former boss who used to call me the "Prints of Darkness." Why are my prints so dark? I have no idea. I just like them darker than most other photographers I know. By the way, my oldest son prints/scans his images the same way.

Thank you again for allowing us to have a glimpse at the life of combat photojournalists.

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