Ryan Lobo recounts the horrors of filming documentaries in three conflict zones.
"If the Taliban attacks you, we will defend you to the death," says the Afghan poppy farmer via our translator.
"But there are just a few of you," I reply.
"Yes... we will all die if they come, definitely, 100 per cent."
When I recount this anecdote to a table at Koshy\'s, everyone laughs and the conversation turns back to how all the pubs close at 11.30pm these days, how Bangalore\'s going back to the stone age, and what we must do to fight this Draconian measure (someone suggests we stage a protest at Queen\'s Statue).
In 2007, I had the opportunity to travel to three "war" zones - Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia - while making documentary films and taking photos for various clients.
I met survivors and killers, aid workers and impoverished, broken people in countries steeped in suffering, war and violence. I had long conversations with men who had committed the most unspeakable crimes. Most of the time, I spent long hours in these places, waiting and doing nothing.
Conflict zones can be stressful, and it\'s not always bullets or bombs that I was troubled by. There were the auxiliary stresses of working in environments of fear and distrust; corrupt cops; bureaucracies; 19-year-old Texans with 50 calibre machine guns and road rage issues; the stresses of dealing with people who secretly wish with all their hearts that they could see you on a grainy YouTube video getting your head sawed off; worst of all, perhaps, working alongside people with entirely different world views (read: moronic) on intense and complicated subjects - "Yeah, I say we draw a line down the middle of Eye-Raq, and split the goddamn country into two - one half for them Soo-nees and one half for them Shee-yas!"
Huge amounts of money are spent on films and photos that often end up as slickly-edited, politically-motivated trope; they are not really close to the truth as one experiences it. Questioning one’s purpose and integrity is essential and I often feel I may have been compromised in subtle ways – easy to discuss away and rationalise, to keep deadlines, manage within budgets or please demanding clients. Sometimes I question my purpose in having gone to these places. The process does not end, especially if the finished documentary film is mediocre or worse, edited far away from the field, by people who have never left their cities, in a construct where advertising revenue and ratings are of paramount importance. I prefer photography to film, which leaves one in control to a great extent.
What resonates in quiet moments – sometimes months or years after a shoot – are the people whom I worked with or interacted with in some cases, very briefly: the people you bond with; eat with; promise eternal friendship to; see at the corner of your eye while speeding past. And then desert. They come in all shapes and sizes: drivers and security contractors, little girls in desolate villages far removed from a chance of education, former mass murderers with compassion and an understanding of human nature beyond the ordinary, simple acts of kindness from people who have suffered immensely, and other more abstract and intangible experiences. I often come away from these encounters with a sense of guilt and cannot really explain why.
Most challenging to me are the looking-glass experiences of personal suffering, empathy or fear that one offers oneself. To have experienced environments of desolation, violence, loss and fear, and to return to animated discussions over dealing with terrorism at friends’ houses while they complain bitterly about the new pub timings, where a mojito costs more than what they pay their 14-year-old domestic help. Valid points about vacuous issues in exploitative and violent contexts.
The most depressing thing about working in conflict zones is not the fear of death. It is coming back home, and realising that the landscape of suffering is the same everywhere.It is seeing the same thing - perhaps, the seeds of the same thing - all around us, in our conversations, in our reactions and in myself.
On the positive side, I don\'t get stressed about most things that stress most people; I speak my mind, I enjoy traffic jams, as they provide me with time for stillness, I see humour in some pretty humourless situations and have stopped watching television, fact is, I have sold my TV.
I enjoy cooking my own breakfast and each morning sip my tea and look out of a window overlooking an old Bangalore cemetery I live next to for several quiet and enjoyable minutes. I exercise more and enjoy my food, music, time, family and friends because I am incredibly lucky, fortunate and blessed to have them.