It’s Really Scary To Have A War Photographer Dad

My father’s job keeps him constantly in danger, but I’d never ask him to change it.

An Iraqi mother and her child in a refugee camp in Kurdistan, photographed by my dad in 2007. Michael Kamber / Via kamberphoto.com

I didn’t fully realize how dangerous my dad’s job was until I saw one of his photos in the newspaper. He’s a photojournalist, but it’s easier for me to describe him as a war correspondent, because it would be hard for me to pinpoint the last time he worked on something that wasn’t war.

I always knew in some way that he was going to dangerous places, but when I was in college in 2003 or 2004, I picked up a paper and saw one of my dad’s photos of a soldier in Iraq. The soldier just looked terrified, and in the background was a burned body. I didn’t even know what the story was — what stood out to me was, my dad took that picture. My dad was in that situation, and looking at that soldier’s face and seeing how scared he was, I could see the danger my father was in too. After that there was nothing he could really say to me to make me believe he was safe at work or that everything was okay — if there’s a burned body in the background, I know it’s not okay.

That wasn’t the first time he’d done dangerous work. When I was a baby he was going back and forth to Haiti, but he moved back to the Bronx when I was a kid and worked as a staff photographer for the MTA. Then when I was a teenager he decided to go to Mexico, to work on a story covering immigrants coming across the border. He really immersed himself in that story — he came across the border with a young immigrant man, and later that man ended up in the Bronx and my dad documented his life there too. I was in high school during that story, and my dad was gone a lot, but I don’t remember registering how dangerous it was at the time. They came over the border with some coyotes [smugglers who bring people into the US illegally], and they risked being robbed or abandoned, but I didn’t really know about that until later.

Since then he’s spent time in west Africa, Ivory Coast, Iraq, and Afghanistan. When he’s away I get emails on a pretty regular basis, and sometimes when there’s a bad day and people get hurt or killed he’ll email me to tell me something happened but that he’s okay. That used to make me feel better, and I’m still always thankful that to hear that he is okay physically, but every time I would see another picture like the one of that soldier, I know he’s not as safe as he says he is.

Soldiers and civilians in Haiti. Michael Kamber / Via kamberphoto.com

I’ve never said, “I wish you didn’t do this work.” I don’t think that I have that wish. it would be like asking someone never to leave their apartment again, or not to have friends. It would be asking him to put what I want before his passion. Because I think his work to him is not just work, it’s his life.

It’s also something that serves our country in a way that’s pretty unique. Ordinary people may not read the news every day, but when we see the pictures, they get our attention. In the ten or fifteen seconds it takes to look, you have an image of what’s going on around the world, and I think that’s very powerful. That’s always been a part of my life — my parents split up when I was very young, and when my dad would come back and forth on the train to pick me up, he would always make me read the New York Times with him, and the only thing I really enjoyed about it was looking at the pictures. And there’s so few people who can take those pictures, especially in war zones. I know I couldn’t go out there and do that.

We have had conversations about if something was to happen to him — my dad says in that case, I’d just need to remember that war photography was what he loved to do and he had to go out and do it. But I can’t say that remembering that would give me any solace if something was to happen. In fact I know that it wouldn’t, because knowing that didn’t really comfort me when our friend Tim Hetherington was killed while photographing the conflict in Libya.

After Tim died the pain of losing somebody that you love became a lot more real to me. One day my dad and I were in the garden talking about how Tim had just left for Libya and would be back in a couple of weeks, and then Tim was dead. I think until something like this happens, people don’t really think about the families of photojournalists — I think that most people assume they’re single guys without families or without a lot of ties. But some of these guys do have kids, and they do have wives, and they do have people back home who worry about them and love them and care. And there’s no support group for us — most of us don’t even know each other.

When my friends see my dad’s pictures in the paper, they always say, “you must be so excited.” Of course there’s no bigger fan of my dad than me, but it’s definitely scary, too. I wish more people understood that my dad’s work makes me both proud and afraid.

My anxiety definitely went through the roof when my dad decided he was going back to Iraq a couple of months after Tim’s death to cover the end of the war. It wasn’t just Tim dying — it was a very rough year for a lot of my dad’s colleagues. A very good friend of his lost his legs, and I was riding in a taxi one day and I heard on a newscast that a number of my dad’s friends had been kidnapped in Libya. But I also asked myself, how is he going to have covered this entire war, been there through the invasion and everything, and not be there for the end of it? And I knew Tim wouldn’t want me to ask my dad not to do it anymore.

I do wish he had an easier job sometimes, but this is the reality of the world. Even with the war in Iraq over, it doesn’t change Afghanistan, west Africa, or Libya. There’s always going be a war somewhere, as horrible as that sounds, and we’re always going to need to know about it.

Sara Kamber works in marketing in New York City. As told to Anna North.

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