At first glance, it could be an edgy fashion ad. A young man lies on his back in the grass, shirt torn open, perfectly mussed hair highlighted by the camera’s flash. All that’s missing, it seems, is a designer logo on the waistband of his briefs.
But as the accompanying caption explains, the scene is painfully real. The young man is a protester in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, struggling to remain conscious after being caught in a cloud of tear gas during a violent encounter with police. The strange overlap – the seemingly contrived beauty of the image and the harsh reality it depicts – is by design: It provides a seductive portal into an important story. Though unintended, it also sheds light on the trajectory of the photographer’s own life, which nearly ended two years ago during the Libyan revolution.
Guy Martin, who included the Gezi Park photo in a recent Time Lightbox essay, is among the growing ranks of freelance photographers who supply those dramatic images from around the world that dominate front pages and scroll past on our social media timelines. As a freelancer, he has few safety nets when he ventures into a conflict zone, and must take into account intense competition for the public’s fleeting attention to news. That means finding new approaches – a hidden, unreported angle or a fresh take on a familiar one.
What is striking for anyone who knows Martin or is familiar with his professional history is not only that he portrays the Turkish uprisings in a unique way but that he was at Gezi Park at all. He was gravely injured, close to death, during the Libyan uprising in 2011 -- and that has profoundly influenced his work since. The last time Martin and I spoke, he had given up conflict photography for good in favor of safer commercial subjects – environmental portraits, travel, fashion and, curiously, Turkish soap opera. The shift in focus, directly related to what he faced in Libya, is evident in his Time Lightbox photos, which are in some cases more stylized than conventional conflict images. His aim at Gezi Park, he says, is “to challenge viewers’ perceptions not only about Istanbul but the role of the media, celebrity and photography. News and fantasy are so closely linked.”
Before you assume that means Martin is distorting reality, look at his photos. In them, reality is heightened. Choosing to artificially illuminate a scene with a strobe or flash, as he did for the photo of the young protester, is part of a selective process that begins as soon as a photographer frames an image in his mind’s eye. Beyond that, the possibilities are endless, which does pose certain risks. Among the myriad photos in circulation on the Internet from various global hotspots are many of questionable veracity, whether because they were deceptively manipulated or due to the possibility that they were staged. Even when the scenes are authentic, the theatrical nature of war tends to create heightened self-image among combatants, unusual (and sometimes exaggerated) displays of camaraderie, and what the late photographer Tim Hetherington described as the “feedback loop,” in which the fighting and its artistic and media depictions feed off each other. That’s why so many conflict images look familiar. Given that, is there anything wrong with documenting rebels who pose like fighters they’ve seen in movies, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not? It largely depends upon the photographer’s role. But either way, if the photographer isn’t careful, he or she can be killed in the process.
I was introduced to Martin while researching a book about Hetherington, a British photographer who was killed alongside American photographer Chris Hondros and numerous Libyan rebels in a mortar attack in Misrata, Libya, on April 20, 2011. Martin, who was with Hetherington and Hondros at the time, also almost died in the attack, which injured another American photographer, Michael Christopher Brown. Martin, who is 29, already had a few conflicts under his belt when he first arrived in Libya. He had covered the Russian-Georgian conflict and slipped across the border into Iraq before moving on to the Arab Spring, first in Egypt, then in Libya, which is where he joined the itinerant group of Western photographers including Hetherington, Hondros and Brown. He had previously met Hetherington in the U.K., and had been impressed by his approach and style. In Libya, both recognized that they shared an interest in looking beyond the obvious conflict to document the personal stories of those involved. Hetherington was at once a photographer, an artist and a humanitarian. He had received a World Press photo of the year award and had been nominated for an Academy Award for the documentary Restrepo about American soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, which he co-directed with Sebastian Junger. Like Martin, he was working freelance in Libya.
During a previous foray to the country, Hetherington had been disenchanted with what he saw as the obsession of many rebels with being photographed, which struck him as false. Only later, back in New York City, had it occurred to him that the posturing was a natural response to being thrust, unprepared, into war. It was part of the feedback loop. So he decided to return to Libya to document that, this time using primarily old-fashioned film cameras of a type normally used for studio or wedding photography, the idea being that he would force himself to carefully frame the images even if the scene itself was chaotic. Notably, some of the photographers in the group worked the opposite angle, using iPhones exclusively, with various software filters such as Hipstamatic, which provided different opportunities for creating stand-out images.
On April 20, 2011, as the group of photographers lingered with rebels on Misrata’s Tripoli Street, they were hit by an incoming mortar shell fired by distant Gadhafi forces. From that point until we first spoke last summer, Martin chose not to publicly discuss what happened that day. It was too traumatic. But in the context of telling Hetherington’s story he began to open up, and his account was crucial because his memory was so clear, was augmented by photos with time-date stamps, and revealed what had happened at the very center of the action. Martin also had personal insight into what Hetherington was trying to do in Libya, which involved facing the theatrics of conflict head-on.
After the explosion, Martin recalled seeing smoke billowing out around him as if the sidewalk were on fire while he cradled his guts, bleeding profusely. For a few moments he drifted in and out of consciousness, during which two rebels loaded him into the bed of a pickup truck, where they left him. When he briefly came to the surface, he realized that he shared the bed with dead or dying men, so he called out to a rebel nearby, “Wrong truck!” The rebels, seeing that he might be saved, moved him to another vehicle and transported him to a hospital where he underwent eight hours of surgery to stanch internal bleeding and repair deep shrapnel wounds to his thighs, pelvis and abdomen. While he was on the operating table he went into cardiac arrest three times.
Once he was stable enough to be moved, Martin was evacuated, first to Malta and then to the U.K., where he began a long period of physical and emotional recovery that led to his decision to quit conflict photography for good. He turned his lens elsewhere, and with his girlfriend, Polly Fields, moved to Istanbul last summer. As he wrote in the text that accompanies his Time Lightbox photo essay, “I made a promise to myself, my family, friends and loved ones to never cover war, civil unrest, protests or even a particularly robust political debate ever again.” He and Fields carved out a new life on the outskirts of the city, near the Black Sea shore.
Then, on June 1, public discontent over the proposed commercial development of a rare Istanbul green space unleashed a series of escalating protests to which the government violently responded. Conflict, obviously, is where you find it – or where it finds you. Martin felt he had no choice but to document the unfolding scenes. Still, he did so with great trepidation. He wrote: “As I stepped on the metro, I was hit with a knot in my stomach -- that swirling, vomit-inducing feeling that only happens when you are utterly petrified.”
Roaming the periphery of the protests, he produced a series of intimate, atmospheric photographs that provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes of a historic moment, when a seemingly random protest tapped into something deeper and wider: A well-dressed couple whose expressions betray a complex mix of emotions as they pick their way through rubble; a woman who has brought a child to see history unfolding; a man who looks like a human Transformer, wearing exposed armor; another posing jubilantly for a friend's camera phone before a burning barricade; and the photogenic young protester being comforted by friends after the tear gas episode. Along the way, Martin recognized that his visual treatment of conflict had changed. Everywhere he looked he saw potentially deadly theater. The time he had spent in the margins, photographing pretty and sometimes prosaic scenes, was clearly influencing his work. So, too, was his own encounter with mortality. Rather than focusing on predictable mob scenes, he zeroed in on the carefully framed faces of those involved – the characters in the drama.
My first reaction, when looking through his Istanbul photos, was to wonder if Martin had decided to return to conflict photography -- to reprise a role that had almost gotten him killed. Had he missed the high that comes from proximity to events of profound, life-changing, historical importance? Though I'm not a war journalist, I had felt an entry-level version of that high in Libya last summer, and afterward, an unexpected sadness upon returning home. Life feels more vivid in a conflict zone. It is clear what matters, and who you can count on, for what. The young man in the Gezi Park photo is no doubt acutely aware of that now, and his relationship with those around him is certainly deepened by the experience and association. The feeling is in many ways addictive, though the rush is not only about adrenaline. It’s about feeling more alive, recognizing what and who matters most, and acting accordingly. There’s a natural letdown afterward, as you return to normal life and find yourself scrolling through photos posted by family and friends of beloved cats and inexplicable plates of food.
Assimilating those pivotal moments is not always easy, and involves calculating scale. Istanbul, I've observed, is one of those places that defies the traveler’s “wherever you go, there you are” syndrome, whereby you feel pretty much the same in Berlin as anywhere else, except for the German details. Istanbul feels truly exotic. One feels different there. But just as a four-hour drive ceases to seem long when it’s part of an 18-hour journey, being in Istanbul ceased to seem exotic to me when I was on my way to Misrata, Libya, which was still a conflict zone when I arrived though the war was technically over. Misrata skewed the scale. All of which helps explain how Martin could see exotic, mysterious Istanbul as a safe haven when many people would see it otherwise, if only because it is unfamiliar, with lots of mosques.
Though the Turkish government has at times behaved criminally toward journalists whose reporting it sees as a threat to the status quo, Istanbul has long been a stable place by war journalists’ standards. Likewise, the current demonstrations, though more violent than the Occupy protests in the U.S., are fairly tepid compared with what has transpired in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Circumstances in Istanbul are clearly volatile, and its status is subject to sudden change, but for a recovering war photographer, the city-- even in the grips of protests -- represents a kind of halfway house. The question is, halfway to what? For Martin, the answer is not halfway back to covering war. His primary interest now is in exploring and documenting telling scenes -- not in covering violence. It just so happens that the two currently overlap in Istanbul.
Martin took the photo of the semi-conscious protester near the entrance to Dolmabahce Palace, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s official residence, late at night. “I saw the guy on the ground, surrounded by his friends, as he’d collapsed due to the stronger strain of tear gas that the police were using that night to try and stop protesters building barricades and gathering en masse in that vicinity,” he said. He shot two frames, remained with the young man until he heard an ambulance and was sure it was coming for him, then moved on. The image, which illustrates the impact of the ongoing clashes, is otherwise deeply personal, which is also rooted in Martin's personal expericence.
Conflict photographers grapple with two worlds that are themselves often in conflict – the one where bombs fall and bullets fly, where adrenaline runs high, and the other, back home, which is comparatively secure, and where the big event of the day may involve selecting swatches of fabric for a new sofa. Similarly, conflict photographers often see themselves in fundamentally conflicting ways – as vultures, feeding on the travails of others, and as the conscience of the world, revealing what it at stake and who is paying the price. It is not always easy to reconcile such things. For Martin, the Gezi Park protests provided an opportunity to reconcile both. Suddenly home and conflict zone were one place, and he could relate to the injured while seeing them as photographic subjects.
After moving on from the young man near Dolmabahce Palace, Martin eventually came upon a girl who had suffered a similar fate – she had been disabled by the intense tear gas, and was losing consciousness. For the first time in his life, he said, he felt moved to intervene. “I have never done such a thing before, but along with two of her male friends, I picked her up and carried her about 400 meters to safety,” he later said. “After that, I called it a night.” In typical self-effacing style, he described the two years since Misrata as having been akin to “crawling under a rock and being afraid of my own shadow.” Yet his Istanbul photos reveal a different person, one who feels a new understanding of conflict and a deeper sense of empathy for those involved -- both of which were dearly earned.