Editorial: On the front line

IssueMay 2011
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

The deaths of Western war photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Misrata in Libya on 20 April sparked considerable reflection in the British press. Many voices were raised saluting the courage – and recognising the social importance – of front-line photo-journalists, who take extraordinary risks in order to connect the global public with the reality of war.

Few have done more in this regard than Tim Hetherington, the videographer and co-director of Restrepo (2010) a worm’s-eye view of the US war in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch (for whom Hetherington carried out a number of assignments) observed in a tribute that the film that Hetherington co-directed, Liberia: An Uncivil War, and his book, Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold, “did more than any other body of work to tell the complete story of the conflict, focusing on individual Liberians and allowing them to tell their own stories in their own words.”

Those of us who do not live in war zones owe an enormous debt to those honest journalists who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to bring out some of the truth of a conflict. Among that number we must count Vittorio Arrigoni, a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), murdered in Gaza in mid-April by an al-Qa’eda-inspired (anti-Hamas) Palestinian group. As well as being a courageous and determined solidarity activist in Palestine over many years, Vittorio (known as “Vik”) was a blogger and a correspondent for a number of print and online journals, including the splendid Italian daily Il Manifesto.

Thousands of ordinary activists have made the journey Vittorio Arrigoni made, into the front line, not only to report what is happening, but to affect what is happening.

The unarmed accompaniment of Palestinian fisherfolk and of Palestinian farmers, who are being beaten, arrested and shot by Israeli forces: these are among the highest achievements of nonviolence in the world today. There is something heroic about the everyday lives of ordinary Gazans struggling to keep their society alive in the face of impossible obstacles. There is also something heroic about those people whose commitment to peace and justice leads them from comfortable lives far from danger to the front line.

People like Vittorio Arrigoni. People like those who took part in the recent international delegation to Afghanistan organised by the US group Voices for Creative Nonviolence. People like British photo-journalist Guy Smallman, who is travelling to Afghanistan this autumn for his sixth unembedded people-oriented assignment in the country. (In October, PN is sponsoring a London exhibition of Guy’s work in Afghanistan as part of our PN75 celebrations.)

As we honour exceptional figures, we cannot forget that we are all capable of the extraordinary. If the uprisings in North Africa have shown us nothing else, they have shown us this. Masses of ordinary people can sometimes catch fire and defy death to change history.

Topics: War and peace, Media
See more of: Editorial