In Photojournalism You Hope That Others See Your Vision

Photo taken in 1999, in Kosovska Mitrovica. Courtesy of Mark Milstein

By Dana Abu Lail

Photojournalist Mark Milstein speaks about his 10-year experience in covering conflicts, wars and disasters during the 1990s.

If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough,” Robert Capa, a Hungarian war photographer once said. Mark Milstein learned that the hard way. As a photojournalist, in the 1990s Milstein covered more than 20 conflicts, wars and disasters across the world, on assignment for a slew of American media including the Atlantic News Service, Time and Newsweek magazines, and Knight-Ridder newspapers.

When you are in such an intense environment for such a long time, it is very difficult to walk away without being scarred,” Milstein said in an interview with the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS).

Milstein began his career as a journalist covering the diplomatic scene in Washington, D.C. for various British news outlets. His reporting included photographing the subjects of his stories. As his passion for photography grew, he switched to photojournalism, work that took him to places such as former Yugoslavia, Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Budapest has been Milstein’s home for nearly two decades. In the past 14 years, Milstein has been a visiting lecturer of photojournalism and visual media at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). He also led in the past a media education program for photojournalists from Europe and Eurasia, run by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, with support from the United States Department of State. “Forever fascinated by all things visual and digital,” Milstein is now the creative force behind VRmeta, which advertises itself as the world’s first video metadata hub.

In an interview with CMDS, Milstein goes back decades to recollect his experience as a frontline journalist, telling CMDS what that meant for him, those close to him and the public, in general.

Photo taken in 1994, in Krajina. Courtesy of Mark Milstein

A Scarring Experience

CMDS: Have you encountered any ethical issues when deciding whether you should take a photo or not?

Mark Milstein: I think anybody who is drawn or attracted to this kind of photography should have a solid background in journalism, which means that you would use photography as a means of storytelling. It is not different than words, and so you are attempting to tell a story, or to support a story and photography is the visual element. So, my interest in photography, and in this style of photography, was solely at the very beginning driven by my intent on using photography to tell a story in a visual way.

CMDS: During your work as a photojournalist have you experienced any trauma?

Mark Milstein: When you are in such an intense environment for such a long time, it is very difficult to walk away without being scarred. You are constantly in a tense, sometimes very dangerous environment; you are rarely in control of things, you are mostly attempting to gain access to moments and events which are very very violent, controlled by people who are incredibly angry. So, surrounding yourself with people like that for such a long time certainly does stress you. I think the word “trauma” is an interesting word, a very 2019 word.

Even as little as 10 or 20 years ago, people weren’t using words like that so freely. They understood that word, it was [a] common [word], but people were less sensitive to these labels. So, you are asking me if I was traumatized or if I felt that. You know, emotions are strong… It is a complicated, a very complicated question. I think there were times when I was saddened by the fact that I might have completed an assignment and not have a chance to go back. I would have enjoyed to go back to do an assignment. There is time when you are certainly sad or happy about certain things. And so I think it is impossible to not have trauma of some level but I don’t know if I would say trauma of the same way that I might describe being injured in a car or being a victim of a violent attack. In our case it is a completely different element.

CMDS: You say that it’s a “2019 word.” If we go back 10 to 20 years ago, what words would you use to describe the feeling?

Photo taken in Moscow, in 2008. Courtesy of Mark Milstein

Mark Milstein: People who do this kind of work, people who do conflict photography, who were involved in a war, knew these words, they were not invented.

I sort of think about it as an equivalent of being a doctor in a hospital and somebody comes in with an injured child, you don’t expect the doctor to cry and fall apart. You expect that the child will be treated, and the doctor be completely normal. The parents might be falling apart, and that is okay, the patient might be falling apart, and that is okay, too. But the doctor, the nurse and the staff need to be professional at all times. It is sort of the same thing being in this type of work, being surrounded by death or violence all day, but you are expected to try at least to act normal and not to freak out. However, at the end of the day, some people are much more sensitive to these things than others. I know that many of my colleagues were quite depressed by what they have seen or were affected by their work greatly.

I really battled hard to avoid that kind of situation, and solely focus on making sure I was able to do my job without becoming some sort of a puddle of jelly pudding falling apart as soon as it hit the ground.

CMDS: Can you share the techniques you used to avoid bringing your feelings home?

Mark Milstein: You are right, there is that and the way you described it is quite true. It’s true to myself as well. Your temper is quite short, potentially finding yourself being less tolerant of people who act immaturely, becoming angry instantly at something that seems silly to you. All you want to do is to come angry at them and tell them, “hey, how could you be so silly and why are you acting like that?” You do find yourself in that position, so, yeah, that is a very well said description of things.

It is normal with years to just go away. War, conflict or disaster areas are a very concentrated, highly focused space where people are incredibly angry, huge volumes of violence being undertaken. It is all happening in a very small space and not with a schedule, meaning it just happens out of the thin blue sky even if you were not part of that violence, you are not the focus of it, you are completely controlled by forces that are not of your own people. There are people telling you what to do, where you can go, how you can behave, whether you can or can’t do something, and if you don’t listen to them or don’t follow their orders you know some bad things will happen to you. Sustaining yourself in such conditions is not going to be easy for anybody.

CMDS: Do you have a certain memory?

Mark Milstein: No, I don’t think there is a particular memory that doesn’t go away. I treat them all equally. I don’t think I have one specific memory that sorts of haunts me or anything that I have ever seen in my life that is so horrible that I constantly think about.

Journalism, Old and New

CMDS: Do you think that journalism today is different than before?

Mark Milstein: Yes. The internet was a huge change in this type of journalism: 15 or 20 years ago you would have had an expert fly from one country to another in order to investigate a story. Nowadays editors can call upon local experts instantly, or, as easily as they could, somebody, let’s say from London or New York, can come in and focus on an event.

Photo taken in the Persian Gulf, aboard USS Carl Vinson. Courtesy of Mark Milstein

Some 20 years ago, the average person didn’t have access to the kind of communication network that people in the West had, [such as] major media corporations like Reuters, Associated Press or Deutsche Press-Agentur. Now, the average 13-year old child can have the same kind of communications network as a company like Deutsche Press-Agentur or Associated Press. It is no longer in the hands of big corporations, now it is not in the hands of anybody. Because of that, an editor in New York or Los Angeles, or in Rome could make a telephone call or go on Facebook and find a local journalist or somebody who happens to be in an event to instantly take a picture or […] to take that video. Or there will be a hundred people on the set at the event: all of them have camera phones and begin taking those images and then [they] broadcast that story.

That changed the ability of local and citizen journalists to cover events in the same way that in the past would have been done by professional journalists.

CMDS: So, there are more freelancers these days.

Mark Milstein: That is not true because that is not the right word for it. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were thousands of freelancers; in fact, most journalists even in the 1980s and 1990s were freelancers, many more freelancers than ever.

Back in the 1980s, there were thousands of freelancers: they were everywhere. Covering the war in the former Yugoslavia in 1990; during the Gulf War and in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Lebanon or in Chechnya most of the journalists were freelancers, but the difference was that those freelancers were paid a fine amount of money for their work, and therefore, they could support themselves. It was actually not a bad job to have. Back then they could make a good way of living doing this kind of work. The fact that nowadays everybody is a citizen journalist means that the pay for anything that [journalists] see, do or record is much lower [than in the past].

CMDS: How about today?

Mark Milstein: Absolutely not. Being a freelancer nowadays is not a way to make money, unfortunately. The problem is value: if everybody has equal equipment and everybody can be self-employed to make the same kind of photography or the same kind of journalism then there is really no benefit to being a professional. What differentiates, or what gives value to journalism is journalism which is unique, journalism which comes from an expert, journalism that is not found anything else. If there are 100 people at a riot or standing in front of a bomb going off or at a car crash, then the value of that photography or those articles is going to be quite small.

CMDS: What about you: was money an incentive to do this job?

Mark Milstein: For me it has never been about the money. However, having money was always a good thing. Being able to fly all over the world and somebody paying for it is kind of a unique thing. But it was always the nice words and certainly knowing that your photography was being taken seriously that counted more, at least in my mind, many times more than anything else in the world. I would have substituted more money sitting in a desk someplace for doing what I wanted to do, enjoying what I did and then having everybody else saying the same thing. And so, accepting less money was okay for me. I think many of us who have done this kind of work will say the same exact thing.

CMDS: Saying this, what advice would you give young talented photographers who want to work in photojournalism?

Mark Milstein: Follow your heart, be safe and hopefully somebody else will agree with you. It is not different than being a songwriter. Anybody can play music or sing a song. But if you don’t get a hundred people to agree with you and to fall in love with your music and to pay you for it, [then it’s a problem]. If you can get a thousand, that is even better, ten thousand even better, a hundred thousand better, so on and so forth. In photography and photojournalism, you hope that others see your vision and are willing to support you at least in some way, either emotionally or financially. That is really what you are ultimately hoping to achieve. If that works out, then you can consider yourself lucky.

Photo taken in Mostar, in 1994. Courtesy of Mark Milstein

You are lucky actually to be here, in Budapest, which is considered the home of photojournalism if you think about it.

CMDS: What do you think about video journalism and new media technologies?

Mark Milstein: Video is a dominant way to tell stories nowadays. I think it is a good thing. But I think that still photography continues to have a place. I don’t think that video has killed photography. I think actually that video has helped photography. Visual storytelling is also constantly challenged by new technology. [But] photographers who don’t embrace new technology well are under the risk of being completely forgotten.

Our Private Wars

CMDS: Have you seen “A Private War”?

Mark Milstein: I know Marie [Colvin, the journalist whom the movie is about] for many years personally, I don’t think I need to see a movie about her.

I knew her as a real person. She came across as being a very serious woman. She was always a woman of many emotions, I think [that], among her friends, she could be very funny. I am thinking of her sitting in the dining room of the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, Bosnia back in 1993, I think, […] and I can see her in front of me sitting and talking. She was one tough woman, certainly, to be able to do what she did every day.

We at the end of the day would come back and tell our stories of what we saw or did that day. She was a person who had quite a lot of colleagues in this business, [but] I don’t know if she had that many close friends. It is a very difficult question to answer at this moment because she is no longer with us. She didn’t come across being that kind of a person who made deep friendship with many people. I don’t think she allowed herself to be open to anybody. At least not with me or anybody that I knew. I am not trying to say she didn’t have friends outside of the business, I am sure she did, and I am sure anybody who have worked with her closely must have enjoyed working with her. I think she had kept a lot of emotions to herself given the fact that she was a woman doing primarily a man’s job. And so any weakness that she had shown that would have been misinterpreted.

When I learned that the movie was coming out I thought, “wow.” She is a unique figure. I am sorry that she is no longer with us.

Dana Abu Lail is a Master’s candidate in Public Administration at the School of Public Policy at Central European University. She is specializing in media & communication and development. Prior to attending CEU, Dana worked as program coordinator at Heinrich Böll Stiftung Palestine & Jordan office.

This article was documented and written as part of the Practicum Class conducted by Marius Dragomir at the CEU School of Public Policy (SPP).