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|| News Item: Posted 2001-10-25

"You're a journalist aren't you"
By Vincent Laforet, The New York Times

Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Gamma

Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Gamma

The word describes my life - and I'm sure many of yours - since the events of September 11th.

My family, friends and my work have provided me with the only sense of stability in these impossible times.

I was in Paris visiting family when the unthinkable happened. Following 3 days of emotional disarray - I found myself boarding a plane to Islamabad - the capital of Pakistan.

"You're a journalist aren't you" the security guard at Heathrow airport asked as he patted me down. "I am," I responded, "How did you know?" "When I see an Englishman with a PIA boarding card, I know," he said, referring to the Pakistan International Airline flight I was about to board.

He was half-right. I am not an Englishman - I am French. But he knew that some people in this part of the world couldn't care less about the distinction. I'm not one of them in their eyes - but that hasn't forced me to reconsider my decision to come tell this story.

Osama bin Laden and terrorists are the rotten apples. The vast majority of Afghans and Pakistanis I've met are peace loving, generous, hospitable, frightened human beings already living under tremendous hardship. The average annual per capita income is around $800 in Quetta - a forgotten city that hasn't seen a drop of rain in over 4 years.

I wasn't sure why I was going at first. I was somewhat scared and still very much in shock. Four years ago I was a sports photographer for Allsport and had sworn I would never work for a newspaper. Two years ago, I was a photographer at The New York Times and swore I would never cover a war.

Life has a funny way of throwing you a curveball now and then. And that's the beauty of it - isn't it?

So far it's been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. It's redefined me as a person - I feel I've been forced to do a lot of growing up very quickly. It's redefined me as a journalist - when you face even the slightest possibility of death, you ask yourself some hard questions. Why do we do this? Why am I here? What do I want to accomplish here? Why am I leaving a cushy life with wonderful friends and family, a company car etc., and putting myself in harm's way? Does any one really care about pictures anymore?

Photo by Musa Farman

Photo by Musa Farman
Ultimately my being here had nothing to do with my career or ambition. Those things mean little when you take a hard look in the mirror. I'm here because someone needs to be here - to tell the story CNN is not broadcasting. To show the world that this is not a country of terrorists.

Every day has been a challenge. The last time I felt we, as journalists, knew so little about the future - was during the Florida recount. If you're familiar with Terry Gilliam's film, "Brazil", we're living it here in Pakistan. There is an endless, nonsensical, frustrating bureaucracy to deal with on a daily basis. Every document has to be stamped five times, by five different people, in five different buildings. Getting a visa extension takes days of never-ending dead-ends and purposeful misinformation. The police hold us hostage in our hotel - swearing that it is for our own safety. Yet they are often the biggest threat to us.

Patrick Aventurier, a photographer for the Gamma Picture agency based in Paris, and I learned that the hard way.

A few days after the start of the bombing campaign, violent protests had broken out in a suburb of Quetta, named Kushlaq. We jumped in our car, along with a driver, a translator, and a mandatory armed guard. Ten minutes into the trip, we were pulled over by Police. They refused to let us go any further - "it is too dangerous, you may be killed and we cannot help you," they said. Nothing we could say would sway them. 8 of our colleagues were pulled over behind us. After an hour and a half of pointless negotiations - they still hadn't gotten the "approval" from their superiors that we knew would never come.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
So we all looked at one another - and we decided to walk the 10 Km to the city. This tactic had worked the previous day when Jerome Delay of the Associated Press and another colleague decided to jump over the wall of the hotel we were locked into. After an initial physical struggle, the police relented and agreed to escort us through the city of Quetta following daylong riots.

So he we were - a dozen or so journalists walking up the road with 6 police vehicles following behind at 2 to 3 miles per hour. They simply didn't know what to do with us. You see- the press here spends their entire day lounging on lawn chairs in the garden of the Press Club. The government comes to them when they have a press release to hand out or an event they want covered. So a bunch of pro-active, aggressive journalists might as well be from Mars. Fifteen minutes into our walk they agreed to escort us into town.

As we arrived in Kushlaq we knew something was wrong. A whisper from one of the locals informed us that people had been killed as a result of the protests. I decided to go check out the hospital and Patrick agreed it was a logical move. We found our way to the morgue and two dead bodies - shot once to the head, execution style. As the severity of the situation slowly unraveled, a whaling mother and the body of her 13-year-old son were wheeled in. We decided to follow the three victims' bodies as they were driven back to Kushlaq. The situation was incredibly tense - a riot could have started at anytime outside the hospital.

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
We had a story - no one else was there to witness the first deaths in Pakistan following the start of the bombing campaign on Afghanistan. This would ultimately get us in trouble.

As we pulled into the city the police were not at all happy to see us - they were responsible for these summary executions. They quickly surrounded us and demanded we leave immediately - "because it is a very dangerous situation." We calmly agreed to take a few steps back and shoot with long glass. The family of the victims and local Mullahs had not shown the slightest hint of aggression. The police soon did.

One of the Lieutenants slapped my glassed off of my face with the back of his hand. A few seconds later another officer started to choke me from behind. I had to free his hold on and rotated my body free only to find myself shoved against the wall - with both hands against a policeman's chest to keep from falling on top of him. This doesn't look good. That's what I remember thinking. A very bad situation.

According to Patrick, one of the policemen swung at my head with the back of his assault rifle. Patrick stopped him in time and it was my turn to return the favor.

Photo by
I was yelling, "Stop! Stop! Stop!" the entire time - my hands clearly up in the air.

Patrick was wrestling with an officer - as another lunged at him with the butt of his assault rifle. He missed Patrick's head by a few inches - he quickly took two resolute steps forward. I didn't see my life flash before my eyes - but I clearly remember fearing for Patrick's life. The guard lifted the rifle a second time, aiming once again for the back of Patrick's skull. I had not choice by to throw myself on him.

I was now wrestling a man for the control of an assault rifle. Now it really didn't look good. The situation was spiraling out of control.

As I looked up yet another guard was running at me with the biggest angry eyes I've ever seen - his rifle aimed directly at my face.

I have never run as quickly in my life. Seconds later we were all struggling with police for control of our cameras. They knew they had screwed up and wanted to take any evidence of the assault back with them. Losing a camera out here is not an option. Luckily a few of our colleagues had arrived in time to photograph the situation - and to give the thugs a chance to realize they wouldn't get away with 5 dead bodies.

Patrick and I escaped with minor injuries, a torn shirt, a broken pair of glasses, and a broken flash. I also lost a disk containing some images from that day when one of my digital bodies was slammed into a wall during the struggle. Patrick still has two huge welts on his back from the assault rifle blows. The situation had escalated so fast and furiously that we both knew it could have been much, much worse.

You make lifelong friends very easily in times like these.

Two good things resulted from all of this. The picture made the front page of the NYT. The pictures of us being assaulted also made the front pages of three local papers - and not a day has gone by without two or three people recognizing us on the street. Weird, weird world - we're the notorious foreign photojournalists of Quetta, Pakistan.

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
Ironically that encounter with the Police has been the most dangerous one we've faced here. We've had rocks and punches throw at us by pro-Taliban protesters. But for now - the religious leaders are reminding them not to harm the media. They know we offer them a voice to a world that a few weeks ago could most likely put Quetta on a map - let alone Pakistan or Afghanistan (sad but true.) The reality of course, as we learned with the police, is that the situation can turn against you without warning. All it takes is one cretin within the crowd - and the next thing you know you could be dealing with an angry mob.

Speaking of the media, I have but one thing to tell you. Don't trust anything you see on TV and be weary of some of the things you read. I witnessed how sensationalistic the media can be during the Florida recount. It's even worse here. We covered a pro-Taliban demonstration last week attended by maybe 5,000 protestors. CNN stated there were 50,000. The BBC estimated 40,000. We're continually hearing of "violent clashes with police" when the TV stations report on non-violent demonstrations we covered ourselves.

And that's ultimately why I've felt my being here is making a difference. I've never been so challenged on so many different levels at once - but at the same time, I've never gotten this kind of response from colleagues and readers. I've gotten over three dozen e-mails from readers. Many have thanked me for "humanizing" the people on this side of the globe of for showing them that Pakistan is "not filled with terrorists." And that makes all of these risks and unpleasant encounters worthwhile.

On a lighter note: I was kneeling in the middle of a Taliban Madrassa (a large mosque where 70% to 80% of the Taliban elite come to study - hint, hint, I ain't listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook) when a New Dehli-based photographer by the name of Findlay Kember looked at me
Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
with a confused look. "What's you surname Vincent?" he asked. When I answered his expression quickly changed to a smile. "Ah - yes! I really enjoyed that article you wrote on the 550Ex for Sports Shooter!" I don't know - but something tells me that's one of the weirdest place that anyone's ever brought up Sports Shooter!

I also wanted to pass a long this thought to Rick Rickman about his last column: Rick, as far as I'm concerned, there is no reason for you to feel like you were a failure on Sep. 11th. There is no reason for you to question your decision to be a sports photographer, nor the value of what we do as Sports Shooters. I do understand why you felt the way you did when you wrote the column though - I felt the same way when I was stuck in Europe unable to fly home.

I am sure you and others will bring smiles to Americans' sullen faces when you remind them of what euphoria is - perhaps when you cover the Olympics in Salt Lake in February. You, me, and many of our colleagues were not in NYC when this tragedy happened. Many of us felt completely helpless - and unable to express our pain and outrage through our images. But athletes - and sports photographers - play an important role in our society: They allow kids and adults alike to dream - to forget their everyday troubles. So we've got our work laid out for us. We've got to help our country remember what it's like to smile again.

(Vincent Laforet is a frequent contributor to Sports Shooter. His past articles include pieces on digital archiving, covering the presidential election recount in Florida and multiple lighting with shoe-mount strobes. He is a staff photographer with The New York Times.)

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