Photographer sacrifices money, safety to capture war
Freelance combat photographer Jim Spiri wasn’t satisfied with the mainstream media’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so he traveled to the Middle East to capture his own war images.
Spiri will share his experiences with war photography today in his lecture, “The War Zones,” in Woodward Hall. Spiri said the mainstream media’s war coverage presents a filtered version of the truth.
“People haven’t seen what I’ve seen and they’re forced to believe what they see on TV,” he said. “I want to explain how a nobody from New Mexico can go rub shoulders with the Katie Courics of the world.”
Spiri said exposing the realities of war is difficult because he has to get permission to publish his photos, which comes from the public affairs office of the region he is in. He said the process is lengthy and his photographs have to be approved before they can be shared with the public.
While on assignment, Spiri dealt with the realities of war head on. He was held at gunpoint in Afghanistan after he took a photo of a woman and had rocks thrown at him as he walked through open markets.
“The reality of it is that usually when I entered a home, I was surrounded by soldiers and we went in on our own,” he said. “We were never invited.”
Spiri said his passion for combat photography began when he was a child. He said he wanted to learn how the Vietnam War was photographed.
“I figured out how to do it the wrong way and the right way in the past 30 years, and I want to share that with whoever is willing to listen,” he said. “The military system doesn’t cater to freelance photographers and there’s very little room for an unknown person to do it unless you’re willing to do it for free.”
Spiri returned from Afghanistan, where he went for his last combat photography excursion, on April 5. He said he found soldiers he worked with in Iraq in 2010 and photographed them again in Afghanistan.
Spiri said it is difficult to gain the respect or trust of military personnel. He said soldiers are often wary of photographers’ intentions and how a their actions can influence a soldier’s safety.
“I think the soldiers trusted me more once soldiers saw me stand right next to them under fire and realized that I’ve had about 25 years of experience,” he said. “They saw me as more of a historian rather than a journalist.”
Spiri said he has always gone overseas on his own accord when he is between jobs or has vacation time, but back home he works in the aviation business. He said he pays for his traveling costs and has only received donations for his last two freelance projects.
“In the past 30 years I’ve made a total of $347 from my work as a photographer,” he said. “I knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to make a dime, but I do it because I love it.”
Spiri said his son Jimmy is a helicopter pilot for the army and was stationed in Iraq in 2007. He was able to meet up with his son while he was on a photography trip and ride in a helicopter with him.
“I just was like ‘Gee, I wonder where my son is,’” he said. “And then I went and found him.”
Spiri said the conference is free, but he will accept donations to fund his next journey. He plans to return to Afghanistan with his wife in August.
“I always believed there should be a restaurant where you eat the food and decide what you pay or not,” he said. “People can come and decide for themselves if what I’m saying matters to them or not.”
“The War Zones”