The new book Conversations on Conflict Photography delves into the stories behind some of the most critical images photographers have had to take

In the newly published Conversations on Conflict Photography, Lauren Walsh, a professor at New York University and the New School, discusses the visual documentation of suffering with award-winning photographers, photo editors and representatives of major humanitarian organizations.

The excerpts below delve into the stories behind some of the most critical images these photographers have had to take during the course of their profession.

Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam is a Bangladeshi photographer and the founder of Drik Picture Library, a Bangladesh-based photo agency. Alam has documented a wide range of events, including the movement for democracy in Bangladesh, natural disasters, human rights and social issues like class inequality and murders by the death squads in Bangladesh. As a result of his work, Alam has received death threats, and in 2018, he was arrested after publicly criticizing the governments violent response to student protests.


  • Sufia was the only survivor in her family. The others all died when their home was destroyed by the cyclone of 29 April 1991, in Anwara, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Sufia was taken in as part of another family. Photograph by Shahidul Alam/ Drik/Majority World.

The story of the picture cannot be removed from its context, but that is what often happens. The caption gets lost, someone else writes it, it goes far away, lost in translation, other things. So in that particular case it was a picture taken in Anwara [Bangladesh]. This little girl had lost everything in the cyclone.

Her entire family had died, her home was gone, and there she was. Of course, I was very concerned about her.

What happened afterwards, for me, is more relevant to the picture than the picture itself. Pretty soon after I took that photo, the girl found a home. There was another family, just as destitute, who took her on as their child. And that is really what the story is about. Horrendous things will happen to people; its what happens afterwards that teaches you about a people and a place. To me, its remarkable that the poorest people Ive ever come across are also the most generous. That overwhelms me.

So here was this incredible story of generosity with this little girl, yet no one was interested in it. I have pictures of her joining her new family and finding food. Perhaps they were not dramatic enough. They certainly wont win many awards, but I think theyre an important part of the story, which in this particular case didnt get told. One image ran [in the New York Times], but not this entire story about a local support structure. This was one of many other pictures that was published, each dealing with a different aspect again, simplification. Individuals didnt matter; it was the collective story, in the way it was told in the Times, and as far as Im concerned, it is the individual that matters.

Susan Meiselas

Susan Meiselas, an American photographer who has documented conflict and human rights issues, has been active in the field of photography for four decades. Some of her photos from the insurrection in Nicaragua in the late 1970s are widely considered iconic, and her subsequent documentation of the Salvadoran civil war, including the El Mozote massacre in the early 1980s, has received broad acclaim.

  • Cuesta del Plomo, a hillside outside of Managua, was a known site of many assassinations carried out by the National Guard. People searched here daily to find missing persons. Nicaragua, 1978. Photograph by Susan Meiselas/Magnum.

Context is so important. For example, for the image I took of the body on the hillside, I made a book to create a context for it. The photo had not been published in any news media. But it was an image central to understanding the violence happening at that time. The idea of someone being disappeared meaning executed and dumped on the side of a road was not an American experience, and hence the vital need to present it in a fuller context. The level of repression in Nicaragua, when the photo was taken, had already unleashed a militant response and eventually the popular insurrection erupted. The intention of this image, especially its value then, was to help show a part of that story in a raw, evocative way. So I dont think such graphic images should be considered gratuitous. And I do think they have to be contextualized.

That photo, which was taken at Cuesta del Plomo, is from four decades ago, and if I were thinking about a more contemporary setting, lets say witnessing one of the Isis beheadings, Id ask, What would I do now? Would I not make an image? If I make an image, what do I do with the image? Obviously, Isis has used images, which they make themselves, to shock us, and they have achieved that very effectively. But if you were the documentarian witness, right there on site, what would your responsibility be? And if you make the picture, what would you be trying to communicate? Are we implicated when it is a live execution? That is, is it inherently a performance for us? Alternatively, what would it mean to decide right then not to make it? Or to be forcefully prevented from making it? Or to never have the evidence that such things happened? I dont know all the answers.

And if you can only get access with the permission of Isis, what does that imply? When I was in Central America, the conditions were that you could be independent of any single force or faction, so you could move across borders and not be aligned, and that is rarely possible now.

Ron Haviv

Ron Haviv, an award-winning American photojournalist and Emmy-nominated film-maker, is a co-founder of the photo agency VII, which is dedicated to documenting conflict and increasing awareness of human rights issues around the world.


  • Bloodstains the wall of a hospital where executions appeared to have taken place in Tripoli, Libya, on 27 August 2011. Photograph by Ron Haviv/VII.

This appears to have been a room for executions. Its in a hospital in Tripoli, and this image is a bit mysterious. So while I did speak about the universality of the language of photography, there are also times when photographs can be enhanced with text. I dont think theres any way to know from this picture exactly what has happened. But what I hope comes across is that this is sinister; something really bad happened here. You may not know immediately that somebody was executed, but you have a certain sensibility in response to this image.

All this said, I try to balance between aesthetics and content. I dont want content overshadowed by style. In other words, I dont want my aesthetic to go past a point where you really dont understand whats going on. For example, I wont give you a picture of a bird flying over a massacre thats just a beautiful picture of a bird. That achieves something, but its not what Im trying to achieve with my work. So Im endeavoring to find that balance: therell be a picture of a bird flying over a massacre, but youre still going to know the massacre happened right there.

And then of course, the caption puts you over to the next level. So take the picture from the hospital you know something really bad happened here. Theres what is presumably blood dripping down the wall, and there are holes in the wall. They look like bullet holes. The caption will then fill in the blanks: Hospital workers clean up after numerous bodies were found abandoned in a hospital where executions appeared to take place.

Eman Helal

Eman Helal is an Egyptian photographer based in Cairo. She covered the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its aftermath, including a project on injured protesters as well as work on sectarian violence against Christians, especially after the 2013 military coup. She also focuses on social issues, such as the physical and sexual harassment of women in Egypt, and efforts to empower women there.


  • A woman with the body of her son, a Morsi supporter who was killed as security forces broke up a gathering at Rabaa al-Adawiya, Cairo, Egypt, on 15 August 2013. Photograph by Eman Helal.

This is from the big Muslim Brotherhood camp at a mosque called Rabaa al-Adawiya. The day before this, police killed a huge number of people, trying to break up the camp. Some from the Muslim Brotherhood escaped with these bodies because they were afraid the police would take them. They brought the bodies to another nearby mosque. Hundreds of people died in this attack, and the people who managed this other mosque wrote down and posted the names of the dead. Everyone who had relatives in that camp went to this other mosque for information about their family members. They went to see if they could find the bodies of their relatives. This particular photo shows a woman crying by the body of her son.

I went to cover the attack on the day it happened, but unfortunately I lost all my pictures from that date. I was shooting at the entrance of a building under construction. There were lots of clashes; it was very loud; I saw many dead bodies [] as I was shooting, a man appeared. He had a kitchen knife in his hand and didnt want his picture taken, so he started shouting at me. Then he put the knife up to my face and demanded to know who I was and which newspaper I worked for. At this time, the Muslim Brotherhood didnt trust any news outlets, because Egyptian newspapers were publishing things against Morsi and against the Muslim Brotherhood. There was little to no truly balanced press; newspapers aligned with the military. I was afraid this man would kill me, so I answered his questions, and all of a sudden, I was surrounded by about 30 men. They were saying they wanted to smash my camera. They were cursing at me and telling me, You kill us all. They were saying I was responsible for Muslim Brotherhood deaths because Im a journalist. I was very, very afraid.

A young woman with the Muslim Brotherhood came over because she heard me screaming. I hugged her and told her, My life is in your hands. Please dont leave me. I told her that I came to tell the true story, not to put a spin on my coverage. She asked to see my photos, so I showed her pictures of dead bodies, injured people. There was nothing that made the Muslim Brotherhood look bad. She tried to convince the other people of this, but they didnt want to listen to her. After negotiations, they said I could take my camera with me if I left the memory card. So I had to leave without any pictures. That was really hard.

The next day, I went to the mosque where the bodies had been moved. I was afraid that someone from the day before might remember me, so I worked quickly.

Alexander Joe

Alexander Joe worked for over three decades as a wire photographer. Born in Zimbabwe, he began his career there (when the country was called Rhodesia), first as a freelancer and later as staff with the Rhodesia Herald. He then went on to work for Agence France-Presse (AFP), where he covered 13 countries, documenting multiple wars, famines and protests, among other social and political strife. Joe is now based in Madagascar as a freelancer. He has twice served on the World Press Photo jury.


  • A freedom fighter, from one of the anti-government forces, enters the town of Mutoko, Rhodesia and is given a heros welcome as the war comes to an end, December 1979. Photograph by Alexander Joe.

I hate conflicts. I dont like guns; they scare the living daylights out of me. I had a terrifying experience early on, before I was even with AFP. Towards the end of the Rhodesian war, the [anti-government] freedom fighters would meet at rendezvous points. Some other journalists and I had word about one of these assembly points, so we went there to cover the fighters. We met there at 10.00am, and spent the whole day waiting for a single fighter to show up. Just as we were giving up, around 4.30pm, we saw a group of vans pulling up. It was fighters going to the assembly point. They approached us, asking what we were doing. As we were answering, one took his AK-47, with the bayonet out, and positioned it between my eyes. I was petrified. I was very aware that it would only take a second to kill or severely hurt me. That was the first conflict I ever covered and its one of the primary reasons why I hate guns.

I covered through the end of the war. But not all my photos were seen. The editor at the Rhodesia Herald, where I was working then, never wanted this one published. Yet for me, this was the strongest of the pictures I had taken. But the editor said to me, Why are you trying to spread alarm among the people? But he didnt mean the people; he meant the white population. This newspaper was very pro-government. [Rhodesia, a former British colony, was under white minority rule.] This was a war of rebellion, and the papers position was that no one wanted the rebels there. Yet here is photographic proof of a fighter being given a heros welcome. But that was the wrong narrative for the Rhodesia Herald. So the image never ran in the paper.

Conversations on Conflict Photography is published by Bloomsbury and can be purchased here.



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