‘The Victims of the War Must Be Shown’

By The Irrawaddy 27 February 2015

In this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, first aired on DVB on Wednesday, The Irrawaddy English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe is joined by two photojournalists—JPaing of The Irrawaddy and Lynn Bo Bo from the European Pressphoto Agency — to discuss their experience of the Feb. 17 attack on a Red Cross convoy, amid the ongoing conflict in Laukkai.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: This week, we’ll be discussing the work of photojournalists during the fighting in Kokang. The fighting between Burmese government troops and Kokang renegade troops has in progress since Feb. 9. During the fighting two Red Cross convoys were attacked. Government newspapers said that Kokang renegade troops were responsible for those attacks. Burmese photojournalists were with the convoy when it came under attack, and we’ll be discussing how they took photos amid the gunfire, and how those injured were rescued. Photojournalists Ko Lynn Bo Bo from the European Pressphoto Agency and Ko J Paing from The Irrawaddy will be joining me. I am The Irrawaddy English edition Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe. Ko J Paing and Ko Lynn Bo Bo, the photos you took went viral on the internet and were published in international newspapers. Ko Lynn Bo Bo, as far as I know, the convoy came under attack and you had to run for cover. Would you be able to recount the situation?

Lynn Bo Bo: Approximately seven or eight vehicles were driving back from Laukkai in a convoy. Three of them were full of war refugees. We heard gunshots as we traveled down from Laukkai. The leader of the Red Cross convoy made a telephone call and learnt that there was an engagement between government troops and Kokang troops some way ahead. The convoy stopped for a while as we heard gunshots and the sound of artillery fire. We had to wait there for around 45 minutes. We resumed the trip when we no more heard gunshots, but then just after driving around for five minutes, we saw shells landing beside the convoy and there was a shower of gunfire which spread across the road. The first two or three vehicles stopped and our vehicle stopped as well. Then, we got out and had to crouch in the drain by the road.

KZM: During the attack, two people were injured. Ko J Paing, where did you take cover? How did you take photos?

J Paing: As soon as the vehicle stopped after the gunshots, I jumped out of it and took cover in a drain by the road. I then made sure I was safe from the gunfire. There were gunshots for one or two minutes. Then being a photojournalist, I was automatically taking photos of what I saw.

KZM: So, your camera was with you?

JP: Yes, it was with me. It is a wide lens camera and easy to carry. I was sitting in the front seat of the vehicle and I even went back to there to take a telephoto lens. And then, I searched for a safe place and…

KZM: There was still an exchange of gunfire that time when you went to take the photo?

JP: Yes, there was exchange of gunfire.

KZM: Didn’t you think you might get shot? Weren’t you afraid of getting hurt?

JP: When I went to take the photo, I checked that it was safe for me to do so. I took cover from the vehicle. I did not go around the vehicle in the open ground.

KZM: One of your photos was great. It was a monk crouching in the drain in fear. So, did you automatically take those photos because of your long experience in this career? How did you get idea to shoot that photo?

JP: As he was taking cover near me, I took his photo at close range. I also took the photos of those others taking cover. We approached the injured as cautiously as we could. We took their photos before taking action to rescue them.

KZM: After you took photos, you, Ko Lynn Bo Bo and Ko Soe Zeya Tun helped to rescue the injured. Would you recount what happened?

LBB: As we approached the vehicle in front of ours, we heard somebody saying that the driver had been shot. At first, we thought it was a minor case. But then, we saw that one man was shot in the abdomen. To be honest, until that time, we had no time to think about rescuing people. It is our nature to capture what is happening before us. I took the cover as much as possible and shot photos. The one who was shot in the abdomen was moaning in pain. He was 15 or 20 feet from me. The driver who was shot was crying for help. I took the picture of him first. The driver asked me to move him from there and said it was too hot there. I asked him if he could walk. He said yes and I asked him to run to us. I then checked with J Paing and Soe Zeya Tun if we could save another one who was shot in the abdomen. Red Cross members from the vehicles behind were also in the drain. Soe Zeya Tun and I had helmets and we thought it was safe for us compared to the others to get to the injured. We left our cameras. He was carrying two cameras and me too. So, we left our cameras by the vehicle and got to that man.

KZM: They survived and have recovered now, which is good news. Ko J Paing and Ko Lynn Bo Bo, you two saved a life and did your job at the same time. Here, we face with the dilemma with regard to the ethics of photojournalism. We have learnt about such cases in journalism training, for example, a man jumps out of a building which is on fire, you are a photojournalist and what will you do, to save him or to shoot the man falling from the building? Are those circumstances a real problem for photojournalists? It is the dilemma of saving a life or taking a great photo. What would you do under such circumstances?

JP: I took the photo of Ko Soe Zeya Tun and Ko Lynn Bo Bo and two other Red Cross members carrying the injured man. I sent the photo to the news agency and it was posted. And, there were comments that that photojournalist did not rescue the man while others were rescuing him. Some commented and criticized me, saying that I was just a news hunter. In fact, we all checked with each other what each of us could do. We consulted with each other. I did my job and took photos. I took care of the injured man on the Red Cross vehicle. I placed him on my thigh and tried to relieve his pain until we arrived at Kunlong Hospital. But, no one knew that. They only knew I took the photo. If I hadn’t taken it and I was carrying that man, there would not have been that photo. So, in my view, I did my job.

KZM: A photo during the Vietnam War in 1972 has become famous in the media since. It is a photo of a Vietnamese girl running naked out of a bomb-hit village. The photographer took it and sent it to a news agency following day. The photo editor of the news agency took a look at that photo. The girl was naked and publishing it was contrary to ethical guidelines. If that photo was made public, the girl may feel mental trauma. But the photo editor made it public. And the question was raised around the world as regards whether it should have been made public or not. Some said it should not have been made public for the sake of the girl. But on the other hand, that photo did a great deal to help stop the Vietnam War as the entire world, even including people in the US, staged protests against the war after seeing the picture. So, Ko Lynn Bo Bo, what is your assessment of such circumstances?

LBB: I myself went through the incident in Laukkai. To be frank, the driver who got injured shouted at me not to take the photo. He gestured for me to not take a picture. But I took the photo of him making that gesture. I took the photo thinking I must record it. I was not thinking about whether it would be used or not while I was taking the photo. I made that photo public. The Voice Journal and Myanmar Red Cross Society also presented that photo. In our view, the victims of the war—pregnant women, elderly people and children—must be shown. It is ordinary people who bear the brunt of the war, leaving aside the question of which side is right and which side is wrong. In the attack on the convoy, it was Red Cross members who suffered. We went to Lashio Hospital the day we were to come back to Rangoon. Then that man showed me a copy of The Voice Journal. He was on the front page. Then, I apologized to him. I explained to him that we had to make it public so that people may know. I took his photo even though he requested me not to take it. As you have said before, it is controversial question that whether the man should be rescued first or the picture should be taken first. It is difficult to say which one is right and which one is wrong, as ethics are not written in black and white. But, if the journalist considers the consequences of what he does and if he does it with a clear conscience—

KZM: Their duty according to their profession is to make public the injustices and sufferings of people in the fighting, is it not? Because there can be good consequences for doing so. Can that photo arouse opposition to the war or serve as a call against attacks on a Red Cross convoy?

As far as I understand, since Burma initiated reforms in 2011, international newspapers have been using good photos of from Burma’s photojournalists. International New York Times uses the photos of Ko Ye Thu Aung from AFP. Photojournalists like you, Ko Lynn Bo Bo, and Ko J Paing, Ko Soe Zeya Tun and some others, bravely take pictures amid clashes, the war in Kachin State and religious riots. How many photojournalists are there who take pictures amid clashes? As far as I know, there are not many. There were cases in which an angry crowd even tried to harm the photojournalists. So how many photojournalists are there who take pictures under such circumstances?

LBB: It can be said the number of such photojournalists has increased since 2012. The number has significantly increased after the 2012 by-election. It has been easier to learn as the internet has improved and more people have become interested in it. We went to Laukkai and took pictures. Some envy us and they also want to take these sorts of photos. But some news agencies do not dispatch their photojournalists for security reasons or because of other difficulties. Burma’s photographers, especially in the news media, have improved rapidly in the last few years.

KZM: My final question is that you have experienced threats to your life, would you give up your career because of this? How do you feel about the purpose and pursuit of your career now?

LBB: It is very rare that journalists are welcomed and supported by the government. There will be challenges for us anywhere. I’m dedicated to continuing my career with honesty and a clear conscience.

KZM: Ko J Paing, why are you so crazy about your career?

JP: The experience we had is a lesson for us. We had both good and bad experiences. And I don’t know what will happen in the future. But, I’m sure I will dedicate my life to my photojournalism career.