Guest Authors

Michael Yon in Squidge Magazine

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This Article was written by ED and published in Squidge Magazine on 03 June 2010.

Michael Yon

Reporter and former Green Beret Michael Yon is an unabashed supporter of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  A divisive figure, he is openly critical of the management of the war but remains very popular with both servicemen and those at home in the US.

Where are you now and what’s happening with your embeds since your last one was cut off?

Today in Singapore but recently was covering the serious fighting in downtown Bangkok in which about 86 people were killed and about 1,900 wounded.  Insofar as embedding with the U.S. military in the future, I do not envision that happening again. I will go back to the war but unlikely to be embedded.

Is it likely you can get embedded with British forces again?  What about other different countries – does the attitude differ country to country towards embedded reporters?

The British invited me several times when news broke of my disembed with U.S.  I had planned to go with them this summer, but after what happened with U.S. (and disembed with U.K. last year), it makes more sense to go alone.  U.S./U.K. will not hesitate to waste your time and money.  No longer makes sense to embed.  Not with so much censorship creeping in under McChrystal and the unpredictable, moody nature of senior public affairs officers such as Admiral Gregory Smith.

What made you take up being a photographer?

Photography is fascinating.  Insofar as communications, I would argue that still photography is by far the most powerful and versatile communications vector for reaching large audiences quickly and powerfully.

You’ve previously said that you initially used the camera as a notepad for your writing – when did it start to kick in as a proper creative tool?

In the earliest days, I just liked taking photos so I bought a new Nikon FE2.  This might have been 1983.  I shot mostly plants, birds, weather, whatever interested me.  But for years I hardly picked up a camera.  Then I started writing in about 1996 and eventually bought a cheap digital as a note pad.  I shot thousands of images mostly as notes and finally photography started taking a life of its own.

What were you writing about when you first started out then?  How do you feel that has developed over the years alongside your photography?

My first book is called “Danger Close” and you can see it on Amazon.com.  My other writing projects are still somewhat confidential as have had to put them on hold during the war.  Insofar as the relationship between writing and photography, the more you do both, the more they meld into one.  Writing and photography used to seem like completely different art forms, and on some level they are, but on another level they are the same thing.

What sort of gear do you use – how much do you have to hump about?  How robust does equipment have to be to work in the desert?

For the first few years, I was a minimalist.  Not because I was truly a minimalist but because my skills were not sufficient to warrant buying top of the line gear.  I went to Iraq in December 2004 with a Nikon D70 and a cheap 50mm prime.  I made a readers’ choice Time photo of the year with that camera and lens. (Dispatch title: “Little Girl.”)  For probably the first couple years of work, nearly all of my images were made through 50mm prime.  In mid-2005, I bought a Canon Mark II 1ds and on nearly the first mission, shot some of my most well-known photos during a firefight.  (Title: “Gates of Fire.”)  These days I shoot with only the best bodies and lenses available, using everything from fisheye to 400mm f2.8.  The gear has no serious problems in the desert but often you need to bag it up from the dust.

I read an article recently which detailed other photographers using their iphone to get smaller, more intimate pictures in a war zone – is that anything you’ve been tempted by?  Are you also thinking about making more use of video?

Had planned to use more video this year until the disembed.  Have not heard of photographers using their iPhones for smaller, more intimate pictures, but I did buy a phone with a good camera.  When you walk in with a Canon Mark IV, everyone notices and it changes the situation which is bad for writing and for photography.  Few people pay attention to the small cameras.

Does your approach differ on reporting from a small, tightly compacted conflict like in Bangkok to one spread over a wider time and space in Afghan/Iraq?

The fighting I saw in Bangkok was very localized.  You could walk to everything or take a motorbike.  Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is/was spread over vast distances and requires far more logistics.  In Thailand, the fighting was happening near the base of my hotel (which hotel was hit with a grenade while I was talking on the phone).  At times at night the fighting was so close that I could crawl onto the balcony or just walk downstairs and watch.  It was odd.  I would eat breakfast and walk straight out into the mix by walking across the street into the Red Shirt camp.

How do you find a balance when writing or shooting delicate moments?

Tough to do sometimes.  Especially with a big camera which changes the situation.  It’s all judgment.

Does people’s behaviour and attitude towards you in those moments vary between countries?

Yes, much.  Was just in heavy fighting in Thailand and they were letting people photograph anything under the sun.  U.S. or U.K. troops would never have allowed photographers to shoot some of the gore they were shooting.  I am not in for shock photos but some were and they were getting plenty of shock photos and nobody was stopping them.  Every culture is different.  Some are camera hams, some are the opposite, and there is everything in between.

Some of your best photography work is outside of the actual conflict, things like the Kopp-Etchells effect and the glowing star field pictures.  Apart from probably being relatively relaxing to shoot, what do you feel you get out of this particular aspect of photography?

That is pure enjoyment!  That’s why I love photography.  Photography can be like that box of chocolates.  You know there is a great shot, but are not sure what you are going to get.  This is especially true of low light shooting.

What other photographers, writers or artists do you like?

No particular favourites because there are so many great ones.  There is no shortage of outstanding photographers, writers and artists.  It’s like sampling food across Asia or Europe.  Don’t force me to pick a favourite because I don’t have one but get to enjoy widely.  That said — when I think of art, Italy often comes to mind.

Is this something you see yourself doing in 10/20 years time?  Could you see yourself reporting on a different area or subject?

Exploration has been a lifelong passion.  Writing and photography are also passions, and I like to combine these things with something worthwhile.  Something that benefits mankind and the planet.  Something that promotes peace while recognizing reality.

See more of Michael dispatches, go to http://www.michaelyon-online.com/

For more background on Michael, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Yon

 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marike · 8 years ago
    The only reason to go to war is to secure that which is worth fighting for... to protect innocence, to allow growth and freedom, to give a voice... essentially to honor humanity. What I see in Micheal's images is an uncanny ability to detect that vulnerable sliver of humanity trodden into the dust that made it worth all the terrible cost.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Salma · 8 years ago
    there are people like Michael that make us realise the important aspects of these wars,people who devote their llives and do their best to keep humanity and care alive...

    To Peace...
    Salma
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AmericanJarhead · 8 years ago
    Nice interview. I can't believe you dragged around a 400/2.8 in the war... I hauled around a 300/2.8 to all places Stateside and that was tought enough (I even earned the nickname 'Sherpa') Anyway, I guess it's really no different that the weapons you used to use... As for embedding, don't exclude the possibility of accepting an assignment in the future. You embed work is fine work. It is unfortunate that General McChrist-All-Mighty is causing the overall coverage of the war to be less accutrate and truthful.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AmericanJarhead · 8 years ago
    Michael, you might find these images of my Marine Corps tour interesting (1979-1983). Obviously, taken long before the digital days! Here is the link: www.yarbz.com/jarheadtime
    --Stay Safe, especially in Signapore!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 8 years ago
    The compendium of MIchael's work needs to be archived and kept in a special place in the Library of Congress. His photography and writing is the most definitive work on the Middle Eastern conflict and is far greater and more reaching than all of the lamestream media hacks combined! He will go down in history as THE war correspondent of all time, greater than Ernie Pyle!

    Side Note: To all his armchair detractors I say, Stuff It! Walk in his shoes for awhile and live as he has lived in these God awful places, then tell me about how much he needs intervention. Made me sick to my stomach to read some of the invective and trashing by his so called "mil-blog buddies". Ya'll ought to ashamed of yourselves and beg forgiveness!

    Shalom!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Victoria · 8 years ago
    Michael's photography is incredible as is the stories that accompany them. Him being a former Green Beret adds meaning for me to what he does. The photo's are stark, real, compassionate and sometimes brings tears to my eyes. All this in a photo. And my guess is most of the detractors are jealous or just not wanting to face reality. Again, thanks Mike.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom/ · 8 years ago
    As an old coot who was around to read Ernie Pyle's stuff, my memory is of two dogfaces and writing for a particular paper or syndicate.
    Michael has crossed that Rubicon long ago and will always be The Best. His passion, wit, courage to tell things as they are have brought us further, given us more information than we could ever expect from someone not trained to fight. He will ever make the comparison between war correspondents a false one as he is the only standard to compare to. I can still smell the bodies of the villagers he discovered while the ABC newsman was riding along 2 km away.
    Old Man
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter · 8 years ago
    "The British invited me several times when news broke of my disembed with U.S. I had planned to go with them this summer, but after what happened with U.S. (and disembed with U.K. last year), it makes more sense to go alone. U.S./U.K. will not hesitate to waste your time and money. No longer makes sense to embed."

    I hope you get the opportunity to embed with either UK or US forces again. It is sad comment on modern journalism that you are one of a tiny number of correspondents that gives such depth to the stories of those on the front line.

    Perhaps now that we in the UK have a government that is more supportive of the armed forces there will be a change in PR attitude from and you can be encouraged back?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    deogi · 8 years ago
    Bought a Nikon FE in 1981 when I started Photography School. Still have it and it is still working great. Although I am learning how to use a Nikon D60 right now but still prefer film to digital. I also agree with you that still photography is poserful and versital medium and is even more so in B&W. MHO.
    Keep up the good work Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bacsi · 8 years ago
    Curious what you would think about covering Lt.Col. Lakin's trial. The issues at stake there will effect our troops and our nation much more than any command failures in Afghanistan. In fact since you thought it was worth while to cover the events in Bangkok, am not sure how you could not cover it, for it might well be the line-in-the-sand event any negative consequences of which could make Bangkok look like child's play.

    Am also curious if you have any thoughts about the large scale sales of Soviet surface-to-air missile systems to China, and China's long term involvement with Iran of developing ground-to-air systems along similar lines. Just how many systems of these types would need to be deployed in the mountains that ring Afghanistan to effect a blockade on US transport air craft, there-by bottling up the majority of our land fighting forces? Iran has radioactive materials, at least enough to make dirty bombs, while Pakistan has nukes. Afghanistan is ringed by regimes hostile to the United States, as you have so well pointed out, land egress and ingress options are limited, if we can't get out troop out by air, can they get out at all?

    btw: on a less serious note, last year you made the observation that educated Thai women tended to delay marriage until their thirties, and to marry men with similar or higher education levels. That is more or less true, and has been for quite a while; however, the underlying reason isn't education per se, it's that they are looking for atypical husbands they can have an enduring loving and intellectual relationship with.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Maddy · 8 years ago
    Hey Michael, we will definitely be left on the short end of the stick with you no longer embedded with the Brits, or the Marines, but I am sure that whatever tact that you pursue, it will come back to us all, as great reporting and even greater photography. THANKS FOR YOUR SERVICE!!

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