Bill Pierce

Ticket to Danger: An Interview with Bill Pierce

By Janis Bultman

Published in Darkroom Photography, December 1984 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Bill Pierce.  Photo by Gene Pierce.
Bill Pierce. Photo by Gene Pierce.

In June 1983, Time photographer Bill Pierce and AP photographer Bill Foley were stalking Yasir Arafat in Lebanon’s embattled Bekaa Valley. They were stopped by Syrian troops who, convinced they were spies, bound their hands behind their backs and brutally beat their driver.

Four hours later, the Syrians were finally persuaded that Pierce and Foley weren’t spies but photojournalists. They released their captives. By that time, Pierce’s right hand and wrist had turned blue and swollen, having suffered extensive nerve damage from the crushing ropes. “I told God, a hand isn’t much to pay if you’ll just get me out of this alive,” Pierce recalls.

As he does after every combat assignment, Pierce swore he would never again photograph in a war zone. But a few months later, his hand returned to normal, he was back in Lebanon.

Pierce won the 1983 Overseas Press Club Award for his coverage of Beirut, Northern Ireland, and Cairo. His photographs are featured in War Torn and the bestseller Children of War. But he resents being called a war photographer, and he doesn’t believe his photographs will have any effect on the ferocity or frequency of wars.

This Princeton alumnus and one-time student of W. Eugene Smith obviously does his job well. But why does he do it at all?

JB: You’re best known for the photographs you’ve taken in war zones, but I’ve heard that you prefer not to think of yourself as a war photographer.

BP: That’s right. I like to think of myself as a generalist concentrating on news photography. As a contract photographer for Time, I’ve photographed science, medicine, and environmental stories, and I do a percentage of Time’s entertainment and arts coverage—basically anything they ask me to do. I also do some portraiture and work for other magazines. I don’t know any war photographers, per se. People who are identified as war photographers usually take offense to it.

JB: Do you?

BP: Most definitely. People idolize war photographers. It’s flattering to be thought of as brave and heroic and to go to cocktail parties and hear people say, “Wow, you must be one hell of a guy.” But the flattery is misguided. The real bravery is in documenting the things you care about even when it means sacrificing comfort and a peaceful home life and putting up with an abrasive professional life in which people find your images useful but really wish you’d get rid of your point of view. I photograph wars for the same reason I photograph other things—because they’re important. But I certainly don’t want to make a career of photographing war, and I am not by any stretch of the imagination a brave person. I’ve gotten caught in adventures that made me look brave, but that didn’t take any courage. The courage is in going there. I’m scared to death when I’m going there.

JB: You mean on the plane, en route?

BP: Yes. On the plane, I’m scared to death. I calm down when things start happening. And you know it’s not all action. The heroism is not in covering the spectacular, dangerous events but in getting up each day knowing things could turn dangerous at any moment and working under that pressure. That’s what takes balls.

JB: What was your first experience photographing armed conflict?

BP: Covering the Civil Rights Movement here. That was the first time I ever got fired on—the first time anybody pointed a gun at me. The first time I was imprisoned or tossed around by large people in uniforms was in Poland in 1969.

JB: Why were you imprisoned?

BP: I was in Gdansk when the original workers’ strikes that preceded Solidarity started. Lest you think I was a crusading war photographer, I was there doing a geography and social studies book. I took a picture of a bread line, and the officials who were escorting me told me, basically, “You can speak about your poverty and you take pictures of it. We think that’s very foolish. Here, we do not allow you to take pictures of poverty. That is officially a bad photograph, and you are now under detention for interfering with the government.” When they let me out, they told me to leave as quickly as I could, so I hopped on the first plane, which was into Prague. That was days before the Russians moved in. For a geography and social studies book, it was a hell of a trip.

JB: What was the first war you photographed?

BP: Northern Ireland in 1976. John Durniak, who was then the picture editor at Time, asked me to go to the South of France to do a story on low-calorie gourmet cooking. I got as far as England and telexed John from the London Bureau explaining that I was sure he’d be much happier if I were in Belfast doing real news. And John, being the gentleman he is, agreed. Actually, he was furious because he had to find somebody else to do low-calorie gourmet cooking in the South of France, which everybody knew was going to run. It was highly doubtful that any of my pictures of Northern Ireland would run. In fact, they didn’t. But it was an incredible experience for me. I was frightened to death by things I wouldn’t be frightened of anymore.

JB: What made you do it?

BP: I just felt it was terribly important—that something terribly wrong was happening there. And when I arrived, I found it was awful. I saw an incredible denigration of human rights—in society, in the courts, in every respect. I felt that as a journalist, this was what I should be photographing. I still feel that way. I don’t feel comfortable doing it, but I think it should be done, so I do it.

JB: What frightened you then that doesn’t frighten you now?

BP: I’m no longer afraid of walking up to the periphery of a battle. That first time I was, afraid because I wasn’t yet familiar with weapon trajectory and things like that. I was deathly afraid of being wounded. Now, I know how far I can go before I’m in trouble.

JB: Why didn’t Time use your photographs?

BP: It just wasn’t that big as news events go, but when the hunger strikers came along, I packed the magazine. Then I did a lot of the photography—including the cover—for Children of War. Roger Rosenblatt, who wrote the original story, expanded the text into a book and turned me into one of its characters. A few of my photographs were illustrations.

JB: When you photograph a war, what kinds of pictures do you look for?

BP: I’m interested in taking pictures of people. Everywhere. Not just in wars. When I’m in a war, I take pictures of people and how they respond to the war, to being caught in its aftermath or to being trapped in a culture that’s been shaped by conflict.

JB: Are there pictures you won’t take?

BP: Personally, I don’t have any desire to take pictures of shells exploding on the horizon or of soldiers firing guns—big or little. I hope I wouldn’t take pictures that misrepresented somebody. I don’t want to do cheap shots that make people look villainous or heroic when they’re not. Then there are the ones where a soldier points a rifle at you and says, “Don’t take that picture!” That’s a big category!

JB: Does that happen often?

BP: It’s very common. In some parts of the world, it’s a daily occurrence.

JB: How do your subjects react to you when you’re photographing? Are they glad you’re there? Are they resentful? Do they feel that you’re helping their situation by documenting it? Or do they completely ignore you?

BP: All of the above. There’s no predicting what people’s reaction will be. But in general, most people are understanding, sympathetic, and helpful. There have been one or two people who became extremely upset at my taking pictures and who tried to exercise violence on me. But isn’t that understandable? Their reaction actually makes more sense to me than when people let me intrude on their lives at a time when leaving them in privacy would be a normal and natural courtesy. Perhaps these people think I’m helping. I hope I am. But I don’t believe I am to the degree that they think I am. The one thing I hear constantly is, “Tell our story. If you tell our story, then everybody will support us, and the situation will change.”

JB: Do you think your photographs can make a difference?

BP: No. That is a sadly naïve view. I don’t think that my pictures have ever accomplished anything in and of themselves.

JB: Have you always felt that way? Or is this the voice of experience?

BP: It’s definitely the latter. We go out thinking we’re going to change the world. People will look at our pictures and say, “My god! This is horrible? We must beat our swords into ploughshares! We must put down our guns!” And of course they don’t—our pictures don’t make them do that. If anyone is changed, it’s those of us who take the pictures. I don’t think we start out as particularly brave or courageous or sensitive. But all the changes that we, as photojournalists, want to make in people by showing them pictures of the horrors of war happen to us. That’s why I’m so proud of the people I work with in those situations. They’re the finest people in the world. If the world was filled with people who were lucky enough to have the kinds of experiences we’ve had it’d be a much more peaceful world. No doubt about it.

JB: That kills my next question. I was going to ask if there’s any truth to the old stereotype of photojournalists as ruthless and competitive.

BP: The majority of photojournalists are not competitive in those situations. In fact, they’re very supportive of each other. They have to be. This is not a racket where you can work alone. But I know of one or two selfish, egocentric nutcases who are competitive in the bad sense—who purposely mislead other photographers or become so aggressive while they’re photographing that they create trouble. They’re insensitive not only to other photographers but to their subjects, and if they continue to photograph in areas where they’re at risk, they’re going to get killed because other photojournalists simply stop associating with them, and they lose the protection of companionship. They’ve come up to me, for example, and said, “Bill, can I ride with you?” And I’ve told them,” No, you can’t. In fact, I don’t ever want you to ride with me, and I don’t want to see you near me.” If that sounds unusually brutal, it’s because my ass is on the line.

JB: There’s no doubt that yours is a dangerous profession. How close have you come to being killed?

BP: Pretty close. Almost everybody I know who’s worked those assignments has come close to being killed. You go out, and you never know what’s going to happen. You’re caught in shelling, and if a shell lands one place, you’re dead. I’ve had friends killed, and it wasn’t because they were nutcases or cowboys. They were just unlucky. Their deaths are not only the loss of friends; they’re a grim reminder of what might happen to you.

JB: Knowing that, why do you continue to pub yourself in risky situations?

BP: At any given time, I’m not sure that I will continue to put myself in those situations. I never, ever have the intention of going back. Then something happens, and I’m more qualified than someone who might be unfamiliar with the area or who doesn’t have contacts, or I’m bored, so I go.

JB: But there must be something exhilarating about being there that keeps you going back and keeps you going when you get there.

BP: Well, sure. When you first get into an area, it’s almost like Boy Scout camp. There are all your friends whom you haven’t seen for months, and if the area is really embattled, you’re outdoors eating out of tin cans. You’re marching around in a strange environment. And you feel good because you’re doing something important. All that doesn’t override the fear, but it certainly dims it.

JB: Let me ask you a few technical questions. Which cameras do you use on assignment?

BP: I use 35mm Leicas and mechanical Canon reflexes. I’ve been using the new Canon F1 because it gives me some of the electronic features like automation and extended slow shutter speeds but also provides a mechanical backup in case there’s a battery failure. It’s also built into a slightly more rugged casting, so it can take more abuse than some of the more feature-laden, totally electronic cameras. I’m experimenting with some of those because they’re lighter and smaller, but they’re supplementary cameras.

JB: How many cameras do you carry with you?

BP: On a normal sort of feature-type war where it’s not really run-and-duck time, I’ll carry three cameras and four lenses—a 28mm, a 50mm, a 135mm, and a 300mm. If it’s run-and-duck time, I’ll carry two cameras. I never bring less than six cameras—I leave backup bodies at the hotel—and that does not include the lighter, more automatic cameras that are supplements.

JB: I notice a number of black-and-white photographs on your wall. Are they yours?

BP: The ones shot with an 8×10? Yes they are.

JB: Obviously, you don’t spend all your time behind an SLR.

BP: No, and in fact a significant number of photographers who make their living from the publication of tiny, postage-stamp-sized color pictures shoot larger format black-and-white. We do it to regain control of our medium—and not just photographic control, but emotional control too. Obviously, we can do things with larger format black-and-white that are visually very different from what we do with a motorized semi-automatic SLR stuffed with Kodachrome. But we also can approach photography more contemplatively, spending what would normally be an inordinate amount of time on a single image. It’s both therapeutic and important to your craft. The common denominator of all people who have done well photographing violence is that they have also done very well photographing nonviolence. Often, they’ve done it in the same arena. Susan Meiselas, who is famous for her photographs of violence in Central America, has also done some exquisite photographs of peace in Central America. Or at least what passes for it. You’re not going to be a good photographer in nasty situations if you’re not a good photographer.

JB: Are you a self-taught photographer?

BP: I’m completely self-taught. As far as school goes, I always recommend to aspiring photographers that they attend a school that offers a broad range of subjects because for one thing those are the last few years they’ll be allowed to concentrate on great—if not very productive—ideas. And obviously, you have to bring more to photojournalism than just the ability to take a picture. Anybody can go to a newspaper and say, “I was trained as a photojournalist.” I would bet the editor’s response would be, “Listen, sweetie. In the next six months I’ll teach you photojournalism. What else can you give me? An insight into science? Politics?” I believe the craft of photography is best learned in an apprentice situation.

JB: You yourself apprenticed with W. Eugene Smith, didn’t you?

BP: It would be better to say that I was an acquaintance to whom he was kind. Gene was a journalist. People didn’t follow him around when he was shooting. I did proof prints and correspondence for him. And like everybody around Gene, I learned a hell of a lot. Mostly, he taught me ethics. And you couldn’t be around Gene without learning a great deal of craftsmanship.

JB: When you say he taught you ethics, what do you mean?

BP: On the most simplistic level, he taught me that photographers are responsible for their subjects. Cameras don’t necessarily tell the truth. You can make your subject look like a fool, or you can make him look better than he is. Gene taught me that if you’re doing news, you make very, very sure your photographs represent what is happening to the best of your ability. And you treat your subject photographically with the same respect and dignity you treat him on human terms.

JB: Counting the years you worked with Smith and then for Time, you’ve been observing news coverage for almost two decades. How do you think photojournalism has changed in that time?
BP: I think that because of television, people have become very aware of the power of pictures. And every army, even the smallest militia, has somebody to create photo opportunities that will make their side look good. They want you to see how happy and well their soldiers are, so they’ll allow you to photograph the troops receiving mail from home and things like that. Or they’ll take you out to the ships and let you take pictures of the galleys preparing three thousand turkeys “for our boys.” That kind of crap. And we do it. The flip side is they want to make damn sure you don’t take any pictures that will make their side look bad. They’ll always say it’s for security reasons. “You can’t take that because it would reveal our positions.” “You can’t go there because it wouldn’t be safe for you.”

JB: So it’s become a public relations game.

BP: That’s exactly right, and when you talk PR, you’re not talking about logic, you’re talking about visceral, nonverbal communication, and that’s photography. It’s photography that says, “These are the good guys,” and everyone knows it. Here’s a good example. Not too long ago, Eddie Adams tried to take a picture of an Israeli soldier kicking a prisoner. Another soldier pushed Eddie’s camera down and said, “You can’t take that.” Eddie said, “Why not?” The soldier told him, “We don’t kick our prisoners.”

Even the lowliest foot soldier has become visually consummate and hip. I was photographing in Beirut. We had moved down to the front lines and it was moderately nasty—there were still some shells falling. I came across an old woman screaming in the courtyard of a bombed-out building because her two grandchildren had just been killed. The bodies had already been moved out, but there were three little infant’s sneakers scattered around the courtyard in pools of blood—I don’t know what happened to the fourth sneaker. I started to photograph one of these sneakers in its pool of blood, and a soldier who was standing nearby stopped me. He went and picked up the other two sneakers, and then he brought them over to me and set them down next to the other so there were now three bloody sneakers in the pool of blood. He looked at me, and he said, “Now good. You take this. Better now. Right?

© 1984, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman




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