Shooting Robert King


Written by Emily Hobbs
Photos and illustrations by Robert King
18 Monday 18th October 2010

Shooting Robert King is a film about the celebrated war photographer’s aim to become the youngest ever Pulitzer Prize winner. It is also a film about the fine line separating madness and dedication, the extraordinary sacrifices journalists make to document the stories of those affected by war, and most of all it is a tribute to those members of the press who have lost their lives in that pursuit. 

The film begins with the meeting of King and filmmakers Vaughan Smith and Richard Parry in Sarajevo and goes on to span the following 15 years of their working relationship. The opening titles describe the journalists’ hunger to experience their first war and King’s inexperience is betrayed as he is shown being told by a more experienced journalist not to wear his cargo pants out of the hotel in case he’s mistaken for a rebel.
The naiveté and macho recklessness lends a sense of parody to the opening sequence and at first it seems almost comical – like The Thick Of It of war journalism. Until you see the images... 
There’s a scene when you’re in the car with Richard and he’s asking who are the key political figures in the Bosnian war, and you don’t know. What made you want to go and cover a war you knew nothing about?
In the beginning I just didn’t care, I was determined and reckless. I’d been given a travel grant from university to go to the mountains in northern Iraq, but security issues meant I couldn’t go. I met a Time journalist called Chris Morrison, who invited me to go to Sarajevo and I knew I wanted to be in that kind of profession, I wanted to be like him. I hadn’t had any formal journalistic training but for me the photographic medium felt intuitive. I’d bought all the equipment, the camera, the film stock. I had this grant. I couldn’t come back with nothing.
How big a part has luck played in the fact that you’re still alive today despite your occasionally obvious lack of field knowledge?
It’s all luck. I could have studied military manuals my whole life but it’s all luck. The more you expose yourself to combat situations the more you risk physical injury and the more important logistics become. But in Afghanistan we drove over a pressure mine hidden in the middle of the road. We were at the front of the convoy and for some reason it didn’t detonate underneath us, but it got the Humvee behind. It’s just luck.
Apart from the physical risk, what’s the mental impact of seeing the kind of atrocities you must confront in a war zone?
On some level it’s just a job. What gets you through is how you perceive war; realising that everything in life is war, it’s just the fight is more civilised. It’s hard for what we do to become accepted by the wider journalistic community. I don’t think I’m such damaged goods but if you go to the editor of a newspaper or magazine in the corporate world there is a sense that they don’t want to know, like ‘we don’t want someone like him around’ because of the stigma.
The scene where there’s an elderly man lying in a Chechen street with both legs blown off is particularly harrowing. What are your thoughts of the responsibility of the photographer in a situation like that?
That picture won a lot of awards; editors lapped it up like dogs. The photographer is still haunted. Could he have applied a tourniquet? Probably. Would it have made any difference? I doubt it. All his arteries were severed, the only reason he stayed alive so long was because it was so cold it took him a long time to bleed out. All he could do was comfort the man in his final hours. Those events are going to happen whether photographers are there or not and Chechnya was a unique situation because there was no aid. In Sarajevo if we arrived on the scene of an attack we would end up taking people to hospital because there were facilities nearby, and yeah we felt good about being able to do that. But our job is to document, not to save lives. If we wanted to save lives we would join a medical organisation.
Why turn the camera on yourself and make yourself the subject?
Richard and Vaughan had been commissioned to make a short film about freelance journalists, so when I met them in Sarajevo I didn’t know anyone and I was just pleased that other journalists wanted to talk to me! We got to working on stories together, then when Richard was in Chechnya he called me up and told me to get out there. The film just evolved through us being together in these different situations. At the time I never knew it would get this far which is why in the film you see my guard is down and I’m not being serious all the time. That’s partly to do with the vision of the film maker but also because it’s not really a film about me or my career but about the seven colleagues who are mentioned at the end of the film who have all died on front lines.
What are your hopes for the film?
The Richard and Vaughan become filthy rich! It’s their film; I’m just their victim!
None of us can control how it’s received; we can only put the information out there. I am very grateful to Richard’s commitment to our industry and Vaughan’s commitment to his, and of the film that’s resulted. I hope their vision and commitment to this project are given their proper dues.
Shooting Robert King is available now on DVD and Blueray.


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