Magnum Photos' Thomas Dworzak on war and photojournalism

Magnum Photos' Thomas Dworzak on war and photojournalism

By Thomas Hofer 04/03/14

Thomas Dworzak began taking photos while still at school. Since then, he has covered events in Chechnya, Nigeria, Haiti, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, to name a few. Thomas talks to Thomas Hofer about photojournalists’ love-hate relationship with war and his book on US army doctors in Iraq...

How did your book M*A*S*H IRAQ come together?

M*A*S*H IRAQ became a personal project, but it grew out of my professional work. I had a contract at TIME Magazine. Because I spent a lot of time with the medevacs [medical evacuation team] I started to watch M*A*S*H  – the American TV show about army doctors in the Korean War – and I got into it. M*A*S*H was interesting: it was shown during the Vietnam War and there was the whole discussion about Vietnam. Iraq was a similar situation and the same discussion was still alive so M*A*S*H fitted very well with it. 

I pulled it all together afterwards, putting my photographs with stills from M*A*S*H, but to start with it was a normal assignment. That’s what’s good about Magnum – you have a place where you can bring in something else on top of the purely professional, commercial work. 


 © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos.

Image: Screen shots of US TV serial M*A*S*H.


What was the response from the soldiers that you photographed?  

I wasn’t in touch with the military after the book came out. [But beforehand] on the purely photographic part of it – the non-M*A*S*H pictures – surprisingly they were very positive. I thought they’d be worried about it. I was maybe out to look for the cruel side of war and was actually a bit embarrassed to get so much praise from that side.

That said, I have a fairly pro-military point of view. I really felt I was with the soldiers. I have huge respect for what they do, especially the medevac guys. I’m not somebody whose message is, “Oh my God, war is horrible.” This is way too simple for me. 

One image depicts a group of soldiers watching their friend die. How do you personally relate to such a situation?

I didn’t know the guy. This was the bizarre thing with medevac: you fly around in an ambulance and pick up casualties. The people that come in aren’t the people you’ve been with. I thought that it was dignified. But also it’s in a hospital, so the way people react to it is ritualised. And it’s still the military: they have [systems in place] to deal with it. It’s not this emotional chaos like you get in the civilian world. I don’t want be aggressive in that situation, you’ve just got to be quiet and respectful. For me, that’s always the most important thing. It’s not like I absolutely have to get the picture. I mean, I have to get it, but I should try to get it the most dignified way possible.  


 © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos.

Image: Soldiers and Medics watching their comrade die, near Tikrit, Iraq, 2005, © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos. 


How does this tie into your role as a photojournalist? 

My job is not to be [touchy-feely]. I should be respectful to people, whatever happens, but then I should be provocative. Most of the time people don’t care. I’m glad if it upsets somebody, if they get confused. 

Everybody has this taboo view of war. It can be great fun, too, and I think it’s important to know that. There are a lot of people, including myself, that have had a very good time in different wars. And it’s an intensity you miss afterwards. I’m not in favour of war, God forbid. It would be better if there was no war, definitely. But once it’s there, you’ve got to look at it.

What equipment do you use? 

Small cameras. Anything non-professional is perfect. Sometimes I bring professional [cameras] – when I have to come across as professional. 

What impact did joining Magnum have on your photographic career? 

It changed everything because when I came to Magnum, I was an unestablished photographer. I had taken a lot of pictures, I knew quite a lot about photography, but I wasn’t professional. It’s a funny thing for me actually, that I’d done personal [work] for a long time and then I got into Magnum and suddenly I was the young professional photojournalist. Usually it’s the other way round. 


 © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos.

Image: US FOB (Forward Operating Base) Speicher Hospital, Tikrit, Iraq, 2005, © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos.


What’s the toughest situation you’ve faced as a photographer? 

Being a nominee in Magnum. I didn’t like it. It was traumatising. I was 28 or something and suddenly you show up with all these big guys and these famous people and everything is intimidating. 

What advice would you give someone starting out in photography?

Photography isn’t that complicated; you can learn to take pictures by yourself. Photography is about life and experience. Put yourself in a position where you take a lot of pictures. Don’t study photography. Don’t think about it too much. Try to experience something and express that experience through photography. 


Read more insights and advice from Thomas Dworzak and other Magnum photographers in our special zine. 

For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit out Photography hub.

All images © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos.

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