memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

The War Photographer

Max is a professional photographer who has been covering wars in Indo-China, Africa, The Balkans and  – his preferred stamping ground – Central and South America for more than a quarter of a century.

He has worked with a stringer, sometimes for various publications and agencies, The Sunday Times, Reuters, AP etc. and sometimes as a freelance photographer. He has tracked wars across the continent from Panama to El Salvador and Honduras, from Argentina to Columbia, recording the effects of AIDS, orphaned children, starvation and drug-related strife. He at times catches a glimpse of the appalling scale of a system whereby 10% of the population control the lion’s share of a country, often rich in resources, while 90% of the population share the rest. But usually, like the rest of his kind, he dispassionately plies his trade, pointing his camera at human suffering and anguish always in search of that elusive shot – the café being ripped apart by a bomb, the woman running screaming after her kids who are being taken off in the back of a truck or, the ultimate, the fighter plane diving low over the road, people scattering to left and right, straight into the lens – the shot which would take him onto the cover of Time Magazine. Max is a tall, scruffy Australian in his mid-forties with prematurely white hair and a lined kind face.

Recently more and more he’s been overcome with a feeling of fatigue and a kind of gentleness as though he’s seen enough and now wants just to lie down on the ground and go to sleep.

This afternoon he’s roaming around a huge shanty town on the outskirts of São Paulo, working on pictures which he can use to illustrate a feature story (hyping up local colour) about the poverty and lack of basic conditions in the overcrowded favelas of Brazil. He stops in front of a group of children, automatically snapping them.

He has seen thousands of such kids, old before their time, orphaned by AIDS and wars, holding out to him the detritus of scarcity. There are six of them – three girls and three boys – and only one of them, a little girl, is smiling; the others are defiant or desperate or worst of all expressionless, as if they too, in their young lives, have already seen enough. Max notes that the blue walls of the shack behind them are pockmarked with bullet holes as though death has swept through leaving his visiting-card behind.


Ever since the Mission School closed down last year Nelson, Carlitos and little Sara have been homeless, forced to live by scavenging on rubbish tips, stealing food wherever they can and sleeping in a makeshift corrugated-iron shack which they found abandoned. They share the shack with three other children, Rio kids who drifted in from the south and attached themselves to the locals, neither side showing any resentment towards the other, bound together in the constant day-to-day struggle for survival.

Today during their wanderings through the maze of streets and alleys they have come across a pile of spent shell-casings, which they are hoping to sell for a few cents to either local used-metal merchants or else foreign journalists or TV reporters, as souvenirs of their swing through the poverty-stricken zones of South America.  (Later they’ll fly back home to London or New  York, the chattering classes with their loft conversions in Islington or their high-rise apartments in Greenwich Village and tell their dinner guests how heart-wrenching it was to see those poor little kids).

Five of them are holding out their sad little trophies for inspection (only the other little girl, Rita, is clutching an old dress that she found on the tip) eyeing the shambling photographer incuriously. He stares back at them and suddenly reaches into his pockets and takes out all the coins and notes he has on him and shovels the money into all their eager little hands, then  turns away and strides down the street and disappears around a corner leaving the kids open-mouthed with astonishment.

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