Paul Conroy isn’t a fan of crawling through cramped tunnels. “Potholing should be banned,” the British photojournalist joked. When you have to bend double as Syrian rebels illegally smuggle you into a combat zone through an increasingly airless 3 km storm drain, it helps to have a dark sense of humour.
The storm drain, 4 ft high, was the route he took with his colleague, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, last February on their way to Baba Amr, a district in the Syrian city of Homs. Conroy was concerned about his friend’s sense of direction – a decade before, in Sri Lanka, Colvin had lost an eye. “She had a tendency to veer left,” he explained. That could be awkward in a pitch black tunnel, when you’re not sure what’s going to be waiting for you on the other side.
Conroy was badly wounded in Baba Amr, as was the French reporter Edith Bouvier, in a shellfire attack on the unofficial media building where they stayed. The attack killed Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik. Conroy remembers the shells falling on one side, and then the other. He thought they had stopped and was reaching for his camera when a final shell landed. He reached down to find there was a big hole in his left leg, and shrapnel in his thigh. “I just felt like someone had hit me with a hammer.”
He tied his wound with an Ethernet cable. “That’s when I went looking for Marie. I fell over her, in the rubble. I knew instantly that she was dead.”
A fraught escape from Syria on the back of a motorbike – through the tunnel again – and multiple operations later, Conroy is now recovering. He owes his life to the Syrian field hospital that treated him – there was no anaesthetic, just the odd cigarette, and he hated being a burden on them. “I didn’t get out for six days, which was a bit hairy, because they had our location and they were trying to bomb us,” Conroy recalled in a public interview at the Cleraun Media Conference on Saturday conducted by Irish Times photographer Brenda Fitzsimons.
Journalists used to be seen as set apart from combatants – in the Balkans in the 1990s, he had been able to cross from one side to another, staying both independent and safe. It’s not like that anymore, which brings ethical challenges (the people who feed and house you become your friends) as well as immediate dangers. “Journalists are targets,” he told the conference, his crutch serving as visual evidence of this fact.
The night before Colvin died, they had decided she should do live Skype reports for CNN and BBC World, in case this was her last opportunity. “Really that was the beginning of our end, the live transmissions, because Marie was so powerful and she summed up the brutality of what was happening,” says Conroy. “We must have irritated someone in Damascus.”
After he returned home to Britain, he discovered there had been a $1 million bounty on his head, just for being in Syria. “I thought I was only worth £85 quid.”
Some people seemed to blame Colvin for her own death, claiming she had become addicted to the adrenalin of war reporting. “They said, ‘why did you go somewhere so dangerous?’” But he doesn’t approve of the knee-jerk caution of editors since the events of February. “Let me put it this way, I don’t think it’s worth stopping what we’re doing in order to prevent a loss of a life.” In summary: “No one sets out to be killed.”
Bearing witness to horrors that might otherwise remain undocumented is the whole point anyway. “If I see groups of photographers, I’ll essentially go the other way. Same with Marie, she hated bunches of reporters. That’s why we ended up in Baba Amr – 8,000 people trying to get out, two people trying to get in.” During the artillery barrage from dawn to dusk, they “experienced a tiny amount of what these people had been through for months on end”.
Newspaper editors don’t always understand the logistical difficulties faced by foreign correspondents in conflict zones, Conroy noted. “Can you get a photograph of Gaddafi’s unmarked grave?” an editor had asked during an assignment in Libya. It’s the kind of question that answers itself. “But we did actually try, me and Marie,” he added. He used Google Earth to draw a line 50 km south of Misrata, where rebels had hinted to Colvin the burial site might be located. “We got a driver and a truck and we spent two days looking.” Eventually, the driver had enough of trying to find a dead dictator in a desert.
In Libya, Conroy had been invited to photograph Colonel Gaddafi’s body in a freezer shortly after he had been killed, brutally, by rebels. “You could recognise the brand marks of the boots they kicked him with.”
He doesn’t self-censor. “I’ll shoot anything, and the odd one or two make a newspaper. I’d say 90 per cent of what I shoot would never make a newspaper – they’re too graphic. We’re quite delicate little souls,” he said drily. But dead children are the reality of war: “I was once approached by a woman with a baby’s head saying ‘can you fix this?’ Those pictures didn’t make the papers.”
The ones that do tend to be the bloodless “bang bang” pictures of rebels with guns. The photographs of mutilated bodies too macabre to print he keeps in his archive in the hope that they may become of use to future war commissions. Since returning from Syria, he’s been interviewed by the International Criminal Court and the British Foreign Office. “I had to come off morphine and be certified drug-free in case the testimony was challenged.”
Conroy is back on pain medication and still needs physiotherapy on his leg. But he doesn’t quite believe he has seen his last conflict zone. “I don’t think I’m ready to start doing landscapes,” was how the ex-soldier put it. “I’m terrified of giving up in case I become a wedding photographer.”