The Medevac Stories, with Daniel Etter

This is in part a guest post by photographer Daniel Etter

From the very beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there has been debate about the nature of US media coverage of the conflicts and the embedding system. One of my favorite sources for this media criticism has come from Michael Shaw at BagNewsNotes. He recently published a post about three news organizations publishing three stories about US Medevac units at the same time, which has set off a series of discussions and posts around the photo world. Medevac is short for Medical Evacuation, typically a helicopter rescue in the context of modern war zones. For a good round-up and links to all of the work in question, see this PDN Pulse post which includes a response from one of the photographers involved.

I think it is worth noting as well, before we get started, the photographic echoes we are dealing with when we look at medevac stories and why they are so visually/culturally interesting. This story’s inherent appeal is echoed in Etter’s response. We can start with Larry Burrow’s foundational Life Magazine essay One Ride with Yankee Papa 13 and David Turnley’s memorable photograph from the 1991 Gulf War of a soldier crying over the death of his friend in a medevac chopper. As well, James Nachtwey recorded a video interview with Time Magazine about his assignment in question: “Photographing the Birds of Hope: An Army Medevac Unit in Afghanistan”.

I was especially interested in this discussion because an old colleague of Scott and mine, Daniel Etter, recently completed an embed himself with a US Medevac unit and worked on his story Medevac, which we are also featuring in this post. I thought to ask him what his view was on the current hubbub, given his own personal knowledge of the process and decision making, and to learn more about his own project. He wrote back with some thoughtful ideas and insights and we have chosen to publish the entire piece. I consider this a guest post for Dvafoto by Daniel Etter, and turn it over to him with thanks:

Daniel Etter:
So there were three major US publications that nearly simultaneously published prominent stories on US Army medevac units. My take on it? Partly coincidence and partly photographers’ herd instinct.

I approached the military specifically asking to be embedded with a medevac unit. There was absolutely no influence from the side of the military. It might have taken longer if I’d applied for a foot patrol, but I doubt that. I was embedded in Regional Command South and during my time there, there were at least four photographers with troops on the ground, while there were only two photographers embedded with medevac units, me being one of them. One additional photographer split his time between ground troops and a medevac unit. The people who didn’t ask for a specific unit ended up with ground troops.

I was surprised to see all these photographers doing the same story and, even more so, to see the same story being published in the NYT and Time Magazine within such a short time frame. The former is pretty easy to explain. You could be with the infantry on foot patrols for weeks and absolutely nothing happens, and, given the cynicism of our profession, you don’t want that. (Back in Kandahar, another photographer asked if I had seen any amputees during my embed. I said, yes. To which he somewhat jealously replied: “Strong images, man, strong images.”) Being embedded with a medevac unit means, you can be sure to get dramatic photos. About every third mission I accompanied was to a so-called “POI”, the point of injury somewhere in the dusty plains around Kandahar. In one case it was a hot POI, meaning that fighting was still going on. Wounded being rushed into helicopters, guns pointed at invisible enemies and dust blown up by the whirling chopper blades. Very visual.

In 2008/2009 various high profile photographers went to the Korengal valley embedded with US combat troops. Among them were Tyler Hicks, David Guttenfelder, Tim Hetherington and Adam Ferguson. Gary Knight (on Rethink-Dispatches) and David Campbell (on his blog) wrote about this strange clustering, asking if this was due to the military’s strategy to narrow the public’s focus on this tiny part of Afghanistan and keep it away from other parts. [Editor’s Note: This is a terrific observation and both Campbell’s and Knight’s articles offer great insights that are applicable to this current discussion]. Now almost the same question is being asked again just the other way around. Is the military trying to get the focus away from combat? In both cases, I doubt that the answer is a simply “yes”.

When deciding where to embed, photographers, especially those without much experience in the war theater, ask other photographers or look at work that has been done before. The most important question often is: Where do I get good photos? Which basically means: Where is the fighting? In 2008/2009 the answer was Korengal. Last year it was medevac, and I expect we will see more of it this year. This clustering doesn’t only happen with war photography, but with pretty much every subject. For example, most of the photographers based in India have done stories on Kushti, the traditional Indian wrestling.

The other thing is that medevac embeds are comparatively safe. Well, at least you feel safer. You are only on the ground for a minute or two and you spend the majority of your time on the base. On a foot patrol there’s always the danger of getting shot at out of the blue or, even worse, stepping on an IED. While with a medevac unit chances that you get under fire are much higher than with the infantry, at least you don’t have to carry that fear around all day long. Perceived safety and dramatic images at the same time make up for a pretty strong argument for a medevac embed. At least, when you look at it from a purely pragmatical viewpoint.

The latter, why there where three major publications who did the same story within such a short time span, I can’t explain. But I don’t believe that it was due to influence from the side of the military. Perception has a lot to do with the current ruckus, I think. If Nachtwey hadn’t done this story, nobody would have raised the topic. And also, there were other, less heroic pieces that got published around the same time. About a month earlier, the NYT did a story on night raids that were heavily criticized by the Afghan government.

That being said, I still think that this clustering of the same story being repeated is definitely a symptom of some problems of the photographical coverage of the war in Afghanistan. I just don’t think the gravest problems lie within the embed system. Sure, being embedded means that you are part of the military’s public relations strategy, and there are definitely stories withheld from the public (special ops, for example). But it’s not that you don’t see the downside of the military’s actions. Adam Ferguson had a big multimedia piece in Time on an infantry unit that accidentally killed a 14-year-old girl (there is also a a text version of the story).

The graver problem, I think, are the difficulties of getting out of the embed system. What’s missing are not stories about American troops fighting, but stories about the other side. It is not only very dangerous to report unembedded in Afghanistan, but also very expensive. An embed is free. So a lot of independent photographers end up doing the same stories with the military and their public relations strategy.

Another problem that comes up here sounds very simple: Photography relies on images. The more dramatic, the better to sell. Photographers aren’t magically drawn to stories like Korengal or medevac. You can make powerful and journalistically important images in these places, but on the other hand you are very limited with a camera. There are stories that simply cannot be told in images. And sometimes, even if the story is an entirely different one, the images remain the same. Can you tell the difference between an insurgent and a simply Afghan farmer on a photo?

My decision to embed with a medevac unit was mostly pragmatic. It was my first embed, and, to be honest, I was freaking scared to go. I didn’t set out with the idea to do the best or most unique story possible. And I don’t believe in the naive notion that one single photographer in the context of this war can change anything for the better. However, I do believe in the necessity of communicating these stories and events to a wider audience in order to keep public debate alive. But I just wanted to start with something that might not be the most important topic but seemed relatively safe. I’ve seen Nachtwey’s piece on the broader subject of military medicine in National Geographic, which also covers the work of US flight medics. It seemed like a good option. Simple as that. No conspiracies involved.

[Ed: Thanks again Daniel for your insights in to this story and your honest and open assesments of the situation. And to Michael Shaw for setting this discussion and our thinking off ]

10 Responses to “The Medevac Stories, with Daniel Etter”

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  2. Matt

    I didn’t get a chance for the shout-out in the original post but I came across my friend Alan Chin’s comment in the original BagNewsNotes post ( where he touches on some more interesting issues and adds to the discussion Thomas Dworzak’s MASHIraq project. I’ll take credit for thinking of Turnley though (and Etter brought up Burrows first).. as it was one of the first news photographs I remember striking me when I was young.
    Cheers Alan!

  3. Michael Shaw

    Matt and Daniel,

    Thanks so much for this post and for the personal insight on the spectrum of imagery coming out of Afghanistan. In my post about the redundancy, my goal was to primarily raise the issue. I can’t say I wasn’t also pointing, even wagging a finger at the embedding system and the government’s propaganda agenda, but I certainly understand the issue is more complex than that.

    I’m glad for such a practical response, especially given Daniel’s options as a photographer new on the war scene. What I didn’t want to do, but probably couldn’t quite avoid (as evidenced by Louie Palu’s response to my post in the PDN piece) is to blame the photographer or put the photographer in the middle. I do feel, though, that the system DOES put the photographer in the middle, given the military’s propaganda agenda, the media’s desire to “deliver wow” and the photographer’s need to acquire access, stay safe, and create salable and dramatic imagery.

    Again, thanks for elaborating these realities in such a nuts-and-bolts way. If anything, I hope this discussion can help visual consumers better understand the terms that dictate how much, how little and exactly what they see of these wars.

    –Michael Shaw/BagNewsNotes

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  5. Karl Peterson

    The Korengal situation was mostly the result of the battalion TF Rock’s (2-503) obsession with the media during their time there (2007-2008). There has never been a battalion more fixated on media coverage in Afghanistan and likely never will be. It became a feedback loop of media coverage with the battalion trying to break records for most number of bombs dropped in a deployment. A true media circus that too often missed the point that they were making a mess of the situation. It was not any different from the neighboring valleys.

    • Matt

      Hi Karl,

      Thanks a lot for writing in. After watching Tim Hetherington’s documentary Restrepo again last night, and with your comments in mind, it did bring up a lot of new questions. There were a good handful of photographers who were with this very unit, on the same momentous missions.. how’d they know to be there. And plenty of boasting from the commanding officer about how many munitions they dropped. Will think about it and look in to it more.

      I’m curious where you’re coming at this story from though. Are you a journalist, a soldier, or? What are your sources (are there articles out there about this?) for the assertion that they were trying to make records or that it was the same situation in nearby valleys?

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