(by C.J. Schexnayder, www.kleph.com)
On New Years Day, a Peruvian photojournalist for Agency France-Presse, Jaime Razuri, was kidnapped at gunpoint in the Gaza Strip. For six days his whereabouts were unknown as journalists and diplomats from around the globe demanded his release. He was freed, unharmed, on Jan. 7, 2007.
The incident made him a minor international celebrity and a major one in his home country. But it also overshadows a more than 20-year career that has included covering some of the most turbulent conflicts in our times.
Jaime studied photography at the University of Lima and then journeyed to Spain to hone his skills further. By the end of the 1980s he was working as a photojournalist in Lima during the devastating conflict led by communist insurgents that included the infamous Shining Path.
A truth commission report estimated almost 70,000 Peruvians were killed in the two decades of conflict and the violence spread to the capital in the early 90s. The capture of the Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman in 1992 led to the end of the fighting.
Since that time, Jaime has covered the peace keeping efforts in Haiti and was attached with a US marine battalion in Haditha, Iraq. He also teaches photography at his alma mater.
A soft-spoken man, it can be hard to reconcile his demeanor with the work he has chosen. He is a staunch vegetarian but an avid surfer. He brings the same passion for documenting the world’s conflicts to his two-decade project documenting the plight of AIDS victims in Peru.
And he is very aware of the risks involved in doing his job. In a presentation for the truth commission in 2002 he wrote bluntly about the dangers of his profession;
“The camera is an imaginary weapon of protection,” he wrote. “The photojournalist is allowed access to situations that he would never be able to without a credential on his chest and the camera on his neck.”
Jaime was kind enough to sit down with me over the weekend and talk about his imprisonment, his sudden fame and his experiences as a photojournalist in the world’s hotspots…
Q: What was your reaction when you were abducted on Jan. 1?
A: I was told it could happen. My editor told me a few days before there had been kidnappings but that they had not lasted long and the people had been released unharmed. So when they grabbed me that was the first thing I thought, “Maybe this is not going to be so rough so let’s go.” But, obviously, I didn’t have an option. When you have a guy pointing a rifle at you, you don’t have the option of saying “No, let me think about this.”
Q: What was the most difficult part of your captivity?
A: Not knowing what was happening. They didn’t speak to me at all for almost all the five days. At the very beginning they interrogated me… where I was from, what were my political beliefs. Things like that. The day before (Saddam) Hussein was hanged so they asked me about him. I answered everything very cautiously. After I was questioned they took me to another house and put me in a little room and then they didn’t speak to me again until the fifth day. On that day a guy came and reassured me that it would be over soon and not to worry. And the next day they let me go.
Q: Were you frightened?
A: Over those five days, when no-one spoke to me, I was worried. One of the things that helped me was remembering all the movies I had seen about people taken captive and I tried to remember how they handled it. Making up stories in my head, exercising, staying busy and trying not to think too much about the situation I was in.
Q: What happened after you were let go?
A: It was crazy when I came back. I flew back with the vice-chancellor. I was driven in an official vehicle. I didn’t have to go though customs or anything like that. But when I got to my house there were at least 70 photographers in front waiting for me. I couldn’t see at all because of all the flashes. Pow! Pow! Pow! Everywhere. I was blinded.
Q: How did you handle being on the other end of a camera?
A: When I was let go I got to see how much the journalists did to get me released. So I felt I had a responsibility to share my story with my colleagues. And, since I am a journalist, I know what they need so I knew how to give it to them. But once you have done that, it is over.
Q: How have things changed for you following what happened?
A: The biggest change is that now more people know who I am as compared to when I was a simple photojournalist. Now I am a little bit famous as “that photographer who was kidnapped.”
Q: You started your career covering a dangerous conflict in Peru, yes?
A: I started working as a photojournalist is was about 1989 and that’s toward the end of the (the Shining Path insurrection) but, of course, we didn’t know it then. But that was when it was focused here in Lima. I was based here in Lima. It was much worse in the interior and I made a couple of trips into the countryside but other photojournalists did much more work in those areas.
Q: What was it like being a photojournalist in Peru during that period?
A: It was very hard. In those days, wherever you went you had to go with your camera. Car bombs, explosions and killings were happening all of the time. Anything could happen anywhere. If you went to the movies, to a party if you were going to the dentist, you always had your camera. You never knew when something was going to happen.
Q: How do you balance your regular life and your work as a photojournalist under those conditions?
A: There is no regular life. You had to be ready to go cover the events at any time. A call could come to go at any time at all. But in some ways it was nothing like what I have seen in other places. The situations I have been in when covering Haiti and the Middle East are far worse than what I saw here in Lima. I cannot compare the overall situations in these places but my own experiences were very different in these places.
Q: How was it different to cover a conflict in your own country in terms of your own feelings?
A: Many of us working in Lima felt distanced from the conflict since much of the violence happened in the countryside. It was only when it came here to Lima that people became worried about what was going on. That made things different because suddenly it wasn’t about covering a conflict somewhere else, suddenly you were covering your own story.
Q: It is more difficult covering a conflict that is in your own country versus things that are happening somewhere else?
A: I don’t think there is a difference. You are a photojournalist anywhere you are. It doesn’t matter where you are because you are seeing the human condition.
Q: What have these experiences taught you about the photojournalist’s responsibility covering such conflicts?
A: It taught me to try and be as honest as I possibly can. You have to be respectful about what you are shooting while balancing the need to include as much information about what is happening. That was much more difficult back then than now. There are times you are covering people who are suffering and you feel there is a need to record their situation but, over the years I have learned that sometimes that’s not what is the most important thing. There are times when it is just as important to not take the photograph.
Q: How have you changed given these experiences?
A: When I started a lot of my motivation came from the adrenaline. When I covered the violence here there was that rush from being in the middle of the thing. And that was the same in Iraq and Haiti. There is always that excitement that comes when you are covering these types of situations that is mixed with the fear. It makes gives you a much wider vision toward your profession. How in one moment to the next you can be much more in touch with those around you. It makes you more mature in your profession. I feel I can see things in a human way. It isn’t just about the adrenaline before.
Q: How did that change happen for you?
A: I had a dream several years ago when I was shooting something with my camera and suddenly my camera turned into a rifle. There is that feeling of adrenaline that is the same when you are shooting a camera or shooting a rifle. And that told me that what I was trying to look for in these situation was adrenaline. And I knew it was time to stop.
A: Because now I know that part is only a game. If you approach too close to the story you can become the news and then you aren’t being a photojournalist anymore. And if you are not dead now, you can be very soon.
Q: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a photojournalist just starting out?
A: If you want to be a photojournalist you have to find a delight in it. You can learn the language of images in your head and you have to enjoy it so you can better tell the stories you feel. And if you do that you can tell any story well. You don’t have to go to find a war or chase your adrenaline. You can tell the stories in your own city and they are just as important.
Add-on: It is now more than four weeks since the BBC correspondent in Gaza, Alan Johnston, disappeared on his way home from work. It is feared that he has been abducted, but there is still no clear picture of who might be holding him, where or why.
Jaime expressed he was very concerned about his colleague’s well-being, particularly since he has been held for so long. He is hoping that he will also be freed very soon so he can return home to his family unharmed.