Sebastian Rich: Why I Left War Photography Behind

As a war photographer, I witnessed unspeakable acts of violence. When I left that behind to photograph dancers instead, I realized I’d saved my sanity in the nick of time.

Sebastian Rich / Corbis

While fiddling with the lens on my Nikon and at the same time trying to give off the air of a professional dance photographer, 17-year-old ballerina Augustina Flores Saavedra took flight like a giant, long-legged bird of paradise.

My jaw dropped as she smiled down at me floating two meters above the studio floor. The image that I had just witnessed (and not photographed) was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen in my life. I looked up to see where my bird of paradise had landed—presumably in a soft cloud in the rafters, preening her feathers.

I had not been long out of Afghanistan and was wondering just how the hell I was going to capture what I had just seen on film. Normally the only bodies that fly through the air in front of me are in torn and bloody pieces. And I am normally hiding and terrified, waiting for the moment to pop out like a snake so I could photograph what remained of the flying corpse and run away.

Then Augustina and three other girls took off their point shoes. I was instantly back at home—these girls’ feet were bruised, bloodied, bandaged, and broken for their art. Like the vulture that is my true nature I circled the trio with shutter continuously shooting every torn limb in extreme close up.

The last time that I had a hand and foot filling my viewfinder they were in the process of being brutally hacked off with a bloodied, blunt, and rusty butcher’s knife.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 1998. A young lad of, at a guess, 15 years old had been caught stealing bread for the second time from a local market. The tribal elders, working within Sharia Law, had decreed that the boy’s punishment was to have his left foot cut off at the ankle and his left hand cut off at the wrist. As one of few photojournalists working in Mogadishu at the time I was invited by the elders to attend the punishment.

Gallery: Click Below to View Photos by Sebastian Rich

The boy, his eyes rolling to the back of his head, lay semi-limp and moaned softly in the arms of the local butcher who had been called in for the occasion. Green spittle dripped from his mouth onto the blood-stained stone floor in a room behind the butcher’s store. I was told that the boy had been given something to “take his mind away from the pain and enable him to listen to God.”

I knew what was going to happen and I thought I was prepared. Swiftly grabbing his ankle, the butcher began sawing at the boy’s Achilles tendon with the knife that had skinned a thousand goats and never been cleaned. My mind reeled and my gag reflex was in danger of stopping me breathing.

The butcher sawed excruciatingly slowly through bone and sinew. The boy screamed a deep guttural scream that did not seem to belong to any mammal I knew of. A feral scream from somewhere in mankind’s evolutionary past. Eventually the foot hung by one stringy sinew and was ripped off by the butcher and thrown unceremoniously into the corner of the room.

The butcher stood to rest for a moment while the boy slithered and moaned in his own blood, spittle, and urine. Then the hand was grabbed and the hacking began again. The fingers twitched as each tendon and nerve was cut and, like the other extremity, was thrown discarded onto the floor to join the severed foot. The boy was now a cripple for the rest of his life, and I had failed in my job of recording such appalling torture.

Although I had been looking thru my cameras viewfinder I had not shot a frame. I had been using the Nikon as a mental flak jacket and not a tool to record.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In the hours and days following I tried to understand and come to grips with why this had happened to me. To this day I still have not come up with an answer. For nearly 35 years as a cameraman and photographer I have been covering the worst of what the world has to offer, from war to famine. I have been kidnapped, mock executed, shot three times, divorced, and have been on the edge of the deepest depressions far too many times.

But all things must change eventually, for better or worse.

I returned to Afghanistan earlier this year to be embedded with the 1/6 Alpha Company Marines for the offensive into Helmand province. This was for NBC Nightly News, and it was hugely successful. Day after day, my unit and I became involved in constant firefights, which in turn threw up fantastic pictures. I came back to New York and was wined and dined by NBC. It felt good to be on top again. But I felt emptiness in the kudos and a lingering sadness that once again I had brought praise upon myself at the expense of others.

My next assignment was for the United Nations in Haiti. After that I was supposed to go back to Afghanistan for NBC, but a Dengue-fever-filled mosquito stopped me in my tracks. By the time I got to Kabul I was so sick that I had to be urgently flown to Dubai to be hospitalized. As the virus stripped me of all strength and energy a rather nasty bout of depression set in. I could not work for several months. With this time on my hands and feeling that I had been turned inside out, I became very sad and morose about living a life through the tragedy of others.

In a way, the virus did me a big favor.

There comes a time in the life of some in my profession that we cry out for beauty and a gentleness that is missing in our lives. I have reached that stage. I have no idea why ballet popped into my head—it just did. I have never been to a ballet, never met anyone involved in the ballet, and certainly never photographed anything close. Yet I managed to convince the Julio Bocca Ballet School in Buenos Aires to let me into their world.

I was soon to discover that the Julio Bocca School was one of the very best in the world. Even the cabbies in Buenos Aires had heard of the legendary ballet dancer Julio Bocca. I confessed to the school that I was somewhat of a burnt-out old warhorse who knew nothing about their profession. This was to be the best confession I have ever made. The door, the hearts of the school administrators and the dancers flew open to me, welcoming me into a marvelous new and dazzling world of creativity.

Unfortunately for me, the very first frame that I shot in the dance studio in Buenos Aires took me straight back to that butcher’s shop in Mogadishu. I visibly winced as I saw the bloodied, bruised, and deformed toes wrapped with tape and padding.

But as soon as they were up “on point,” Mogadishu and its nightmares vanished from my mind altogether. These girls moved so beautifully and with such grace and poise that once again, for a little while, I didn’t shoot a frame, but just watched in fascination.

I am now starting to smile behind the camera. Not the perverse smile of the photographer who knows he has caught a moment of terror in a war zone, but the smile of the photographer who has just captured the most beautiful movement he has ever seen. As I am a lensman and not a pensman I will try and let my pictures tell the story of the dedication and sacrifice of these ballet dancers. I think that’s fair to them and me.

There was one other peculiar moment that gave rise to a shiver of unwanted Somali memories. While photographing members of “Ballet Argentino Company” rehearsing for a piece, dancer Nicola Villabo injured his left wrist lifting a ballerina. And Ezequiel Corbalan sprained his left ankle in a complicated move. I thought of a young man in Mogadishu who by now would be around 27 years old, hobbling around that tormented city, begging to survive.