Remaining ‘human, not a machine’: Reporting, feeling, the horrors of war

I wrote about a photojournalist named Heidi Levine the other day. I didn’t actually identify her, but I mentioned how a woman working in Libya was asked by a male colleague why she wasn’t home making dinner for her kids. She came across the post, recognized herself, and contacted me.

“That asshole reporter made me so angry,” Levine said. “It was my daughter’s birthday and I was so scared of being injured. So to have that on top…”

Yeah, to have that on top. We kept talking, and Levine told me about her recent work and showed me some photos. I chose two to publish here. The first shows rebel fighters celebrating at the Bab Al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli on August 23, 2011.

“It reminded me of the spirit of when Baghdad fell and the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue,” she wrote me over IM. “I was not there that day in Iraq, but a day or so later the images are published over and over again.”

“What was the spirit?” I asked. “Joyful?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Higher than that. It is hard to explain.”

When she realized that I had at first chosen to use only that one photograph, she wrote, “But honestly, the photos of the bodies with lime and the ones of the skeletons are something I have never seen before in my life.”

I took a closer look at her photos and discovered something grisly and stunning and horrible on the second page. Bodies covered with lime powder at the abandoned Abu-Salem hospital in Tripoli.

“I looked too quickly. I’d like to publish that one too,” I said, feeling skittish and unsure.

So here it is, below, with a warning that it is very graphic. Please scroll past it for some thoughts from the photographer.

“I walked amongst the charred bodies asking the others with me if ever they have seen such a horrific scene, and even those who covered the Balkans shook their heads and said, ‘No, not to this extent,’” Levine wrote. “My images of the bodies covered in lime somehow reveal the horrors of the killing at another level, something that cannot be described in words, which makes it even more important for an audience to see these images.”

But Levine isn’t immune to what she’s documenting.

“Perhaps people believe that a seasoned journalist or photojournalist becomes desensitized to the horrors of war,” she wrote. “The scenes I witness not only shock me but make me cry, and the day that they don’t I will quit because it would mean I am no longer human but a machine.”

Both photos are copyright Heidi Levine/Sipa Press.