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Photographing War 

By Peter G. Kokalis 

 I was a war photojournalist for twenty years, through four wars: Afghanistan, El Salvador, Angola and Bosnia-Herzegovina. I saw a lot of men die, a number of whom were very dear to me. I was shot at innumerable times and shot back often with both gun and camera.   As there is not a great deal of information available about combat photography, the following are some of the details on the techniques  and equipment I used.

I became the Technical Editor of the, at that time, notorious Soldier Of Fortune Magazine in 1981.   I stayed there for twenty years and this provided me with the opportunity to cover four wars: Afghanistan (1983), Angola (late 1980s), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1990-92) and twenty one combat tours to El Salvador (1984-1992). I was what the Columbia School of Journalism euphemistically called a "participatory journalist," meaning that I trained troops and carried a weapon on combat operations while covering events with a camera and typewriter. That is, I wore two hats: that of a photojournalist and that of a "private sector military advisor." I was not a member of the U.S. Armed Forces during this time frame. In Afghanistan I trained Mujahedeen, in Angola and Southwest Africa it was the South Africa Defense Force, in Bosnia-Herzegovina I worked with the Croatian HVO and in El Salvador I trained numerous units of the Salvadoran Army.

 My protocol was thus quite different from the conventional media journalists, who I shunned and was in turn shunned by them. I found that in Third World countries like El Salvador  they mostly covered wars from the bar of the hotel. Be that as it may, CQ readers will be mostly interested in the photographic equipment I used to photograph warfare.

During that twenty-year period I depended upon my own personal Nikon F3 system.  I used one body with  an "HP" finder and MD-4 motor drive. My auxiliary body was a standard F3. I wear eye glasses, but could  never notice any difference between the two viewfinders. Both bodies were black and believe it or not, exhibit a fair amount of "brassing" only on the bottom plates - that after tens of thousands of chromes. I always carried a substantial number of AA batteries for the MD-4 motor drive and extra batteries for the camera bodies (although there was very little drain on the body batteries with the MD-4 installed). Early on, almost everything was shot with Kodachrome, but very soon I turned to Fujichrome 400 speed which was especially useful in the sometimes low light levels encountered on the battlefield. The motor drive accounted for about 80% of the chromes shot in the field of operations. 

I never once set the shutter speed dial to "A" as during that time frame.  I simply didn't trust the concept of automatic exposure.   Stupid? Maybe, but I just wasn't programmed for auto exposure then. I used the match needle for every shot. By experience I learned to adjust exposure to suit my requirements, i.e., metering camouflage uniforms will yield about a 1/2 stop to 1 full stop of overexposure and you must compensate for that. I had an assortment of six Nikkor lenses: 24mm f/2.8, 55mm f/2.8 Micro, 105mm f/2.8 Micro, 35-70mm f/3.5 zoom, 200mm f/4, and 300mm f/4.5. The telephotos were rarely used on combat operations as they were too bulky and their field of view was too restricted. I also rarely used the 35-70mm f/3.5 zoom, but this was a function of my unfamiliarity with it. I sometimes carried the 105mm f/2.8 Micro, but the two most useful pieces of glass were the 24mm f/2.8 and the 55mm f/2.8. Their speed was more than adequate, as there are usually more important considerations during night ops than taking pictures. The flash unit stayed in the barracks. On long operations when I anticipated a lot of humping in the bush I usually carried only the F3 HP body with MD-4 motor drive and the 24mm and 55mm lenses. Whatever room there was to spare in my LBE (Load Bearing Equipment) was devoted to batteries and film. While I found all of the Nikkor lenses of this era to be optically superb, the 24mm and 55mm lenses proved to be the most useful for the kind of up tight photography that brings combat right into the viewer's face.

The Nikon F3 proved to be an extremely rugged piece of equipment. I never had any major breakdowns. Every couple of years I would have the shutter speeds adjusted. A couple of times I forgot to check if the rewind knob was rotating and that cost me dearly, but that was my stupidity, not Nikon's and you only do that once or twice until you're programmed to watch the rewind knob with neurotic fervor. When not in  my field pack, I used a neck strap as I usually needed my hands to hold a rifle. I kept a Skylight filter on the lenses at all times. In El Salvador an essential piece of equipment was a rain poncho as the average annual rainfall is 85 inches. I never once shot with the camera above my head. If the incoming fire was really fierce, my face was in the mud and I was concerned about more important matters than photography. Your best chance to survive on the battlefield in a Third World country (outside of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time) is to look inconspicuous. That means your camera belongs in your pack unless your taking pictures. It means no binoculars around your neck, no pistol on your web belt and staying away from the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator), as all of these are indicators that you are a more desirable target than the average grunt. It usually means dressing in the camouflage of the military unit you're working with as well. During my time with them, Soldier of Fortune lost five correspondents killed in combat. 

 A final word about rangefinders versus SLRs in combat. When there were no SLRs, everyone used   rangefinders - Leicas, Contax (Robert Capa comes to mind) and of course the spectacular Nikon S series rangefinders. However, be advised that once the Nikon F became available in 1959, most combat  photojournalists dumped their rangefinder cameras without a drop of remorse and as fast as they could. Rangefinders are still great (I have a complete Leica M6 TTL system - three bodies and eight lenses) for "street" photography, travel, extremely low light levels, etc. But, in a dangerous environment the significantly larger viewfinder image provided by the SLR is an overwhelming consideration. 

As I heard so many times on the battlefield "Watch Six" and "Keep your head down."

 Biographical sketch:

When I was fifteen years old I worked all summer in the family grocery store in order to buy my first  "serious" camera, a 4X5 Pacemaker Speed Graphic outfit. I used that Speed Graphic for almost two  decades. However, by the time I went to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University  Rollei was king, although a substantial amount of our photography was conducted with Speed Graphics and even an old 4X5 Graflex Super D. After graduation I went into the U.S. Army and enlisted as a  "Regular" to get into the Signal Corps. I became a photo instructor at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and then volunteered for technical intelligence and "wet affairs" in Cambodia. There was no photography associated with this latter work. When I returned to the states I was sent to Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago. There I became the Chief Photographer and head of the photo lab. During the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. Army Signal Corps still depended largely upon the 4X5 Pacemaker Speed Graphic. We had one 70mm combat camera outfit at Fifth Army HQ and once in a while we'd open the case and  gawk at it, but while I was there at least, no film was ever run through it. We never used any 35mm. After I left the Army I did some advertising photography in Chicago. I have now had over one thousand articles published in the field of small arms and a successful book. However, this is the first time I have ever written about photography. I am currently the Senior Editor at The Small Arms Review and a major Contributing Editor to The Shotgun News. In addition, I am the marketing director for several companies in the defense industry. I currently depend upon the Nikon F5, F100, N80 and D1X together with a battery of twenty two Nikkor lenses ranging from the 8mm fisheye to the latest 1000mm f/11 mirror reflex.

Editor's Note: I asked Peter to share some his experiences, since very very few people have been combat photogs, and fewer have come back alive.  

More Questions? Email Peter by clicking here.


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Revised: November 25, 2003 Copyright  2002  Peter Kokalis.  All rights reserved.    This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind.  Information in this document is subject to change without notice.  Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.