While fiddling with the lens on my Nikon and at the same time albeit a little unsuccessfully trying to give off an air of “ I am the professional dance photographer. I know what I am doing, don’t look at me like that “ 17yr old Ballerina Agustino Flores Saavedra took flight like a giant long legged bird of paradise.
The laws of air and gravity that own all of us seem to set her free for as long as she wished. My jaw dropped as she smiled down at me floating two meters above the studio floor. I lowered my eyes to my big clumpy feet with the uncomfortable feeling that I was the clumsiest thing in creation.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.
Augustino had landed was hanging off the studio bar with one arm. like any stroppy teenager giggling, chatting with the other dancers I assume about boys, clothes and secret nights out!
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 bloody torn pieces. And I am normally hiding terrified waiting for the moment to pop out like a snake and photograph what remained of the flying corpse and run away.
Agustina came with three other girls and sat next to me chatting far to fast in Spanish for me to understand a word so I just smiled like an oaf.
They took off their point shoes to change into soft dance shoes for the rest of the class. I was instantly back at home in blood and torn bodies and my camera once again had a mind of its own. These girls feet even at this young age 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. Not what I had intended but it was a start!
The last time that I had a big close up of a hand and foot filling my viewfinder they were in the process being brutally hacked off with a bloodied, blunt and rusty butchers knife.
Mogadishu Somalia 1998. A young lad of at a guess fifteen years old had been caught stealing bread for the second time from a local market. The tribal elders working within guidelines laid down by Muslim Sharia Law had degreed that the boys 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. An invite that was couched in a veiled threat dare I not attend!
The boy, his eyes rolling to the back of his head lay semi limp in the arms of the local butcher who had been called in for the occasion moaned softly. Green spittle dripped from the boy’s mouth onto the blood stained stone floor in an anti 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” Having abused some strange substances in my time I could only marvel at what they must have given him to ease the coming horrors.
His ankle and wrist were bound very tightly with thin leather straps presumably to stop him bleeding to death. I knew what was going to happen and I thought I was prepared. But as the butcher turned the boy in his arms and lay him on the floor. Swiftly grabbing his ankle he began sawing at the boys Achilles tendon with the knife that had skinned a thousand goats and never been cleaned. My mind reeled and my gag reflex was in fear 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 terrible, terrifying noise. A feral scream from somewhere in mankind’s evolutionary past. Eventually the foot hung by one bloody 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 limb 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. I had just hidden behind the camera for sanity’s sake.
I thought that I had shot the pictures but I had just frozen. In the hours and days following I tried to understand and come to grips why this had happened to me. I had been in far more dangerous situations. In fact this bizarre photo op as that is what it was, there was no danger to me at all! To this day I still have not come up with an answer. There will be a highly paid psychiatrist sitting in an ivory tower somewhere nodding his head understanding what I do not want to.
The local Somali video cameraman had no such qualms and forgive the pun “religiously” filmed every millisecond of the punishment. The Somali cameraman took great delight in replaying the footage over and over again to anybody who would watch.
Looking at the time code on the video it took four minutes and thirty-two seconds for the butcher to hack off the boys foot and three minutes twenty eight seconds to rip of the hand.
For nearly thirty-five years as a cameraman and photographer I have been covering the worst of what the world has to offer in all its forms 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!
Sitting in a Blackhawk Medevac Helicopter of Blue Max squadron based out of Jalalabad Afghanistan earlier this year .I strapped myself in just a little more securely as we picked up speed. We flew fast and very low in insanely tight ravines of the Karangul valley. Door gunners with keen eyes traversing the ground in tandem with their weapons ready to retaliate fast to any incoming fire.
The mission was a simple one, to pick up a little Afghan girl who had been wounded in a grenade attack.
The helicopter landed in a swirl of dust, the wounded girl loaded and we were airborne again within seconds.
The little girl possibly two and a half years old had some emergency first aid too her arms and legs by Marine Corpsmen on the ground but no pain medication.
In an airborne Black hawk helicopter you can barely here yourself think over the enormous roar of the rotors. But terrifyingly you could here this little girls screams of agony all too clearly over the awful racket.
I took my camera out of the little things terrified face sat back in my webbing seat and wiped my tears out of viewfinder. At the same time trying to avoid the inquiring eyes of the crew chief. I had the pictures and in my terms bloody great pictures. But something was wrong in my mind or the beginning of something about to go wrong.
I returned to Afghanistan a few weeks later to be embedded with the 1/6 Alpha Company Marines for the offensive into Helmand province.
This was for NBC Nightly News Show.
Once again in my terms and the news desk terms it was hugely successful. Day after day my unit and I became involved in constant fire firefights, which in turn threw up fantastic pictures. Not that the families of the dead Marines would agree with me on that one!
I came back to New York and as was wined and dined by NBC. And it felt good to be on the top of the game once 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 and then straight back to Afghanistan for NBC.
A rouge Dengue fever filled mosquito in the hell of the aftermath that destroyed most of the infrastructure of Haiti stopped me in my tracks.
The Dengue virus at first felt just like a bad bout of flu. But by the time I got to Kabul I was so sick that I had to be urgently flown to Dubai to be hospitalised.
I have never felt pain like it. When the fever was first discovered in Africa by colonial powers scrambling to lay claim for different parts of the continent the disease was called ‘Break bone fever” as the pain was so severe.
A statement I can whole-heartedly agree with.
As the virus stripped me of all strength and energy a rather nasty bout of depression set in. Of course I could not work for several months. So with this time on my hands and feeling that I had been turned inside out I became very sad and morose living a life thru the tragedy of others.
The virus in a curious turn of fate did me a big favour!
There comes a time in the life of some in my profession that we cry out for beauty and a gentleness that is missing so badly in our lives. I have reached that stage were I have that need. I must balance the horrors with what mankind can actually achieve when it’s not tearing each other apart.
I needed to work on something so far down the other end of my photographic or indeed my life’s spectrum to stop me become a rabid world hater!
I have no idea why ballet popped into my head it just did. A random thought with no reasoning! I have never been to a ballet; never met anyone involved in the ballet and certainly never photographed anything close.
Using ones dubious journalistic skills I managed to convince The Julio Bocca Ballet School in Buenos Aires to let me into their world.
I was very soon to discover that the Julio Bocca School was one of the very best in the world and it was just dawning on me that I might just be way out of my depth. Even the cabbies in Buenos Aires had heard of the legendary ballet dancer Julio Bocca. In fact every one in the city knew the name.
The man is second only to God and the footballer Maradonna in Argentina.
I was tempted to pull the wool over the schools eyes and pretend I was this great dance photographer from Europe in the hope that they would give me greater access. But I thought better of my dark side and the realisation that “Google” would tell instant tale on me.
My generation forget about bloody Google when bullshitting!
I confessed to the ballet school that I was somewhat of a burnt out old warhorse who knew absolutely nothing at all 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 of which I am a stranger.
Unfortunately for me the very first frame that I shot in the dance studio in Buenos Aires took me straight back to that bloody butchers shop in Mogadishu!
The dancers were changing from their soft dance shoes to the “ Point shoes” I visibly winced as I saw bloodied, bruised and deformed toes wrapped with tape and padding.
These young girls just in their teens had already sacrificed their bodies to try so hard to become the best of the best. Maybe I should change the title of this piece from ‘Bullets To Ballet” to “From Battlefield To Battlefield “
As soon as they were up on “point” Mogadishu and its bloody 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 wonderful fascination as they wafted around the studio like great exotic long legged birds.
In fact a little while turned into an hour without shooting a frame.
The subject matter being so alien to me that I had to take the time to study the movement without the camera stuffed in my face.
One may think that a photographer should be able to photograph anything anywhere and do a good job. Not so. I have all the finesse and calm of a bull in a china shop strung out on amphetamines.
There is a world of difference from diving into a muddy sewage ridden Afghan puddle under fire with a platoon of adrenaline pumped Marines baying for blood and a ballet studio! You think!
I am starting to smile behind the camera. Not the perverse smile of the photographer who knows he has got the shot of some one in their quintessential 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. At this point in my newfound passion “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”
There was one other peculiar moment that gave rise to an unwanted 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 Ezquiel Corbalan sprained his left ankle in a complicated move. I thought of a young man in Mogadishu who by now would be around twenty seven years old hobbling around that tormented city begging to survive.
My efforts at self-analysis may be laughable psychobabble crap to some. And as for my attempts to “catch the moment” with the ballet dancers is probably old hat to the seasoned hand of a dedicated dance photographer.
But for now and a little while longer I am having gentle fun and a new found passion in a gunless place. And maybe just maybe the world is not this dark unfriendly void that I have embraced for so very long.
Mind you I don’t think it’s going to pay the rent, as death is my landlord!
Sebastian Rich September 2010 Buenos Aires Argentina.