It is always an interesting turn of events when somebody who is used to being the one covering news has a camera turned on them to show the inner workings of what it is like to be storyteller, whether it is with words, or in the case of photojournalist Robert King, with the poignant, often times horrific images of war.
King, a photojournalist who has covered several conflicts since 1993, is the subject of “Shooting Robert King,” a documentary which was an Official Selection at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008 and screened at SXSW in 2009 (as “Blood Trail”), a film that covers 15 years of King’s life as someone who has undertaken one of the most dangerous and psychologically unrelenting jobs in the world. The documentary is now out on DVD.
Directed by fellow war correspondent Richard Parry, “Shooting Robert King” is an unflinching look at the journey of one man entering a war zone for the first time nearly 20 years ago, and the subsequent changes in the industry and King’s own life as he evolves from an ambitious young man who can barely name the principals in the first conflict he covered into a veteran correspondent who must juggle family life with his ever-burning desire to “give a voice to the voiceless.”
“Shooting Robert King” began life as a short TV documentary about freelance photographers who were covering the war in Sarajevo, but became a powerful, full length documentary feature (click here for FSM’s review).
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Robert King and discussed with the photojournalist what it was like being the subject of a film.
Film Slate Magazine: Were you reluctant at all to become the subject of a documentary? What did you think when you were approached with this idea?
Robert King: I was not very reluctant when first approached in Sarajevo [in] ‘93. Their pitch was free food, shelter, and a car that would take me to any story in the area that I wanted to cover, and also their idea was for a short five minute TV story on freelancers working in Sarajevo. The idea of a documentary came about organically and that is the uniqueness and commitment the director and producer have towards their work and our shared profession.
FSM: Was it easier because you were close with the filmmakers?
RK: We never really were friends from the start. At that time we needed each other. I needed their offer of free food, shelter, and transportation and they needed a subject for their commissioned work about freelancers in Sarajevo. Over time, let’s say during those 15 or more years, we have become very close friends. It was easy being filmed because I had spent many years creating films and videos as an art student and was not scared or reluctant because as an art student I had explored the creative side of their chosen medium.
FSM: What would you of the present tell the young Robert from 1993 that has entered his first war zone?
RK: If I could go back in time I would say to my younger self that in life there are dream makers and dream killers; in the profession many will be dream killers. Setting personal goals in life is in no way a sign of arrogance. Being able to set goals offers courage and accountability. Goals in life also give one a sense of purpose and will hold you accountable as you work towards the goal. The end result may not be that the goal was obtained. What is important is the journey and not the destination and the willingness to believe in your dreams, surround yourself with dream makers, not the dream haters and be able to set other goals in life. Only because every living thing shares one universal destiny in life, and that shared destiny is death.
FSM: When was the last time that you had seen any of the footage that they shot of you from the 1990s? Was it any kind of shock or had you recently seen the footage?
RK: I try not to watch the film. I do like seeing the camera work of Richard, Vaughan [Smith], and the members of 'Frontline' (Frontline News was the collective of freelance cameramen that Parry and Smith helped to co-found-ed.) The biggest shock was that I loved and still enjoy viewing their images of my family and farm in Tennessee.
FSM: How hard was it to let some of the personal things--certainly with your dad or your self-described self-destructive behavior--be shown on screen?
RK: I do not care what people think since the film is someone else’s version and film. Just like the creators of this documentary, everyone has an opinion. Just as everyone in this world has a biological father. If I needed drugs or drink to blunt the razor sharp blades of pain I have no problem sharing these personal struggles with the greater public because most will never walk the road we must travel in our shared profession.
FSM: How much has having a family changed the way you view yourself as opposed to back then, when you definitely were a photographer first, with a heightened sense of adventure?
RK: As a husband and a father my responsibilities have change dramatically. I enjoy and cherish the time allowed for me to enjoy my family’s unconditional love. I cherish every day we are together and apart. When I started I was not leaving anything behind other than a life back home that I did not care much for.
I was prepared to die for my dream. I was full of passion, ideals and youth only wanting to use the camera to make the world a better place while working towards my goal of becoming a working photojournalist. It is a disservice to the industry and profession when one goes to war only to focus on their personal issues while seeking adventure at the cost of human suffering.
FSM: It's clear that when you covered the Iraq War that the embedding with the unit was a different kind of journalism than you were practicing in Bosnia and Chechnya or some other places. Is that how war journalism has changed, or was that an isolated thing pertaining only to that war?
RK: I hope that the embedding of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan is an isolated event. What is now taking place in our industry is even more dangerous because now our industry is having former military and government agency workers, AKA security consultants, embed themselves into our news organizations. This is a big concern for all journalists because before, only the news reporters and organization knew what today’s and tomorrow’s news would be and the loyalty of the security consultants are with their bosses and not with the news organization.
The security consultants’ mission is the safety of the journalist they are paid to protect. The media organizations claim that these security consultants are needed for the sake of personal security and discounts they will receive on their insurance rates. Yet all of this is taking place during a time when the media now seems more comfortable than ever to report for the government rather than on the government.
FSM: What were your impressions when you saw the finished film?
RK: There was a lot that I wish ended up on the editing room floor. Yet over all I trusted the director and producer to give an honest account of my chosen profession and not offer viewers another romanticized version of a documentary on a war photographer that pushes a moralistic agenda.
FSM: Have you viewed the film with an audience, such as SXSW? What was their reaction to it and you?
RK: Most people liked it and even told me personally that the film inspired them to continue or even enter into the profession. Few--if any--confronted me about anything that was depicted in the film. There were a few walk outs. Once during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph, the director of an up-state New York photo workshop walked out. I only know this because after the film she personally came up to me and told me how much she hated the film and disliked my personal character and her walk was only in protest.
Also the first time I ever saw the film inside a theater another lady walked out while yelling, ‘f--king jerk, f--king jerk.’ I was informed later by festival security that her boyfriend had stood her up and he ended their relationship via SMS. Over all I think most people like the film. As for the haters, I discovered they were not comfortable with the idea that this documentary does not romanticize the profession and they disliked my audacity of setting lofty goals in an industry I knew little about. Some do not like the fact that I have a family, love to hunt, and live in the woods while making a living in a profession that is viewed by many as a dangerous profession made up of an unruly clan of nomadic vagabonds with cameras around their necks rather than nooses.
FSM: Any final thoughts about the film and how it relates to you or what you've gone on to do since its release?
RK: No final thoughts other than I’ve kept working in the industry and it was not because the film made me any money or even that editors viewed the film and wanted to work with me; it has been quite the opposite. Most editors know my work and I continue to work because I’m good at what I do. I still have the courage to set goals in life and still believe that the purpose of this profession is to educate others by giving a voice to the voiceless.
visit www.shootingrobertking.com for more information.