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Beauty in the ruins

Photographer of War
Regissør: Boris B. Bertram

THE WAR REPORTER: Jan Grarup's work as a photographer has brought him to conflict zones and disasters around the world – from Darfur to Haiti. He juggles life on the front lines of family life.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

The Danish war reporter Jan Grarup is asked what image he likes best; which photograph best describes his life behind the camera. Grarup has experienced 25 years of war, famine, natural disasters, earthquakes and all kinds of hell. The picture he presents is a black-and-white image of a young couple renting each other among the chaotic ruins of Haiti. The woman has high heels, and the background is heavy with smoke. "Because it's all about love," Grarup explains.

Grarup's most famous photographs are of ruins. They are more famous than his photographs of blood and violence, of which there is plenty – people with a knife to the throat, a gun to his head, a corpse lying over a windshield.

Boy at Båre, Mosul. © Jan Grarup.

Grarup witnessed, among other things, the genocide in Rwanda, which characterizes him for life. Still, it's the life in ruins he is best known for: a kid making a swipe of an electric cord in Mosul while the war rages in the background, a woman in Mogadishu looking out over the Indian Ocean from an ice-bombed hotel, or a barber in Kashmir working in the middle of the ruins with only a piece of glass as a mirror – for the truth is that we are coming back with more beauty than when we left.

Brutally honest

With the exception of the adventurers and adrenaline junkies who become war correspondents for the money, this is what we as war correspondents are trapped by – like the mill that flies dangerously close to the light – "The beauty of naked life", as Stanley Green stated. We are captivated by life when reduced to only the most necessary; life without decorations and patches, where nothing is unnecessary, there is only brutal honesty and emotion – also hatred, greed and envy. Everything. Also the opposite. And boundless altruism and idealism.

When you are in the middle of a conflict, you often realize that there is little to stop
conflict. Yet no one cares, no one cares.
Jan Grarup

Trying to explain all this has no purpose. It is not possible to explain how war is experienced to those who have never experienced it themselves. And that is perhaps why Grarup – who has won the Eugene Smith Prize, World Press Photo eight times, Visa d'Or in 2005 for Darfur, among other things – talks to us and explains through both plot and structure. For it is about two parallel stories, two parallel beings one alternates without crossing them. Jan Grarup captures the latest events in the Middle East from a rooftop far away from his three children. At home, while having dinner with the kids, he watches football matches.

Man kisses dead, © Jan Grarup.

Two lives

At one moment you drive the Jaguar in the streets of Copenhagen. Or in your stylish photo studio, you take portraits with an old camera and develop the images in a water bath. Photographs that are as powerful and soulful as paintings. Photography as aesthetics.

The next moment you are in the hallway of a shabby and run-down hotel while calling your client and declaring that all your equipment is confiscated.

This is the second life, where you have problems with the police, are looked at with suspicion, spied on, arrested; a life where you have to deal with murderers, jihadists and corrupt smugglers. And you become corrupt yourself. It has to, because the only thing that matters is getting ahead, coming in, being present, being where things happen, in the life where photography is your responsibility and your job.

Burnt corpse next to a car in Mosul © Jan Grarup.

The only thing that matters is being there; to make history.
Then no one can say later: I didn't know.

You leave your life to a wild stranger: "You are in charge," you say, hoping he will not abuse the confidence he gets. "I follow you," you say to a deceiver who fixes everything and tries to persuade you and reassure you to say "We are here to work, not to die" while you basically know what he is saying, not is true. You know he is the one who fixes things, the one who arranges the practical so war reporters can get to the front lines, but yesterday he was a student, chef or plumber – one just like you, but who at one time or another became a veteran ; an experienced person asking for advice. Although the only advice, the only truth, is that it is not about experience and caution, but about luck – because the truth is that you die in war and you die in a nasty way.

Figure Before Smoke © Jan Grarup.

But you get used to it; this is your world. The only thing that matters is to be where it happens, to make history. Then no one can say later: I didn't know.

Running for life

That is why, in one moment, you stroll around and chat about camera equipment with another photographer, and then, at the next moment, run for life while the bullets whine around you. In the midst of the heat of the battle you are told that the way out is blocked by three snipers, and you realize that it will take time to get the situation under control. Then you take off your helmet and sleep a little.

Jan Grarup runs for life through the ruins.
Jan Grarup runs for life through the ruins. Photo: Good Company Pictures

Explaining all this to others is difficult, it is not understandable. Even when you try to talk about it to politicians who visit your studio to get portraits. You tell them about Syria, about Afghanistan. The words seem hollow, because there are two parallel worlds that never meet.

Photographer of War Director Boris B. Bertram

That is why you never return home after experiencing war; you are imprinted for life.

"It's not because you feel powerless," explains Jan Grarup as he discusses the book And Then There was Silence, a collection of five-hundred-page photographs weighing five kilos so that it cannot be overlooked. “The problem is that when you are in the middle of a conflict, you often realize that it takes little to stop a conflict. Still, no one is acting, no one cares. And you know your photos don't change either. "

This is why I hate talking about war. When I'm home in Europe, I'm the special guest: the one who gets to live in the company with its exciting stories. The attention makes me feel good, but only for this one night. I know you really want me to stay on the roof, you don't want me to spread a darkness over your life.

"Tell him I'm sorry," Grarup tells the interpreter, to ask him to pass it on to a father who has just lost two sons in Mosul. "Tell him I'm sorry," he repeats. And that's the only thing he can say before moving on. Furthermore, looking for another grieving father, another war.


The film premieres on September 19 in
Denmark, and is in the main competition at Nordisk Panorama 18–22. September.

Translated by Iril Kolle

Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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