The first time I went to a war was in early 1992 in Nagorno-Karabakh. I went with an English journalist, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who seemed entirely ambivalent to his fate and also, rather worryingly, to mine. One day we were with some Armenian irregulars who were probing the outer positions of an Azeri village when far superior forces began attacking us, pinning us down for three hours. I lay with my nose in the ground behind an earthen mound, tracer bullets flying sporadically a few feet above, offering the ridiculous and curious temptation to stand up. My reverie was only broken when my colleague asked if, by chance, I had brought any sandwiches, ham or cheese, he told me; he wasn’t fussy.


Ever since I have been astonished by war’s blurry line between reality and the absurd. The history that we photograph often seems to be a mixture of moments drifting between the humdrum and the extraordinary, between the heroic and the incongruous. How an Afghan man continues to pray as F-18s circle above his head. How a US soldier takes a cigarette as colleagues try desperately a few meters away to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Faros Square. How every great moment is surrounded necessarily by the ordinary, and yet how the voice of history cries just as loud in these tiny instants as it does in the grand display. Equally in peacetime quiet gestures resonate loudly. When an elderly woman steps nonchalantly out of an icy pool, I hear almost Tolstoyan volumes about the Russian character whispering in my ear. I feel this photography is more accidental than decisive. As if there are moments when the public face of a person or an event is suddenly turned and we see the other cheek, the one that is normally in the shadow, looking at us, telling a story that is far deeper and more personal. In Beslan a pile of cigarettes on a chair can screamed horror to me with exactly the same intensity as any bloody moment of actuality. In Mazar-i-Sharif during the first, unexpected snow of winter, a lone refugee looks out almost unable to understand how fate could be that cruel. They are photographs with questions not answers, images caught, like many of us who decided to be photojournalists, in that no-man’s land, somewhere between war and peace.

James Hill

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