Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Battle of Lies

Prize-winning war reporter Paul Watson on truth, mayhem and faith.

By Cynthia Yoo 13 Sep 2007 |

Cynthia Yoo is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

image atom
Paul Watson says his Pulitzer is a mixed bag. (Self-portrait.)
  • Where War Lives
  • Paul Watson
  • McClelland and Stewart (2007)

Paul Watson will always have his Pulitzer, whether he likes it or not. He has mixed feelings about it because while his photos of Sgt. William Cleveland's corpse desecrated by enraged Mogadishu mobs in 1993 may have won him the award, the same images won a PR victory for Bin Ladin and led to U.S. retreat from Somalia and Rwanda.

Those two narratives, and the ironies within them, lie at the heart of being a war correspondent, and are among those in his memoir, Where War Lives. Part analytical, part personal, the memoir analyses the complex chain of events leading from Somalia in 1993 to post-9-11 Afghanistan and Iraq, and also turns inward: how did this kid from the 'burbs and classmate of Stephen Harper become addicted to reporting the most dangerous conflicts of the world? That and how he survived it are at the crux of Where War Lives.

Surviving the life of a war correspondent is difficult; one that's too difficult for many, including Kevin Carter. Famous for his photo of a vulture waiting for a starving Sudanese girl and for killing himself a year later, Carter's story is one that Watson clearly struggles over and identifies with. And Watson points out that unlike soldiers or aid workers who can do something about the horrors they face, journalists are helpless as they are "condemned to watch, listen and report."

Watson's survival technique seems to be a fascination with the ironic and irrational twists that lie within the reporting of war and conflict. The photo of Cleveland was Watson's second try, for example. He had to go back to the mob scene because earlier full-body shots showed a "sliver of Cleveland's scrotum" and such indecencies wouldn't be distributed by U.S. media. Watson puts it, "As always, obscene violence is okay."

Watson talked to The Tyee about how photos and people lie, how shooting pictures can leave victims and how to figure out the truth in a story. Here is what he had to say...

On war and lies

"Before 9-11, there wasn't a lot of interest in war reporting.... But after 9-11, there was that surge of patriotism in the U.S. and in Canada because of our involvement in Afghanistan. I'm sure people were drawn to it who had never done it before and I do see more people in those situations who haven't learned along the way.

"The most important thing to learn about war is not to keep yourself alive but it's how to figure out who's lying to you. War, more than any other story, is founded on lies, surrounded by lies and perpetuated by lies. And if you're not going at it knowing that most of what you see has to be tested constantly to try to figure out what the truth is, I don't think you're going to do a good job.

"You have to be extraordinarily skeptical when talking to people in conflict. For instance, here's the Kosovo example again. It didn't take very long to find an ethnic Albanian in a refugee camp who's had a baby that had its head cut off. It may have been true or it may not have been true.

"Generally, a lot of reporting about these conflicts is done simply on faith. Well-intentioned reporters ask people what happened in their village and they just write down what they're told. But how do you know if it's true? It's our job to test it."

On how photos lie

"Ordinary people think photos tell the truth more than words do. But in some sense, they lie. The example that people talk about most is that picture by Kevin Carter of the vulture standing over the Sudanese girl. I knew Kevin. I worked with him quite a bit; he used to snort Ritalin off my floor.

"That photo was taken at a feeding centre, so what you don't see outside the frame is a busy feeding centre. From the photo, you get that sense that it's way out in the middle of nowhere and it's him, the baby and the vulture. But off to the side of him would be an overcrowded feeding centre. When people jumped on him and asked him: instead of taking the picture why didn't you help rescue the girl? There were other people whose job it was to feed the child. He ended up killing himself, but for more complicated reasons than that."

On photo regret

[Watson decided not to take photos of a government-sanctioned stoning in Somalia, fearing such a photo would be manipulated like his earlier photo of Sgt. Cleveland.] "If you ask me now do I regret not taking the photo? I do. That's a good example of what the public ought to understand -- the need for journalists to just do it. Because if you just don't do it, then you're playing God. If I decide on what I need to inform the public and what I shouldn't, then I'm filtering far too much. I should have just taken the picture and let the editors decide what they would do with it. If they didn't use it, 10 years later I would still have a picture which showed a portion of the truth about the Islamic courts movement."

On what he's trying to achieve

"I often ask myself what's the purpose? Is the purpose to write really nicely written stories? We all like nicely written stories. I'm as entertained by them as anyone else. But if it's not getting anywhere through the lies, closer to the centre of the truth, then it's not worth a lot of our time."

On taking sides

"There's a famous story of a small town newspaper reporter during the Somalia conflict. The reporter was [not embedded and] on a paid junket to a Canadian camp in Somalia, where he just happened to see some Canadian soldier being lifted out on a stretcher. He asked questions and they tried to brush him off, but he persisted. He was the one who broke the story of the execution through torture of the Somali prisoner. So embedding is not completely wrong but you really have to try to maintain your independence. If you get a bullshit answer, then you've got to make some enemies.

"Part of the story [of war] is certainly from the point of view of the military. But if you're going to err on one side it should be toward independence. Take the risks and get out and see as much as you can see, because it's totally different."

On MSM, post-9-11

"I think the [media] has gotten worse.... It seems to me that especially after 9-11, the mainstream media has been more willing [to believe] that if you dissent too strongly, you're not a patriot. As a result they've been more willing to follow the official line. It's challenged, but challenged within acceptable limits."