Monday, September 7, 2009
Into The Heart of Darkness (Pt 3 of 3)
I'm not a war junky, nor I thrill seeker. I'm not a writer nor poet, philosopher nor philanthropist. I'm just an average guy off the street, a fellow tax payer, common citizen, and a disgruntled Walmart shopper. I am just a man behind his lens--trying desperately to tell a story--a story that cannot be left untold. It is my duty, my calling and my obligation to tell these stories--to live up to the gift that is bestowed upon me--even if it means going Into The Heart of Darkness.
A man once told me that by becoming a photographer, I'll be throwing my life away. He looked me in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder and said it straight to my face--point blank. He called me a fool, a lost--unguided soul. I was in eighth grade at the time.
I wish he'd see me now--throwing my life away head first--traversing the world from one country to another, from coast to coast, end to end. And like a lost and unguided soul, I have no limits, no boundaries to tell me where I can and cannot go. If he was here right now, I'd stick my middle finger in his face, tell him to fuck off and eat my shorts.
I don't know why I'm telling you this, but in Pakistan, this was all I could think about. I guess, when you're down to your very last drop of energy, you find ways to dig deep into the depths of your soul to find that sliver of hope you have left. You bring it to surface, and with every breath, you savour it like it's your last.
Not In Kansas Anymore
During the day I walked the beat of a scavenger, hunting for shots to tell a story. I'd pay close attention to where I'm standing, who's around me and why that person a hundred feet from me is doing what he's doing. I question every move, every detail and every fragment of my inner psyche. Like a lion on the prowl, I watch my prey, slowly creep up to it, find it's weak spot, and in a synapse of a moment, I decide whether I shoot it--or be shot. Sometimes, the hardest thing for a photographer is to decide whether the shot is worth shooting--whether its worth paying your life for. I've been told by many that no shot is worth it--but when you're in this profession, you take the risks.
Being covert in a hostile environment is different from being an embedded photog--the technical term journalists use to tag along with the military. In Pakistan, there are no such programs that exists, you're simply here on your own. In many ways, it's much more dangerous than being with the military. There's no one else but you and your team, alone and desolate, left to fend for yourself. And if you some how go missing, no one will know. Scores of journalists and photographers go missing every year in Pakistan and surrounding countries. Some will make it out alive, others will end up on the streets--stuffed in a garbage bag--cut up to pieces. But if you're lucky, you might make the cut of a highly acclaimed video of you being beheaded.
In Pakistan, the cities are owned by government forces, loyal to America--but by being so, they face a constant threat of attack from Muslim Extremists who are against the western world. In the villages outside of the city, Mr. Taliban rule the people. So no matter where you go, you're constantly surrounded by danger. There's no way out.
So there he was, looking into my lens. Through light, we spoke. Through sound, we listened to the tune of fear thumping through my heart. I turned around, started walking to our car. My team quickly followed suit. It was an orchestrated melody without the quartet--just the glance of each others eyes, and we knew it was time to leave.
Through miles of dust and debris, I looked back through the window, saw a faint shadow of a man in uniform--dressed in signature white, long beard and a distinctive head ornament that clearly proclaimed him as a member of his country club. There was no doubt he was a member of al Qaida. Our fixer later confirmed this.
Laying in bed that night, I played back that vivid moment in my head. I remember his black hallowed eyes, the way he stared at me, ripped through the chambers of my chest and choked every drip of blood streaming from my heart. It skipped many beats. But for a brief moment, while trying to put myself to rest, the fear within me had subsided--and instead of being afraid, I became utterly angry. Flashbacks of the September 11 attacks played back in my head, images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers billowed in my nocturnal haze.
And within the blink of an eye, I wanted to kill the coward. I wanted to go back there and strangle him with my bare hands, pull his eye-balls from its sockets and make him eat it whole. I'd burn him alive, drop his body from a thousand stories up, and watch him suffer a million times more than the thousands of Americans that perished that fateful day.
The devil had taken me over. I slept great that night.
All is fair in love and war, right?
To my readers, thank you so much for your kind words of support and for the prayers that you've said for me and my team. You are more to me than a name, a picture or a blogger. You are a friend--and beyond the virtual networks of this inter-galactic universal web(try saying that five times), we are a group of strangers that are united towards a common bond, a common belief and a common foundation of love and freedom, the pursuit of happiness, and the notion that we are all truly grateful for each other.
Many readers have suggested that I one day write a book--etch onto printed pages a collection of my stories, my moments of sheer adrenaline and aftershock. I thank you for the compliment, but believe me, I am not a writer. I spend hours articulating my thoughts, finding the right words to describe emotions that I don't even know is real, reading over and over again to make certain I am still within the context of what I started to type three hours earlier.
Originally, I had wanted to post on a daily basis while in Pakistan. But for security concerns, I decided against it. I went into the country without a laptop. Please excuse me for posting on events that had already unfolded. After leaving Pakistan, I was assigned in India for seven days. Based out of Mumbai, I posted part 1 and 2 of this series. I am currently home now, desperately trying to put my life back on track, readjusting to civilian life, and sleeping in a managed routine. But life for me will never be the same, it will never be like that of a many who enjoy the freedom to walk the streets without having to worry about check-points, incoming fire and being ambushed. Getting rid of that mentality is the hardest part of coming home.
I'll be at home base for two weeks--preparing for yet another assignment. I will keep you posted.
Twelve Days to Next Departure.