Sat in the bustling cafÃ© at The Guardian’s Farringdon Road headquarters, photojournalist Sean Smith enthuses about the possibilities and opportunities of ‘all the digital stuff”, though he insists that video is ‘just a tool, same as a camera or a pen”.
‘It isn’t just having the video camera or a digital camera, if someone doesn’t allow you to have that time it doesn’t matter if you do it with a pen, or paints and ink – you’re not gonna get it [the story],’he says.
For someone with his pedigree, this is modest talk. Sean Smith is the first newspaper journalist of any discipline to win a Royal Television Society award, for best international news film. Or to be nominated for an Emmy Award or a BAFTA. To cap it all, last month he was awarded the first-ever prize for best digital journalist at the British Press Awards.
The judges were impressed by two films he made while embedded with US troops in Iraq – one for BBC‘s Newsnight, Iraq: The Real Story in 2006, and one for Channel 4’s Dispatches last year, Iraq: Behind the Surge, filmed while spending two months with the Apache Company Strykers division in Baghdad and Anbar Province, which won the RTS award. Its judges called it ‘raw, brave, atmospheric and profoundly memorable”.
All his videos are honest, intense and sometimes brutal first-hand accounts of the violent and desperate reality of military life in Iraq. But in Smith’s mind he is still just a photographer who uses video.
‘However much video cameras develop, even if they get to be the same quality as a stills camera, I don’t think you’ll be able to use them the same way. They are different things, they are both as valid.
‘There is a tendency now with all these toys that are available [to think that] a story or a picture isn’t good enough unless you have a troupe of can-can dancers going across it. But sometimes, with a little bit of silence, less can be more.”
Now that he’s taking broadcasters’ awards from them and has made programmes with flagship current affairs shows, does Smith agree The Guardian’s use of video puts it in competition with traditional broadcasters?
‘I don’t think it’s a question of if we are suddenly going to be rivals with television companies… I think journalism and the written word and the still picture are still very much as important as they have ever been.”
Smith was first embedded with British troops in Baghdad leading up to the US-led 2003 Iraq invasion, and stayed there while the city fell, going again in 2005 with US marines. On his return, Guardian Films – which produced Smith’s videos – asked him to go back with a video camera, after sending him on a two-day course.
What typifies Smith’s videos is candid interviews with the soldiers. Smith gets his subjects to really talk.
One soldier, Specialist Vassell, whose flight home had been put back by months, tells him he would gladly work out the additional 15 months he has been told he has to serve in Iraq, if ‘the president comes down here and rides with me everyday”.
Smith says that even he was a little surprised when the soldiers started opening up to him to such an extent. As a lifelong photographer who had never had to do any interviews, Smith says he managed to win over the men’s trust by simply getting to know them.
‘My approach was nothing very clever or original, it was just to go out with them as often as possible, and whatever happened, happened. There was no prompting anyone. I never filmed anyone when they weren’t aware of it, I wasn’t sneaky with it. I think some people sometimes forgot when they were talking but I wasn’t trying to trip anyone up. I don’t think you needed to.”
Smith says he was bemused when a writer colleague suggested that his films would benefit from some text to help the viewer understand the action.
‘He said it was crying out for some writing to tell you what had happened. My reply would be ‘actually, it’s crying out not to have any’.
‘Even if you were in Iraq covering it, you couldn’t find what happened to this family or that family, you’d be referring back to the military and getting figures from them. So their facts leave the story hanging in the air – whereas on video it’s more accurate.”
Although his films clearly show the fatigue and resentment among the soldiers, Smith says he has had no interference or problems with PR minders or publicity-anxious generals.
He doesn’t speak as highly of the British Government, which he says has ignored a two-year-old request from him to be embedded with troops in Afghanistan.
‘They keep on saying ‘you need to go with a journalist’, but I say ‘I am a journalist!’ and then they say they have their own photographers out there. And then you don’t hear from them for six months.
‘The Americans have rules, but there’s much more of an acceptance that people should be allowed to cover it.”
One of Smith’s most enduring still images from his 2007 embed with the Apache Company was that of a Bradley tank overturned, on fire with six soldiers and their translator killed inside after hitting a road-side bomb.
The picture, taken as the company came under sniper fire, made the front page of The Guardian and is one of the central scenes of the accompanying video.
One of the soldiers, pictured by Smith standing near the tank, found him and shook his hand after seeing it, and the mother of one of the dead soldiers wrote a letter of thanks.
Despite the huge risks, Smith believes journalists should continue to report from Iraq. ‘You decide to do the job,’he says. ‘It’s one of the biggest issues for a long time… It’s a valid thing to do. Iraq needs to be covered by any means possible.”