Krzysztof Miller was a fearless diving champion and one of the most celebrated news photographers in the world. But sadly, the toil of trying to cover every war of the last 25 years led to him committing suicide on 9th September 2016.
For over two decades, Miller pursued his mission of showing the true face of war to the world. He did so in the greatest and most determined way, continuing to go to wars and take photographs even after realising he could no longer do so. He was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and went through a variety of long-lasting therapies. On 9th September, we learned that his devotion to his cause as a news photographer had led him to commit irreparable self-harm.
To better understand him as a person and as a news photographer, we take a look at 12 of his most unforgettable photos and let his words complement them.
He strongly believed that a news photographer should be a witness before anything else – that his job was to tell the war’s tale even if he might not be shooting the ‘decisive moments’ of the specific conflict, even if his influence on the actual situation was slim.
He took most of his best-known photographs in the 1990s, in Rwanda, Chechnya, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is how he recalled it:
At that time one thing went beyond any doubt: right after coming back home it was high time to pack up and go somewhere else.
The photo above was taken three years after the genocide in Rwanda. It depicts children dying of starvation at a refugee camp in Zaire. It’s a harsh illustration of the impotence of humanitarian organisations.
I’m there because I’m taking photos of someone passing away. And it hurts. Just as if I had already given a coin to Charon, and paid my voyage to the other side of the river. I couldn’t help those people, even if they meant the world to me. All I can do is inform of what’s going on. Appal the world with a horrific picture. Make someone’s hamburger fall out of their hands, or tripe stick in their throat. Nothing more. If it was to ever help anyone, it certainly didn’t help those kids.
In 1992, during the war between Macedonia and the separatist forces of the Moldavian Pridnestrovian Republic, snipers inflicted many casualties among press teams.
This job is risky and you have to constantly calculate the danger. News photographers and journalists know it. It gets problematic when they become a target on their own. They are being attacked to attract attention, to give publicity to a problem, a country or its history.
How did he manage to get so close to people and events? Wojciech Jagielski, his friend and collaborator, wrote of him:
He easily inspired trust. Every time he had trouble communicating, he would just hug people with his huge paws and totally disarm them.
Miller always strived to present conflicts from an insider’s point of view. How close did he get?
Everyone has his own intrinsic limits of how close they’ll approach. One day, I was taking a picture of an American soldier disarming a mine. I couldn’t come any closer because I’d literately have to stand on this mine.
He observed social and political transformations not only from the battlefield’s perspective. During the war in Afghanistan he photographed women during the recording of the Kabul Free from the Taliban radio show.
His archive is full of photographs from refugee camps, including numerous photos of kids – innocent victims of conflict.
You either smell the gunpowder, the stink of a refugee camp, you either hear dramatic screams around you or you won’t shoot any good, honest, dramatic material.
Near the border of Kosovo and Montenegro. Kosovan refugees being transported in trucks and tractors to a transition camp in Rozaje, and from there, on to Albania.
He used to portray all sides of the conflict. Above, Russian soldiers are celebrating their victory over Chechen separatists with the fallen presidential palace of Dzhokhar Dudayev in the background.
Metaphors were not his weapon of choice as he focused on directly recording a situation in an unbiased way. In 2006 he took a very aesthetic, black and white photograph in Sudan. Wojciech Jagielski revealed its story:
He was very pleased with it. It was no ‘scalp’, not an event photo, but it was beautiful. It was in a way artistic but he’d kill me for saying that because he identified himself very much as a news photographer and nothing else.
He put his memories from a Hutu prison into his book 13 wojen i jedna (editor’s translation: Thirteen and One Wars).
They just tried theory in practice. They couldn’t afford expensive laboratories. […] They had only the simplest tools to deliberate over the theory of chaos. And the simplest tool for a Hutu of peasant stock is a machete. A hammer, an axe, a bat. Without much expenditure chaos theory came to live.
Back in Poland, he photographed not only social unrest but also everyday life, just like this photo of a drunk man with a bicycle, taken at the turn of the millennium, on the eve of Orthodox festivities.
The Orthodox priest didn’t go out onto the River Bug as had been planned; instead he just blessed water in a well so my material was very disappointing. I was on my way back to Warsaw…
This photo became an instant hit. It was used in advertisements in addition to becoming a popular meme. It’s funny, tragic, and authentic at the same time, and an illustration of the turbulent 1990s, of the times of the social, political and economic transformation, a huge change that not everybody managed to get on board with.
One of Miller’s best-known photographs was taken in 1994, during social unrest preceding the first free election in the Republic of South Africa. It can be perceived as his self-aware portrait of the profession of a news photographer. How far did the sensationalism go? What are the duties of a mere news photographer?
There's a subject, a victim, a corpse – and the crème de la crème of the world’s news photographers. One of them is taking a picture, another one is loading film, and another has just started aiming his camera. Yet another waves his arm to chase me away because I don’t fit the frame with the corpse well. To me, it’s an important picture.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental condition that requires treatment. If you suspect that you or a loved one might suffer from PTSD, please seek professional help.
Sources: Wyborcza.pl, Culture.pl, Gazeta.pl, Krzysztof Miller "13 Wojen i Jedna" (published by Znak). Original text by MD, 12 September 2016, English language adaptation by WO, 26 September 2016.