Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shooting At Photographer Robert King

Where The Bang Bang Club painted an artistic depiction of four conflict photographers within the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994, Shooting Robert King follows one brash young war correspondent who dreams of being the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner in history. It's the real deal, providing thought-provoking insights that a creative treatment could never capture on its own.

The film opens in 1993 with King in Sarajevo. He's too broke to stay at the hotel where most of the other journalists are staying and he was caught at least once trying to pick up a free meal. His primary sustenance is accepting handouts from homeless shelters in the area.

Other journalists dismiss him outright; his naivety is pointed out at every turn. One warns him off from wearing military pants because it can make all the difference at check points. A solider tells him that his white shirt makes an excellent target. And yet another says he doesn't have the right aura or even enough luck to make it.

After four months in Sarajevo, he only earns $400 despite landing his first front page, a photograph of prostitutes. The same shot also earns him his sternest story. He's told that he doesn't know who he's dealing with when he takes pictures of prostitutes.

Another conflict proves him to be another kind of professional. 

From Sarajevo to Chechnya, King undergoes a transformation. When most of the press corps is pulled out after the conflict seemed to be over, King stayed behind and became one of the few to cover the rebel counter-offensive. His work immediately became internationally acclaimed.

As King continues his transformation, the story brings in more details of his life. He is sometimes entertaining but also complex. King becomes aware that the pain he experienced was with him throughout his life, and running toward world conflicts was his flight from his own difficult childhood.

At one point in the film, he says chasing the conflict of war helped him put off his own internal conflict and tendency toward addiction. But that's not to say he avoided all temptation. While following the story in Chechnya, he fully engaged in the seedy nightlife offered up by a changing Russia.

He never had a need to brood in his rooms for days or weeks to find art. He wanted to be part of it all: go to a war, go to a bar, get laid, get drunk. Journalism, he says, was rehab from hell.

Afghanistan was different. When he switched to film, some of the images he captured left him shaken. And although it's the shortest of three diminishing segments, he becomes more contemplative. He describes how photographers distill the carnage into objects that need to be framed, but sometimes the realization of everything comes flooding over them upon completion of the shoot.

Unfortunately for King, however, Afghanistan also left him more cynical. Unable to embed himself into the population like he had done during several other conflicts, being embedded with troops limited his perspective and often any access to events until the military could sterilize it.

Along with such restrictions, it wasn't uncommon for mobs to suddenly turn on photographers and kill them. For a journalist, the proposition seemed even more frightening than the stray bullets that sometimes left him shaken during his first foray.

A brief about producers Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith. 

One of the most striking elements of the documentary is that Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith never anticipated making a film. They were working just like King — freelancers who were trying to make a buck, see the world, and stay alive. (Parry and Smith arrived in Yugoslavia a year before King.)

They incidentally covered King for much of his fifteen years at various points in his career. And while it would have been more compelling had it shown more footage, more context, and more stills from other places like Kosovo, Rwanda, and Albania, among others; the transformative story brilliantly holds.

One even wonders about Parry and Smith too. Although they are not the subjects of their own film (despite Smith appearing in it at times), it's important to note that they are frontline videographers too. In fact, since they started, they have lost eight cameramen at their agency Frontline News.

Shooting Robert King Fires Up 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The documentary is wildly engaging and beautifully edited to show a sympathetic portrait of a war correspondent and conflict photographer. It is an interesting and little understood perspective, bringing in some additional commentary from King at home in Tennessee; most of it while he hunts from a blind, which was the reason for the original title Blood Trail.

Although the documentary originally appeared in 2008 and the DVD in 2010, Shooting Robert King recently made its electronic debut on iTunes. The new edition is also available on iTunes. Barnes & Noble still lists it as Blood Trail. Some of King's most recent work can be found at Polaris and you can find some more information on the film's website.
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