Q&A with Photojournalist
Bill Gentile is an independent journalist and visual documentarian who teaches in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, DC. In recent years he's been working on a series of documentaries that trace how single commodities production, trade and use can weave together people and cultures around the world. We previously talked to him about his background and his work in Cuba for "Distant Neighbors" and in Nicaragua for "Echoes of War."
Q: YOUR LAST PIECE FOR "NOW" WAS ABOUT YOUR RETURN TO NICARAGUA TO FIND SOME OF THE SUBJECTS IN YOUR BOOK OF PHOTOGRAPHS MADE DURING THE CONTRA WAR IN THE 1980'S. IN OUR INTERVIEW, YOU SOUNDED AS IF YOUR DAYS OF COVERING WAR WERE OVER, BUT NOW YOU'VE JUST RETURNED FROM A TRIP TO IRAQ WITH U.S. MARINES. ISN'T THAT A CONTRADICTION?
A: Not really. In our last interview I said I didn't call myself a "war photographer." And I don't. There are a lot of journalists out there who cover conflict much more routinely than I do, and it's more accurate to call many of them "war photographers" or "war correspondents." I only cover war when I feel compelled by the specific conflict. When I feel that the story is so important that I have to go.
Q: SO WHY DID YOU "HAVE TO GO" TO IRAQ?
A: Because I believe the story of America's invasion and occupation of Iraq is a landmark event. It is an extraordinary event, the repercussions of which will reverberate not just in the region but around the world for generations to come. As a journalist, and especially as an American journalist, it became impossible for me not to go. Not to see for myself. Not to have some level of participation in, and contribution to, the story. So I was drawn not so much by "the war," per se, but by the magnitude of a watershed event that affects and, in part, defines America as a country and Americans as individuals.
Q: YOU SPENT NEARLY TWO WEEKS IN IRAQ. WHAT DID YOU FIND?
A: I found an operation as huge as it is complex. It's difficult to imagine the enormity of the American enterprise there. We've moved what are, in effect, entire cities, with everything from pencils and erasers, to bulldozers, tanks and airplanes, plus the men and the women to operate it all, halfway around the world. It's mammoth.
Q: WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY "COMPLEX?"
A: Complex in terms of how it all meshes with the constantly evolving reality of Iraq. Complex in terms of the outcome. Complex in terms of how difficult it is to predict that outcome.
Q: YOU SPENT 10 DAYS WITH THE 24TH MARINE EXPEDITIONARY UNIT. WHY?
A: One of my objectives for going to Iraq was to meet and to portray some of the Americans at work there. To help explain who these men and women are, beyond the nameless faces that we see flash across our television screens. So I spent time with a single combat platoon of Marines in and around the town of Iskandariyah, about 35 miles south of Baghdad.
Q: AND WHAT IS YOUR IMPRESSION OF THE MARINES?
A: I spent time with 1st Platoon, Alpha Company. They are a great bunch of young men. I feel privileged to have met so many young men so full of promise, so full of potential. I look forward to their safe return.
Q: THE MARINES WITH WHOM YOU SPENT TIME ARE LOCATED IN WHAT THE MEDIA HAVE COME TO CALL "THE TRIANGLE OF DEATH." IS IT REALLY THAT DANGEROUS?
A: Yes and no. I went out on numerous foot and vehicle patrols with the Marines and we were never directly shot at. We never were attacked by the now-famous, Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. So one gets lulled into a false sense of security. But there is just a millimeter or a millisecond between that apparent security and total disaster. And when it all goes bad the difference between apparent security and total disaster can often be measured in the number of Marines who lose their limbs, or their lives.