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Annotated captions of James Nachtwey's searing pictures of war in English

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As someone who has spent his entire career trying to be invisible,

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standing in front of an audience is a cross between

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an out-of-body experience and a deer caught in the headlights,

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so please forgive me for violating one of the TED commandments

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by relying on words on paper,

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and I only hope I'm not struck by lightning bolts before I'm done.

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I'd like to begin by talking about some of the ideas that motivated me

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to become a documentary photographer.

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I was a student in the '60s, a time of social upheaval and questioning,

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and on a personal level, an awakening sense of idealism.

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The war in Vietnam was raging;

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the Civil Rights Movement was under way;

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and pictures had a powerful influence on me.

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Our political and military leaders were telling us one thing,

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and photographers were telling us another.

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I believed the photographers, and so did millions of other Americans.

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Their images fueled resistance to the war and to racism.

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They not only recorded history; they helped change the course of history.

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Their pictures became part of our collective consciousness

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and, as consciousness evolved into a shared sense of conscience,

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change became not only possible, but inevitable.

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I saw that the free flow of information represented by journalism,

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specifically visual journalism, can bring into focus

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both the benefits and the cost of political policies.

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It can give credit to sound decision-making, adding momentum to success.

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In the face of poor political judgment or political inaction,

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it becomes a kind of intervention, assessing the damage

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and asking us to reassess our behavior.

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It puts a human face on issues

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which from afar can appear abstract

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or ideological or monumental in their global impact.

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What happens at ground level, far from the halls of power,

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happens to ordinary citizens one by one.

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And I understood that documentary photography

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has the ability to interpret events from their point of view.

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It gives a voice to those who otherwise would not have a voice.

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And as a reaction, it stimulates public opinion

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and gives impetus to public debate,

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thereby preventing the interested parties

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from totally controlling the agenda, much as they would like to.

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Coming of age in those days made real

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the concept that the free flow of information is absolutely vital

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for a free and dynamic society to function properly.

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The press is certainly a business, and in order to survive

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it must be a successful business,

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but the right balance must be found

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between marketing considerations and journalistic responsibility.

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Society's problems can't be solved until they're identified.

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On a higher plane, the press is a service industry,

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and the service it provides is awareness.

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Every story does not have to sell something.

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There's also a time to give.

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That was a tradition I wanted to follow.

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Seeing the war created such incredibly high stakes for everyone involved

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and that visual journalism could actually become a factor in conflict resolution --

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I wanted to be a photographer in order to be a war photographer.

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But I was driven by an inherent sense

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that a picture that revealed the true face of war

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would almost by definition be an anti-war photograph.

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I'd like to take you on a visual journey through some of the events

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and issues I've been involved in over the past 25 years.

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In 1981, I went to Northern Ireland.

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10 IRA prisoners were in the process of starving themselves to death

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in protest against conditions in jail.

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The reaction on the streets was violent confrontation.

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I saw that the front lines of contemporary wars

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are not on isolated battlefields, but right where people live.

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During the early '80s, I spent a lot of time in Central America,

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which was engulfed by civil wars

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that straddled the ideological divide of the Cold War.

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In Guatemala, the central government --

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controlled by a oligarchy of European decent --

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was waging a scorched Earth campaign against an indigenous rebellion,

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and I saw an image that reflected the history of Latin America:

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conquest through a combination of the Bible and the sword.

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An anti-Sandinista guerrilla was mortally wounded

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as Commander Zero attacked a town in Southern Nicaragua.

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A destroyed tank belonging to Somoza's national guard

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was left as a monument in a park in Managua,

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and was transformed by the energy and spirit of a child.

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At the same time, a civil war was taking place in El Salvador,

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and again, the civilian population was caught up in the conflict.

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I've been covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 1981.

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This is a moment from the beginning of the second intifada, in 2000,

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when it was still stones and Molotovs against an army.

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In 2001, the uprising escalated into an armed conflict,

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and one of the major incidents was

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the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp

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in the West Bank town of Jenin.

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Without the political will to find common ground,

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the continual friction of tactic and counter-tactic

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only creates suspicion and hatred and vengeance,

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and perpetuates the cycle of violence.

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In the '90s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union,

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Yugoslavia fractured along ethnic fault lines, and civil war broke out

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between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

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This is a scene of house-to-house fighting in Mostar,

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neighbor against neighbor.

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A bedroom, the place where people share intimacy,

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where life itself is conceived, became a battlefield.

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A mosque in northern Bosnia was destroyed by Serbian artillery

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and was used as a makeshift morgue.

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Dead Serbian soldiers were collected after a battle

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and used as barter for the return of prisoners

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or Bosnian soldiers killed in action.

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This was once a park.

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The Bosnian soldier who guided me

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told me that all of his friends were there now.

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At the same time in South Africa,

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after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison,

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the black population commenced the final phase

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of liberation from apartheid.

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One of the things I had to learn as a journalist

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was what to do with my anger.

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I had to use it, channel its energy, turn it into something

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that would clarify my vision, instead of clouding it.

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In Transkei, I witnessed a rite of passage into manhood, of the Xhosa tribe.

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Teenage boys lived in isolation, their bodies covered with white clay.

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After several weeks, they washed off the white

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and took on the full responsibilities of men.

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It was a very old ritual that seemed symbolic

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of the political struggle that was changing the face of South Africa.

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Children in Soweto playing on a trampoline.

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Elsewhere in Africa there was famine.

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In Somalia, the central government collapsed and clan warfare broke out.

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Farmers were driven off their land,

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and crops and livestock were destroyed or stolen.

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Starvation was being used as a weapon of mass destruction --

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primitive but extremely effective.

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Hundreds of thousands of people were exterminated,

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slowly and painfully.

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The international community responded with massive humanitarian relief,

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and hundreds of thousands of more lives were saved.

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American troops were sent to protect the relief shipments,

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but they were eventually drawn into the conflict,

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and after the tragic battle in Mogadishu, they were withdrawn.

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In southern Sudan, another civil war saw similar use of starvation

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as a means of genocide.

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Again, international NGOs, united under the umbrella of the U.N.,

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staged a massive relief operation and thousands of lives were saved.

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I'm a witness, and I want my testimony to be honest and uncensored.

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I also want it to be powerful and eloquent,

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and to do as much justice as possible

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to the experience of the people I'm photographing.

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This man was in an NGO feeding center,

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being helped as much as he could be helped.

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He literally had nothing. He was a virtual skeleton,

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yet he could still summon the courage and the will to move.

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He had not given up, and if he didn't give up,

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how could anyone in the outside world ever dream of losing hope?

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In 1994, after three months of covering the South African election,

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I saw the inauguration of Nelson Mandela,

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and it was the most uplifting thing I've ever seen.

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It exemplified the best that humanity has to offer.

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The next day I left for Rwanda,

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and it was like taking the express elevator to hell.

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This man had just been liberated from a Hutu death camp.

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He allowed me to photograph him for quite a long time,

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and he even turned his face toward the light,

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as if he wanted me to see him better.

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I think he knew what the scars on his face would say to the rest of the world.

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This time, maybe confused or discouraged

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by the military disaster in Somalia,

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the international community remained silent,

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and somewhere around 800,000 people were slaughtered

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by their own countrymen -- sometimes their own neighbors --

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using farm implements as weapons.

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Perhaps because a lesson had been learned

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by the weak response to the war in Bosnia

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and the failure in Rwanda,

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when Serbia attacked Kosovo,

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international action was taken much more decisively.

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NATO forces went in, and the Serbian army withdrew.

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Ethnic Albanians had been murdered,

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their farms destroyed and a huge number of people forcibly deported.

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They were received in refugee camps

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set up by NGOs in Albania and Macedonia.

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The imprint of a man who had been burned inside his own home.

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The image reminded me of a cave painting,

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and echoed how primitive we still are in so many ways.

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Between 1995 and '96, I covered the first two wars

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in Chechnya from inside Grozny.

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This is a Chechen rebel on the front line against the Russian army.

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The Russians bombarded Grozny constantly for weeks,

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killing mainly the civilians who were still trapped inside.

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I found a boy from the local orphanage

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wandering around the front line.

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My work has evolved from being concerned mainly with war

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to a focus on critical social issues as well.

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After the fall of Ceausescu, I went to Romania

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and discovered a kind of gulag of children,

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where thousands of orphans were being kept in medieval conditions.

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Ceausescu had imposed a quota

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on the number of children to be produced by each family,

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thereby making women's bodies an instrument of state economic policy.

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Children who couldn't be supported by their families

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were raised in government orphanages.

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Children with birth defects were labeled incurables,

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and confined for life to inhuman conditions.

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As reports began to surface, again international aid went in.

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Going deeper into the legacy of the Eastern European regimes,

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I worked for several months on a story about the effects of industrial pollution,

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where there had been no regard for the environment

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or the health of either workers or the general population.

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An aluminum factory in Czechoslovakia

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was filled with carcinogenic smoke and dust,

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and four out of five workers came down with cancer.

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After the fall of Suharto in Indonesia,

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I began to explore conditions of poverty

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in a country that was on its way towards modernization.

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I spent a good deal of time with a man

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who lived with his family on a railway embankment

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and had lost an arm and a leg in a train accident.

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When the story was published, unsolicited donations poured in.

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A trust fund was established,

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and the family now lives in a house in the countryside

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and all their basic necessities are taken care of.

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It was a story that wasn't trying to sell anything.

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Journalism had provided a channel

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for people's natural sense of generosity, and the readers responded.

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I met a band of homeless children who'd come to Jakarta from the countryside,

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and ended up living in a train station.

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By the age of 12 or 14, they'd become beggars and drug addicts.

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The rural poor had become the urban poor,

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and in the process, they'd become invisible.

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These heroin addicts in detox in Pakistan

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reminded me of figures in a play by Beckett:

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isolated, waiting in the dark, but drawn to the light.

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Agent Orange was a defoliant used during the Vietnam War

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to deny cover to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army.

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The active ingredient was dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical

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that was sprayed in vast quantities,

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and whose effects passed through the genes to the next generation.

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In 2000, I began documenting global health issues,

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concentrating first on AIDS in Africa.

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I tried to tell the story through the work of caregivers.

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I thought it was important to emphasize that people were being helped,

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whether by international NGOs or by local grassroots organizations.

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So many children have been orphaned by the epidemic

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that grandmothers have taken the place of parents,

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and a lot of children had been born with HIV.

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A hospital in Zambia.

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I began documenting the close connection

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between HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

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This is an MSF hospital in Cambodia.

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My pictures can play a supporting role to the work of NGOs

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by shedding light on the critical social problems they're trying to deal with.

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I went to Congo with MSF,

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and contributed to a book and an exhibition

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that focused attention on a forgotten war

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in which millions of people have died,

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and exposure to disease without treatment is used as a weapon.

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A malnourished child being measured

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as part of the supplemental feeding program.

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In the fall of 2004 I went to Darfur.

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This time I was on assignment for a magazine,

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but again worked closely with MSF.

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The international community still hasn't found a way

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to create the pressure necessary to stop this genocide.

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An MSF hospital in a camp for displaced people.

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I've been working on a long project on crime and punishment in America.

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This is a scene from New Orleans.

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A prisoner on a chain gang in Alabama

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was punished by being handcuffed to a post in the midday sun.

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This experience raised a lot of questions,

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among them questions about race and equality

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and for whom in our country opportunities and options are available.

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In the yard of a chain gang in Alabama.

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I didn't see either of the planes hit,

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and when I glanced out my window, I saw the first tower burning,

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and I thought it might have been an accident.

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A few minutes later when I looked again

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and saw the second tower burning, I knew we were at war.

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In the midst of the wreckage at Ground Zero, I had a realization.

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I'd been photographing in the Islamic world since 1981 --

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not only in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia and Europe.

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At the time I was photographing in these different places,

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I thought I was covering separate stories,

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but on 9/11 history crystallized, and I understood

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I'd actually been covering a single story for more than 20 years,

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and the attack on New York was its latest manifestation.

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The central commercial district of Kabul, Afghanistan

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at the end of the civil war,

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shortly before the city fell to the Taliban.

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Land mine victims being helped

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at the Red Cross rehab center being run by Alberto Cairo.

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A boy who lost a leg to a leftover mine.

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I'd witnessed immense suffering in the Islamic world

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from political oppression, civil war, foreign invasions, poverty, famine.

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I understood that in its suffering,

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the Islamic world had been crying out. Why weren't we listening?

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A Taliban fighter shot during a battle

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as the Northern Alliance entered the city of Kunduz.

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When war with Iraq was imminent,

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I realized the American troops would be very well covered,

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so I decided to cover the invasion from inside Baghdad.

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A marketplace was hit by a mortar shell

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that killed several members of a single family.

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A day after American forces entered Baghdad,

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a company of Marines began rounding up bank robbers

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and were cheered on by the crowds --

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a hopeful moment that was short lived.

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For the first time in years,

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Shi'ites were allowed to make the pilgrimage

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to Karbala to observe Ashura,

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and I was amazed by the sheer number of people

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and how fervently they practiced their religion.

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A group of men march through the streets cutting themselves with knives.

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It was obvious that the Shi'ites were a force to be reckoned with,

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and we would do well to understand them and learn how to deal with them.

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Last year I spent several months documenting our wounded troops,

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from the battlefield in Iraq all the way home.

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This is a helicopter medic giving CPR

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to a soldier who had been shot in the head.

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Military medicine has become so efficient

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that the percentage of troops who survive after being wounded

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is much higher in this war than in any other war in our history.

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19:33

The signature weapon of the war is the IED,

tedtalks 19:33
19:36

and the signature wound is severe leg damage.

tedtalks 19:38
19:41

After enduring extreme pain and trauma,

tedtalks 19:41
19:43

the wounded face a grueling physical

tedtalks 19:43
19:45

and psychological struggle in rehab.

tedtalks 19:48
19:51

The spirit they displayed was absolutely remarkable.

tedtalks 19:52
19:54

I tried to imagine myself in their place,

tedtalks 19:54
19:58

and I was totally humbled by their courage and determination

tedtalks 19:58
20:01

in the face of such catastrophic loss.

tedtalks 20:02
20:07

Good people had been put in a very bad situation for questionable results.

tedtalks 20:10
20:13

One day in rehab someone, started talking about surfing

tedtalks 20:13
20:17

and all these guys who'd never surfed before said, "Hey, let's go."

tedtalks 20:17
20:19

And they went surfing.

tedtalks 20:23
20:26

Photographers go to the extreme edges of human experience

tedtalks 20:26
20:28

to show people what's going on.

tedtalks 20:28
20:31

Sometimes they put their lives on the line,

tedtalks 20:31
20:35

because they believe your opinions and your influence matter.

tedtalks 20:35
20:39

They aim their pictures at your best instincts,

tedtalks 20:39
20:42

generosity, a sense of right and wrong,

tedtalks 20:42
20:46

the ability and the willingness to identify with others,

tedtalks 20:46
20:49

the refusal to accept the unacceptable.

tedtalks 20:51
20:53

My TED wish:

tedtalks 20:53
20:56

there's a vital story that needs to be told,

tedtalks 20:56
21:00

and I wish for TED to help me gain access to it

tedtalks 21:00
21:04

and then to help me come up with innovative and exciting ways

tedtalks 21:04
21:07

to use news photography in the digital era.

tedtalks 21:07
21:09

Thank you very much.

tedtalks 21:10
21:25

(Applause)