“If there’s going to be a war the whole nation should stand by it and the rich should fight alongside the poor. If we believe something is worth fighting for we should all fight together. If the rich were fighting alongside the poor we’d be choosing a lot fewer situations to fight in. If politicians’ sons and daughters were on the battlefields along with everybody else then those politicians are going to make the decision to go to war a lot more dire a situation than they have in the past. The problem is that war has just been an incredible way of making money. War benefits those who start them and has few negative effects for them. This needs to change.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview by Theo Constantinou
All Photographs by Zoriah Miller
Zoriah Miller is a photojournalist who began with an interest in documenting disasters. After seeing the raw emotion and conflict of interests involved with people hurting other people, communities against communities, he found himself drawn to images of war. In war there are only victims, and Zoriah’s artwork strips away the glorification of battle by showing pure, uncensored pain. Witnessing emotion, and physical evidence is one of the few ways that humans accept reality. Zoriah draws the line between Hollywood’s boastful love of violence, and existing struggles. Here are the words of a sensitive, but realistic man who has been highly educated in the behavior of humanity. Sent away from Iraq for photographing dead U.S. Marines, Zoriah was accused of aiding the enemy by showing them the success of their attacks. It is incredibly honorable that Zoriah does his utmost to destroy censorship at the risk of losing his life, access to stories, and damaging his reputation so people can understand the horror of war. When looking at his images one may feel sick, or sad, privileged, embarrassed, lucky, or something indescribable and that is the power of seeing the truth.
Disclaimer: The content of these images document graphic, violent, and sensitive subject matter.
On February 26, 1962. in the midst of the Vietnam war, JFK said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Seems to me after your experience with the US Government that our nation is pretty damn afraid of its people, was JFK’s statement true or false and do you think no matter what governments and individuals will always try and suppress the truth that is not fit to their liking?
I think that there will always be people that want to suppress the truth because there will always be people that the truth hurts. I think that’s the easiest way of summarizing it. There will always be people that will benefit from depressing information coming out. I think interestingly enough now, the problem is less sinister on the outside … the motivations are less sinister on the outside, but on the inside they’re probably even more sinister because they’re motivated by money. I get asked a lot of questions about ethics and where in the media are stories being censored? People always think, especially with stories of war, that they’re often censored by government. I think that’s not much the case anymore because they’re always censored by the publications that just don’t want to show something that’s going to lose them readership. They think that graphic images are going to lose them readership. I think we have a lot of really damaging things to freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of information and unfortunately I think a lot of those just come from the fact that publications are run by corporate dollars, and corporate entities and they want to make products that sell. I think it’s extremely dangerous when people don’t have proper information, it’s extremely dangerous when we have a general public that’s not educated properly enough to understand the importance of having that information. Which I think is another point that we’re getting to.
I think the education system in this country keeps going down, and down, and down and more and more we are being pushed to just have nothing but entertainment so what we crave is fake information. I think the consumers in a way have learned to want really heavy-duty graphic, exciting, high energy, high violence entertainment, but when that kind of information is put in the form of reality we instantly shut down, it’s too much for us to handle. We can take the fake side but we can’t take the real side and that disconnect is really dangerous for a society in general.
There are always going to be motivations. There are going to be motivations for the government to suppress information, there obviously was during the Bush administration. Luckily for them they didn’t have to do a lot of work to suppress information because the magazines didn’t want to publish stuff that was depressing and the whole war was depressing. So, a lot of work was done for them by the corporate media, but when that wasn’t, in my case for example when I published the aftermath of a suicide bombing, then that was kind of their point to step in with embedded policy and things they kind of made up to cover their backs on the rare case it hurts their mission, or hurts their appearance.
I think it’s important to state that I think that for the most part it’s people that are very high up that makes those decisions. Generally the soldiers on the ground, the vast majority of them supported my decision. I think the vast majority of normal people want the truth, I think it’s generally the people that are quite high up in power are the ones that try to suppress it in almost any circumstance whether there be conflict or media or whatever it is.
One of my favorite screen-writers and also black listed writer at the time, Dalton Trumbo, wrote a book called Johnny Got His Gun. There is a quote that I’d like you to reflect on.
“Did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them ever come back and say by god I’m glad I’m dead because death is always better than dishonor? Did they say I’m glad I died to make the world safe for democracy? Did they say I like death better than losing liberty? Did any of them ever say it’s good to think I got my guts blown out for the honor of my country? Did any of them ever say look at me I’m dead but I died for decency and that’s better than being alive? Did any of them ever say here I am and I’ve been rotting for two years in a foreign grave but it’s wonderful to die for your native land? Did any of them say hurray I died for womanhood and I’m happy see how I sing even though my mouth choked with worms?”
I know that it’s a bit much, but you’ve seen enough death to potentially answer Dalton’s question. Do you think that anybody who died in the warzone over the last hundred years would have answered yes to that question?
It’s a really brilliant quote. I’ve read studies that even say that most people that have attempted suicide and not actually died have talked about the realization as they were falling, or as they were bleeding, or whatever it was there was this huge regret and they wanted to come back and they didn’t want to go through with it. I think the human being has an incredible instinct to fight for survival. I think the problem is that in war we’ve basically been taught by the powers that be that we’re not likely to have death as the outcome when we go to war. Movies, again we come back to entertainment and we’re influenced by the entertainment experience as society, and think about how many movies we’ve watched as a kid where somebody is beaten for 20 minutes straight, and falls off the side of a building, gets shot a couple times, and by the end of the movie they’ve got some dirt on their face, a couple bandanas tied around their bullet wounds, they’re kissing the girl and heading off into the sunset. I think unfortunately because of the way our society is set up and the way our military is set up, and the fact that we don’t have a draft, which is a huge mistake. If there’s going to be a war the whole nation should stand by it and the rich should fight alongside the poor. If we believe something is worth fighting for we should all fight together. If the rich were fighting alongside the poor we’d be choosing a lot fewer situations to fight in. If politicians’ sons and daughters were on the battlefields along with everybody else then those politicians are going to make the decision to go to war a lot more dire a situation than they have in the past. The problem is that war has just been an incredible way of making money. War benefits those who start them and has few negative effects for them. This needs to change. That’s the first thing you see in Iraq, is all the money that goes into it and just the amount of business that is generated and the hundreds, of thousands, of millions of dollars that go into the war machine and it’s a shame that that’s what people have to die for. Most of the time now it’s not about honor or all of the things that were mentioned in the quote. It all boils down to dollars and I think that’s why we’re experiencing these things called PTSD and things like that. It’s not like the soldiers who do come back come back and think wow I really fought for something that I believe in and I saw horrible things, and I did this and that. At least if it was something in the end it suddenly meant something. Let’s say WWII for example, I would guess that most of the soldiers that came back at least would have some comfort in some of the things that may have happened by the end of that situation. What comfort do people have now?
It’s crazy. You’ve got soldiers dying. You’ve got journalists dying. It’s a shame. I never had any desire to be a war photographer, I was always very interested in disasters. That’s why I started photographing, I’d photograph all kinds of different disasters and worked in disaster management before I did photography. When I first went into my first conflict zone it looked almost exactly like a disaster zone, it looked like any earthquake zone, or aftermath of a tsunami, but the state of mind of the people living in it was so different. You have a disaster and everyone bans together and takes care of each other, and there’s this incredible spirit: What we’ve experienced is as old as the earth we live on, it’s mother nature, now we must be strong and together we will build our society up again.
That’s so different than when you find a community that’s been destroyed by another community. It’s such a different thing mentally and that mental difference makes all the difference. War is just not in any way pleasant, or good, or beneficial to any society. I don’t believe that human beings are in the position at this point in our development where we can be free from war, but I think that we can be much more discerning on what we choose to believe. It’s definitely not necessary in most of the situations in which it occurs in this day and age.
Have you experienced any PTSD since you’ve been back? Since these situations?
That’s a hard question to answer definitively, but I would say yeah, I’m sure. I always found that if I went from one to the next, to the next, to the next, and was constantly going from one situation to the next I was pretty much okay. The hard part is when you try to re-integrate into normal society, normal civilization. That’s when you really start seeing this divide between that world and this world. And I don’t know how much of it I could say could be attributed to conflict versus just photographing the abject poverty for instance. I think that’s one thing I experience more than things related to conflict, is just being in New York with friends and going out and spending $15 or $20 on a meal and knowing that would offend the family I just photographed the week before for a month. That I think can be difficult to process.
The conflict does stick in one’s head too, of course. I’ve heard of colleagues though that have had PTSD to the point that they can’t function. I wouldn’t say that I have experienced it that strongly, yet. Hopefully I don’t. Even subtly it’s not pleasant.
I was just curious based around that idea that you venture off into the world and you see things, and we’re sitting here in the comfort of this room eating some yogurt, drinking some coffee and you know that 5,000 miles east of here people are starving. It’s kind of hard to justify $10 worth of yogurt and coffee.
The interesting thing was in the beginning I really did just go from one to the next, to the next for years. I was always living that life and it was much easier for me to go into people’s lives when I was really living it full time. You feel like, I guess, less of an imposter. Not that it makes you an imposter to have a normal, western life, and I definitely don’t have a fancy western life by any means, but an average middle class western life and then going into those situations. It’s a huge difference. I found it easier when I was in it constantly because I could constantly relate to the people because I was constantly with them, I was constantly in the situation. Now it’s kind of always in the back of my head that I just came from a place that these people will never be able to afford to experience and never understand. It makes it sadder, it makes it more difficult.
So, Mother Teresa was quoted as saying, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” How do you respond to this statement in general? Do you believe your images are a peaceful protest, or are they meant for something else? How would you respond to those who might say that your images are a constant reminder of violence and therefore a catalyst to its continuation?
I definitely agree with the quote, it’s a quote I’ve known for a long time. The reason I’ve captured the images that I capture, in the way that I capture them, and then display them in the way that I capture them is because I truly believe that western society doesn’t really have any frame of reference to understand these situations. That’s my biggest motivation. I think that people need to fully understand things, and maybe it’s impossible to fully understand things, but people need to understand things as much as they possibly can in order to make informed decisions. Bottom line is that westerners, Europeans, Americans, anybody living in wealthier countries have no idea what it’s like and I include myself in that because I didn’t my whole life. I thought I understood. I grew up with a wonderful family, who taught me incredible things like compassion, empathy, and amazing lessons to have as a child that I grew up with, but still, the first time I saw a third world country where people survived in the dump sites, it was just something that I never pictured in the way that it actually was. I realized that most other westerners probably couldn’t picture that as well. That’s what I thought the beauty of photography was, I thought it gave people the ability to connect with that in a way that is difficult with the written word and television. I don’t know if I would call it a constant reminder of what is negative, but I think that maybe it is less of a constant reminder and more of just a reminder because I don’t think people really get that real message much and that’s a failure in the media. That kind of goes back to what I was talking about earlier with the corporate media not wanting to show things that are depressing. I think people really have a lack of knowing what these situations are like, so maybe for the people who look at my images a lot, maybe it is too much of a reminder, maybe people shouldn’t look at my images too much, maybe there is something that a lot of people should see on a very infrequent basis instead of something that very few people should see regularly. Unfortunately, I think that’s a bit out of my control. I thing there are always things that are out of a person’s control. I just do my best to try and capture images that I think will enlighten people to what others go through and put them out there and then hope that others will do the work to help have those photos be seen by the right people.
I do the best I can with that putting them on the internet, doing interviews, and making them available to aid organizations and publication. As a photographer, as anybody, we kind of have to pick our battles. We can’t do everything.
Here is a quote from Tim O’Brien’s book ‘The Things They Carried,’ which is about the psychological trials and tribulations of being forced into the army during the Vietnam War, and then the struggles of returning back to America after battle …
“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
Has photographing war made you a man or has it made you dead, metaphorically speaking?
Well, I would have to say in keeping with the spirit of that quote it’s probably done a little bit of both. That’s pretty much what the whole quote is about, it doesn’t necessarily do just one thing. It does all different kinds of things. My first conflict, I did a couple conflicts before Iraq, but after that first time in Iraq I came back and I felt like I had never learned more lessons during my entire life, in any situation. I think I had been to 70 countries by the time I had been to Iraq, studied all different kinds of things, and I thought I learned more from that situation than I have from anything else hands down. And yes, some of it I probably wish I didn’t know. I get emails everyday, several sometimes, probably more than ten people that want to do this and it’s hard because I think the world needs people to do this, but I think people really don’t realize what an affect it has. I think that I’ve probably gotten by easy in a lot of ways. Like I said, I’ve known people, and have heard of people that have had to pay a much higher price from death to just the complete inability to function. In a lot of ways it blows my mind because, probably, a lot of journalists go into these situations better equipped than the soldiers do emotionally to be able to deal with them. I think most journalists are older, most of them have more experience, more understanding of the world and life. You think about these soldiers, they’re 17 and 18 years old and not only that, some of them have come from places where the education system is so terrible, and there’s so much poverty and so little experience. How do they deal with it? That’s what’s really a shame, and then they also come back with less resources to deal with it. Journalists often have, at the very least, the investigative powers to figure out different types of therapeutic releases for themselves or different routes of going. You get somebody who’s been to war for 4 years, basically you have a 17 year old that’s four years older and with 4 more years experience with war, but without the tools to help themselves. Again, it’s just a shame for everybody.
This is an ongoing project. Every month I am going to pick a word, and ask what the definition means to that person. What is your definition of freedom?
I may have to write that later, it’s a big one. Instantly what pops into my mind is, do you ever listen to This American Life and did you see the TV episode one where he did Talk To An Iraqi? Google it, it is one of the best pieces on the Iraq war. There is the Iraqi talking about the concept of, ‘did America bring freedom?’ It’s very interesting because he says, ‘what is freedom if you can’t leave your house or you’re dead. I think it’s an especially tough question because of the situation that America is in now where I think there is probably more illusion of freedom than there is freedom. Maybe we do, do it a lot better than other countries, maybe we do have a lot of right answers, but for a country with so much wealth and power we don’t do most things as well as we should. We should be an example.
Freedom: The ability to do, think and say what we please as long as our actions do not infringe on the freedoms of other living beings. As a society our minimal standards for freedom should include the right of every living being to eat, be educated and have quality medical treatment. Freedom from living in fear should also be considered a basic rght.