The French photography shot his first war at age 18 and has spent his life depicting the realities of combat.
When he was 17 years old, Patrick Chauvel decided he wanted to witness combat firsthand. His uncle, a war photographer during France’s conflict in Indochina, handed Chauvel a Nikon camera and told him to leave Paris—“Which I did,” said Chauvel, who flew to Israel in the midst of the 1967 Six-Day War. In the decades since, the veteran war photographer has photographed more than 20 conflicts, including the Vietnam War and the 1989–90 U.S. invasion of Panama. He likes to get close to the action and has the scars to prove it: a bullet lodged near his spine, a knife cut on his side and multiple shrapnel wounds from a mortar round explosion in 1974 during the Cambodian Civil War. Now 63, Chauvel continues to tell stories of warfare and civil strife through his photos, documentaries and published books—just last year he stood on the front lines of the bloody conflict in Libya. “It’s not an easy way of life,” he says. “But who wants easy?”
What was your mind-set as a young war photographer?
When I started, I just did it for me, as a selfish young boy—for the adventure. But very quickly you realize what you see, the situation and the suffering, is much bigger than your small life.
Sometimes at the beginning I wouldn’t even take pictures. I was having so much fun in the helicopter. Then when you see dead civilians, you realize something is very wrong. I looked at the dead people a different way suddenly—they’re not just numbers or casualties. I couldn’t have fun anymore like an idiot. War has a big voice, and it comes on you pretty fast.
How has war photography changed over time?
Nothing much has changed, except that there are more photographers on small wars, because it’s easier to take pictures and send them out. Before, if you worked seven days, you were looking for a way to ship your film out during three days. And the cameras were not automatic, so you wouldn’t know if your films were good. You had to know much more about technique and sometimes process your own films.
Have you kept any photos of the Six-Day War, the first war you covered?
Most of the pictures are completely blurred. I was just a kid. I didn’t know how to use the camera. When I came back, I realized with horror that all the photos were completely useless. The only good picture was of me posing with an Israeli woman soldier.
Do you recall the first death you witnessed?
An Israeli soldier shot in the Sinai desert. A stray bullet got him right in the skull, without any noise, softly, and killed him. It was absolutely not dramatic. This is what shocked me. He made a strange noise, kneeled and then laid down, like he was saying, “I’m fed up with this; I’m going to rest for a while.” He was chatting with me five minutes before.
How long did you cover the Vietnam War?
Four or five years. Sometimes I would leave, because there was other fighting. There was some fighting in Mozambique and Angola, where the Portuguese were trying to keep their colonies. I was going to Ireland also. There was lots of fighting in Belfast and Londonderry. So I covered those four stories together.
What one moment in Vietnam stands out for you?
A North Vietnamese prisoner realized I was French and managed to talk to me for a while. He had studied in Paris at the Sorbonne. He explained to me his fight, why his parents always fought the French and why he wanted to throw out the Americans. Before, I had thought of the enemy as just people shooting at us. But this guy was very articulate and quite nice, actually. He just blindsided me completely. I realized that on other side of the jungle were people with feelings, too.
While traveling with soldiers, what lessons did you learn?
If you want to be accepted by the soldier in the middle of the fighting, you have to take the same risk as him, you have to be shoulder to shoulder with him. If you’re just a professional tourist, staying 100 meters behind and being too careful, then it’s like you’re watching zoo animals. Sometimes you get hit, and you go down. But that’s the price, and you have to show you are ready to pay it. The soldiers know you’re coming from a comfortable country, and they appreciate that. They become your brothers.
How do you feel while you’re working?
I am very calm when I work. I feel I can see further, I can hear better. I don’t need much food. I don’t drink. My body kicks in. I’m listening, I’m talking—I’m learning the language. I’m trying to find out which are the good roads, if there are mines. I have no space for nervousness.
Why should we bother to look at war photographs?
First, it gives you a measurement of the luck you have. And it makes you accountable for it. That means you have to protect this peaceful life you have, because it’s not a guarantee. It’s like if there’s a volcano next to your city. If you don’t know what’s threatening you, then you don’t appreciate life, and you take it for granted. Peace is fantastic, but it is threatened by war all the time.
So they serve as a warning?
Part of our job is to tell people, “Look what’s happening in Syria. Still go to the bar and have fun, but don’t forget— peace is fragile, and what’s happening to the Syrians can happen anywhere, anytime.” When I was in Beirut, having a nice time running after girls and going to restaurants and bars in 1973 and ’74, I didn’t realize there would be a 10- year civil war that would rip the country to pieces and kill 250,000 people.
What is the main goal of most war photographers?
To bother politicians when they’re making the wrong decisions. They know they are going to be accountable for their decisions, because all these witnesses, two or three cameramen in key places, have very valuable information. So our job is to monitor the situation and tell the story. We’re not only working for the news; we also work for the archives and for the history books. You have different types of photographers —guys like James Nachtwey or Larry Burroughs are incredible artists. I am more of a reporter using a camera. I take pictures so people will believe what I’m talking about—they’re proof of what I’m going to tell.
Do you collaborate with other photographers?
Usually we avoid working together. One time I saw Nachtwey in Bangkok, when there was the fighting in the streets there, and I didn’t talk to him. He was 10 meters from me. I just avoided him. But once the fighting was over, I called him, and we had dinner. He’s like that, too. He doesn’t want to chat while the war is happening. Once you’re in the action, it’s better to be alone or to be with the soldiers and the locals. Or with a writer—somebody who is not doing the same thing as you.
What are the negatives of working independently?
Most of the time you are broke. But I don’t need that much money. I don’t have a big apartment. I rent it. I can leave it in five minutes. I have a motorcycle, the same one for 30 years, and an old Ford Mustang. I can move fast and go anywhere. I just need enough money for the next airplane ticket, and once I’m with the army or with the rebels, there’s nothing to buy and nothing to eat anyway.
What is the worst situation you’ve been in?
The Battle of Grozny in ’95, when the Russians completely destroyed the city. The bombing was so heavy, and I was with a group of Chechen tank fighters. There were six of us, and four vanished in pieces. I did the wrong thing: I went in a building. The windows and door vanished, then I got in a different room, and the ceiling fell down. The whole building was vibrating, and I thought it was going to collapse. Then, with a Chechen, I made a run for it out of the building. I could feel that fear was trying to catch me, trying to grab me with its claws. You have to be careful of fear.
Can you describe a bombing?
The air around you becomes a hammer that is going to crush you into pieces. You have a hard time getting your thoughts together. They’re frozen into a million pieces in your brain. You can’t think. The bombing is so strong, it destabilizes you. And the smell, the disgusting smell. Then there’s the noise, the screams. You’re trying to focus on what you’re going to do when it stops, which way you’re going to go, who’s going to be reliable.
U.S. Marines shot you in Panama. What was that like?
They treated me and saved my life after shooting me, so I had mixed feelings. There was a colonel who came to see me at the hospital, and I told him that when my father was a soldier, he was shot by the Germans in Normandy. He was evacuated by the 82nd Airborne Division to England to get treated. I said, “This is not the first time for my family to get evacuated by the Americans. But times have changed. Before, the Germans would shoot, and the Americans would evacuate. Now you get the full package—you guys shoot and evacuate.” He looked at me like I was completely crazy. Then he left without a word.
Have you ever cried?
Not in a long time. You feel like crying when it’s the day of a victory sometimes—from joy. I remember coming back from patrols with American soldiers. When we realized we survived, we’d start to laugh hysterically. That’s a way of crying, I suppose.
Do you have nightmares?
I don’t dream. I have a friend who is a psychiatrist. He says, “You’re locked up so deep, you don’t remember your dreams.” So I don’t have nightmares. But that’s me. I know photographers who scream at night, and I have to throw a glass of water on them when we’re working.
Have you ever lost a camera while working?
I lost quite a few. One of them got a bullet right through it. That one I kept. It’s on my desk. It was in 1982 on the south side of Beirut when the Israelis were invading. I was with a group of Palestinians that stopped them. It was a night fight. My flash went off, and the Israelis shot right through my camera.
Do you have a favorite photo?
One photo I like a lot I took in Beirut. There was this big M-48 tank that fired in front of me while I was taking a picture. A little red-haired cat was taking a nap, probably thinking the war was over. When this tank fired, the cat just got up and ran. I saw him pass right in front of the tank, and I took one shot of this cat running so fast [see P. 50]. He looks like a cartoon, with wheels instead of paws. I love this picture, because the cat is escaping the madness.
Why continue to do this work?
I believe it’s important, and I like doing it. I like going back to Paris, too, and having a good glass of wine. But at one moment I feel futile, and the next I get bored. I think: “Things are happening all around the world. What the hell am I doing here?” I’m going to the movies, dating or eating good food—but at one moment the meat doesn’t taste right anymore. It’s like knowing you have friends in the hospital, but you’re having fun and not going to see them.
Any advice for aspiring war photojournalists?
Always try to get close to the truth, keep your word to the people you are talking to and try to get both sides of the story. And when an officer or a civilian tells you, “I need to tell you something more about this story, but you cannot publish it,” respect that always.
Reporters don’t have much power, except one thing: the trust of the people. Both sides need to trust us—the people we’re telling the story of and the people we’re telling the story to.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.