Award-winning photographer André Liohn reveals war-torn grief

Award-winning war photographer André Liohn unveils treacherous horrors in 'You Are Not A Soldier'
5 min read
05 May, 2021
The New Arab Meets: André Liohn, who unveils the distressing perils of conflict and how human beings can so quickly descend into anarchy under indiscriminate force.
In places ravaged by the Islamic State group, the scars are far from healing [Getty]
A cross-line between life and death. Between the safety of returning home and witnessing the cruelty of wars. You Are Not a Soldier is a documentary that describes the intimate portrait of war-photographer André Liohn and goes beyond, explaining the function of journalism in its highest form as well as the crisis modern societies are experiencing.

It is a rare window into the strain of being a father who can’t answer all the questions asked. A person who sees many friends fallen doing their duty but is forced to carry on with their job.

The pain of an individual who has seen the darkest sides of a human being and questions himself on the meaning of life.

It is also a personal journey into answering questions stuck in one's head that push a person to go to the most dangerous places and report on the destruction, the death and the pain caused by war. They feel that it is their responsibility to be there, to risk their own life to fulfil the purpose of journalism: to give a voice to the voiceless.

"Producing a challenging non-fiction film is an act of thinking and self-reflection. Instead of trying to observe the conflict through the soldier's eyes, I tried to deliver a message impersonating an information collector, a photojournalist, a non-combatant," explains Maria Carolina Telles, the director of the documentary.

"I believe this could drive viewers to pause and deeply consider the horrific nature and senselessness of war."

The New Arab talks to André Liohn, award-winning war-photographer who has extensively covered the conflicts in Libya, Iraq, Somalia and to which the documentary is dedicated.

'If you can be killed and die there, why did you do this?' The most brutal question asked by your daughter just before you went on assignment. But is there an answer?

"Not a definitive one. I always say to my kids that I do this for them. Because someone has to do it and has to tell the story or it won't exist. But the meaning goes beyond, and it isn't related only to that," Lion answers. 

"During the final battle to retake Mosul, I received a call from Iraq bearing the news that all the unit I was embedded with for months on the frontline were dead. The Islamic State group [IS] militants had killed the whole platoon and brutalised their bodies. I felt powerless and guilty because this would have been my fate too if I had decided to stay," he continues.

Read also: Mosul - A wounded city trying to heal

"My first thought was to return to Iraq to inform the people of what was happening there. At the same time, the words of my daughter were echoing noisily in my head. This is something difficult to explain. We do this for many reasons, but not all of them can be described in full."

'We chose to be here. This is not someone dreams, this is journalism and it is painful.' These the words you addressed to a colleague in Iraq during the documentary. But what does it mean?

"When I go on assignment, I always have one major rule: to be as close as possible to the action. It is like a mission. During the offensive to liberate Tal Afar, a strategic Iraqi town close to the Syrian border, I had the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the most important commanders from PMF, the Popular Mobilisation Forces. At a certain point, as you can see in the documentary, the man decides to shut down the road from Mosul to the border.

"It was a geopolitical turning point that determined the future of IS, and I was there with my camera to document it. The militias were receiving orders from Iran to block the retreat of extremist fighters to Syria, while the United States strategically let them escape, and Russia was mercilessly bombing the Syrian city of Aleppo. This is what photo-journalism is to me; it is condensed to a particular moment to keep the overall political situation in mind," Lion tells The New Arab.

The role of journalism has changed. What are the epochal transformations we are in?

"The media has evolved in the last decade and particularly when it comes to reporting war worldwide. The narration is often described as a trauma for the players who lived that experience such as the soldiers. But this is just a perspective.

"Soldiers are not boys and girls in uniform, but are active individuals who have decided to be there and train to perform their job. I believe that the feeling they experience when they come back is not trauma, as generalist media likes to proclaim, but rather remorse.

"We must be able to criticise their political decisions and make clear that they are not the same as the rest of the population of that country. Soldiers will leave sooner or later but they have a reason to be there. This is not the case for the people who live in such places. Justification towards war is a political act.

"Journalists shouldn't have either remorse or trauma because they chose to go, they have the duty to underline the difference between those two words and explain this the readers."

Read more: Mosul review - Netflix's war film invites polarised responses

"I do not know how to take pictures of all these bodies," you say during a call with a colleague while you were documenting the devastating consequences of the siege of Mosul and the thousands of bodies of children and women under the rubbles. Was this trauma or remorse?

"It was pain, pure and simple pain. In a ravaged city, such as Mosul, I've witnessed an immense tragedy unveiling in front of my eyes. Uncountable bodies of children – the kids of the extremist fighters – were left to rot just a few inches from the riverside that encircles the city centre. They could have been spared by Iraqi militias but, instead, they were killed in cold blood.

"This was the same scenario in the city, with entire rooms full of bodies of infant and women killed by the indiscriminate bombing. So many that you couldn't walk inside without stepping on them."

You Are Not The Soldier was first released on April 29 in Canada.

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East.