During a fall evening in 1973, I was sitting on a poorly lit railroad track near my home in Northridge, California, where I worked illegally as a night shift cook for a local fast food chain. Barely 16, I lied about my age in order to generate enough money to support my photography obsession. The lonely ten-hour solo job was exhausting and I generally fell asleep in school the next morning, but I had big dreams of being a war photographer like my heroes Robert Capa, Larry Burroughs and Eddie Adams and so I persevered. To avert detection from the local LAPD motorcycle cops, who patrolled the neighborhood, I lingered in the shadows and walked the rails.
While hidden in the darkness, the year's top song “Diamond Girl” by Seals and Crofts came over a portable transistor radio, which accompanied me to work every night. Sometimes when I hear that tune today, I fondly return to that Indian summer, when two burning questions haunted me. How many cooked burgers would it take to buy a Nikon F2 camera and when could I travel to Saigon and cover the Vietnam conflict as a photojournalist? As fate would have it, the war ended, but not my dream. The Nikon finally arrived the following Spring and a few years later I began working as a staff photographer for newspapers across the United States. Little did I know at the time, I would eventually make it to Vietnam … but the war would be in a different country.
They say you should be careful what you wish for and in October of 1987 I was employed as the Southeast Asia Picture Editor for The Associated Press in Bangkok, which was a highly coveted overseas wire service posting. Though elated with my accomplishment, somewhere between the congratulatory backslapping and my first class champagne flight to Thailand, I came to the scary conclusion that the new job might get me killed.
On my first day of work a telex arrived from AP London Picture Editor Horst Faas; a legendary Pulitzer Prize winning German photographer best known for his Vietnam War coverage. Horst and I had met a few times previously, so his welcome message came as no surprise, “Widener--we get you some experience … ya.” I was ordered to Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka, where the Indian Peace Keeper Force [IPKF] was battling against Tamil Tiger guerrillas, who wanted an independent state. Surviving that, I was to proceed to Calcutta, India for the 1987 World Cricket Championships and then swing through Singapore on my way back to Bangkok for fresh photo supplies. After that I was to apply for a journalist visa and fly to Rangoon, Burma for the visit of Britain's Princess Anne. For a moment I thought the dizzying itinerary was a joke instigated by the picture desk. Though I had no idea where in the hell Jaffna was or knew anything about cricket let alone writing captions about the sport, this was how Faas trained his boys. Other than a one-day darkroom session in the AP New York headquarters, I knew virtually nothing about developing and printing color nor even writing an AP style caption. I could just visualize Faas grinning over a bottle of red wine at his favorite Fleet Street pub.
As the Air Lanka L-1011 TriStar approached Colombo Airport in a light rain, my self preservation kicked in and it finally dawned on me that I was not prepared to die at age 31. Who was I kidding? There is a very big difference wanting to be a war photographer as a kid and actually being in a war as an adult. Even insects creep me out and Asia had cockroaches the size of Nike's. What had I gotten myself into? I tried to calm my fears and focused on getting through immigration and on to my hotel.
After clearing a lengthy customs ordeal around midnight, I pushed my luggage cart through the terminal doors and into a moonless night. The fluorescent bulbs shimmered off the wet pavement and it was hard to imagine that outside the sleepy airport, a deadly war was raging in the far north of the country affecting thousands of civilians. Just when I feared being stranded in the deserted parking lot, an eager taxi driver with an excessive smile briskly approached from the shadows. As he hurriedly loaded my gear into a battered 1960's British Morris Minor, I cranked the squeaky rear window open and sniffed my new surroundings. The refreshing trade winds gently caressed the silhouetted palms under a starlit sky and New York seemed a million miles away.
In the tranquil darkness I noticed a scattering of dimly lit candles and colored lights illuminating Buddhist temples, Catholic churches and Mosques. The ethnic diversity of the country was striking, but also explained much of the civil unrest. While the Sinhalese driver steered his way around stray cattle, I rested my head as we continued to the Hilton Hotel. But soon my inner peace came to a screeching halt as we encountered an armed military checkpoint. The helmeted soldier silently flipped through our documents and then lifted the gate.
The following morning I awoke in a beautiful room with an ugly headache, courtesy of lingering jet lag. After a large plate of nasi goreng accompanied by several cups of coffee, I departed the Executive dining room and headed for the military air base, where I boarded a cargo plane full of nervous reporters. It would be a lie to say I was not shaking, scared and as I sat unstrapped against the plane's fuselage, my anxiety level grew with the clanging of loaded equipment. Once airborne, I tried to catch up on badly needed sleep, but the engine vibration was like leaning your head against a faulty washing machine during spin dry. I gazed out my rear window and watched the jungle pass by.
The brief, tense flight seemed to last an eternity and as the ground neared, everyone started jostling with bags and gear. The aircraft landed hard and the reverse props slammed our bodies sideways. We had all arrived safely at the heavily fortified Jaffna airport where IPKF soldiers hastily transferred us to military jeeps. Our escort was an assuming Sikh Sergeant Major with a magnificently groomed handle bar mustache and smartly maintained turban, accented with a long black riding crop under his arm. Though this guy was responsible for all our lives, he seemed to throw safety to the wind as he led us towards the front lines. He proudly showed us captured guerrilla mortar shells, which I prayed had not been booby trapped. After making a few images with my Nikon F3 camera and an 18mm lens, I began hearing distant gunfire. It was not that I was particularly frightened at that moment, but it's as if your subconscious knows something your body doesn't and it instructs your bladder to find the nearest bush … fast. The sergeant noticed my paleness and smiled, “That is only fear my friend.”
The press migrated to the Elephant pass, a narrow causeway spanning a lagoon which connects the Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the island. While slowly making our way accross, I started to worry how exposed we were at the same instant my vehicle stopped. One of the trucks had broken down, stranding the entire convoy like sitting ducks. I soon began feeling nauseous and then something incredible happened. The annoyed sergeant approached the stalled vehicle and angrily started kicking the side of the door while shouting “Bloody she monster!” Though I was fearfully laughing inside, the engine miraculously started and we continued on our way.
With the crackle of gunfire fast approaching, my heart was hammering my chest as my brain went into sensory overload and the smoke rising from our intended destination, the seventeenth century Jaffna Fort, did not calm my fears. A rocket attack had been launched by the Tamil Tigers a few minutes earlier and exploded in the middle of the compound. When we reached the top of the citadel, I crouched behind the fearless sergeant, who seemed oblivious to the surrounding gunfire. It was as if that black horse buggy whip was all he needed to ward off any evil. For a brief moment I thought to myself “My God, I am in the middle of a real war!”
I dived for cover into the nearest sandbagged bunker, where a soldier kept a vigilant eye on the streets below. Several AK-47 assault rifles were leaning against the walls. The space was so dark and cramped that I had to use a Nikon 16mm full frame fish-eye lens with a flash to make a picture and then I quickly fled the position in fear of a potential rocket-propelled grenade attack.
As I stayed locked on the swinging horse whip in front of me, but I soon began feeling faint and extremely dehydrated. Sweat was burning my eyes and blocking my camera's viewfinder. In my haste, I had stupidly failed to bring any water. Fortunately, the Sergeant Major came to the rescue and guided me to an old well. Though seriously concerned about parasites, I was on the verge of passing out from heat exhaustion, so I rolled the dice. That leaky wooden bucket of water was the most thirst-quenching experience I ever had and fortunately, I never got sick.
My inaugural assignment had gone reasonably well. The color transmission prints were a little green, but usable and one print was accidentally reversed in the enlarger. However, I was published in Newsweek Magazine and many publications around the world. Now looking back at the experience, it was not so much about the pictures or being a war hero but rather dealing with ones hidden fears and mastering life's curve balls. Faas understood that.
With a sense of relief, I settled into my passenger seat for the onward flight to New Delhi, and a euphoric feeling overcame me. I had beaten the odds and survived to tell my tale. I celebrated life and thanked the heavens for my safe return. There was a new found inner courage that I never knew existed and the best part was I had not let AP or myself down, which left me with a great sense of pride. But soon I was off to the next assignment in Calcutta, India, where the reckless taxi drivers were as dangerous as the Tamil Tigers.