"Do you think that all journalists are damaged goods?" asks one of the producers of his subject in Shooting Robert King. The veteran freelance combat photographer laughs before replying. "If they weren't going in, they sure are coming out."
British cameramen Vaugh Smith and Richard Parry, co-founders of the independent Frontline News, initiated this project in in 1993 Bosnia. They wanted to follow a neophyte freelancer's initiation into war-zone journalism. They find Robert King, a 24-year-old graduate of art school who has set his sights on becoming the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Somewhat the idealist (he wants to get a message out to the world) but mostly naive (Vaughn Smith admits he thought King would either step on a land mine or simply abandon the career) and always the optimist, King is reduced to scrounging food at a Sarajevo orphanage between snapping pictures and trying to sell them.
His first big sale - a front cover piece for the UK's Guardian story on French soldiers and local prostitutes - makes him a target of the French military stationed in the city. He scraps his way along, braving privation, sniper bullets and bombs, always hustling his photos.
Smith and Parry catch up with King again a few years later in Grozny, Chechnya. He's more confident, having landed significant sales such as the cover of Time, but also more cynical. He lights firecrackers in the streets and laughs when the locals jump; his nights are spent drinking and womanizing. His photos capture weary faces, ruined bodies, rubble and pain.
Interludes flash us forward in time, to the woods of rural Tennessee in 2007 and a hunting blind as King watches for deer with his rifle at the ready. He illuminates his journey from innocence to darkness while his photos and Frontline video of the conflicts bring us face to face with the horrors he has chosen to live among in order to ply his trade. Coming from a difficult childhood presided over by an alcoholic and often absent father, his predilection toward addiction and quest for recognition keep him in the very places most other humans try to escape.
Harrowing images of modern war and the chaos it looses are forever seared into our mind's eye: a wailing woman carrying the bottom half of a booted leg; a middle-aged man weeping as neighbors carry away his family's slaughtered corpses; an elderly man whose legs have been blown away, lying on a snowy street and reaching out for help; a dusty, disembodied head lying like refuse amid the rubble left by an explosion. None of it is for the faint of heart, but it may be the faint of heart who need to see it most.
This is the story of Robert King, who has finally found a measure of peace with his Russian wife and their young son, but who will never stop doing what he does. This is the story of a changing industry and world, where identity as a journalist no longer keeps you from being intentionally targeted, where the only possible place to chronicle the conflict is embedded in the relative safety of an armored Humvee with a contingent of troops. This is the story of Smith and Parry's fallen fellows.
This is the story of the faces we never see who step outside the mainstream to show us the madness on the front lines. They risk their lives and their humanity to make sure that we never lose ours.
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