Living on the edge of the news

Abbie VanSickle

It’s been one month since his arrival in Pakistan and Vincent Laforet said his life has changed forever. He’s been assaulted by Pakistan police officers, showered with tear gas and forced to break into a morgue to expose a cover-up by Pakistan’s government. The 26-year-old Northwestern alumnus said he’s got it all on camera. But despite his glamorous adventures, Laforet said living the life of a war photojournalist is an exhausting job, a continuous test of body and patience – the kind of life he never thought he’d lead.

“I never had any intention of being a war photographer,” Laforet said, his voice crackling over a satellite phone. “Putting your life on the line every day … I’d rather be with friends and family. But who knows what’s going to happen next. So far it’s been a wonderful ride. The history books are being written right here, right now.”

This chapter began the morning of Sept. 11, when Laforet was visiting his father in France. Walking along a street in Paris, his cell phone rang. It was one of his colleagues at The New York Times, calling with news that one of the towers of the World Trade Center had been attacked.

Laforet promptly hung up the phone, laughing at what he thought was a dumb prank.

Minutes later, he got another call. It was the same friend, imploring him to find the nearest television and turn on the news.

Laforet sprinted to a sidewalk cafe and begged the man behind the counter to switch the station from a cycling race to CNN. The man turned the station as the image of a jet plowing into the second tower of the World Trade Center flashed onto the screen. The people in the cafe sat silently staring at the surreal sight. Laforet quickly realized the event would change thousands of lives forever, including his own.

He said he wanted to fly back to New York to be with friends and family, capturing the development of events in the city he calls home.

But The New York Times had something else in mind. The second-year staff photographer was immediately sent to Pakistan to document Afghan refugees, the Pakistani people, members of the Taliban regime and the United States’ military response to the terrorist attacks.

Each day he spends in Pakistan brings new challenges and situations, he said. Waking early each morning in the Western-style hotel that serves as a temporary home for American journalists near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Laforet watches the latest headlines on CNN. Then he grabs his camera equipment and heads out into the countryside, searching for the image that will give his readers a sense of the land and its people.

But capturing that image is not always easy, Laforet said. Journalists working in Pakistan must constantly battle with the government of a nation where freedom is scarce and bureaucratic red tape everywhere.

“It’s just incredibly frustrating to try and be a journalist here,” he said. “We get strange stares. We’re in a border town of Afghanistan. It’s a dangerous area where people whisper ‘Die American, die,’ to us and use their hands to make signs like they’re going to cut our throats.”

Laforet said this hatred of the United States is making life increasingly difficult for himself and his colleagues.

“It’s been a bad week,” he said. “Monday, our hotel was attacked by an angry mob. Today, a mob of 500 angry Taliban members attacked our convoy.”

He cringed at the mention of an article in Wednesday’s New York Times documenting his confrontation with Pakistan police officers, an encounter that nearly cost his life.

Tuesday, he and another photojournalist were accosted by authorities as they tried to photograph the body of a young boy executed by police, he said.

“An officer slapped me in the face and another tried to strangle me from behind, hitting me with a Kalashnikov,” he said. “Then they tried to attack the other photographer, and I jumped on the officer. It was two of us and nine or ten police officers.

“So I ran. I ran faster than Michael Johnson at that point.”

The two photographers escaped with only minor injuries and some broken equipment, but Laforet said the attacks signal the increasing tension in the area following Sunday’s air raids.

Despite the growing violence, Laforet said he feels surprisingly far from the war zone.

“I’m around 200 kilometers from the border,” he said. “It’s not like being in a war. The only time I’ve felt I was in a war was when the hotel was hit with tear gas, and we were gasping for breath. But it’s not really palpable. It’s just happening.”

The world around him may be spinning out of control, but Laforet said he stays focused by thinking of his readers. He said the feedback he gets from people around the world drives him to find images to educate others about Pakistan.

“I think about whether the work I do is going to have an effect on people,” he said. “It’s been an incredible experience. I get two to three

e-mails a day from readers thanking me for helping to put a face to the people here. They’re not terrorists,” he said.

Laforet said he feels honored to have the opportunity to capture the lives of Pakistanis on film as events unfold. As one of the youngest photographers on staff, he said he’s had to rely on the reporting skills and ethics he learned while attending NU’s Medill School of Journalism, a foundation he says has served him well.

“The reporting skills I learned at Northwestern are invaluable,” said the 1997 NU graduate and former Daily Northwestern photographer. “One of the reasons I was hired by The New York Times is because I think like a reporter. I’ve learned to think on my feet like a reporter, something I think most photographers don’t know how to do.

“I remember thinking my sophomore year in college what a kick in the head it would be to be a New York Times photographer.”

Medill Assistant Dean Roger Boye said Laforet’s success doesn’t come as a surprise.

“As a college student he was competing with the very best news photographers in the country and (a photo he shot) ended up on the front page of The New York Times,” Boye said. “He was a very focused, driven news photographer.”

But Boye, who keeps in contact with Laforet, expressed concern for the photographer’s safety in such an unstable area.

“I’m sure he’ll do a great job over there,” he said. “I just hope he stays safe. He’s in a difficult place.”

Despite all his current hardships, Laforet fears his return to New York will be his most difficult journey.

“On television the attacks looked like a bad Hollywood movie,” he said. “I love New York, and every time I drive into the city, even after living there for 26 years, I still get goosebumps at my first glimpse of the skyline,” he said, his voice trailing off.

His thoughts quickly returned to his job and the perils of traveling across the nearby border. “No one wants to go into Afghanistan,” he said. “If you get caught, you get killed. But it’s part of the job. You have a responsibility to tell the story.” nyou