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| Béla Szandelszky

Photographing History in the Making

Sándor Laczkó
February 22, 2012

Associated Press photographer Béla Szandelszky returned from revolt torn Egypt in early December, before that he spent ten days in Afghanistan, and before that he was in Libya close to a month – with a break of just one week each between these assignments.

He is considered an experienced war photographer as this was his fourth assignment in Afghanistan alone. This time, his goal was to cover the training of the Afghan national army that will be responsible for security in the country once American troops start their schedule pull-out in 2012. He was there with an American-Hungarian unit that takes part in the training process of soldiers who now make up a “quite unprepared and weak force” as Szandelszky has perceived. “It will be an interesting challenge for Afgans to protect their country without external help,” he remarks. His job was to make a video documentary since he also works for AP Television News (APTN) and by now, he says the amount of video material he prepares is about the same as that of photography. Libya and Egypt were photo jobs but, from Hungary, he already sends more video than photo material.

Mandatory training

He says he usually does not apply for these jobs, it is the AP editors who send him on assignments. The recent work in Afghanistan was his idea, though. The Associated Press, the world’s largest news agency, sends to war zones those who have experience in this field. Béla Szandelszky has been working as a war photo correspondent since the 1998 Kosovo conflict, having experience in the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Also, people to be sent by AP to cover military conflicts must go through proper training that prepares them for the risks and eventualities. This training must be attended every three years. It covers first aid, especially the treatment of bullet wounds, mine detection and cleaning, knowledge of different weapons and explosives, managing various situations like kidnapping or passing through checkpoints – a complex program.

Mutual assistance

As Szandelszky explains, “in the job of a war photographer, actual photography is of less weight than in other situations. First of all, you must get to the place, stay alive there and then, get home safely.” In Egypt, he did not have to fear for his life – the worst possibility was being beaten up by protesters or the police. However, in Libya, “there was an incredible amount of shooting,” he recalls. He estimates that photography makes up about 30% of his time and effort, the rest is the human factor and logistics, especially in areas where AP has no local people who could provide assistance. “If you go to places where there is an AP bureau, locals await you and provide you all the support you need. I would do the same for an AP colleague who comes to work in Budapest. However, there are places where you are alone. For instance, in Sirte, Libya (the town of Gaddafi’s birth), I was the only AP person, so I had to improvise a lot. The closest our journalists were was in the capital, Tripoli, 370 kms away.”

Dangerous Lybia

Béla Szandelszky says he has been in many dangerous places but “the war in Libya surpassed all of them in risks. For those of us who got used to the fighting in Kosovo, Palestine and Lebanon, the amount of shooting experienced Libya was staggering. In Sirte, the rebels were attacking from two sides and our biggest problem to resolve was not to be caught in crossfire. The rebels we were advancing with were actually shooting at us. However, the positive thing I found in Libya was that basically, I could do whatever I wanted. We went everywhere with the pickup trucks of the rebels, we were showed everything, we were taken everywhere. It was amazing and strange that in a conflict situation, we didn’t need to beg for permission from anyone but we were allowed everywhere – with all the risks involved as these people drove to different places not knowing what would happen in the next minute.”

Witnessing history

What led Béla Szandelszky to be a war correspondent? “I have always been interested in politics and history. When history changes course, it is usually related to wars or conflicts. It is a good feeling for me to be where history is written. It is not really the war that interests me but the conflicts between people and these cornerstones of history. For a photographer, witnessing such important events is a great pride and a good feeling,” he explains.

As regards his plans, he says he just waits to see what happens in the world. “It is hard to plan ahead in this profession. The area I’m interested in the most is the Middle East. Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan,” Béla Szandelszky concludes.

Sándor Laczkó

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