Photographer of War: three perspectives, one DOK


DOK Leipzig 2019 just wrapped up and The Leipzig Glocal has been all over the festival grounds, exploring this year’s cornucopia of documentary and animation features and short films. One particular feature documentary happened to be attended by three of our contributors: Justina, Áine and Heiner all saw Photographer of War by Boris Benjamin Bertram.

The personal yet global account of renowned Danish war photographer Jan Grarup was playing in this year’s international competition programme. Within the narrative of the documentary, his family life comes into sharp focus, both for him and the audience. When his ex-wife and mother to his four children gets diagnosed with cancer, the journeyman is left to take a much more involved role in the upbringing of his offspring.

Photographer of War © DOK Leipzig 2019 / director Boris Benjamin Betram

Justina’s perspective

I am a photographer myself, so the title of the movie caught my eye and I was excited to see it. Being called Photographer of War, you could think that the movie would only be about war photography, but this was not the case. This brilliant documentary presented us with two realities: one being a photographer of war, risking life every second, seeing hundreds of dead or horribly injured bodies, and another – being a father, responsible for four children, living a normal day-to-day life in a safe corner of Europe.

LeipGlo contributors Aine and Heiner caputred by Justina Smile photography
LeipGlo contributors Áine and Heiner. Photo courtesy of Justina Smile photography

The photographer Jan worked in war journalism for many years, bringing back sensational photographs representing the harsh life of the war zone locals. However, it was clear that he had to rethink his career and family role when his ex-wife was diagnosed with cancer and later passed away. Jan seemed to struggle with the fact that from now on he should be fully responsible for his four children and there is no one else anymore to take care of them. That said, he was continuing his war journalism career, leaving his children alone back home from time to time.

Photographer of War' Jan Grarup looking the mirror
Photographer of War © DOK Leipzig 2019 / director Boris Benjamin Betram

His priorities were set a long time ago.

Apart from the family struggles and the dark reality of the war zone, this documentary also captured a few perfect moments, well-known among photographers. There was a scene where one photographer fell in an active war zone under fire, and the first thing he was worried about was his camera. A typical photographer, I thought, and then I laughed out loud in the theater as I could relate to this so well. Another moment like this occurred when Jan met another war journalist and started an exciting discussion about their new camera lenses; meanwhile bombs were falling all around them, but they just kept talking.

Photographer of War made me appreciate documentaries as an art form even more – all problems are much more real, and feel much more important when captured in this kind of immediacy.

Photographer of War © DOK Leipzig 2019 / director Boris Benjamin Betram

Heiner’s perspective

Jan Grarup is neither a hero nor villain in this close and personal portrayal. His work seems undoubtedly potent, important and perilous, leaving a bigger mark on this world than most of us ever could imagine. The horrors of war captured succinctly by a master of his craft is in and of itself an accomplishment and worthy of praise. But in correlation with his family life, the thrill-chasing Grarup reveals a more selfish side to his journeys to the front lines.

When his four children are left motherless in Denmark and he still returns to the most dangerous places in the world, I could not help but scratch my head and lose some of the reverence I had for his work coming into the film.

This is not a critique of the quality of the documentary, which manages to capture this inner struggle in him very well. In that regard, it works similarly to a lot of “driven-person” documentaries. We get the insight into how a person could achieve and maintain such a high level of professional accomplishment and drive but we also get the downside of this drive, the people that he inevitably drags into his pursuit.

Jan Grarup reviewing footage in a war zone
Photographer of War © DOK Leipzig 2019 / director Boris Benjamin Betram

With Photographer of War, these people are his own children, aged between infancy and adolescence.

This makes the choice of Jan Grarup to maintain his lifestyle all the more difficult to comprehend. While his work might rank among the most individually important ones at present, the baggage he carries with him leaves me puzzled about his priorities and interior processes. The film excels in that regard, by never sugarcoating this inner divide. In the end, Grarup himself does so, too, by earnestly giving access to these ambiguous crossroads in his life.

Photograhper of War Jan Grarup hugging his daughter
Photographer of War © DOK Leipzig 2019 / director Boris Benjamin Betram

Áine’s perspective

For me, Photographer of War stood out from the moment I lifted the DOK film guide. I was immediately excited to see how the documentary handled such sensitive content and to see if it stood up to my high expectations. And it definitely did.

Photographer of War was a compelling, bittersweet and human documentary which was superbly shot.

I was apprehensive going in. I knew that the documentary would be difficult to watch and a sadly realistic portrayal of how war tears people, families and countries apart. And it was. The film has a lot of scenes that are hard to watch. It doesn’t hide away from the destruction of war. The deaths, the running, the hiding, the mourning are all in clear view. To see how world-renowned photographer Jan Grarup works in the depths of this was compelling.

Brothers Quay DOK Leipzig Teaser playing in Cinestar
DOK Leipzig teaser by Brothers Quay, photo courtesy of Justina Smile photography

What I didn’t expect from Photographer of War was the mix of hard and soft moments, humour and family life which all take centre roles in this narrative.

I enjoyed seeing the reality of Jan Grarup’s life, from destroying his daughter’s favourite jacket in the wash to discussing camera techniques in the midst of a war-torn society. It was hard to reason with his actions at points, from napping as he waited for critical fighting to subside to getting on a plane and leaving his children to their own devices, especially after the death of their mother.

Photographer of War Jan Grarup packing his gear
Photographer of War © DOK Leipzig 2019 / director Boris Benjamin Betram

However, for me, this is what made the documentary all the more engaging. We don’t just watch from the sidelines as an unrealistic person does their hard-to-imagine work. We meet a man who isn’t perfect, who has family and daily struggles just like any of us. By the end of Photographer of War, I felt like I had met a man doing his best, to be a father, to follow his passion and leave an impact on the world.

Keep up with Leipzig Glocal’s rolling coverage of the 2019 DOK Leipzig Festival through our #DOKLeipzig tag, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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