Shooting Life

Shooting life

Jan-Louis Nagel

It was dark. The dense, compact darkness made me wonder if I was awake at all. And it was damp and hot. My shirt was wet and sticky as I ran my hand over my chest. It could be sweat or blood, I don't know. It was hard to breathe, the air was stuffy and my lungs hurt as I inhaled this almost palpable darkness. My tongue felt like paper I was so thirsty. I had no idea where I was, but I was pretty sure I was alive. That's what mattered. My camera was gone, no surprise. They probably would have smashed it or at least taken the memory card.

I heard faint voices somewhere, somebody was shouting in the distance. I held my breath trying to make out what was going on and where it came from. Suddenly there was another sound – much closer, and I realised that I was not alone. Someone else was there in the blackness, disturbingly close. I wanted to pull my legs up, trying to make myself smaller. I was certain there was another person, or maybe more, right next to me. A flaming pain stung through my left knee as I tried to pull up against the wall. There was a groan coming out of the darkness in front of me.

Then there was silence. The other person must have figured out the same as I – and was probably also staring anxiously into the thick darkness with the same anxious apprehension. Or maybe not, - I couldn't say. With my back to the wall I tried to make some sense of the situation.

My mission had been the usual. I had been there before – and was fully aware of the danger, of course. But I never saw myself as a war correspondent as such. That stuff was different, though you might say shooting the situations also was some kind of reporting. But to me it was more than bringing tidings from a conflict. A good shot could say more than a thousand articles. I remember I used to think of it as a more artful craftsmanship than just putting words together. And I still do. I had been all over capturing incidents and human faces. Some of my photographs had even been awarded at home. The camera was my eye. I must have filled up quite some gigas of impressions from nearly every corner of the world. And I always worked alone. Just me and my Nikon, and a laptop at the hotel.

As far as I remember, it was sometime in the afternoon, because the shadows were getting longer and the light softer. The card was nearly full, and for some reason I hadn't brought a spare one, so I must have been on my way back to the hotel when suddenly they were there. Three or four guys, masked and armed, grabbed me from behind, pulled a bag over my head and pushed me brutally into a smelly car. I held on to my camera, trying desperately to get the card out, but they snatched it out of my hands like nothing.

I'm not sure, but this must have been some days ago. Days or nights, there was no difference. In total darkness time seems to fade away, dissolving itself into the murky, suffocating confinement that surrounded me. I must have passed out, or perhaps given some sedative, I don't know, because I remembered nothing after the car. My head was aching and I had this nausea making me want to vomit, but I had nothing to throw up. I probably had not eaten anything for days. There was a throbbing pain in my left knee – and I felt I would probably die of thirst if I didn't get some water soon.

The other person in the room made another groan, and I was almost certain that he must be aware of me. I tried to say something, but no sound came out, my throat was so dry. For all I knew, he might have been worse off than me, from the moaning sounds he made I assumed that he probably wouldn't be interested in making conversation with me anyway.

Then something happened. There was a slamming noise somewhere and the shouting became louder. It was impossible to make out what they were on about in their local language, but by the sound of it they were arguing about something. Then somebody was at the door. I heard clanking of keys and suddenly the door was flung open. I closed my eyes instinctively because of the sharp and painful light suddenly cutting into the darkness. Then a bag was pulled over my head again and somebody grabbed me by the neck and pushed me towards the door. The pain in my knee was intense, I could hardly walk – and I fell over after a few steps. They pulled me mercilessly up off the floor and I was half dragged down a hallway and into another room where I was shoved down on a chair of some sort.

I felt something hard poking at my head, definitely a gun, and I thought, this is it. They are going to shoot me here and now. I held my breath trying to prepare myself for what was to come. But suddenly the bag was removed and through my half-open eyes I gradually could make out the blurred outline of masked men, all of them pointing half automatic rifles at me. Then I had another thought, there would be no point in killing me just like that, a dead photographer would be worth nothing. However, a live one might. I was their hostage.

I immediately tried to calculate what my odds were. Half-dead of thirst and in the company of desperate men pointing guns at my head I was amazingly rational. The thoughts ran automatically: How much ransom they would put on my head, and who, if anyone, would pay up. I then tried to figure out the procedure. They would of course have to prove that I was alive, and they would have to communicate their demands via some channel. I knew this from similar situations I had heard about, and I remembered at least one case where a hostage had been killed. These wild thoughts tumbled through my head in random order completely on their own accord.

Then one of the men produced a piece of cardboard with some unintelligible signs or letters and made me hold it up in front of my chest. Two of the masked men took position on either side of me with their guns pointing at my head. And suddenly I found myself staring into my own camera. No doubt, I was looking into the lens of my own Nikon F.

The irony of it could have made me smile, but my only thought was that the image going through the lens in front of me could be the most important photo it had ever shot. My precious Nikon was going to tell its story again, only this time the story was different.

The guy with my Nikon shot a couple of series from different angles, and that was it. Then he put the camera down and said something to his mates, and the bag was over my head again. I was desperate from thirst, and tried to make some gestures and sounds to draw their attention, seemingly without any success. But after I had been dragged back to the cell one of them gave me a half-full bottle of what looked like water. Then they slammed the door – and I was back in the darkness again. I emptied the bottle in one gulp. It tasted awful and was probably contaminated, but I couldn't afford to take that kind of luxurious precautions. My cell-mate was silent. Perhaps he wasn't even there, I don't know. My mind, still surprisingly rational, went on calculating my odds. I tried to follow, but soon I went into some half-sleep mode and my mind wandered off on its own; dream-like images kept flickering through my slowly dying brain.

I don't know how long I was confined in this damp and dark hole. I could not keep track of time. They came around with water and some smelly scouse that probably was their idea of food. Sick and sleepless I felt like I gradually was losing my mind. Why don't they just finish it? No one is going to pay you any ransom money. I'm not that important. Come on and get it over with. You may shoot me or string me up in my camera cord. That would be something. I was speaking into the dark nothingness that surrounded me, and I had this freaky feeling of seeing my maddening self from the outside. It was like I had a separate existence that still was sane and calculating, urging me to hold on, while my real self was slowly falling apart, preparing for some sticky end. My cell mate had been silent for a long time, possibly dead. I didn't care. I would probably join him shortly.

Later I learned that my photo had been on the front pages all over. When I saw the picture it was like it was somebody else. The person looked like me, all right, but to me it was too unreal to be true. Knowing that the photograph had been taken with my own camera gave me all sorts of weird thoughts. Somebody had raised the ransom, I never found out who. As a free-lancer I didn't have any specific employer who could be behind the payoff. But I didn't really care; somebody was willing to cover a free press, which was good enough for me. My life had been on the line out there, I know that. And of course I was thankful to whoever bailed me out, but I felt somehow there was more to it than that.

I never retrieved my camera, and I never returned. I've got a new Nikon, a sophisticated little gadget, and I still go hunting. But somehow, shooting life will never be the same. Not for real, I mean.