‘It’s a drug. Nothing but a drug, and you have your overdose’

Patrick Baz is searching for somewhere to sit. Not too close to the speakers, not too close to large groups of people. Somewhere where it’s easiest to listen. “My hearing’s not what it was,” he says. A rubber coated bullet to his left ear and a grenade to his right have seen to that.

Baz is a child of war. He grew up on Beirut’s demarcation line during the Lebanese Civil War and spent the next 30 years covering the region’s conflicts. From Palestine to Iraq, from Lebanon to Afghanistan, he has photographed the worst (and sometimes best) of humanity, working first as a freelancer and then for Agence France Presse (AFP).

Now he is 56, although he doesn’t look a day over 45. In conversation he is honest, open, softly spoken. Yet just a few years ago he would have been unable to talk to me.

“I was chasing war,” says Baz, a former Pictures of the Year International winner. “Later I realised it was a drug. At the beginning for me it was like a playground. This is where I want to be, this is what I want to shoot, these are the photographs I want to take. And then you realise it’s a drug. Nothing else but a drug, and you have your overdose.”

That overdose was Syria. It was the first war he covered remotely, helping to build a network of Syrian photographers from his base in Cyprus. He would train them, liaise with them, verify their images, provide counsel. Then they started vanishing. One was killed, another was kidnapped, others simply disappeared.

“One day I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “I felt like my feet were stuck in concrete. I couldn’t pack my suitcase, couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t wake up in the morning. I was sitting on my couch for hours. Nothing. I remember I was on holiday with my wife in Slovenia and the moment I entered the hotel room I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. Even when I was swimming I had panic attacks in the pool. In the middle of the night I had my worst nightmare. I felt the knife on my throat, I jumped from bed, and I almost threw myself from the window.”

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Baz underwent eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy, replacing traumatic images with positive ones. His positive image was, bizarrely, Heidi, the fictional children’s character created by Johanna Spyri. “You would think it would be my wife, would be my daughter, but it was this little girl in the mountains,” he says with a laugh. “The amazing thing about this therapy is that I ended up dancing with skeletons and dead bodies and they were running away.”

Memories remain, of course. He remembers rescuing a man from the rubble of a telecommunications office in Iraq, despite the assertion that journalists should be witnesses to events, not active participants. He recalls selling his first photographs – of the 1982 car bomb attack on Rue Marbeuf in Paris – when he was still just a teenager, and the tough images he filed from Libya. Then there’s his time spent with US forces in Iraq.

“We were embedded with the marines in the Anbar province, near Ramadi,” he remembers. “It was at the very beginning of the insurgency and the Americans were not prepared. Their vehicles were not armoured and the officer didn’t want us, and when an officer doesn’t want you he treats you like crap. I was with another colleague and we ended up in the last vehicle of the convoy. And the last vehicle of the convoy was a skeleton of a Humvee.

“The driver looked at my colleague and said ‘do you know how to use the radio?’ He said ‘no’. ‘Just plug it on your helmet and you push the button here and repeat everything I tell you’. Then he looks at me and said ‘do you know how to use a gun?’ I said ‘yes’. He said ‘the gun is next to you’. I said, ‘look, leave it there, I’m not going to touch it, but I can assure you of one thing. If we are ambushed, I’m not going to show them my press card’.”

We both laugh, but in theory no journalist should ever pick up a gun. Such action not only jeopardises their status as a civilian observer, but removes neutrality.

“There are many things that you shouldn’t do in theory,” says Baz. “But when you’re confronted with situations like that and your life is in danger, you think twice. What, you would have preferred to see me killed because theory says I should not pick up a gun? No. My fear was to have a video of me taken with my head being chopped off live on TV. There was no way that I could accept that my parents, or my daughter, would watch that.”

A Libyan woman gestures inside her destroyed appartment, following heavy flighting in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighborhood, on August 28, 2011. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ

He recalls another incident, also near Ramadi, where the unit of marines he was embedded with was ambushed.

“I couldn’t get out of the Humvee. It was hell. Then they saw a cameraman with the insurgents and the gunner said, ‘I won’t be on Al Jazeera today, I’m sorry’, and he killed the cameraman. It happened that the cameraman was Iraqi, from Ramadi, and working for Reuters. When I got back to the camp the Reuters photo chief calls me to try to understand what happened. He knew I was there but he didn’t know that I was embedded with the unit that was ambushed. I said ‘look, it could have been me and AFP would have called your cameraman to try to understand what happened’. I said ‘unfortunately I was stuck in the Humvee, couldn’t take a single image’. It was raining hell, RPGs were flying.

“It’s like in the movies, man. You sit there, you have windows to look out, and you see the rockets passing in front of you. And all you have to do – and this is something where you have no choice – is hand the bullet belts to the gunner, because you’re the only one in the vehicle behind him. When they say ‘hand me the bullet belt’, what do you do? Say ‘no, no, I’m a journalist?’ And that’s very confusing. People will talk about the profession at conferences and start throwing theories about what we should do, but then there’s the reality of the field.”

US Marines with 1/3 Charlie Company treat Lance Corporal Kris Mottley from Pensylvania as they wait for a MEDEVAC helicopter, after their MRAP vehicle was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Trikh Nawar on the north-eastern outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan, late February 23, 2010. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ

Now Baz has a new life. He has, he says, turned his lens towards happier things. As regional manager of AFP-Services, that has meant bringing his news agency experience to the world of corporate video and brand storytelling. He has, in short, exorcised his ghosts.

“When you come back from a war zone and you have a family or friends, what are you going to tell them? That you walked over dead bodies, or you almost got killed, or someone was killed next to you? You keep it for yourself. And you’re incapable, for example, of going to the post office to collect anything. You’re incapable of going to the bank. Why? Because you can’t be confronted with normal life. And the first thing you want to do is go back to chaos. That’s where you feel good. No rules, nothing. And that’s probably why I enjoy living in Lebanon, because it’s not a cultural shock. You still have this chaos, you still have no rules. You can do whatever you want. There’s still this sense of freedom. And this chaotic life keeps you connected to your previous life.”

In many ways it’s an unusual place for a war photographer to be. He has, after all, crossed a red line into the corporate world, opening himself up to criticism from former colleagues. Something he readily admits. 

“I used to make fun of people who do what I do now,” he says with a smile. “I keep saying to people that I used to fly in a combat helicopter, would be dropped in the mud, be picked up by an armoured vehicle, and end up sleeping in a tent. Now they fly me business class, I end up in four or five star hotels, a limousine picks me up from the airport, and I realise that there’s something else in life.

“Before I was on a different planet. I do not regret what I did at all, it’s a choice. But I’m glad that I found something else. I think life is too short for me to stick to death and blood and destruction. I photographed death for decades. Now I’m photographing life.”

* First published in GQ Middle East, July 2019. All photographs courtesy of Patrick Baz

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