War photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly: The ethics of covering conflict

By FXB Research Associate Carrie Bronsther

In December, war photographer and journalist Finbarr O’Reilly delivered a talk at the FXB Center on the “Ethics of Covering Conflict.” O’Reilly, currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, discussed his personal experiences in Africa and the Middle East and how these experiences have shaped his approach to photojournalism.

In 1994, O’Reilly travelled to Africa, where he witnessed the genocide unfolding in Rwanda and post-apartheid democratic elections being held in South Africa. These experiences motivated him to become a journalist and “experience history as it unfolded.”

O’Reilly strives to take pictures that challenge preconceived notions of Africa, focusing on the strength, resiliency, and dignity of his subjects. He won the World Press Photo of the Year in 2005 for a picture he took at an emergency feeding clinic in Niger of a child’s small hand pressed against the lips of his mother.

O’Reilly explained that he looks to explore untold narratives. For example, he shared a series on children with polio flourishing in Rwanda and another on Afrikaners in South Africa living in poverty.

Throughout his descriptions of his pictures, O’Reilly emphasizes his desire to identify people as individuals with dignity, and not solely as victims. During Charles Taylor’s trial in Liberia, for instance, many photojournalists photographed war amputees and the courthouse. O’Reilly photographed individuals and communities looking to move past the conflict. He also took photos of current issues in Liberia, such as deforestation, poor housing, and diamond mines. In another example, his photos from South Africa focus on the resiliency of a grandmother who has cared for her grandchildren since her daughter died from AIDS.

In addition to sub-Saharan Africa, O’Reilly has worked in Libya and Afghanistan. He shared a short clip taken during his recent trip to Libya, which highlighted the dangerous nature and complex ethical environment of his work. He has photographed many conflict zones, including Congo and Sudan (Darfur), and recognizes the serious psychological effects of war. As a result of his experiences as a journalist and the death of two close journalist friends in Libya, O’Reilly is now formally studying the psychological effects of war as a Nieman Fellow.

His approach to photography is guided by demonstrating dignity and challenging preconceived notions of conflict zones. Through his photographs, O’Reilly tells “stories without stereotypes” and illustrates the strength and resiliency of character, providing a nuanced understanding of conflict and life in Africa.

O’Reilly’s photographs:

Boston.com: Portraits from the Congo
New York TImes: Sierra Leone, Ten Years Later