Two award-winning Iraq War correspondents come from York County
Philadelphia Inquirer photographer and embedded war correspondent David Swanson, a former York countian, won an award in the 2005 World Press Photo contest for this picture of a young fighting man trying to start a Humvee after an ambush in Iraq. Also of interest: Photographer Craig Walker, Pulitzer Prize winner and former York countian: ‘I always had a camera’
York countians have played well, very well, on the national stage for the past 250 years.
So it always comes as welcome news when we learn of new achievers or new work from longtime players.
Just this week, I was reminded about the musical contributions of trumpeter Don Jacoby. I’ve heard of Jake but never thought much about his stature and influence as a trumpet instructor at North Texas State University, among many other honors.
Then late last week, a reader reminded us about a fourth Rhodes Scholar from York County – Bruce McClellan.
I’ve been itching to tell Yorktownsquare.com readers to the journalistic contributions of Philadelphia Inquirer photographer David Swanson. I met the former York countian at an awards ceremony in the spring, after admiring his work for years. David served as a York Daily Record photographer in the 1980s.
I’ve often thought about the significance of York County producing at least two world-class photographers – Swanson and Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Craig Walker of the Denver Post.
A lot of talent there.
And there may be more than I’m missing.
As for David Swanson, I’ll let this edited May 29, 2005, York Daily Record story tell about his achievements. …
David Swanson was embedded with the Marines of Echo Company. Swanson joined the the unit, based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., in Iraq in 2004.
As a kid, David Swanson pored over Life magazines, newspapers and other periodicals stashed around his York Township home.
Pictures from Kennedy’s assassination.
Photos of Nixon resigning as president.
The important moments of history — frozen on film, captured for all eternity, distributed for anyone to see.
He wasn’t much interested in reading the stories that ran alongside the snapshots. The pictures were what captivated him.
That’s what he wanted to do, he decided — learn how to take pictures like that. Be a part of the action. Record those historic moments.
Now, decades later, Swanson’s pictures are the ones splashed all over the newspapers and magazines. He’s the photographer dodging bullets and trekking all over the world to get the shots that transport people to the center of the action.
He’s living his dream — a dream that began in York and has taken him around the globe.
World Press Photo — which runs the world’s largest and most prestigious annual press photography contest — welcomed Swanson to Amsterdam at the end of April and gave him a second-place award for a general news photo he snapped while embedded with Marines in Iraq last spring.
Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be an engineer.
“My dad and grandfathers were engineers, so my path was pretty much set,” said Swanson, who has worked as a full-time photojournalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1997.
One summer, while still in high school, he snapped pictures of a fire on Mount Rose Avenue and took them to the York Dispatch. They asked where to send the check and Swanson realized, for the first time, that he could make a living taking pictures.
Still, when he graduated from York Country Day School in 1983, Swanson enrolled at Grove City College to study engineering.
Instead of cracking open his engineering books, he’d slip over to the library or bookstore and flip through books of photographs, memorizing the images and the names of the photographers who shot them.
He made friends with the college yearbook staff and convinced them to let him print negatives in their darkroom.
“I was a frustrated painter — I understood what I wanted to do but couldn’t translate it,” he said. “When I discovered a camera and realized I’d get exactly what I’d see, I knew I found my medium. It was the perfect blend of science and art.”
Over the winter break, Swanson made friends with some photographers at the York Daily Record, and one drove him to Ohio University — her alma mater — and suggested he apply to the photojournalism program there. He was accepted and transferred.
“My father thought I could keep photography as a hobby,” he recalled. “But it’s more of a lifestyle than a job.”
It wasn’t Swanson’s first trip into a war zone when he headed to Baghdad in March 2004.
He had covered conflicts in Eastern Europe as a freelancer for the Inquirer in the early 1990s and spent a week at New York City’s ground zero in September 2001, documenting the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
In 2003, he was embedded with Army troops for four months as they waged the mountain war in Afghanistan.
But his two months in Iraq were different. This was an urban war where street fighters could sneak up on you without warning and the flat terrain left few places to hide.
So there he was, in a hotel in Baghdad, trying to find a company that would let him embed with them.
Fallujah was where he really wanted to be. Four American contractors had just been killed there, so he figured that’s where things would heat up next.
Finally, he connected with the Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Ar Ramadi. He figured he’d only spend a few days with them. After all, he said, there are only so many shots you can take of Marines walking through the streets with their guns. He wanted to be where the action was.
“David is a very good photographer when it comes to spot news,” said Clem Murray, senior photographer and former director of photography at the Inquirer. “He seems to get to places other photographers can’t, and his photos are very telling and dramatic. . . . He has always had a knack for being able to shoot pictures in hot spots.”
Swanson said someone once described war as a crucible of emotions.
And for a photographer, raw emotion is like gold.
“When you think of the greatest photographs, it’s generally conflict or war,” Swanson said. “I’d rather something happen in front of me than create it. . . . To be at the right spot and anticipate . . . there’s a certain romance to it.”
On his fourth day with Echo Company, Swanson found himself photographing a firefight that began when insurgents ambushed Marines walking along their daily supply route. Ten of the Marines from Echo Company were killed in the ambush, including one Swanson had walked that same route with the day before, chatting about home and fishing.
Four days later, at 6 in the morning, fire erupted once again and Swanson felt a tug on his arm. A bullet had grazed him. He thought about his daughter not having a dance partner at her wedding. He thought about the smell of the clover in the grass. He thought to keep taking pictures so his wife could see where he died.
As scared as he was, and as sure as he was that he would die, he somehow stayed calm.
“I honestly thought, ‘If I don’t freak out, I’ll get out of this. It’s not going to last forever,’” he said. “In a strange way, it was exhilarating.”
He and the Marines threw themselves face-down in a drainage ditch and slithered through it for a good 20 minutes while the firefight exploded around them.
Finally, air support arrived and the firefight ended as quickly as it had begun.
Swanson called his wife, Laila, later that day to tell her about the injury.
Laila said because they kept in touch with daily phone calls during his absence, she didn’t worry much — until that phone call.
“Friends and family were constantly reminding me that I should be a little bit upset, but I was surprised at how I was able to deal with (David working in a war zone),” she said. “On a day-to-day basis I was very calm about it . . . but I never thought it would go that far.”
Once she heard he had been grazed by the bullet, she wanted him to come home immediately. But Swanson was ready to leave anyway after 14 days embedded with Echo Company.
The next day — Easter Sunday — they held a memorial service for the fallen.
“The story was done, as far as I could tell,” he said. “I was exhausted — mentally and physically — and I didn’t want to push my luck too far.”
Since returning to Pennsylvania, Swanson has covered Smarty Jones’ race for the Triple Crown and the hurricanes in Florida.
Exciting stuff, but still, it can’t compare to being in the middle of a war.
“It’s fun to do the bigger assignments,” he said. “That’s what gets the adrenaline going.”
Some of the Echo Company Marines he spent time with — and their friends and family members — contacted him by phone and e-mail to thank him for his photos and the video he made from them, and to ask what he remembers of his time embedded in Iraq.
In many cases, Swanson captured the last images of some Marines before they were killed — photographs of immeasurable value to the surviving family members.
“I’ve given them all the photos they wanted,” he said — even ones that never appeared in print. “I can’t deny a widow photographs of her husband’s last days.”
Swanson said when he was in Iraq, the camera sometimes served as a mask. Somehow, the lens separated him from the horrors he witnessed. It wasn’t until afterward — when he was safely back home — that some of what he photographed started to get to him, especially in the moments before sleeping at night.
Last month, on the anniversaries of the firefights, he took a few minutes to remember where he was a year ago, what he was doing.
If you had asked him six months ago whether he wanted to return to a combat zone, he might have said no.
But now, he’s itching to travel again. Antsy to get in the middle of something else big.
“You get used to living in a hazardous place and you come back to America and you get off the plane and you see Starbucks and Krispy Kreme doughnuts and you’re feeling very exhilarated — like you can conquer the world,” he said. “Then you get bored again.”
Swanson knows war is dangerous. He knows he has a wife and young daughter at home waiting for him, praying for his safe return each time he’s gone.
But he puts it like this: “I’m here on I-95 with 14 semi trucks all around me and I’m talking on my cell phone. It could happen here.”
And as the son of parents who both served in the Navy in World War II, he feels like it’s something he has to do.
“The Marines’ answer is, ‘If not me, who else?’” he said. “A small part of me feels this is my patriotic duty.”
David Swanson, right, takes a break with a fellow war correspondent in Iraq on April 7, 2004. The two had just finished sending their images from a firefight in Ar Ramadi that left 10 Marines dead.
Also of interest:
This layout in the York Daily Record/Sunday News in 2005 profiles David Swanson’s work. To see more of the award-winning photographer’s overseas work, visit: Haiti.
*All photos courtesy of David Swanson, Philadelphia Inquirer.