A number of years ago I was doing a feature on Hank Vogt on my Scene & Heard segment on Global TV. If memory serves me right it was a down-home kind of story about a charming man who refurbished musical instruments. As we were about to leave Hank proudly said, “By the way, I’ve got a son who’s a cameraman in the news business. He travels all over the place covering wars. And he used to work at your TV station. His name is Doug.” Since I was doing a newspaper column at the time I thought it would be interesting to contact Doug to get his perspective on what it’s like to be a front-line photo-journalist in a conflict zone. He wrote back and gave a great insight into his recent assignment in Iraq working for ABC News. It wasn’t long after that when the news broke that ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff and his cameraman were severely injured in an attack in Iraq. That cameraman was Doug Vogt. Doug had been covering war zones since the mid-80s knowing that there was always danger. While he recovered, Doug decided it was time to put an end to the perilous side of his photo-journalism career and is now living with his family in Los Angeles finding stories where you don’t have to worry about an IED going off while you drive down a secluded roadway. (At least I hope not.) Again, I reached out to Doug to hear his story and he graciously answered these questions:
What are some of your favorite memories of growing up in Lethbridge?
Well I love the coulees, the lighting there, hiking them, the big blue skies and the clear winter stars. I love the Old Man River.
You worked at what is now Global TV. What did you do? Did it have an impact on your development as an internationally acclaimed photo journalist?
I started my first photojournalist work at CFAC, with three other photo newcomers. We shot and developed 35mm stills for cheap commercials, filmed news stories and local commercials. We used some of the first portable video cameras on the market. We also shot 16mm film.
We had a great photo chief, Wayne Dwornik. He ushered us into the technical and artistic demands of being a photographer and a photojournalist.
All budgets were small and the news stories local. But we tried to illustrate them as best we could and report with the confidence that we would report the facts properly. I think that working at local stations is very important. First it breaks one into the news media at a pace where technical mistakes can be made, often in the pursuit of learning the craft. And secondly in a small local market your colleagues are often just starting their careers and there is a great shared sense of adventure. The atmosphere is close and a rookie can easily talk to the veterans, pick their brain and get inspiration.
I now work at a major American Network and many of our newcomers have not worked in a local market but jumped straight into a major network from college. I think that they miss the teething problems of starting locally.
You’ve worked extensively in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia and Somalia. How did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?
As a child we never had the money to travel far, only family car holidays. Seeing the world attracted me so in 1983 I backpacked across Europe, Africa and Asia for one year. I had the travel bug mixed with a journalist’s sense of adventure. I moved to London England to freelance. I got lucky and a great journalist Raymond Saint Pierre from CBC French hired me. The international adventure began and so did the world travel. As I got more experienced and recognized I would be asked by the network anchors to work for them. This was a great honour but it often took me to dangerous war zones. I never loved covering wars. It’s too nerve wracking. But as a photojournalist I needed to tell the stories of the people who suffer when a country breaks out in conflict, and front line war coverage offered that. Teaming up with good journalists and producers who also feel this way produces stories full of impact. Stories that can change people’s attitudes.
Once you’ve decided, what determines what gets you the gig?
With the network assignments the request usually comes from the anchor’s team, sometimes from the correspondents or the producer. The anchors and top correspondents work closely with a small team and they know who are the good camera people, who are dependable, journalistic, creative and who are good team players. All of these elements are very important. Once they trust you, you become part of that small team. They are very loyal to keeping that team together and flying that team around the world to cover all big stories.
What are some of the absolute no-nos you have to learn when you’re in a dangerous area?
Know who you are working with. I made this mistake when the war in Sarajevo started in 1991. What ‘motivates’ some journalists in areas of danger may not be safe and if you don’t know your own team, well some options put forward to you can be lethal. These mistakes were made and a top producer on our team got killed by a sniper after only being in Sarajevo for half an hour. If you know the team well you wouldn’t agree with suggested dangerous suggestions. They won’t get suggested. No ‘on camera’ is worth getting hurt or killed for.
Describe what a typical day would be for you when covering a story in a war zone.
First have a strong coffee and find out what interests your team and, well what New York is interested in. Then prep your gear. Know your route and what is happening around the scene. Always follow up on the events, as they are happening, every hour. Talk to the locals who are working with you. They are often way more clued in than you. Have a very good driver and be prepared for the worst. Often the most dangerous stories are the ones that come up immediately and there is less time to prepare. Before Iraq in 2003 we always worked without bodyguards.
Talk to all of your team, especially the ones that travel outside the office or work space, the ones that ‘cross the wire’ so to speak. Talk to all the locals you hire. They will often give you the true feeling of the story that they may not express to the bureau chief. This is important, but must be taken with a grain of salt. Some local hires can be ‘yes men’, not wanting to sound negative to the bureau chief. But they often will not express their true feelings. A bureau chief has to be close to the local hire, so that they get a proper assessment of the local atmosphere.
What are your hotels or living conditions like?
War zone hotels or living conditions vary, but they are not five star. We’ve rented houses in Kabul and Baghdad and then stayed at five star hotels just beside the front lines in Angola. It could also be a fox hole with the US Marines. Don’t sleep too close to tanks…dangerous when they move!
What sort of things are you looking for when you’re out getting your shots for your story? Do you have certain things in mind or will situations just happen for you?
I often think like a still photographer, looking for one image that captures the feeling of a scene. But in addition, for television we need other important shots, establishing shots that bring the viewer to the scene. I also look into the faces of people, trying to capture their emotion.
What is it that motivated you to want to go back to some of the most volatile areas of the world?
Well, there is the stimulation of being front row and center at historic world events. Knowing that a strong, intent audience would think about our stories made it worthwhile. Also knowing that Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer or Ted Koppel asked for you makes you feel appreciated for your talent.
Anchors work with who they think is the best, and during those years of the 80’s-2000’s TV Network news had the budget and interest to bring in their best teams. Quality of work stood out and was recognized. It was part of the network brand.
You must have had talks with your wife and family about how your job would regularly put your life in jeopardy. (And I’m not talking Alex Trebek Jeopardy) What were those talks like?
Well before I got hurt in 2006 my three children were quite young, the oldest only being 13. I would tell them about where I was going, that we were there to help out the people who were suffering. I would not tell them about IED bombs, snipers or kidnapping. My wife was an international news producer so she knew what was at stake. We were always up front with each other.
(Doug & His Family)
Was the roadside bomb where you were severely injured in Iraq your most terrifying experience or were there others where you weren’t injured but there was concern for your life?
The bomb was I guess the incident that threatened me the most– brain surgery and the long recovery. But I knew I would be okay, without any long term effects. But there were other times in Sarajevo, for example when David Kaplan, our senior ABC Producer got killed while with us. That shook me to the bone with fear. Other moments like driving down Mount Igman with Serb AAA (Anti Aircraft Artillery) machine guns firing at our convoy made me think about my life. And on the streets of Mogadishu with US Marine Cobra helicopters unloading their machine guns into the heart of the city, trying to kill Somali warlord leader Aidid. Putting on your chemical suit while filming SCUDS from a Tel Aviv balcony in 1991 reminded you that this was a big war. This keeps your eyes open and your head down. Most days in post 2003 Iraq were days where your nerves were on the edge.
You’ve worked extensively with Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel. Can you give a word or two to describe them? And did you have a favorite?
A quick description would be impossible to describe my relations with these outstanding journalists. They are all strong but different. I would now call them old fashioned in style, in a flattering way. They believed that good journalists covered a story, and that the journalists were not the center of the story. They had a long experience of being based overseas, something that is quickly disappearing these days with network news.
Doug (right) With Peter Jennings (middle)
Did you being a Canadian have any influence on how you were treated?
No I don’t think it made a difference with the locals, it wasn’t any safer.
But I hope that as a Canadian I came to stories with a little less baggage on my shoulders. I also believe that listening to the CBC and other quality Canadian news media has a very positive effect.
Are you able to leave your personal political feelings behind when tracking down a story?
Yeah, I tried to keep my political feelings aside, but as a person you cannot help but know what is right and wrong. I’m not sure if that is a political feeling but it is a moral one.
You’ve won a number of awards including six Emmys. What do they mean to you?
I must admit they do mean a lot to me. They were for individual efforts, and judged by my peers.
The awards that I am most proud of are the ones that were awarded to me and not so much the team efforts. For example an Emmy Award for the coverage of the Oil Fires in Kuwait means more to me than a group award for the 2000 Millennium for example. Why? Because I filmed the entire video for the Oil Fires.
What do you remember about that horrible day when you and Bob Woodruff were hit with a roadside bomb sending you to intensive care?
Well, Bob and I were riding atop an Iraqi armored car, exposed through the hatch. An Iraqi soldier told us we should sit down as this part of the road was always dangerous. A good idea as all we were filming then were cover shots of the roadside as we rolled along. But then the bomb, IED went off. Bob fell down into the tank, and was helped by those inside. I however was knocked down and was lying exposed on the top of the tank. The attack was more than an IED, it was an assault with Insurgent attackers positioned beside us, shooting at anything they could see. I was only unconscious for about 10 seconds, I awoke, could see the blue sky and hear the gunfire, explosions and shouting….but I couldn’t move a muscle. I was trapped, exposed on the top of the tank while the attack continued. After about 5 minutes I managed to move my feet over the open hatch, where my ABC colleagues inside saw that I was still there. They pulled me in. The attack was put down by the Iraqi and US soldiers. Bob was still bleeding and screaming with pain. But there were US soldiers trying to take care of his wounds. I thought I was fine, a sore, bleeding head and a ringing in my ears. We got out of the tank and waited for the evacuation team to arrive, to take out Bob. A helicopter could not land as the landing zone was still ‘hot’ so we had to wait 10-15 minutes for a Bradley to take out Bob.
I collected my cameras, one that was attached to the outside of the tank. I got them all together. We bandaged my bleeding head, and I had a smoke. When the US evacuation team arrived they got Bob and then ordered me to be evacuated as well. I had no idea that my skull had been hit and that I had penetration into my brain. So off I was in a Blackhawk, injected with Morphine. The rest becomes blurry.
Did that put an end to any desire to go back to a similar situation or do you still get the itch?
I’ve been covering conflict zones since 1985, with CBC in Angola. But coming close to death in 2006 made me feel that it was time to close that chapter of the book. I always knew it was dangerous, very dangerous….but kept rolling the dice. It’s nice now not to have to think about the ‘worst case’ scenarios when starting a day. But I still get the travel itch.
Looking back at your career do you have any philosophical revelations you like to impart?
Well it sounds cliche but do what you love. Do your best, with every aspect of your craft. TV news is changing but always try to make your best effort to make every aspect of it good. Don’t take the easy or cheap way out. If you are working with a team, in dangerous places, choose your team well and don’t get pushed around by someone else’s decisions, everyone gets a say.
Talk about what your life is like now and the kind of headspace you’re in.
I stopped covering war zones after being injured in 2006. Then we moved to Los Angeles about 6 years ago. News coverage has changed over those 10 years but what hasn’t changed is the art of storytelling and journalistic excellence. I no longer work running around the four corners of the world but I do find it in my back yard, in my local Los Angeles stories. There are great stories everywhere, right under your feet. This is one thing we cannot forget. Every person or place has a story to tell and that’s what I love about being a photo-journalist.
Finally, who’s going to win the Stanley Cup?
Montreal of course! We need a Dynasty back!