Documenting War Series Brings Pulitzer-Winning Photographer to UCI

By Ashley Duong

Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer Luis Sinco spoke last Thursday at UCI as part of the School of Humanities’ Documenting War series. More than 70 students and faculty members gathered for the panel, called Photographing War, at Humanities Gateway 1030.

Sinco, a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times since 1997, is best known for his 2004 photograph of U.S. Marine James Blake Miller (titled “Marlboro Marine”) that he took while embedded with troops in Fallujah, Iraq.

“I am not strictly a combat photographer. I never had any type of training,” said Sinco as he began his panel.

“I was not looking for conflict, I just wanted to be part of a big story,” he continued, explaining his extensive repertoire in war photography. In addition to Iraq, Sinco also photographed the early days of the Arab Spring in Libya.

Following his introduction, he played a video made by MediaStorm in 2007 of pictures he took of Miller for a follow-up story, documenting Miller’s life for two years upon his return from Iraq in his hometown in Kentucky.

Sinco further chronicled Miller’s fight against PTSD in a two-piece article that  accompanied the photographs.

With the conclusion of the video, Sinco touched on the ethics of photojournalism and revealed that his editors were extremely upset with him for interfering in Miller’s life by driving Miller to a PTSD center in Connecticut when he realized Miller was suicidal.

“I know some photographers that would have not stepped in,” said Sinco. “[They might have] taken that picture of him putting a gun to his head and shooting himself. I just couldn’t do it.”

Sinco then opened the panel up to audience questions, where he touched on the surprising popularity of “Marlboro Marine” as well as the consequences of that popularity.

“I thought they just wanted shots of action, like the [photo] where I’m across the streets from the Marines … but there was something … aesthetically right about the photo, so I sent it,” said Sinco of his decision to send the photo of Miller to his editors.

Sinco had no idea the attention “Marlboro Marine” garnered until he received a call from his then-wife about the photo being on the news with Dan Weathers. The photo would late become the face of the Iraq War.

“There were TV trucks parked outside of [Miller’s] house, trying to get an interview with him,” said Sinco as he spoke on the effects of his photography on Miller’s life.

When asked about the boundaries he set as he documented Miller’s life, Sinco advised that knowing when to pull back and not intrude on deeply personal moments was important in building trust.

“I had to make a decision and I knew it was a long-term project and needed to keep it going, so I decided in that moment not to pull out my camera.”

Sinco also touched on how others construe his photography, saying, “It’s really up to your interpretation … I can’t control how other people interpret the photograph. You never know what they’ll get from it.”

The panel concluded with Sinco answering a question about advice he would give to aspiring photojournalists.

“It’s a difficult business to get into now,” he said. “A lot of daily newspapers don’t exist anymore … I don’t know how you guys are supposed to get the experience, but my advice is to somehow get it through working at a daily newspaper.”