Ryan Jacobs returned from Libya when he was 25 years old. He returned from his first war as a conflict photographer. Ryan was the youngest photographer there, and, to his knowledge, the only  South African at the time.

After dropping out from UCT to study photography at City Varsity, Ryan spent the last few years backpacking everywhere from Mongolia to the Caribbean. In between, he’s a barman at The Assembly in Cape Town.

This year, Ryan decided to try his hand as a war photographer in Libya. Here, he says, everything for him took just 125th of a second to change. The photographs you see here are what Ryan has left to show for his experience. We also asked him to tell us a bit about it, so here you have it, in his own words.

For a photographer to go to war 50 years ago was relatively ‘easy’. It was a matter of hopping on a plane, and then jumping onto a helicopter to the battlefield.

Today, this is not the case, with strict laws in place to keep the media ‘out of harm’s way’.

Revolution through the Arab world without Western intervention in the first months of 2011 presented a photographer’s paradise and an opportunity I was not willing to miss.

So, I bought an air ticket to Egypt, took a small stinking bus from Cairo to the Libyan border, and in 24 hours I went from a trendy nightclub in Cape Town to Benghazi, a scene of intense fighting and heavy bombardment.

Warfare in the desert of North Africa is not what I expected, with the comfort of four-star hotels by night and short air-conditioned taxi rides to the frontline every morning to bear witness to Libyan Rebel and Loyal Gaddafi forces slugging it out along a single stretch of highway. A game of question and answer: firing and then taking fire. Repeat.

My short stay in Libya taught me three things.
1. Be a good photographer before becoming a ‘war photographer’.
2. There is nothing beautiful on a battlefield and people die with the greatest amount of violence, torn and burnt.
3. Most importantly, no picture is worth dying for. If you’re going to take a risk, make sure the picture is good enough.

For my first war, I learned important lessons and made better friends and contacts. I also confirmed through doing and no longer talking that ‘conflict photography’ is what I was born to do.

As the ‘rookie’, I got lucky. As the youngest there, I was called crazy. But I was tired of doing nothing, wasting my education and not having purpose. So, as absurd as it sounds, going to war was the best thing I have ever done.

Ryan is returning to the Middle East in late April. He’ll be there for the rest of 2011.

originally published in 2011