Interview with Gervasio Sánchez

Cčlia Cernadas
Journalist, Catalunya Rŕdio
Gervasio Sánchez

Gervasio Sánchez
(Photo: Diego Sánchez)

GERVASIO SÁNCHEZ, photographer and journalist, and the man behind the projects "Vidas minadas" [Mined Lives] and "Desaparecidos" [Missing]
The victims of landmines were the subject of his first major project. People missing in conflicts and the suffering of their families has been the second, in a project that took him to Latin America, Asia and Europe. "Missing" is being exhibited in three different venues in Spain: there are 250 photographs, many of which are large format, showing torture chambers, prisons, and above all, people; people who in many cases have spent decades looking for their relatives. But Gervasio Sanchez (born Cordoba, 1959), a journalist with the Heraldo de Aragón newspaper, also works on everyday news, and writes down his impressions in his blog "Los desastres de la guerra" [The Disasters of War] (

You say that a war journalist cannot be considered as such until they have been doing it for forty years...
So-called war journalism is just another speciality within journalism, with its own rules. I think there are people in the world of journalism who love to take centre stage, when the stories should be the main feature. I am very surprised when I meet journalists that have not even visited the outskirts of war and describe themselves as war journalists. Now imagine a young man who goes to Libya, writes a few reports, and considers himself one. I have been working in this field for 25 years, and I neither call myself a war journalist nor do I want to. Whoever wants to be a journalist and war photographer must live with the consequences, and work on it for their entire life.

How has the depiction of war in the media changed?
Conflict journalism has always been closely related to entertainment. Not just today, although now it's outrageous; it's been going on for decades. It was apparent in the Spanish Civil War, where photographers with a high media profile were very important, and some of them were very good, like Robert Capa. Within the profession itself, war journalism has always been considered as something legendary, something that makes you afraid, that makes you go through hard times, make you a hero, when in fact what it is is a job. The changes in recent decades have mainly been negative due to influence of television, which requires things to be done very quickly, very competitively, without time to think.

And what about your profession?
In war there are good journalists and terrible journalists who lie continually. The fact that the media, and especially television, only want entertainment, also has an effect. A few years ago they wanted a report lasting 3 minutes, which is now 50 seconds, so many end up producing sensationalism and creating the report based on what is most obvious and most striking. It also happens in the press. Twenty or thirty years ago, in Bosnia, or South America, it was very difficult to file your report. Sometimes the phone didn't work, it was very expensive, sometimes you found a fax ... And today, when it's so easy to broadcast, it turns out that journalists are increasingly further away from the places where things are happening and cover conflicts from thousands of kilometres away, simply by filtering what is happening on the Internet. There is a serious corruption of journalism.

By contrast, "Missing" is the result of many years of painstaking work. What motivates you to devote so many years to a single cause and how do you make your work visible, bearing in mind what you have just said?
Well, as I spend so much time on it, I am in no hurry to see the result. When it's published, it has to be published very well. The "Missing" project began in 1998 and it took 13 years to complete it. As I am in no hurry, I can afford to organise things well. In the world of journalism, you can only do that if you believe in it. Meanwhile, I do news journalism. Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Bosnia ... that is where I have been working in recent years, and that is what led to "Mined Lives" and "Missing". I used the trips to look for long-term stories. I finance myself with my day job, and with these projects I obtain prestige, quality and impact for the stories. The only secret is to work harder than others do.

In both " Mined Lives" and "Missing" there is obviously a close relationship with the victims, you know those people...
A journalist's obligation is to convey what you see with dignity. I always tell young journalists that if you're not willing to experience the pain of war, of its victims, you can't convey it with dignity.

So what responsibilities does a journalist working in a conflict zone and with human suffering have?
Very heavy ones. You cannot do more harm to the person who is suffering: sometimes it is braver to stop taking pictures than to take them, to stop asking questions than to ask them, because journalists can cause armed incidents. You must act under based on unarguable moral and ethical parameters. Your behaviour must be mature enough not to fall into the trap of looking for a free, fast and media-friendly story. We have given up on good journalism, there is too much collusion with the politicians ... We have given up on investigative journalism. What is WikiLeaks? They're only leaks that show that journalists have not done their job properly. And that giving up makes society easier to manipulate. A journalist has obligations. I am not a committed journalist, as they say; I am simply a journalist, because journalism is a commitment.

Are there worse forms of violence than open armed conflict?
The long-term consequences of war are very tough, the forgotten victims of those conflicts, the missing, people searching for their loved ones for decades without the help of the State, which is obliged to protect its citizens. The victims of Franco, for example, are victims of Spain, and it is the State that must answer to them. When? Now? Or 25 years ago, 35 years ago ... All we have done now is made complete fools of ourselves with all the shameful behaviour of the political class.

And that is where the journalist comes in...
Yes, what I mean by all this is that we must always be there to show that wars are lethal, that they have long-term consequences, that the only undeniable truth of war is the victims, and that a war is only over when the consequences of the war have been overcome. It doesn't matter how many years have passed. As long as there are still people disappeared from the Spanish Civil War, the war will not be over. While there are victims of disappearance in the Balkans, the war will not be over, whether the cynical and hypocritical diplomats and politicians we have like it or not.

After so many years looking at conflicts and poverty, what have you learned about mankind?
That he is unable to live without killing, but that's not me saying that, that's history. Man has always sought war. Why? Because war is big business. I have seen people killed, but for me the biggest murderers are not the people who killed on the ground, they are the ones doing business behind the scenes during wars, with arms sales, getting hold of oil, diamonds or coltan to fund an armed group, as occurs in Africa, obtaining oil contracts with Gadhafi who we all did business with until very recently and who we are now attacking. Mankind does business with death, with war and negotiate profits from it, and as long as it is a business, war cannot be abolished.

Indeed, the figures on the international arms trade are constantly increasing...
The case of Spain is a scandal of such proportions that I find it difficult to understand. How is it possible that a government like this one has quadrupled arms sales in just seven years? The same government that has exploited, trampled on and used the word peace, the government that won the elections based on its opposition to the Iraq war ... That is the government that has quadrupled Spanish arms sales, and public opinion couldn't care less.