Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

The Day I Photographed Yousuf Karsh

I was recently asked about the day that I photographed one of the 20th century’s preeminent portrait photographers.

Yousuf Karsh burst into global celebrity when in 1941 he took this photograph Winston_Churchill_1941_photo_by_Yousuf_Karshof then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. For the next several decades the world’s mighty and famous clamoured for his talents.

His waiting list for a portrait sitting extended into years and I can’t imagine what his services cost.

He could have worked in London, Paris, New York but instead he kept his studio in Ottawa, on the sixth floor of the Chateau Laurier Hotel. It just so happened that for several years I worked as a broadcast journalist on the seventh and eighth floors of the same building and we often rode up and down together in the hotel’s elevators.

And so it came about one day that I took my own photograph that catapulted me into minor Ottawa journalistic celebrity.

Here is my account of that day as I wrote it for Scrum Magazine, published by the National Press Club in 1996.

 

KARSH BY GRANT

Over the years, Yousuf Karsh and I have developed a remote, vaguely European, nodding acquaintance by sharing elevators and holding doors open for each other. Karsh lives in the Chateau Laurier Hotel where until recently he had his portrait studio. CBC Northern Service and my office was also in the Chateau.

So it was quite normal for me to stop and chat with Karsh one day as I made my way from the Chateau to Parliament Hill. We said good morning with 19th century civility and talked about the October sun and fall colours.

Karsh asked me what kind of cameras I had in my bag. I explained that there were no cameras, that I used a camera bag to carry my recording equipment. Then I remembered the tiny Olympus (one button does everything) tucked into an outside pouch. I pulled it out.

“I wonder if you would take my picture?” I said, knowing that I was pushing the limits of our courtly relationship, but the thought of having my portrait done by Karsh for nothing made me bold.

“No, I am sorry. You see I am on my way to work. If I took your picture that would be work.”

“Well can I take yours?”

“Yes that would be nice.” And with that he instantly struck a pose.

Months later, I finally got around to dropping off a copy at his studio.

A few days later I answered my phone and I had one of the shortest conversations I can ever recall.

“Karsh here. I want to thank you for the picture. My wife says it’s the best picture she’s seen of me.”  And he hung up.

Shortly after, he retired from full time portrait work. Too much young competition I suspect.

The 20 Most Needed Foreign Words in a War Zone

What Words Do You Need in a War Zone or Humanitarian Disaster Area? One thing you should have done on the plane ride into your latest hell-hole of a disaster area or war zone is learn the handful of words in the local language that may save your life. You only need a handful. YouContinue

Your First Day in a War Zone or Disaster Area

What to Do When You Step Off the Plane You would think that getting into a war zone or disaster area is the hardest part of your assignment, but really it is quite easy compared to what you face during the first day on the ground. Just getting from the airport can be a cocktailContinue

How to Get Out of a Minefield

I’m often asked if I worry about getting shot when working in some of the places I go to. Not really.  I mean, it is something I am always aware of and something I try to be prepared for, but the possibility of getting shot is not nearly the nightmare that people assume it is.Continue

Driving in Four World Cities–Eyes Clenched Shut

  I cannot remember the last time in Calgary that I used my car horn. I am not even sure that it works. I do know that if I did use the horn here it would be taken as a deadly insult worthy of gestures and incoherent rage. This is in horn-less Calgary. Elsewhere, thingsContinue

Water is Life — and Quick Profit

Travelers, even the type that heads for a cosseted resort in a first world country, know to be careful about the local water.  But what do you do when you are in a country where there is no safe water? Buy bottled water you’d say. Most of the time that would be a good idea,Continue

Foreign Journalists as Liars and Fools

  I’ve been watching the television coverage of the latest war this week. (It doesn’t matter which, they are all the same.) No matter which network I watch, with the exception of Al Jazeera or the BBC, the major world networks seem to be driving their correspondents to ever lower forms of journalism in theContinue

Amid the Ruins — A Poor Kind of Journalism

An odd thing is happening to journalism amid the chaos of humanitarian disasters these days.   It’s becoming as managed, influenced, nuanced and manipulated as the worst of government spin controlled journalism. Over the past years I’ve experienced at first hand a most remarkable change in how the media works  in humanitarian disasters such as Albania,Continue

How to Buy a Carpet in Afghanistan — it is not easy

I am not a carpet kind of guy. Left to myself I would be quite happy plodding around barefoot on the beaten earth floor of a Neanderthal cave, or scuffing through the dust floor of an Ethiopian tuqual. But others seem to find great pleasures in tightly bound and painted hairs ripped from the backsContinue

Torturers I Have Met

A few years ago I was splitting a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch with one of the most senior drug control police officers in the Afghan government, (drinking is an activity more common than you would think in that Islamic nation) when the conversation turned to torture. There had just been a sensational case involving theContinue