War Stories From a Pro, With Lessons for Today’s Journalists Covering Conflict

Wait For Me: True Stories of War, Love and Rock & Roll by Bill Gentile, June 2021.

by Peter Copeland

In his memoir about covering the wars in Central America during the 1980s, reporter and photographer Bill Gentile describes how journalists teamed up on dangerous stories.

“Especially when covering conflict, part of a journalist’s job is to figure out who to work with,” Gentile writes. “Who can I trust? Who can I depend on? If I get into a really hairy situation, who do I want at my side? Is it him? Or her? We make these decisions on the spur of the moment. At breakfast while listening to the latest radio report. In the afternoon on the side of a road while deciphering information from refugees fleeing combat in a nearby town.”

One of his partners in Central America during the violent and bloody 1980s was John Hoagland. Perhaps surprisingly to an outsider, Gentile worked for the wire service UPI and Hoagland worked for the fiercely competing agency, The Associated Press. It was their shared values that brought them together as friends, despite their professional rivalry.

Gentile says that he and Hoagland joined forces against the better-paid “big dogs” in the journalism pack, and “because we were hungrier than wild animals and would do anything to get a picture…”

“Hoagland and I still believed we were indestructible because neither of us had seen enough war to know otherwise, to believe that we could get hurt. Neither of us understood this process,” Gentile remembers. “I don’t know about John, but I was so green that I didn’t even realize there would come a time when I would be less willing to go out and risk my life for a picture. That would change.”

Hoagland was shot and killed in 1984 covering the war in El Salvador. He was 36. Gentile stayed in the region, wiser but not always more cautious.

When Gentile teamed up with Mexican journalist Epigmenio Ibarra to cover dangerous, and unpredictable, street fighting in El Salvador, Gentile knew that the rest of the press corps was watching them for guidance that day. “I understand what is at stake here. If Epigmenio and I decide to go down this street, our colleagues will follow. Epigmenio and I have reputations. We are considered seasoned veterans …

“…They wait for my response. I look down the street and see nothing. Nobody. No moving cars. No shopkeepers greeting customers at the entrance to their stores. No kids kicking a soccer ball. Nobody peering out into the street from behind a half-closed door. Nobody looking out through a window. Not even a dog scrounging around for something to eat. I must choose my words with extreme care. I know that my response must be decisive as well as diplomatic…”

Gentile decided to trust his gut – it was too quiet, and an ambush could have been waiting. He did not walk down that street that day, and the other journalists followed his lead. “Nobody walked down that street.”

I was one of the many reporters who watched and learned from Gentile in Central America. At the time, he had at least five years more experience covering combat than I did, and he was very good at it. If he ran out the door chasing a story, I was right behind him. To be honest, I was a very safe distance behind him. And I was happy to be a print reporter who could take cover when the shooting started, rather than a photographer like Gentile who had to be in position before something happened, and then wade into the middle of it, to make a picture.

By the way, he always says “make” a picture, not “take” a picture, and there is a difference. In Wait for Me: True Stories of War, Love and Rock & Roll, the reader sees again and again how much thought, planning, and preparation go into the making of a single photograph. The preparation is physical – how to get there safely and set up before the combat starts – and mental.

Gentile wonders before heading into a combat situation, “Am I physically and emotionally prepared for this? Can I accept the consequences of the decision to put myself, and others, in a dangerous situation? Do I accept the fact that I could get permanently injured or even killed as a result of this decision? It is absolutely critical that I had this conversation with myself because if I fail to do this and get caught in a life-threatening bind, I run the risk of falling apart. I could freeze up. Or panic. And that will endanger not only me, but also the people around me. I will become a liability.”

Then there is the physical preparation. Gentile writes lovingly of his indestructible jeep, nicknamed La Bestia (The Beast), which powered him through the mountains of Nicaragua. He describes the ritual of packing his gear and the “sweet sound” of connecting a lens to a camera body, snicking into place like “tumblers on a heavy safe.” A crucifix was taped to the inside bottom of his black Domke camera bag.

The ritual is important for Gentile because, as he explains, this work is not just a job.

“Like many of the journalists working in Nicaragua at that time, I felt that our work was more a ‘humanitarian mission’ than a ‘job.’ We gave voice to the poor working class, the peasants, the laborers, whose voices would never be heard in their own country, and certainly not beyond the borders of their country, had it not been for us, the international media.

“With passion and empathy, we told their stories and revealed to the world their misery, in the hope that outside forces could help change their lives for the better. You will find journalists today who scoff at this notion that our craft is something more than just a job. They will tell you that those who practice it with altruistic passion, even reverence, are soft-hearted idealists whose judgement may be skewed by emotion and therefore are not to be trusted. Don’t believe them. Journalism is more than a craft. It is a calling. It is a manner in which one engages life. This is what I believe. This is what I practice. This is what I teach.”

Gentile is no partisan or propagandist, however. His goal is for his work to show truth and context. At times Gentile was wrongly mistaken for a leftist activist. On another fateful reporting trip, he was wrongly accused of being a CIA agent and feared he would be executed. He writes with dry understatement: “There are few experiences more unsettling than being abducted.”

During a journalism career spanning four decades and five continents, Gentile has shot photos and video, written stories, and produced award-winning documentaries. Today he teaches journalism at American University in Washington, DC.

Most of the book focuses on the revolutionary conflicts he covered, but Gentile also has worked through the ongoing revolution in journalism. He started shooting photos on film when newspapers ran mostly black and white images, and today he makes and edits digital videos and teaches the latest advances in news technology to the next wave of journalism students.

There is no room for “good-old-days” nostalgia in his memoir or in his life, and Gentile has managed to stay ahead of the rapid changes in the news business. He skillfully uses his earlier experiences to illustrate the core principals of journalism, which remain valid 40 years later.

Just like back in Central America, if Bill Gentile races out the door in pursuit of something, other journalists would be wise to follow.

Peter Copeland, a former foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief, is the author of Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter.