On the bleeding edge of conflict photography.

Ron Haviv, 41New York, NYHaviv utters the photojournalist's creed, "No picture is worth dying for," but he's come pretty damn close. Hooded and tortured by Serb forces, strafed by Taliban gunfire, and held captive by the Iraqi Republican Guard, Haviv documents the kind of history the world often chooses to ignore: war, famine, genocide. "Photography exists to hold people accountable, to keep anyone from saying ‘We didn't know,'" he says. At age 23, the New York native scored the cover of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report with a photo of a Panamanian mob bludgeoning their vice president, which Bush Senior partly used as justification for invading Panama. Over a span of 10 years, Haviv covered the Balkans-from the very first murders in the Bosnian war to Slobodan Milosevic's arrest-culminating in his acclaimed book Blood and Honey. A consummate freelancer, Haviv says his lifestyle is not conducive to having pets or plants. -KEN LEEPlaces he's been in the last year: Haiti, Darfur, Democratic Republic of the CongoMore biographies at the bottom of this piece.

On The Bleeding Edge of Conflict Photography

"Sit down, shut up, and listen," said a concerned elder journalist to me, the young pup, on my first day of war reporting in Beirut. "There are guys you go into the field with and others you don't. Rule number one: stay away from the photogs.They're all nuts. You go with them, you'll get killed; they'll take a picture of it and win a prize." The photographers were indeed fearless, but what the senior correspondent didn't mention was that they also had the whole place wired like no one else. Unlike the expense-account-larded TV and newspaper hacks who decamped together at the laughably overpriced Commodore Hotel, the photographers steered clear of the pack. They lived in small, cheap apartments scattered around town among Beirutis. They knew before anyone what was going on and, as a result, were always first on the scene. Misfits and danger junkies, war photographers are a breed apart. They are the lone wolves of the press menagerie, the kind of people who catch wind of a hellhole even bigger than the one they're in and immediately book a flight there.And when they are talented, they produce images that slice through the digital morass of modern daily life, grab you by the lapels and force you to take notice. The work of these photographers-more accurately, photojournalists-captures a truth about their often horrific subject matter and tells us a story, often with extraordinary artistry. I'm thinking of James Nachtwey's harrowing 9/11 photo of the cross above Wall Street's Trinity Church, taken as the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed behind it; Antonin Kratochvil's recent photo feature on the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone; Eugene Richards' photo essay on drug addiction; Lauren Greenfield's recent book and HBO documentary, Thin, about young American women with eating disorders. Their work appears in every major publication in the country, in museums like the Smithsonian, and in coffee-table books that turn horror into art. Their photos document the human condition and form our understanding of the events of our time. Sometimes, they also affect those events. During the Balkan conflict, for instance, Ron Haviv photographed a Serbian soldier kicking the head of a Muslim woman whom he and his fellow soldiers had just executed, along with her family. The photo, taken at Haviv's great personal peril, was the first unassailable documentation of the ethnic violence going on there and alerted the world to what was taking place.Nachtwey, Kratochvil, Richards, Haviv-these are not the kind of people you imagine behind a desk keeping the books, balancing budgets, and attending to the minutiae of running a business. So when they and three other of the world's most acclaimed photojournalists announced days before 9/11 that they were forming their own agency, a lot of people in the photo world scoffed. "This was the lunatics taking over the asylum," says the agency's initial strategist, Gary Knight. "Even I didn't think it would last more than three months, to be honest with you." VII, named for its seven founders, has confounded Knight and everyone else twice over. If the Magnum photo agency, with its 59-year history and all-star roster that goes back to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, still remains the behemoth at the ball, VII is the bright and shiny new girl with whom everyone wants to dance. VII, in a word, is cool. "They're like the Rat Pack was in the '60s," says Vanity Fair's editor of creative development David Friend. "Marquee-name photojournalists who per capita have been the most celebrated, and whose high level of commitment and quality of subject matter is unique among peer agencies."The photojournalists at VII actually practice what they preach by preaching what they practice-in seminars and exhibitions around the world that allow them not only to interact with the public, but also to shine a light on subjects the rest of the media is all too happy to ignore. Their recent exhibition "Congo: Forgotten War," was produced in association with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders). Five of VII's photojournalists spent four months combing the broken country to produce an exhibition as beautiful as it is horrifying. "MSF came to VII and said, ‘Help us. No one's looking at Congo'", says Frank Evers, VII's managing director. "There was no money at all in it. But close to a million people have now seen the show, and that's great. VII has a sense of purpose. We want to report on things that need to be reported on and that need to get through."VII's existence is in large part thanks to the rapacious acquisitions of Bill Gates and Mark Getty. In the late 1990s, these two hungry titans began devouring photo archives and agencies as if they were potato chips. In a few short years, Getty Images and its competitor, Gates' Corbis, bought every image library they could get their hands on and changed the face of the picture industry. Some photographers were handsomely rewarded; others were arbitrarily marginalized. That's when Gary Knight and John Stanmeyer, two highly regarded photographers whose agency had recently fallen under the Gates Hoover, decided to take matters into their own hands. "We were inventing [VII] up as we went along," explains Knight in Friend's excellent book Watching the World Change, "everyone cleaning out their ATM. We paid the lawyer in [photographic] prints. We paid the accountant and the Web master and the guy who designed the logo that way."But Knight and Stanmeyer's business model was counterintuitive. At a time when photo agencies were consolidating, Knight and Stanmeyer realized that the digital age permitted just the opposite approach. Evers calls it the "virtual model," where each photographer, wherever he is, takes the lead-from organizing his archives to writing his captions to determining how pieces are put together. "We have never accepted the traditional way of running a photo agency and have reinvented the model," says Knight. "We continue to evolve, and whether we succeed or fail, we will have challenged the status quo [of the photo world] in doing so."VII rose from the ashes of 9/11. The day after VII was officially announced, one of its founders, Christopher Morris, a longtime White House photographer for Time, was about to embark on the agency's first official assignment: a story about internet gambling in Antigua. But Morris missed his plane from France. He realized he'd never be able to make it to Antigua and be back at his official White House gig on time, so he corralled fellow VII founder James Nachtwey to take his place. Nachtwey, the most acclaimed war photographer of his generation bar none, flew to New York on September 10, 2001, with plans to leave for Antigua the next day. But on the morning of September 11, as he was packing 100 rolls of color-negative film in his downtown apartment, he heard a bang. The images Nachtwey shot for Time were among the most iconic and harrowing of that day, and they almost cost Nachtwey his life.That was VII's baptism by fire, and it put the fledgling agency on the map. Today, VII has offices in Los Angeles, Paris, New York, and Bali. VII is currently planning a two-day seminar at London's Royal Geographic Society in April for some 700 ticket holders, which is to be followed by VII's biggest event ever: a photo festival in the DUMBO area of New York City, where thousands of people can participate. "It's the next step to bringing the message to a larger audience," says Evers. It's not just about the images, but about getting the issues out there, to communicate part of our raison d'être to the larger world."Will VII survive? "VII is a real family. It's not a feeling, it's a reality," says Marion Durand, a photo editor at Newsweek who worked at VII during its first five years. But families fight, and questions about VII's future direction have not always gone smoothly. A larger question is whether, in this age of image consolidation, a boutique agency like VII can compete effectively in the long term."There's a resistance to taking on new, young hot photographers at VII; its bylaws state it can't grow beyond 14," notes one critic who is nonetheless a fan. "That means that as the founders of VII age, in a matter of years VII will not be producing anymore." For the moment, though, the folks at VII remain unconcerned with that distant day. As Christopher Anderson, a Magnum photojournalist and a former member of VII put it, "For VII not to succeed is bad for all of us."

Eugene Richards, 62After he cut up his Vietnam draft card, Eugene Richards assumed he'd be sent to prison. While he waited to find out what would happen to him, he started to focus more seriously on his photography. It turned out he was wrong about jail-no one came for him-but he ended up working in the shadows of crime and suffering anyway. His book Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue chronicled the impact of crack on America's inner-city neighborhoods, and had Richards spending weeks following addicts in Brooklyn and drug dealers, cops, and prostitutes in North Philadelphia. He documented a small community of about twenty users and dealers in Red Hook, Brooklyn. "It turned out everybody that I photographed in Red Hook died," he says. "Every single person." Most recently, Richards has been writing essays to accompany his photos of wounded soldiers and families dealing with the war in Iraq. "People want agony to be on a large scale," says Richards. "But, in fact, usually agony is little things that make life intolerable, and you can't show that in photographs." -ADAM M. BRIGHTRecent locations: North Dakota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Massachusetts, Ohio

Alexandra Boulat, 44Paris, FranceHaving dodged sniper fire in Sarajevo and watched bombs rain on Baghdad, Boulat says proving herself to grizzled male colleagues has never been an issue: "After being around soldiers all day, they're just happy to see a woman," she says. Growing up in Paris, her father, the respected Life photographer Pierre Boulat, gave Alexandra her first camera at age 8, but dissuaded her from his profession. "He said the industry was like a piece of rotting wood," she says, "and I wouldn't have a normal family life." But after struggling for 10 years as a painter, Boulat realized photography was her own suppressed dream. She first tasted war in the Balkans in 1991: "I hated the danger, and I still dislike it, but it awakened in me a journalistic intuition." Boulat plans to relocate to the Middle East: "It's where the story is, this clash of cultures between two worlds that don't want to understand each other." -K.L.Last assignments: Covered civil clashes in Gaza; Covered daily life in Syria and Lebanon for a story on Hezbollah

John Stanmeyer, 42IndonesiaJohn Stanmeyer has lived in Asia for more than a decade. In 1999, during East Timor's struggle for independence, he captured images of Indonesian police shooting a man begging for help. In 2003, in the wake of the Asian economic collapse, he documented the continent-wide mental health crisis. Facilities were desperately short of funds and mental patients were being crowded into cells and chained, naked, to the wall. Stanmeyer had just half an hour to photograph one particular children's mental hospital outside Karachi. He found kids as young as seven sleeping on bare floors behind bars. "They were living in dire conditions," says Stanmeyer. "I still think of that thirty minutes quite vividly, and regularly." His biggest project to date is an eight-year photographic study of how AIDS is migrating across borders in Asia. He's followed prostitutes, pimps, truckers, addicts, and orphans. "I'm a pretty simple human being," says Stanmeyer. "What I do in this life is important to me because otherwise I don't know what the purpose of existing in it would be all about." -A.M.B.Last places he's been: India, Peru, Tanzania, Zambia

Christopher Morris, 48When his fellow Americans started rallying for a second war in Iraq, Christopher Morris, 48, was in absolute disbelief. After having covered nearly 20 conflicts in 20 years, it's still hard for him to accept how little the public really understands war. "It's pure evil," he says. "It's like you're in a horror film. You see decapitated children. People with their limbs ripped off." Morris puts himself on the front lines to document these tragedies firsthand, and he's witnessed some of the worst acts of war. He says one of the hardest challenges of the job is simply getting his photos into print. "If there's a child there and he's burned or his face is removed by shrapnel, I'll photograph that, but I also have to do it in a way that I know it'll get published," he says. "The role of a photographer or journalist is to try to convey that, but in the West people don't want to see reality. It's all very sanitized-the true horror of it." -A.M.B.Last places he's been: Crawford and Waco, Texas (with the President); Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; North Korea

Lauren Greenfield, 40Los Angeles, CAWith an almost omniscient presence in the private lives of teens, Greenfield has become the preeminent documentarian of youth culture in America. "I've always been drawn to the social/emotional lives of girls because of my own insecurities growing up," the Los Angeles native says. It was after a Cartier-Bresson exhibit that Greenfield, then 15, awoke to photography as a medium for social commentary. Her 2002 book, Girl Culture, was an unflinching mirror trained on the growing sexual precociousness of girls. "I realized the body has become the primary expression of identity for females," she explains, "fueled by enormous cultural and media pressures." Her acclaimed HBO documentary Thin, which premiered in November, and its accompanying book, is a searing look at eating disorders, with Greenfield having filmed for six months in a Florida treatment facility. "There are no easy solutions," she says about the self-esteem crisis facing American girls, "but prompting dialogue is a start." -K.L.Last assignments: Covered the rich in China (in Shanghai and Beijing); The Renfrew Clinic for the treatment of eating disorders (where she shot Thin) in Coconut Creek, Florida; Sex therapist's clinic (The Female Sexual Medicine Center) on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills; Transgender Professor from Omaha, Nebraska who got facial feminization and breast implants from a top transgender surgeon

Antonin Kratochvil, 59New York, NYKratochvil suffers no guilt when pointing his lens at the world's dispossessed, having escaped totalitarian Czechoslovakia alone at age 20. "When I photograph people at the bottom, I return to where I once was," says the former refugee. Shooting in haunting black and white, Kratochvil has chronicled AIDS in Zimbabwean squatter camps, the killings fields of Rwanda, and the wastelands of Chernobyl. "Victims look to you as their messenger, with hope that someone out there will take notice," Kratochvil says. "A good photo touches universal truth." Today, his magnum opus is Broken Dream: Twenty Years of War in Eastern Europe, an account of life behind the Iron Curtain. Zooming in on misery does exact a toll: "My wife says that after returning from assignment, I'm like a strange man from a strange world," Kratochvil says, "and each time we have to get reacquainted." -K.L.Last three assignments: Covered the war on terror in the Philippines, embedded with commandos for Outside; a story on blood diamonds in Sierra Leone for Fortune; a photo shoot called the "Religion of Beer" for the Pilsner Urquell Beer company in the Czech Republic

Joachim Ladefoged, 36At 25, Joachim Ladefoged found himself wedged into the crevice of a valley wall in Afghanistan. Just to his right, Taliban soldiers were firing into the mountains. To his left, government forces were firing back. He was stuck in the middle, sucking in his chest with bullets whizzing by his face. "I became an adult at that moment. I found out that I didn't want to lose my leg or hand because of this stupidity." Ladefoged didn't even get good photos from the battle. Afterwards, he decided that he could help more people by working behind the front-lines, documenting the civilian consequences of war. His principal subject since then has been the prolonged suffering in Albania. He was one of the first journalists in the country after its economy collapsed, and he covered it through the Kosovo conflict with the Serbs. He spent his holidays photographing funerals and refugee camps. "I got upset," says Ladefoged. "I got personally involved in that story-and that's what you have to do to make a difference." -A.M.B.Last places he's been: Norway, New Orleans, New York

Gary Knight, 42Aix-en-Provence, France"The only thing I was interested in was getting out of Margaret Thatcher's England and discovering the world," Gary Knight says of his early years. "Photography satisfied my need for adventure." By 23, he was running with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodian jungles, having freelanced from Bangkok for five years. A career ensued, but one forged on his own terms. "I'm not a surveillance camera," he says of his activist mindset. "Photographers must shoot with a point of view. You don't make a war criminal like Slobodan Milosevic look like Daffy Duck. It's important that arseholes are held to account, that's what drives me." Knight says any despair he feels for the human condition is only short-term, pointing out that 30 percent of the population was wiped out during the wars in Cambodia. "But today that country is basking in sunshine," he says. "I have to believe that will happen in other places." -K.L.Places covered this year: Argentina, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kashmir, Kenya, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt

James Nachtwey, 59New York, NYIn 2003, James Nachtwey was riding on patrol with a U.S. army unit in Baghdad when a grenade clunked into the bed of?his humvee. Nachtwey took shrapnel?to the?hands, legs, and stomach, but continued taking pictures until he passed out.?He's been this dedicated since he first decided on this career. He now sees his task as helping to create a collective consciousness about the world's tragedies, because, as he puts it, "from consciousness grows conscience." But Nachtwey has also put his camera down to help save lives; he has stopped lynchings, carried wounded soldiers under fire, and transported the starving to food centers. "You have to be a human being first," he says. "If it comes down to either saving a life or getting a picture, journalistic purity-if there is such a thing-goes right out the window."-A.M.B.Recent assignment locations: Iraq, Cambodia, Thailand, Milwaukee