There’s a scene in My Best Fiend in which Werner Herzog reveals what made him believe that Klaus Kinski possessed rare talent. It was a brief moment in a film whose title now escapes me, about a German soldier who is executed for deserting the army to be with his girlfriend. (A Time to Love and a Time to Die, perhaps?) Kinski plays a lieutenant who is taking a nap with his head atop a wooden table, and is woken up by a subordinate. He stirs, snorts, and checks his watch, a series of actions that takes no longer than two seconds. But Herzog claims that the way Kinski awakens in the scene is dramatic genius, and something that still haunts his imagination to this day. My Best Fiend shows the clip again and again, until you can’t help but see the great German director’s point—there is something so unusual about Kinski’s motion and body language that it’s difficult to shake the cinematic moment.
Herzog’s championing of that scene came to mind recently when I stumbled upon this gallery of images by the great Turkish photojournalist Coskun Aral. Many years ago, I purchased an edition of The World’s Most Dangerous Places that featured a brief article by Aral about his time in war-torn Lebanon. It was only a small sliver of a book that stretched over 1,000 pages, and the few accompanying photos were barely wallet-sized, black-and-white, and printed on newspaper-quality paper. Yet there was one image that immediately burned itself into my brain: the one above, of a Lebanese militiaman passing his leisure hours by playing Russian roulette. (According to Aral, the soldier died a week later when he gambled on the wrong chamber.)
I can’t quite explain why this photo has stuck with me for over a decade now. There are certainly tons of Russian roulette images in popular culture, so it’s not the sheer craziness of the situation that got to me. No, it was something much more subtle—the curl of grim resignation on the man’s lips, the way in which the shadows already seemed to be claiming him for the grave. As a result, I’ve always made sure my tattered, coffee-stained copy of The World’s Most Dangerous Places is within easy reach, so I can return to the photo whenever the memory of its initial impact flutters across my mind.
Aral took plenty more ultra-disturbing photos while on assignment in Lebanon, of course—there’s one of Druze militiamen in Halloween masks that I’ve been dying to find online. But the Russian roulette image is his accidental masterpiece, a fleeting glimpse of raw desperation that deserves a place in the photjournalism canon.
Read more about Aral here, or watch an interview with the man here. And apologies if the Russian roulette photo gets its hooks into you—it’s definitely not something you want hanging around your hippocampus when you want to be in a happy place.