Kristan Lawson, used with permission.
Source: Kristan Lawson, used with permission.

He's photographed Daniel Craig, supermodels and AK-47-wielding, crack-crazed Sierra Leonean rebels. He's created poster campaigns for King Kong, Casino Royale and over 150 other major films. He's published five photography books and, in directing the award-winning 2011 short film Sgt. Slaughter: My Big Brother, he oversaw the filming of Tom Hardy's bare genitalia. In an early scene during the twelve-minute film, these appear fabulously, radiantly, red-and-goldly lit against a sunny, snow-cloaked yard through mullioned glass. (As does the rest of Hardy, who portrays with harrowing accuracy a furious youth yearning, despite his father's mockery, to become a Legionnaire.) 

Greg Williams, who has done all of the above and more, has wielded cameras in far more disparate circumstances than most photographers ever will. We met last week at the retro-riffic Parker Palm Springs hotel, surrounded by a stunning series of images that Williams created featuring statuesque supermodel Daisy Lowe amidst the sandy panoramas and epic architecture of the Coachella Valley

That arid wonderland's sapphire-skied serenity contrasts sharply with war-torn Sierra Leone and Chechnya, where Williams worked during the mid-1990s as a photojournalist. 

"I did photograph wars," Williams told me. "But I know too many actual war photographers to call myself a war photographer. Instead, I would describe myself as someone who has flirted with war photography." 

Active war zones "aren't places for anyone who isn't trained as a soldier," Williams insisted. 

"I had no such training and no insurance. A lot of photojournalists say they feel somehow protected when they're working in dangerous places, as if they're existing inside some kind of invisible bubble. But I've never felt protected in that way: Wherever I've gone, I've always been very able to picture my death."

That was intensely true during his time in Sierra Leone, where "nearly any soldier who got even a fair distance away from his regiment became a rebel. Given the huge amount of poverty, drugs and alcohol in that situation, all discipline went right out the window. It was a state of anarchy.

"It sounds strange to talk about an entire army of soldiers on crack cocaine, but that's what we saw."

Seguéing from war photography into fashion and celebrity photography gave Williams certain insights that have played into his resounding success.

"Some people take the entertainment industry very seriously. But after all I've seen in the world, I want to say, 'Look, no one's dropping dead on this movie set; no one's shooting real guns to kill anyone,' so I come to the entertainment industry with a very pragmatic approach.

"Anyone would, if they really thought it through. Waking up at dawn, working twelve-hour days -- actors and models are just people doing their jobs. But they have a unique situation, because they have to spend a lot of time dealing with people who don't understand that basic fact about them, and thus don't understand them."

Joshingly, he calls his fashion-and-celebrity work "my selling-out phase.

"I call it selling out, but I'm not remotely ashamed of it. I love what I do."

But through all of his comparatively glamorous gigs, Williams' war-zone days haunted and harried him.

"I only recently found out for sure that I got PTSD when I was 23, in 1995, from my experiences as a photojournalist in Sierra Leone." 

The fear, panic and emotional pain -- "it's still there," Williams said with a serious gaze.

In Africa, "I had several very-very-near-death experiences. Many times, I ran for my life.

"At the time, I thought that was kind of a good thing, because I was a photojournalist.

"I'd gone over there because I wanted to live a bit. I wanted to be interesting."

He got that -- along with more than he bargained for.

"Yes, it's true that my experiences were terribly mild, compared with those of so many other people," Williams mused. "But the thing about PTSD is that it's not about comparing yourself to others" -- nor assessing whose suffering does and doesn't "count" as traumatic

Rather, he avowed, it's about acknowledging one's own trauma, "and getting the support you need."

For many years after returning to England from Africa, "I'd be sitting in pubs, anxiously waiting for violent fights to break out" -- having become keenly attuned to seeing sudden, sometimes lethal violence erupt overseas.

"Three hours before a fight would start, I'd be all on edge, waiting for it to start. When you live like that, you can't have a peaceful night out; you can't just go and have fun with your mates."

Thinking about war-related PTSD spurred Williams to conceptualize then direct Sgt. Slaughter: My Big Brother, then a full-length film: Samarkand, now in development from Solar Pictures. Also starring Hardy, featuring a script co-written by Williams and his brother Olly Williams, it's about a British Special Air Services soldier returning in 2006 from combat operations in the Middle East. 

"How Special Forces soldiers deal with their PTSD is generally by not dealing with it," Williams told me, "because ... in the Special Forces, if you reveal that you're struggling with PTSD, your gun's taken away from you, which can make a soldier feel like a failure, like he isn't the one thing he wants to be, which is a good soldier.

"In the Special Forces, the general attitude is: We shrug everything off, because we're so well-trained. You might ask these men, 'What about that soldier who killed himself?' and they'll say, 'Oh, him -- well, he went mad. Or he was on drugs.' 

"Well, yes. But something happened to that guy between joining the army and going mad or being on drugs.

"If you don't treat PTSD, it can get worse."

He hopes his new film will dispel some of the shame that now keeps many sufferers from facing the fallout of past trauma.

Samarkand, Williams said as the huge Coachella Valley sky slipped from soft-denim dusk to diamond-studded indigo over our heads, "is a film about a man falling down."

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