The Courage to Tell a Story
A year or so ago, after returning from assignment in Burundi, where I'd covered a coup d'etat and the subsequent massacres that often follow this kind of political change in Africa, an Irish television producer wanted to interview me for a program on women with dangerous jobs.
My first thought was to tell her to interview a housewife in Burundi I'd come upon. Running, two children in her arms, sweat pouring down her face, feet bloody from rocks and thorns, she panted that hours earlier her husband had been killed, her village burned, and that the army was after her. It was; troops passed by minutes after she'd run off.
I thought of a journalist in Sarajevo who had to traverse the infamous snipers' alley every morning to get to work, stand in line for water in below-freezing temperatures with mortars crashing about, and, perhaps most difficult of all, communicate to her children a sense of hope.
I thought of Margarita, in El Salvador, a secretary for a labor organization. So smart, funny, committed to a struggle to create a more just world for her two young sons. So charismatic that after leaving work one day in 1987, she was never heard from again. She became a statistic, one of the disappeared.
I thought if the producer wanted courageous women, let her interview them.
But yes, the job that we journalists, and particularly photojournalists, do also has its difficult moments. Just look at the number of journalists killed over the years: 44 in the former Yugoslavia alone. Within Reuters, we've lost four photographers in eight years, and most didn't die in combat or helicopter crashes like in Vietnam. They were deliberately targeted.
Today we're called on to cover a different kind of war, driven not by struggle against injustice and political oppression but instead by nationalism, tribalism, and fundamentalism. Ideology is less present and victims are more likely to be civilian.
It's a strange life we journalists lead. How can you tell your family about seeing churches in Rwanda filled with hundreds of corpses? How can you expect friends to find the words to comfort you after you've seen 68 people blown to bits by a mortar in a marketplace on a gray February morning? How can I get rid of the rage I feel at being stuffed in the back of a car without door handles in Kinshasa, taken into a room by five drunken soldiers who waved hand grenades slowly in my face, pulling the pin in and out just for fun?
Why do we journalists do it? Is it the desire to observe history? Or curiosity about what drives humanity to extremes? Or is it because in the midst of violence and evil, one sees clearly what is right, decent, and just, and this puts one in touch with how very important are such things as empathy, citizenship, and tolerance.
I feel fortunate to have taken pictures that have made people stop and feel for others, not very different from you and me, who are trying to live their lives and maintain a sense of hope within the devastating context of war. My pictures are about and for them.