HBO is well known for its TV dramas—Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, not to mention older hits like The Sopranos—but the network is capable of putting together compelling documentaries, as well. For evidence of this look no further than the four-part series Witness: A World of Conflict Through a Lens, which explores the role of the “war photographer” or “combat photographer” by profiling three courageous—some would say reckless—photojournalists as they dive into such hotspots as Libya, Sudan, Rio de Janeiro and Juarez, Mexico.
The series is slick and stylish, filled with shaky handheld footage and earnest interviews both cool-headed and fanatical, and it’s a difficult program to stop watching. Inevitably, it raises questions of voyeurism and responsibility, which to its credit it does not avoid confronting. Even though such questions are addressed, though, there are no easy answers offered to the viewer.
The series is divided into four episodes, each following a career photojournalist through one of the hotspots listed above. The first and last episodes focus on the same man, Eros Hoagland, himself the son of a war photographer who was killed in the course of covering the conflict in the Middle East. Hoagland brings a hard-earned sense of remove to his work, one which is nearly incomprehensible to the outsider, yet which is also critical to the role of journalist as objective recorder of information (as objective as it’s possible to be, anyway). From what the viewer sees in this episode, any objective remove from such intense experiences—gangland executions, extrajudicial killings, all the bloody side effects of the war on drugs—is difficult indeed to accomplish. Hoagland’s motivations in seeking it are clear, at least, even if his success, or lack of it, remains murky.
Michael Christopher Brown, the subject of the Libya episode, reaches a very different conclusion. There’s death in Brown’s past too, the deaths of peers and colleagues, and these experiences have led him down an alternate path from Hoagland. Brown is the youngest of the journalists profiled here, and he seems almost overwhelmed by his return to Libya. After the overthrow of Gaddafi, the post-revolutionary country is settling into sectarian squabbles and finger-pointing. This is a good illustration of how the most dramatic stories are rarely the most interesting ones. Sure, the struggle to overthrow a dictator is exciting an important, and it makes for terrific TV, but the real business of nation-building begins in the aftermath of the revolution, after the camera crews have left for the next headline-grabbing hotspot.
Both Hoagland and Brown are the main subjects of their episodes—not the stories that they’re ostensibly covering—but both are thoughtful enough to understand that what they do could be considered a form of particularly repellent voyeurism. When people get killed, they’re there to take the photos, and although it’s done in the name of spreading information, there are uncomfortable ethical questions, as well. Is it better to respect the dead, or to photograph them? Is it possible to do both? Is it better to disseminate information about atrocity, even if that mean risking glorification of that atrocity or of the people who committed it? To their credit, the two men seem aware of such concerns.
This is less clear for Véronique de Viguerie, the final subject of the series, a woman who works in southern Sudan. Viguerie’s episode is as concerned about her as about her work—more so in fact. It’s the only episode that includes footage of her “civilian” life back home in Paris, and the camera remains focused on her—young, blonde, pretty, French—more than any of the subjects she has gone to Sudan to photograph. She discusses her love life, something the men do not do. When she reveals that she is pregnant, questions arise in the viewer’s mind—in this viewer’s mind, anyway—as to the ethics of what she is doing. Risking one’s own life is one thing; risking one’s unborn child’s life is something else again. Risking that child’s life when talking proudly to the camera about how one is prepared to take such risks—well, that’s just kind of weird.
As mentioned, the show is captivating despite, or maybe because of, these concerns. There are no bonus features on the DVD, which is entirely unimportant. The series itself is thought-provoking and well-made. The camera work is engaging and visceral, with many examples of the photographers’ work interspersed among the situations in which they find themselves. There’s a good deal of video footage shot on the run, so viewers prone to queasiness may wish to pass.
It’s not an easy documentary to watch; there’s a lot of ugliness here, and not much hope. People do horrible things to each other in these places, and these photographers are shown bearing the burden of bearing witness. HBO is to be commended for risking such an unglamorous undertaking; no doubt the network could have sailed along on another few seasons of Game of Thrones and the like. Ultimately, though, it is programs like Witness that may prove the more enduring legacy.