Reviews

'Witness' Documents the Work and Art of War Zone Photojournalists

Witness, HBO's new series airing Mondays in November, follows photojournalists in conflict zones as they expose the aftermath and the pervasiveness of violence, the effects of war on daily existence.


Rated: NR
TV: Witness
Director: Abdallah Omeish, David Frankham
Cast: Eros Hoagland, Michael Christopher Brown, Veronique de Viguerie, Charles Bowden, Cristina Guimäraes
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-11-05 (HBO)
Website
Trailer
I was worried because it was pitch black and I won't be able to take a picture.

-- Veronique de Viguerie

"The violence is what you start out with because it’s the obvious story. I fill in the blanks with contexts about how these people live," says Eros Hoagland. A photojournalist in war and conflict zones, he sees in his work both opportunity and limits. "You need layers and arcs and different things happening kind of at the same time, rather than in-your-face imagery of death and suffering. How much of that can you look at?" As Hoagland speaks, he's packing for his next gig, the camera panning over his camera case, his helmet, and his body armor.

Hoagland is on his way into Ciudad Juárez, "one of the most dangerous cities in the Western hemisphere," he explains. As you come to see in Witness, HBO's new series airing Mondays in November, his pictures reveal what it means to live at such risk, more than what he calls "action or movement," the aftermath and the pervasiveness of violence, the effects of war on daily existence. Arriving in Juárez, he finds plenty of aftermath, part of it indicated by a montage of cars riddled by bullets, policemen with automatic weapons, bloody bodies on sidewalks or loaded onto trucks. Hoagland carries his coffee and his camera to a store that sells children's party decorations: a bus has slammed through the front door. He kneels to make his picture, the low angle emphasizing the scale of the destruction.

At the same time, his process is also the subject of a picture -- shaped in part by the remarkable work of photographer and cinematographer Jared Moossy, who shoots all four episodes of Witness -- a picture that shows both context and effect, the sort of broad view that might emerge from the most specific images. Moossy's camera follows along with Hoagland as he talks to whomever he can, he explains, embedding with cops so he can travel into neighborhoods, interviewing survivors and gang members too. "I'm trying to show the whole situation that people are living in, to get enough information to lead me in the right direction to make a picture."

That right direction is different for different circumstances: when Hoagland travels to Rio (for the episode airing 26 November), he finds tensions between the city's preparations for the World Cup in 2104 and the Olympics in 2016, preparations that include cleaning up, removing the image of violence, however that might be accomplished. In this "city of conflict," where gaps between slums and wealthy neighborhoods loom spectacularly, he speaks also with other reporters, wary that their own lives are at risk. "We live in a moment of lies," says Cristina Guimäraes, whose partner Tim Lopes was murdered horribly. She "just wants the truth to be known," says Hoagland; they both hope that pictures are a means to that end.

The question of pictures can do is raised repeatedly in Witness. For Hoagland, the son of John Hoagland, the photojournalist targeted by government death squads and killed in El Salvador in 1984, the answers remain complicated, framed by personal experience, memories and also relationships with subjects. "What tools do I use to get someone to open up to me?" he asks, "It really is an exercise in digging, digging into a story and digging into yourself."

Digging is an apt metaphor for Michael Christopher Brown's experience in Libya (the episode airing 12 November). He was in country during the fight against Gaddafi (he takes the camera crew to the spot where Gaddafi was captured and killed, as the film cuts to footage of the event). "The real fighters in any war are probably dead," Brown says, "because they're on the front, doing the fighting." Those who report on the fighting face risks too, as the film recalls Brown's friend and mentor Tim Hetherington, who, with Chris Hondros, was killed in Misrata, Libya last year. "You can call him a war photographer," Brown says, "But he was looking for something else, he could find that in a war." That something else has to do with general and repeated struggle and human spirit, certainly, but also specific circumstances and consequences. To illustrate, Brown goes to a building destroyed by mortar fire in Tawergha: here he shoots pictures of pictures, floating now in gutter water. As he shoots, as you see parents and children posing and smiling, Suliman Al Zway, a local fixer, speaks in voiceover: "If the men died, there are children who grow up to be bitter. They'll hate you, they'll do anything to hurt you, it's gonna be encrypted into the DNA. They're gonna pass it on to the next generation, we're talking about an epidemic."

As Brown's photos document loss, they expose that cycle. The hope is that such exposure might also intervene in that cycle, or maybe just provide a moment of grace, an escape from the terror and pain of daily life. Photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie photographs victims in a hospital in Gulu, Uganda (in the episode airing 19 November, titled for the place where she spends most of her time, South Sudan). Broken but alive, some still smile for the camera, while she captures others in more fragile states. "It's hard to imagine a picture changing anything," She says, "But when you take pictures of these people who are most of the time forgotten, at least for the time being, when you just take the pictures, they feel a bit special. This is good enough for me."

De Viguerie travels to villages, trekking with the Arrow Boys, challenging Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army -- in lieu of help from the Sudanese government. She sympathizes with her young interviewees, some abducted by the LRA, raped and tortured and forced to kill others. Now, they look back with anguish in their eyes and also extraordinary resilience. When, during one journey into the jungle with the Arrow Boys (also known as community guards), de Viguerie's group is fired on, her camera -- and the lamp she's mounted on her forehead -- reveal a boy on the ground, bloody and crumpled. She insists he be taken to the hospital, leaves her plan behind and rides with him.

It's one of those moments that face every war correspondent. As they pursue their own missions -- to document, to share, to expose what's happening -- they also come up against basic moral questions. Is there a point when you stop observing and begin acting, when you work to save a life even when you might be in place to record a death? De Viguerie has her own answer, which isn't the answer for every journalist. "If somebody's dying in front of you and you can do something, what would you do?" she asks, "You take the picture, then you help him, right? Or do you just do nothing?"

As she speaks, Moossy's camera shows the back of the truck bearing both boy and journalist, then a slow dissolve into the jungle, in daylight, where de Viguerie is back at work. "So then you really are influencing his story," de Viguerie goes on, in either case, whether he lives or dies. "You know in your head that there is a line between bad and good, and this line, you are the only one to be able to put it." You see men with guns, and you see her shooting again, making more pictures of soldiers, weary and at rest. The violence is where you start. But it's not always where you end.

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