Photojournalists navigating violence subject of HBO’s “Witness”

November 4, 2012

Some people liken a bad day at work to being in a war zone, but for the photojournalists chronicled in HBO’s upcoming documentary series “Witness,” that’s not an exaggeration.

The series, which premieres Monday and will air every Monday for the rest of the month, follows photojournalists in Mexico, Libya, South Sudan and Brazil as they navigate violence to report issues such as drug trafficking, gang violence, corruption and ethnic warfare.

Executive producers Michael Mann and David Franken said that the series arose from the desire to give viewers a sense of life in these areas that is more comprehensive than what most television news programs provide.

“It really was a reaction to a frustration with the news, a frustration with things being summed up for us in a minute, 30 seconds,” Franken, who directed most of the segments, said in an interview.

While the series focuses on the experiences of photojournalists, it also strives to illuminate the dynamics of each area’s conflict. Franken hopes the approach will draw in viewers who might not ordinarily be interested in the countries covered. He calls the format of the series “a Trojan horse.”

From camping in the forest with a militia hunting Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in South Sudan to creeping around the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in the dark to unearth bodies stuffed in wells or burned beyond recognition, “Witness” aims to show the lengths photojournalists go to to convey what is happening in conflict zones.

“Sometimes it can be quite violent. Sometimes there can be other people in harm’s way. Sometimes there’s a whole lot of tough decisions that need to be made, and it’s quite a struggle,” Franken said. “These pictures don’t just happen in front of them.”

Though the job entails working in dangerous situations, photojournalist Eros Hoagland said that knowing where the limits are is a crucial part of the job.

“Information, intelligence is the biggest weapon in these types of conflicts, so you’ve got to realize the information you’re putting out there swings two ways — it can help or it can hurt,” Hoagland said.

“I just find myself coming across situations more and more and more where I realize partway through that I’m putting someone else in danger if I continue on this line of reporting, and sometimes you have to weigh that against the pros of what message you’re going to get out.”

Hoagland found himself faced with such a moment when gang members in one of Rio’s slums, called favelas, asked him to photograph police accepting a bribe. Though bribery is a common occurrence and part of the conflict, he decided that the photo op was not worth the safety risks.

Michael Christopher Brown, the photojournalist in the Libya segment, was wounded by a mortar round on an earlier trip to Misrata in April 2011. His colleagues Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros did not survive.

Hoagland said he has lost some faith in the ability of his work to instigate positive change, but his fascination with the elements of the human condition exposed by war drive him on.

Franken and Mann echo that fascination. They said they would be interested in making more installments of the series. Franken mentioned Syria and Afghanistan as areas of interest, though the feasibility of filming in those places is uncertain.

The makers of “Witness” hope the series sparks further dialogue among viewers about the areas of the world and the issues featured.

“I think that’s the most important thing that journalism can do — to get people interested in places and people and situations and politics and make them curious about hearing new information,” Hoagland said.

“I hope people watch this and start to perhaps rethink everything they thought they knew about a little bit, because that’s certainly what I’m doing with every trip I make,” Hoagland said.

— Reuters

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