Witness debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
One of the few scenes with bite in the deservedly obscure John Cusack movie War, Inc.—a half-assed Iraq-War satire in the form of a half-assed sorta-sequel to Grosse Point Blank—shows a gang of reporters being taken on a “simulation” of the experience of being in a war-torn country. The giddy, pampered “journalists” scream and cheer as they’re bucked around to the accompaniment of flashing lights and scary noises.
The last 20 or so years have been hell on the romantic aura that used to attach itself to reporters, even combat reporters. But photojournalists who work in trouble spots still retain an authentically thrilling mystique—the images they capture are the proof that they were there in the thick of things, not sitting in a comfy bar rewriting a press release or taking dictation from some administration hack.
The HBO documentary series Witness profiles three photographers in four different settings—Eros Hoagland in Juarez, Mexico and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil; Michael Christopher Brown in post-civil war Libya; and Véronique De Viguerie searching for the Arrow Boys, a self-formed, self-funded militia fighting Joseph Kony’s LRA in South Sudan. They bring different levels of verbal expressiveness and deep thought to their discussions of their work, and they are all talented at what they do while not being shy about putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of a story. (Brown was injured during the Libyan civil war, in the same attack that killed two other photographers including Tim Hetherington, the codirector of the superb Afghan war documentary Restrepo. Additionally, de Viguerie is seen stumbling through the Sudanese jungle while pregnant.)
Hoagland, whose visit to Juarez is covered in tonight’s episode, is the most eloquent speaker of the three and the one who finds it easiest to explain what he’s doing in this line of work. As he describes it, the decision was made for him in 1984, when his father, the war photographer John Hoagland, was gunned down by soldiers in El Salvador. (The character played by John Savage in Salvador, the movie that inaugurated Oliver Stone’s transformation into a political blogger with a Steadicam, was based on the elder Hoagland.) Eros Hoagland has a searching, sometimes frustrated attitude toward his own work, and there’s a memorable glimpse of him after apparently taking shit off some people for taking pictures at the funeral of a victim of the drug wars, muttering to himself: “Yeah, I know what it feels like. Fuckin’ tell me I don’t know what it feels like. Cameras all over my dad’s funeral, too…”
Although he takes a lot of pictures of people in violent circumstances, Hoagland is careful to define himself as “not an action photographer.” Trying to explain what he’s trying to do, he says: “The real test is if you can fill in… with context about how these people live, wherever. You need layers and arcs and different things happening at the same time, rather than this in-your-face death and suffering. How much of that can you look at?” Hoagland keeps returning to the subject of just what his work is for, and in the Rio episode, he sounds like a man who might not be much longer for this job. Like any good reporter, he has to give people a reason to want to talk to him, and he says, “As the years go by, I find it harder to lie to people and tell them my work is gonna change their situation, because it doesn’t really change anything.”
At a moment like that, it’s easy to understand what De Viguerie is talking about when she says, “In some situations, it’s helpful to look through the camera, to have this filter between you and what you’re photographing.” At that moment, she happens to be photographing a man who, in answer to the question, “How many children do you have?” says, “Normally, I have six, but the men came and decapitated one, so now I have five.” De Viguerie spends a lot of time onscreen, listening to people’s horror stories of families and villages being decimated, and she responds to what she’s listening to in a different way than an actress playing a combat reporter in a movie—an actress would probably keep a stone face to show how jaded her career had made her. De Viguerie’s pained responsiveness to other people’s suffering probably makes it much easier for her to get people to unburden themselves, but it’s also true that there are things that most sensitive people are never going to be able to just get used to.
Michael Mann is one of the executive producers on Witness, and though he didn’t direct any of the episodes, it has the Mann touch. It offers testimony and information about geopolitics and suffering in exotic settings, in a great-looking, kinetic style that might make you think, but that definitely produces an adrenaline rush. It’s also not above using music to energize some sequences, and some may find the results too movie-like and borderline pulpy. But the series accomplishes too much to justify knocking it for being too pleasurable and exciting. It conveys a sense of what it’s like to spend your working life trying to capture images that will shape order out of chaos, and it also gives you a fair taste of the chaos.
As a concession to the clarifying power of words, the Juarez episode brings in the writer Charles Bowden, whose files must contain several employee evaluations that fall back on the word “plainspoken.” To provide some context: “The war on drugs is over, it was lost. Nobody will say it out loud. Now it’s just death. This fuckin’ bullshit—‘The Mexican army is valiantly fighting the cartel!’ This war has been going on three years. We’ve got 19,000 dead Mexicans, and the army’s lost a hundred soldiers. What are the cartels using, rubber bands to fight with!?” (If Miami Vice were still on the air, Mann would be offering Bowden more money than he’s ever seen in his life to make his acting debut as a pissed-off federale.) At one point, de Viguerie is asked whether she ever gets scared. In her imperfect English, she shrugs, “Sometimes. But in this kind of story, I think, by the time when you get scared, is probably too late already.”
My all-time favorite romantic photojournalist movie is probably the 1983 Under Fire, starring Nick Nolte as a war photographer in Nicaragua at the time of the Sandinista revolution. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, took advantage of Nolte’s massive physique by loading him down with multiple cameras hanging from his neck and a shoulder bag filled with different lenses and other equipment. If that movie were remade today, it might star Shia LaBeouf and his handy iPhone. Brown laughs that, during the Libyan civil war, he was constantly surrounded by people recording events on their phones, and that he didn’t want to be seen by the people around him as a “photographer,” a neutral observer disengaged from history in the making. But Witness never makes you wonder if there’s still any need for professional photojournalism in the age of social media; it’s full of astonishing images caught by its heroes, and the scenes showing what combination of instinct and artistry goes into those pictures are stirring little TV essays on what can only be accomplished by someone with a reporter’s curiosity and nerve and the eye of a skilled artist. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren may not live to see the day when HBO can honestly say that it’s fully redeemed itself for The Newsroom. But this show is a step in that direction.