Giving hearts and lives to bear witness

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

When students arrive for their news writing final, they learn the name of the person they’ll write about. They have a few minutes for research before they interview the subject of their profile. They write their stories and file them on deadline. The three-hour exam is a legitimate, real-time test of their journalism skills.

This year David Gilkey joined the class via Skype from Florida, where he was on assignment. Gilkey is photojournalist and video editor at National Public Radio, who has covered a broad range of stories, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The students peppered Gilkey with questions about his background, career and his personal life. They focused on his recent coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Wait a minute. Hold on, Gilkey said, at one point in the interview. The students watched as he removed his earphones. He paused, looked up toward the ceiling for a moment, then put the earphones back and returned to the interview.

Was that breaking news or a phone call? I asked. A phone call with news, Gilkey replied.

Gilkey completed the interview and gave the students his email address and responded to questions they had during their final. He stayed in contact with the students for the full three hours.

After 45 minutes, most of the students broke away to begin writing their stories. I opened my computer and read that Michel du Cille, a Washington Post photojournalist, had died of an apparent heart attack in Liberia at the age of 58.

I must have gasped or blurted something. A student looked up. Are you OK, Professor Hatch?

Yes, thanks. Focus on your work. I’ll explain after the exam.

I sent Gilkey a text.

He told me that the call he’d taken during the students’ interview was from Nikki Kahn, du Cille’s wife, also a Washington Post photojournalist, telling him that his friend and colleague had died.

All the students hit their 10 p.m. deadline. A number stayed late and read du Cille’s obituary posted online. We discussed his work and commitment to it.

Du Cille had received three Pulitzer Prizes for his photography, two while at The Miami Herald and one at The Washington Post. He was known for his compassion and his big heart.

“He was renowned among journalists for his ability to look inside a crisis and find enduring portraits of sorrow, dignity and perseverance” wrote Post reporter Matt Schudel.

Most recently, du Cille had focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where he had covered the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

In an article in the Post in October, du Cille wrote about his experiences.

“Sometimes, the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized…But I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola. The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.”

On Sunday night, my phone dinged with a message from JR Ancheta, a friend and former student. We’d worked together in Afghanistan.

Happy Solstice.

He sent a message with a photo of a surfer silhouetted against a lavender sky tinged with flamingo pink clouds. Returning to shore, the surfer had his board tucked under his arm, the water a band of brightness and sparkles around him.

JR was at his family home in Sitka, Alaska, when he noticed the light. He grabbed his camera and dashed to the water’s edge.

JR had been through some tough times lately. Making the dash for sunset light, photographing the twilight moment reminded him of the joy and reverence he has for photography—and the beauty that surrounds us.

It’s really easy to get stuck, JR said. The world is full of nastiness, muckiness, ugliness. We forget to see. Forget to look. Forget to find beauty.

Looking. Seeing. Finding those little snippets of beauty everywhere. Photographers find beauty in the nastiness and muckiness.

It’s a gift, JR said.

Then he surprised me with a gift.

“Thank you for teaching me to watch the sunsets—and the sunrises,” JR said.

My first column this year was about Dave Martin, an Associated Press photographer, who died on the job, at 59, of an apparent heart attack. In April, I wrote about another AP photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, assassinated in Afghanistan. She was 48. And, in my last column of 2014, I remember Michel du Cille, who died covering a story and people he cared deeply about.

Photojournalists and journalists know the risks and accept the dangers of covering a some stories. We open our eyes and our hearts to the suffering and the beauty in our world. We witness and return to bear witness.

To quote Michel du Cille: “This is what we do.”

We give our hearts—and sometimes our lives.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/giving-hearts-and-lives-to-bear-witness/article_180de8f2-8d59-11e4-b1f4-0f9521438772.html

 

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Journalists in war zones: shining a light

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/x360404418/Journalists-in-combat-zones-write-with-light-while-risking-their-lives

I first heard the news on National Public Radio on my car radio.

On April 4, the day before elections in Afghanistan, an Afghan military officer walked up to a car in a convoy and opened fire. Anja Niedringhaus, a staff photographer for the Associated Press, died instantly. She was 48. Her colleague, Kathy Gannon, sustained multiple injuries and lived.

That weekend, I was attending a journalism conference at Boston University. On Saturday morning, the conference opened with a remembrance and a moment of silence for the veteran photojournalist.

Anja was a colleague. We’d both been staff photographers for the Associated Press. We had both covered conflict. I knew her work; I didn’t know her.

In the days that followed, I felt a sense of sadness I couldn’t shake. I walked along the ocean shore, sat and stared at the small, breaking waves, hoping the salt air and the soothing sound of the surf would wash over me and through me.

The sadness is cumulative and elusive. It’s been with me for decades, long before I noticed it, probably since my first war. It goes into hibernation and awakens every few years, usually on the cusp of spring.

On April 20, 2011, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, when I noticed the status updates on Facebook. Getty photographer Chris Hondros, a friend and colleague, had been mortally wounded in Misrata, Libya. He was 41. Chris had been covering the uprising in Egypt and opted for one more assignment before returning home to the States. In the New York cathedral where they had planned to wed in August, his fiancée gave his eulogy.

I was eating breakfast in Oregon one morning in March 1994, when I read a brief in the small section on world events in our local paper: an Italian journalist was killed in Mogadishu. I contacted a mutual friend, an Italian journalist I’d met in Somalia and worked with in Mozambique. He sent a fax and confirmed the worst.

Their Somali guards had abandoned Ilaria Alpi and her Slovenian cameraman Miran Hrovatin. They were stranded in their vehicle when gunmen ambushed them and opened fire.

“They killed her like a dog. She had just the time to raise her hands to her face.”

Ilaria, a television reporter for RAI-3, murdered. She was 32.

The last time I’d seen Ilaria, we’d sat on the roof of a dilapidated building that served as a hotel for journalists in Mogadishu. We’d talked and laughed, listening to the gunfire in the streets, watching the tracer fire in the night sky. We’d shared stories of being women journalists and agreed to meet in the summer and share a bottle of wine on the balcony of her Rome apartment.

Once, in Somalia, I was traveling in a car behind a truck loaded with grapefruit. A Somali woman wrapped in a flowing, rich yellow fabric walked past the truck. From the back seat of the car, I stuck my camera with a long lens out the window. I liked the repetition of the yellow, something light and bright in a dark place.

Brakes screeched. Three Somali gunmen bounded from the truck and began screaming and shoving their AK-47s through the windows at me.

I didn’t have the language to explain that I hadn’t seen them, that I was photographing the fruit.

“Maya, Maya,” I said in Somali as they gestured that they would shoot. “No, no.”

I smiled, put up my hands and kept talking in English.

They didn’t shoot. I was lucky.

There but for the grace of God.

The thought flickers across my mind when I read stories of journalists, friends and colleagues killed covering conflict.

Liberia. Iraq. Somalia. Eritrea. Afghanistan. I got out alive.

Yes, journalists assume risks when they work in conflict zones. Injury. Disease.

Now assassination is a risk. Shoot the messenger.

It’s uncertain and under investigation whether the April 4 shooting was a random act of violence or a targeted killing. Both women were well known in Afghanistan for their years of reporting in the region.

Nearly 20 years to the day of Ilaria’s death, the Italian government is considering declassifying secret files related to the journalists’ deaths. It’s been suspected that the journalists were killed to prevent them revealing a high-level conspiracy to divert Italian aid to an organization trafficking in weapons and toxic waste, according to reports in the Italian press last month.

The Committee to Protect Journalists posts a tally of the number of journalists killed each year. This year, 17 journalists have been killed as of April 14. In 2011, 47 journalists, including Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, were killed. In 1994, 66 journalists, including Ilaria and Mirvan, were killed.

In his remembrance of Anja, AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon called her “a lighthouse guiding us to safety.”

I have always liked that photography comes from the Greek for “writing with light.” I think of all journalists—and particularly those who work in conflict zones—as writing with light. Bearing witness. Shining a light into dark places. Revealing the truth.

Last Saturday, I was driving back from a pie run to Westfield, N.Y. It was a sunny, warm day. I was thinking about this column. Remembering Anja, Chris and Ilaria.

The CD deck switched to a Mavis Staples’ CD, “We’ll Never Turn Back.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

I rolled down my window and turned up the sound. I sang along with the phrases that resonated. For my friends who’ve died. For the journalists who continue to shine their light.

The road is dark. The way was long….

Don’t give up. Don’t back down. Don’t let the liar turn you round.

All in the street, I’m gonna let it shine. On the battlefield, I’m going to let it shine.

When it shines, freedom shines.

When it shines, no more sorrow.

When it shines, no more pain.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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