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Front Lines: 'Witness:' Capturing Photographers in Conflict Zones

1/15/2013 6:41 AM Eastern

Director David Frankham had spent about a decade focused on making commercials when he got the idea that would develop into the HBO documentary series Witness. The Canon EOS 5D Mk II camera had arrived on the scene and users were finally getting relatively robust HD video out of the same gear that pro still photographers were using. Frankham saw this technological evolution as an opportunity to explore his longstanding admiration for the challenges war photographers overcome to record what would never be seen otherwise.

Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Eros Hoagland

The four-part series follows intrepid photographers into volatile conflict zones. Produced with famed director Michael Mann, the series explores events taking place in Libya, South Sudan, Rio de Janeiro and Juarez, Mexico, giving viewers a rare glimpse into the real-life violence of the regions and the conditions some photographers face daily to bring iconic moments from these regions to the rest of the world.

“I was fascinated by the whole process these photographers go through,” Frankham recalls of his inspiration to pursue the project. “I wanted to go in, do the research and just be a fly on the wall. I didn’t want to go in with a political agenda or to sensationalize the events. That’s why I’m so happy that we could do it for HBO. I could see a network wanting to turn it into some kind of ‘reality’ thing.”

Instead, Frankham was interested in the larger, deeper issues that permeate the endeavor of conflict photography. How do you record what often involves others’ suffering and death without becoming exploitative? How do you keep from being part of the event yourself? How can you justify the act of simply documenting human tragedies without trying to get involved or help? These are the facets of conflict photography that most interested the filmmaker—and, he observes, those that could most quickly get lost but for the support he received from Mann, HBO and the others who helped bring his series to television.

Eros Hoagland (“Witness—Juarez” and “Witness—Rio”)

Frankham and a small crew (audio was recorded double system and synched in post) accompany several conflict photographers in different regions, allowing viewers of Witness to experience what the photojournalists go through: learning about these extremely violent clashes and photographing them at the same time. “The conflicts themselves are always changing,” Frankham observes. “In Libya, Rio, Juarez—none of the places we went were undergoing normal wars. The fighting is always asymmetrical. You never know where the front is going to be. These photographers are always trying to get the best information they can on the ground and just keep going and going, capturing great images along the way.”

In searching for photographers to follow into action, Frankham met with Eros Hoagland, a respected photojournalist who illustrates probably as well as anybody the complexity of the profession. As we learn early on in the first episode—“Witness: Juarez”—Hoagland literally inherited the vocation in the form of several cameras that came to him as a teenager when his award-winning Newsweek war photographer father, John Hoagland, was killed practicing his craft in El Salvador. In this first episode, Eros tries to explain to a group of horrified people gathered at the scene of a loved one’s murder that he understands what they’re experiencing. He’s not just there to sensationalize the violence.

Michael Christopher Brown (“Witness—Libya”)

Other photographers in the series include Veronique de Viguerie, who covers South Sudan, and Michael Christopher Brown in Libya. “We’d planned to do one with Tim Hetherington,” director of the powerful feature Restrepo, “and when he was killed [in Misrata, Libya], it gave us second thoughts about the show. But we all decided that it was even more important to show this kind of journey given that context.”

Hoagland practices his craft with Canon EOS 5D Mk II cameras. (Since Witness, he has added the Mk III.) While Canon stresses the extreme ruggedness of its 1D line, Hoagland notes that the 5D body’s price is more in line with his needs. Also the 5D bodies are lighter in weight, which can make a big difference, and he finds them plenty rugged enough.

He always shoots stills in Canon raw rather than .jpeg. “It’s about the information,” he says. “There’s so much more versatility working with the raw files. And in ten years there will be software somewhere to read the raw files, but I don’t know about .jpeg. Anyone who tells me they’re shooting .jpeg, makes me want to say, ‘Are you crazy? Don’t you care about your archives?’”

Veronique de Viguerie (“Witness—South Sudan”)

Of course, for the documentary, it was necessary to have not just the photographer present but also the additional people shooting him, a situation that could introduce exactly the kind of circus atmosphere Hoagland and Frankham wanted to avoid. The majority of that cinematography duty went to another well respected still shooter, Jared Moossy. He didn’t have professional video experience, but he had spent plenty of time in the field shooting in highly charged situations. He also used a 5D Mk II.

“It was really when the 5D came out that I thought we could do this,” Frankham adds. “If there was anything that looked like a video camera, everybody would have turned and stared right at it. We needed to do the documentary the same way these photographers do their work. Jared Moossy is also a great war photographer. He’s never shot video before. He’s used to working with a camera like the 5D in a war zone, and as soon as bullets are fired, he goes toward the action as opposed to running for cover. That was the most important thing.”

South Sudan. Photo by Veronique de Viguerie

Frankham is proudest of the aspects of Witness that show the daily moral conflict that these photographers contend with. “We want people to see the extent these photographers go to to put a bit of light on these stories,” he says. “These photographs do not just happen in front of them. We see Veronique struggle with that in an episode where a young boy is shot. Does she put down her camera and help or does she keep her journalistic distance? In Rio, with Eros, we had the opportunity to hide in a secret place and shoot someone bribing the police. But if we did that, everyone’s going to know who let us hide there. People are going to get killed. Where is the line? If I cross it, am I crossing it for the right reason?”

Witness might also be an important historical work as the days of the traditional war photographers and their iconic images are probably numbered. News and photo bureaus don’t have the resources they once did, especially to cover international events. These days, wars and conflicts are often captured, minus the flair and artistry, by amateurs and delivered via social media. “Generally it’s economically unsustainable to be a news photographer,” Hoagland laments. “There’s just not enough money for it anywhere on the food chain. People just don’t want it.”

Hoagland continues to take assignments out of a commitment to his craft and a desire to inform people about under-covered events, but he finds it an increasingly difficult way to make a living. “I get paid $150 more per day to shoot travel stories for The New York Times than I do to shoot in a war zone. I think that says it all.” 

 

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