Tuned In

You Have to See This: HBO’s Witness and the Stories Behind War Photos

This terrific four-part documentary shows why certain photographers seek out images and dangers most people close their eyes to.

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No matter what lies writers may tell ourselves, very often it’s the pictures that truly bring us the story–particularly in war zones and strife-torn areas, where there are brutalities you have to see to believe. But the taking of the pictures is a story in itself; a story of why certain people seek out what most people close their eyes to, run close to danger and manage to distill scenes of chaos into single defining images.

Through the month of November, the terrific HBO four-part documentary series Witness is telling that story. Produced by Michael Mann and David Frankham, in each episode Witness follows a photographer (three altogether) in a different world hotspot—Juarez, Mexico; Libya; South Sudan; and the slums of Rio de Janeiro–following camera with camera and using both video and striking stills to describe the experience of running into violence and capturing it in small, indelible slices.

The Witness films are interesting not just for the external drama but the internal stories of the photographers, who try to explain what led them to seek out this thrilling but potentially deadly work. As each portrait gladly makes clear, the job of war photography requires a distinct combination of empathy and distance. You do it because you care about situations that most Americans spend their lives ignoring; you know that war and vicious crime matter not for abstract visual drama but because they harm real people. You need to connect, gain trust. Some of the subjects have heartbreak in their own pasts—a lover who died young, a father who died as a war photographer.

And yet, as the subjects describe and show through action, to do the job well also requires a kind of compartmentalization. To capture war for a faraway audience, there needs to be a part of you who stands outside yourself, framing images in a way that will both move and inform an outsider.

To a layman, this combination of feeling and objectivity (in the visual if not political sense) can seem alien. Witness shows how its subjects use this attitude in the service of a job they’re willing to die for—and, at times, shows that being an observer does not mean being disinterested. In the South Sudan episode, there’s a horrifying but touching scene in which photographer Veronique de Viguerie, covering the conscription of child soldiers, rushes in to help a wounded young Sudanese, talking to him desperately to keep him conscious.

First she takes the picture, then she moves in to help. But each is an equally human impulse, and Witness lays them out in a way that’s hard to see, harder to look away from.