war photographers

I have been thinking a lot about how all I do here anymore is share videos, other people’s writings, random thoughts. The truth is I knew my writing would have to change, would have to evolve as we continue our path ever downwards. For awhile, I had a secret blog (just for real-life friends and family), which I thought would help. But it didn’t (plus, a secret blog is surprisingly hard to implement).

So this is our struggle. I am learning so much, and I want to share with everyone. This is a part of my personality, a part of how I was wired. But how much of what I am learning is tied to the lives of people, real flesh-and-blood and full of dignity people–people who you don’t know? The responsibility to portray nuanced and appropriate stories is a heavy mantle to bear. It is easier to shrug it off, and to be silent.

A bigger issue might be my own steep learning curve. It is probably not the time for me to be spouting off any deep thoughts or proposed answers or solutions or diatribes or rants; I am still struggling to catch my footing, lest I crush the path or fall off altogether. This is a very good reason to keep quiet, I think.

A while ago, back in Portland, I was ranting about people taking pictures and using them to “raise awareness” (or money). This is a huge topic, I know, and I have some very big thoughts on it. And one of my friends quietly told me a story of a war photographer, and how he justified taking pictures of people in the aftermath (and in the midst of) truly horrifying situations. the photographer said something along the lines of how he felt confident that publishing these photos for the world was the right thing to do, as long as the best interest of his subjects was his intention. he said people knew, would look his lens square and straight, because they trusted that these pictures would move people, would bring the world closer to them and their reality. he got permission from them, from their eyes and their words (where language allowed). and he used his responsibility wisely, to show the truth of the situation.

Thank goodness I can’t take a picture for the life of me (and it most surely would not be welcomed in my neighborhood, anyway). But I do like to write, and this is where I have been stumped: what is my role in all of this.

For the truth is that there is a war going on, all the time. Poverty in America is intense, complicated, fraught with both joys and casualties all the time. And by and large, we don’t know about it, and would be fine with keeping it that way. In some ways I feel like we need a war photographer or two around here; but something tells me it would take a whole lifetime to earn the sort of trust necessary to share in the task of telling stories.

I am only two months in. For now, I can only share me. But even that has its problems. If I tell you that I have been terrified, several times since moving here, you would only see a small part of my life. If I told you of the difficulties, you might not get the whole picture. Already, in these short months, I have found myself asking questions and dealing with situations (most often: should I call the cops or not? ) that are pretty foreign to me. This is real, of course, but this is only a small part. Far more often I feel bored, or lonely, or tired, or blessed, or cheerful, or industrious, or crafty, or hungry. And on the flip-side, there is the blessing of being in this difficult place. I cannot even begin to process how to go writing about these miracles. For they aren’t the ones I thought I was going to tell; it turns Christ wanted to heal me and change me, and draw me to himself.

There is the tension of being “in ministry”. We tend to minimize, or maximize, our situations depending on the context. More often than not people working on the margins tend to the former, perhaps out of respect for their neighbors or a misguided attempt at holy stoicism. But bottling up feelings never did anybody any good; the field is littered with burn outs and drop outs who may have been saved had they spoken of their troubles long ago. This is just one conundrum after another, people.

So, let’s wrestle through this. I have learned so much from war photographers, from biographies and stories of people living the kingdom out on the ground. If you know any good thoughts on how to best share our experiences in the margins, please share with all of us. Let’s make this a conversation, shall we? 

The image comes from National Geographic and the story behind it is stunning. Go here to read it

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16 thoughts on “war photographers

  1. Aubrey says:

    Sounds to me like you are wresting with thoughts from a recent blog/ TEDtalk you shared about the danger of a single story. I’m still gnawing my way through it all too. I have a “secret” blog with a whole of 11 followers, but sometimes I feel like I’m limiting how God is trying to mold me by keeping how I feel and what I learn mostly to myself. It’s a delicate balance, I’m not sure if it is ever mastered. There’s so many facets to consider when sharing a story, even if it is just your own, but I keep reminding myself (thanks to Chimamanda Adichie), that there is truth in each facet, it’s just not the complete picture. Can you imagine if Chimanda Adichie wouldn’t have decided to share her story? There would have been a danger there too, right? Her story wouldn’t have been told, her facet wouldn’t have been added to the picture. Sometimes we have to be willing to take the risk. I don’t know, like I said I’m still gnawing my way through the process.
    I’ve learned a lot through you and up to this moment had been reading out in the margins. I appreciate your choice to honor those you come alongside with, when it’s time to share I know it’s the story I was supposed to hear.

  2. Richard J. says:

    Hey DLM,
    I work at a newspaper, so I get your tension. I personally don’t write stories, but appreciate those that have to make decisions like these. I’ve seen stories that are written, sharing the good and bad of people’s lives. I’ve seen stories written that moved the community to action to help the people who’s lives were described. Now, most times, these stories have the complete cooperation of the subjects. So, that’s a little different.

    But this is what I thought first after reading your post. Depending on the reasons for your writing, I think it’d be cool to read the stories of real people you’re encountering, but with the names changed. Think of it like a parable. Is the story you’re telling going to help someone?

    I realize too that stories can help for a variety of reasons. Reading through the mental and emotional side of your journeys has been very helpful to me. You’ve been very honest and open with the real struggles that normal people deal with in these situations. But I could see how if you wrote a personal reaction to an anonymous person’s story, they could read it, and it might affect the relationship between the two of you. In that case, I wouldn’t publish anything you wouldn’t say to someone face to face, or haven’t already communicated to said person.

    With all that said, I’d love to read stories about the lives of the people you’re serving and how it’s changing you and what you’re struggling with. A narrative post would be a cool experiment too! (Forgive my ignorance if you’ve already done that.)

    • sorry, i missed this comment until just now! thanks so much for the encouragement. and i agree–one element i would like to include is more participation, and somehow identifying myself as a “writer” or “sharer” from the get-go, so it doesn’t feel exploitative. in many of my cases, however, i tend to hang out with people where there are severe language and cultural barriers, many of which cannot be overcome. so i think i just need to tread lightly, here.

  3. wonderfully thought out danielle. have you seen the documentary on james nachtwey? http://www.war-photographer.com/
    There’s a quote from him in the movie that you might find relevant. “The main purpose of my work is to appear in the mass media. It’s not so much that I want my pictures to be looked upon as art objects as it is a form of communication. Whatever I did that accomplished something, I’m glad for it. But there’s always so much more to do. I’ve never felt complete; I’ve never felt satisfied. I wouldn’t say I could use the word ‘happy’ about it because its always involved other people’s tragedies and other people’s misfortunes. At best, there’s a kind of grim satisfaction that perhaps I brought some attention, and focused people’s attention on these problems. Perhaps it brought some relief. But its shifting sand that keeps moving.”

    • um, it was your husband that told me about the war photographer! i must have missed that there was a movie attached . . . now i will have to watch it. thanks for inspiring this blog with our conversation the other day!

  4. This is a tough topic indeed. I don’t know how one does it with pictures, but when it comes to writing about others, I always try to focus on myself and my experiences. However, I wonder sometimes if I live too often with a hope that I can live something I can write about. It’s like the tail wagging the dog in that case.

  5. becca says:

    it makes me think about how much I share with my husband about conversations I have with other friends – we definitely keep a confidentiality when it comes to other people’s stories but we also try to share openly with each other. in our community we use the language sometimes of ‘covering’ and ‘uncovering’ … can I share deeply with Chris without uncovering people, not overstepping the boundaries of privacy that would be expected when they shared with me? maybe that can be applied to writing? can i share people’s stories while still honouring their own depths and complexities that I don’t even realize yet? (i have no idea, really.) and for ourselves and our experiences, i guess we can be as open and honest as we want to be. sometimes we may regret that, but i think vulnerability (ie woundability) is so important and missing in our world.

    i also think people’s stories (and depths and complexities) cut through our ideology and prejudices surrounding poverty. we need that. we need people to help open our eyes to those lives we would otherwise ignore, stereotype or assume we understand.

    great questions. i’m interested to hear what others think.

    • “i also think people’s stories (and depths and complexities) cut through our ideology and prejudices surrounding poverty. we need that. we need people to help open our eyes to those lives we would otherwise ignore, stereotype or assume we understand.”

      yes, exactly. i am thinking of stories i read when i was child, where the stories of poverty really got to me. but sometimes they were a little one-note.

      you know who actually does a good job of this? vintage sesame street. i always wanted to go to bali or indonesia or kenya after Grover talked about it. he made the kids all seem so smart and capable of doing things I had never dreamed of.

      Also: i think the ability to share your stories in a community is key. but it doesn’t make it easy, does it?

      • vintage sesame street for the win. definitely.

        i think John Hayes is right when he says there’s a reason God has placed so many artists of different stripes in our order. these stories need to be told, over and over, to lots of different layers and circles of community.

        this summer, before we went back to the states, we asked some of the friends we’d gotten to know over the past year if we could interview them about what it’s really like to live in east london, so that our family and friends would see another side to the UK than olympics coverage. and we were surprised how willing and eager people were to share their stories with us. they were so, so honest. we were really honored to hear them and showing the resulting video to our friends back in the states was really powerful.

  6. Andrea says:

    The stories need to be told. Yours and theirs because they are part of our story too—all of us together, players in the Great story. Story has the potential to transform the hearer. I think of the messy, miserable stories of the Bible. Keep telling.

  7. Heather M. says:

    It is probably not the time for me to be spouting off any deep thoughts or proposed answers or solutions or diatribes or rants; I am still struggling to catch my footing, lest I crush the path or fall off altogether. This is a very good reason to keep quiet, I think.

    This statement struck me and my heart just ached for you. It resonated with the sense of fears left in the shadows to whisper with this uncertainty of what exactly you are doing there. I appreciated that sharing and for what its worth, this is my 2 cents.

    I think that your thoughts and proposed ideas should be spouted as they come to you. It’s part of the thinking process. Your perspectives and solutions will change as you come to understand your neighbors, yourselves, your needs and God’s leading but talking them out and putting them on paper, even is you reserve the right to revise it in the future, is one of the most honest and transparent things you can do and you do it for you not anyone here.

    We (in my opinion) are just observers who get a precious glimpse into the heart of God through your eyes and your experiences and no matter how raw or scary, disjointed or full circle they are, they are beautiful. You are in your new life and yes, the footing feels unsure but remember that every step that is taken where God leads is as solid as it was in the places you tread before. I don’t think you can fall off anywhere my friend. Not as long as you hold Jesus’ hand. Don’t doubt yourself. He has perfectly equipped you for the calling He gave you.

    Thank you for sharing.

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As a writer and fundraiser, I’ve struggled with questions like how much to share, when am I being a voice for the voiceless, and when am I speaking over the voiceless. I recently moved to Guatemala and can relate to the feeling of losing your footing. I share some of my thoughts on the topic of writing and advocacy and downward mobility here: http://bit.ly/Rjf0I2. Again, thanks for sharing and opening up with this conversation.

    Aly

  9. [...] series was inspired by some scattered thoughts I had on this idea back in this blog post (plus the comments). If you have some thoughts on the subject (be they big or small), let me know. [...]

  10. […] writer or artist in sharing others’ stories. I highly recommend taking a gander at her post, War Photographers, and getting cozy with her blog where she writes about living in the upside-down […]

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