It is while I am on the bus from the gate to my second of three flights, that it dawns on me why I am in such a bad mood. I am surrounded by tourists who came to Italy for a brief respite from the Grey and cold that our destination to the north has in store for us this Sunday. The reality I am in right now is very different to the one I left a few hours ago, covering the refugee situation on the speck of an Island in the Mediterranean, that is Lampedusa.
Where am I? I have to look it up on my old boarding pass to know for sure, but the answer is Palermo. I am not present, I am preoccupied and uncomfortable.
The stories I have heard, the people I have met, the courage, the sorrow, the trauma, the joy I have picked up on vicariously is percolating to the surface. I do not know where my feelings begin, and theirs end.
A large part of my shooting process entails investing myself emotionally. I try to immerse myself in “the story” and try to figure out what it means to the people going through it. I try to be compassionate to what they are going through, try to see, and document, through their eyes and their hearts. This is nearly impossible, as there are always several perspectives to take in and understand simultaneously, even if these are far away from my personal convictions, experience, and worldview. I have to try to be observant and accepting.
A Journalist, whom I deeply respect, once told me to try and accept what I see. “It is their truth, and their reality”. I try to do this, and hope to gain entry, even if for a moment to their world.
Outrage is easy. Compassion is hard work.
I used to have a very different approach to the work. I wanted to see human suffering, but not feel what was going on around me. I had the intention of taking beautiful pictures of horrible suffering. In retrospect I know that I did not mean any harm, but I lacked the maturity to really understand what my job was. It was at a funeral after the Boxing day Tsunami that my strategy of not feeling really hurt me. I had been shooting all morning. I asked my driver to head back to my Hotel, when we came across a funeral procession. A coffin was being brought to a cemetery, when I jumped out of the car and started shooting. The women at the front of the procession were weeping and screaming. I made eye contact with one or two of them in an effort to ask permission to photograph them up close. I could feel that I was not unwelcome there, and perhaps that they wanted this death not to go undocumented. When we reached the cemetery, everyone got quiet accept for one young woman. She was screaming and screaming in grief and anger. her grief was tangible and stirred the air with a sort of electricity that made it hard to breathe. “Don’t feel, don't let it in, you are a stone” were my thoughts. All of a sudden I felt something in me break, and I let out two or three uncontrollable sobs. Like hiccups they kept coming. some tears welled up in my eyes, but I managed to suppress them.
It was the cumulation of some terrible sights and impressions, which I wont get in to here, that crescendoed in that woman’s screams.
From that day forward, something in me was broken.
My ability to "see", the thing I cherish most, had left me.
After that trip I stopped shooting for 5 years. I was shocked at my intentions, and disgusted by some of the photographers I met there, and did not want to be complicit to an industry that valued stories of celebrities who had to cut their vacations short more than stories of true human suffering. I was even criticized as having missed the story by showing two coffins rather than open mass graves.
My main focus was on the fishermen. For them life comes from the ocean, while on that day it was death that came. This tragic poetry has such power to me.
Sadly, there was close to zero interest in my work. I would like to think that there are more people who are interested or concerned with the local population that inherited the consequences of one of the largest natural disasters in recorded History.
Any way, nothing could really prepare me for that trip. I still don’t tell people most of what I saw and photographed there. Some of the photographs in my archive, have never been seen by anyone but me. I still feel guilty at times for having taken them. It is my job to document, but where do I start acting like a human being. I read somewhere that René Burri never showed the dead in his war images. He didn't out of respect of the person’s dignity. This thought stuck with me.
I don’t know if I would do the same today, but after the Tsunami I only showed people reacting to the dead, rather than showing the dead themselves. I feel one can relate with and connect to a situation much stronger by looking in the eyes of a survivor than seeing the dead.
One situation I had, may be four or five days after the Tsunami, was when I came upon a pile of bodies lying in a little park by the sea, waiting to be identified. Again I will spare you most of the details, but let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty. I saw four men carrying a coffin. They were bringing it to the bodies. They had a vacant look in their eyes, as though they were looking inward, a reaction I would assign to them having seen too much. They were looking inside themselves, as though they wanted to shield themselves from the outside. They set the coffin down and started pulling nails out of the coffin. There were two little kids watching, laughing in both shock and not understanding. I don’t know what they were doing there, but noticed that they were keen on seeing what was inside the coffin. I wanted to take the picture of the moment they reacted to what they would see. As the lid opened, the sour stench of decomposition punched me in the face, causing me to turn around and nearly through up. I missed the shot, but am glad I did. My intention was disrespectful.
Today I try to take responsibility for my work. Sure, there are allot of things one has to do when working for tabloids that go beyond the ethic of many, but I try to be honest to myself and my subjects now. It is not a rare occurrence that I get very emotional while on assignment, not out of Drama, but out of respect to the subject. If a person suffered a loss, I try to treat them that way, and be sincere about it. The cost of not doing this is much to high for me.
This is why, today, amongst happy and well fed tourists, I am irritated, angry, and inpatient. I need to bring myself to accepting their reality as well, but it is always difficult the first few days I come home.