Today as I was running errands, I caught some of Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” on the radio. In today’s installment, Gross interviewed Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist who has been shooting in war zones for over 10 years and, after surviving two kidnappings, just came out with a new memoir.
What struck me from the interview, besides how rich and strangely engaging someone’s voice can be after so many harrowing periods of immersion into mankind’s most brutal places, spaces and moments, was a quote she shared from famous Magnum photographer Robert Capa:
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Addario added that there are two ways you can read into this quote. “I always read into it more as not only physically close but emotionally close. And I think, as a photographer it’s very important to get emotionally close to your subjects and to really just break down those walls that exist between a photographer and anyone–because the minute you introduce a camera into any scene, people become aware of that and they become uncomfortable and a bit rigid. So it’s only with time and with feeling comfortable with someone that that goes away.”
She shared a story of spending two months with the 173rd Airborne troop, at the end of which they experienced an ambush from three sides in which three soldiers and the Sergeant were killed–an extremely sensitive moment to have photographers around. In shock and mourning, these soldiers granted her permission when she asked if she could photograph them and their wounded or fallen comrades.
“Everyone was crying I was crying, and they said ‘Yes’ — and I think that was one of those moments that I was close enough, because I had put the time in and I cared and they were comfortable with me being there, and I’m not sure if that would have happened if I had just shown up the day before.”
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For quite awhile now, I’ve been trying for awhile to figure out what kind of photographer I am, and this quote and story helped reaffirm my desire to make my photography always complementary to and, in a way, secondary to my work in/focus on building community, relationships and connection.
One of my greatest fears as a storyteller is to create harm or distance with my desire to document… especially in situations in which people who look like me have come before me and taken advantage of or otherwise harmed people who have been somehow marginalized.
And I’m not sure there is a way around that without taking Capa’s quote in the way Addario does — to mean genuine emotional closeness to the point that your intentions and your caring for you subject is understood.
My mother’s dear friend Mike died two nights ago. She had been the best of friends to him as he faced cancer and all that comes with it. She shared his death with me over the phone and was at peace with it, since he had fortunately gone gradually with plenty of time for him and those around him to come to terms with the reality of it all.
Mom relayed Mike’s words during their very last talk:
“None of it matters, Kathy–the stuff, the things, the money, even the travel. None of that matters. The only things that really matter are friends and family.”
It’s so easy to fall in love with ideas and with the roles we have picked out for ourselves. But even those will fade, and what will be left is how we connected–or didn’t connect–with the humans we encountered while playing, constructing and reconstructing those roles through our lifetime. And, ironically, the degree to which we do connect often decides how good our work is (Addario and Capa’s point).
I’m grateful today to the courageous Ms. Addario, who puts herself in harm’s way repeatedly to bear witness to the costs and baffling realities of war and war zones, for sharing this simple truth with me. What matters is the friendship behind the work, behind the picture. It reminds me not to spend my energy worrying about doing harm and instead to point it toward connecting, for real–putting in the time, knowing and being known.