The red velvet chair invited me back in time to a time when movies were made purely to entertain, people dressed elegantly to see their favorite stars, and a night at the cinema meant a night of pure glamour.
Lausanne has its very own cinémathèque where they play select films by Swiss directors in a small, luxurious theatre, complete with red velvet chairs and gold detail along the walls. My friends and I all decided to go see the film without knowing anything about it, but we knew that we would be served dinner after.
As the lights dimmed and the film reel clicked on, the air of excitement reached its climax as we all settled into our seats. But as the film began, we had a swift shift of moods as the first image was pure destruction, clearly from war, in Kosovo, and the first sound to break the silence was a woman crying from the deep, real pain of losing her home and her children by the hands of other people. During this moment of pure grief, a man walked straight up to her and started taking pictures. It was completely shocking–but he kept clicking away at her grief and the woman allowed him to continue to capture her soul on film.
As I sat helpless in the dark of theatre, I wanted to jump up and tell that photographer to stop taking pictures–clearly she is distraught, why didn’t he respect that?
But the film continued. Other questions formed in my mind about this photographer–why was he putting himself in so much danger for a picture? Why were these distraught people letting him take pictures? Why was he coming into the pure destruction of a war-torn nation, then returning to his peaceful home in America, where his raw photos make him a profit? How could he deal with himself?
To my surprise, all my questions were answered in the film. He deals with himself by believing that the world will become more peaceful if people see the destruction they are doing to each other in a photo. He has inner guilt from thinking that he profits from other people’s pain. He completely enters the world of war and becomes a part of it, rather than detaching himself from the battles. He gets involved and close, actually standing up for one man, who eventually was beaten to death simply because of his ethnicity. The photographer begged the crowd not to kill the man, they killed him, then he took photos.
The psychology of such a career has to be incredibly messy. How much guilt and heartbreak would one have from watching battle after battle, person after person, lose everything at the hands of other people and nations who have lost all humanity, then taking a picture and returning home, leaving those people grieving in their solitude?
But what if there were no photos of war and destruction? Someone has to do it. We all have to see the death and grim reality, so no one can doubt the fact that human rights are being denied in Kosovo, or that the Holocaust happened, or that the Twin Towers fell.
So we have “tough as nails” journalists that set their emotions aside to capture the harsh reality. But still, a picture has distance. We can’t possibly know the feeling of complete loss in Kosovo, or what its like to have one leg and one arm, trying to raise a family of five beside the railway in the Philippines, until we are there, in it. In the documentary, the photographer actually says “If everyone could see, just once, what [war] is like, then everyone would wonder how people can possibly do this to each other.”
The most interesting thing about the film though, was not the photographer, not the war itself, but the people the photographer captured. They graciously allowed him to click away at their burned home or their teary-grief stricken faces. They allowed him to stay with them during a battle using only sticks and grenades, and continue to photograph, even though he could hardly breath from all the tear gas. They never politely told him to leave, but they never asked him to stay. It was as if he was just blending into the rubble. These people wanted their stories to be told. They want us to know.
And we know, we see the photos. But what do we do about it? What can we do? It is a constant question for everything–what is the next step? I had never actually realized that “war photographer” is a real career. And by the looks of it, it could be the toughest than any other job in journalism.
The film ran out and the movie clicked off. The lights rose back up, and everyone in the audience remained silent. We slowly gathered our nice coats and headed to our three course meal downstairs despite our lack of appetite. How could we stand ourselves now?