The value of bearing witness
By Carl Ganter
I believe we all have a duty to look around us, to see what’s good with the world, to observe what’s wrong. And sharing that experience will help make life better.
I was working in Southeast Asia, covering the emerging AIDS crisis in 1992 for Time magazine. From Singapore to Kathmandu, I lived with the sick, the misfits, the forgotten.
One night I decided to cover a political protest in Thailand. A general had named himself prime minister and the people were crying foul.
The humidity that night was oppressive, almost as heavy as the military coup that was quietly clamping down on Bangkok’s streets and turning off satellite feeds and radio stations. Unknown to me and to demonstrators who gathered in a nearby soccer stadium, soldiers were erecting razor-wire barricades along Democracy Avenue, the pathway to the palace.
The night grew softer after midnight and a celebratory vibe drifted through the crowd of about 100,000 people. A Bob Dylan look-alike, complete with harmonica and guitar, sang songs of peace, freedom and country. Opposition leaders took turns on the stage, passionately calling for democracy and accountability. The people applauded and danced and talked on their cell phones. These were well-dressed students and professionals who had seen a new era of prosperity.
I sat down to take it all in. The peaceful protests. The din of voices. The calls for justice.
A few hours before dawn, I found myself at the head of the crowd leaving the stadium. I walked backward, taking pictures of the stream of people marching down Democracy Avenue. How ironic, I thought.
Strangely, I was the only photographer in front of this mass of humanity winding toward the palace.
I felt an urgent tug on my shirt. I ignored it for a moment. But one of the opposition leaders was trying to get my attention.
“Come, you must show the world,” he said.
We turned the bend, just past the Democracy Monument, and came face to face with a wall of wire and soldiers in riot gear.
I slipped across the military’s barricade and saw not only nightsticks but automatic rifles and tear gas guns at the ready. The soldiers, confident and relaxed, ignored me and my camera.
But on the Bangkok street, a balmy night that had been a celebration of democracy quickly turned violent. As I crossed back to the crowd, rocks sailed overhead. A particularly large one bounced off my camera. People were bleeding. I kept taking pictures.
After sunrise, the military opened fire, killing and wounding dozens. I went to the university where students had built barricades. I raced to the hospitals and blood banks where the injured gathered and where the blood banks were in disarray.
Later, I worked my way to the airport where almost all flights had been cancelled – all but a single cargo plane to London. As I addressed my film to Time, I could only think of those words, “Come, you must show the world.”
This is what I believe.
This was especially clear to me on another assignment, in another country 13 years later. It was a hazy night in Mexico City’s Colonia San Miguel before Valentine’s Day.
I had brought our eager intern with me on the trip. We were reporting the dire conditions of poverty and lack of water in the barrios. In addition to being an intern, Soren had been my neighbor since junior high. He was a kid who raided our fridge and begged to borrow my video camera. Bright, gregarious and popular, Soren was never at a loss for words.
In the Mexico City barrio, when we settled into the home of the Silva family, Soren and I shared corners of a tattered, filthy mattress. On that first night, we could hear the street dogs as they snarled and fought outside our shack.
People struggled daily here for life’s basic necessities like water. Many had come to Mexico City in search of work, displaced from water-stressed regions such as Oaxaca and Tehuacán.
Most of the Silvas’ neighbors lived side-by-side in cramped shelters made of corroded metal sheets, decaying tar paper and cement bricks. Pieces for the homes were scavenged from junk piles – and electricity came from a spider web of wires clipped precariously to power lines above.
The evening darkness brought warnings of street gangs. And even the dogs, ever so vocal, were unhappy and stressed. One dog ran up and bit me on the leg, drawing blood and sending me to the hospital for a precautionary rabies shot.
Our hosts latched the street-side door with a thin strand of wire, a meager gesture of security against the sounds and threats of the night.
The water flowed at a trickle for only an hour each week, barely enough to fill the open barrels outside the family’s meager home. At dawn a vendor on the street carried large plastic bottles and yelled, “Agua! Agua!” It was clean and safe, unlike the liquid that flowed from the Silvas’ twisted plastic pipe. The voice faded as the seller disappeared up the street. Th bottles were too expensive for him to buy, Mr. Silva said.
Into the night, Soren and I interviewed and photographed the Silvas and their two young boys. e next morning, Soren played with the children as their father sat on a ledge, wondering aloud how he would pay for a rose his boys could take to their teacher on this sainted holiday.
When we came home to Michigan two weeks later, my wound had mostly healed. And Soren, the usually, outgoing, inquisitive neighbor kid, all but disappeared into the clamor and cool of high school. He no longer seemed fascinated with journalism, nor did he want to talk about his Mexico experiences.
A few months later I stopped by to say hello to his parents. In the kitchen, I saw a college acceptance letter stuck to the fridge. Next to it was a special note from the dean. For his application essay, Soren had earned a $30,000 scholarship.
His essay, Soren told me later, was about the Silva family and our nights in Mexico City. It was about how he realized, with a simple plane flight, he could re-enter his life back home while the Silvas and their children were left behind to continue their struggle in poverty.
I believe we all have a duty to see and share what’s good with the world and report what’s wrong. In bearing witness and sharing our experiences, we can help make life better.
And I believe that may just change a life far away – or even next door.
J. Carl Ganter’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.