Interview with Photojournalist Paul Watson


Wilma dramaturg Walter Bilderback in conversation with award-winning photojournalist Paul Watson.

Walter Bilderback:
You and Dan O'Brien have known each other for 7 years now, and the relationship we see develop in The Body of an American has continued to the present, including a new volume of poems to be published soon. Has your friendship with Dan changed you?

Paul Watson: I rarely reply to emails like Dan's. He was a stranger, pitching a play, and coming out of the blue as it did, I thought it sounded bizarre. But I'm a diehard fatalist and my inner voice told me to do whatever Dan asked and I have.

I told him at the start, as I warmed to the idea, that he would be my confessor. And that's the main effect he's had in my life. Normally, I don't like to talk about the subjects he brought up unless it's to my wife, in my own home. But Dan has lead me over important ground, and to me, his art is in expressing painful truths that pure journalism can't capture.

So, more and more, I prefer to avoid war and related subjects unless I can face them with Dan. It's less painful, and I trust him to tell hard truths in ways that touch people's hearts. 

One of the most difficult things in dealing with the inescapable trauma is seeing people's eyes glaze over, or get all teary with sympathy, soon after the subject comes up. In the little of Dan's work that I've been able to face, I can see he understands why I don't see heroes in such an ugly world, only heroic acts by flawed people.

Dan gets that fundamental truth across to audiences with a visceral power that I could never muster.

For that, I'm forever grateful. I can't escape the pain, the fear, the hatred and all the toxicity they bring. But I take some comfort in knowing that Dan is bringing others to that experience through his poetry and writing for the stage.

The only thing that gives me hope is the thought that if enough people see and feel what I did, they will come to the same conclusion: we have to fundamentally change the way we live and how we treat one another, and that will take us closer to liberating ourselves from the war that lives in all of us.

WB: You've so far avoided seeing a performance of The Body of an American. Why is that?

PW: I can remember a time when I was able to see people suffering, confront it through writing and photography and move on. I think humans are wired with a kind of emotional filter which makes that possible. Otherwise, the empathy that makes us human would overwhelm us in day-to-day life. My filter fried somewhere along the way. I only need to sense someone's fear, sadness, or other emotional pain from a distance and it becomes my own. 

When you can't escape that feeling, it's natural to retreat to avoid the triggers that make life so hard to endure. I've become better at managing the risks in my in own mind. But I want, I need, peace. And that escapes me. I know that seeing Dan's play would only make peace more elusive. So I avoid it. I can't even read the script. 

It's the same reason that I put off answering your questions as long as possible. They raise important issues, ones that I want to talk about, but I know I'll have to struggle to recover hard-won emotional ground.

WB: As the play recounts, you've reported from many hot spots in your career, including Iraq and more recently Syria. Some of the poems in Dan O'Brien's upcoming book of poetry recount the danger there. Did you encounter the nascent ISIS in Syria? What is your feeling about the situation now in Syria and Iraq?

PW: I spent a week in Aleppo, Syria, most of the time in areas controlled by moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army. The trouble with Syria is that territory and alliances constantly shift, so you can never be sure you're in (relatively) safe hands--not to mention the 24-hour shelling and bombardment in Aleppo that makes the whole place very dangerous.

At the end, I spent half a day in Aleppo's Old City, a frontline district that was then under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front. They are extremists, allied with al Qaeda, but when I visited their area, they also had good relations with the moderate Tawheed Brigade of FSA, who were my hosts.

So, while it was risky, I felt I could trust the Nusra fighters not to hold me against my will. In hindsight, that was probably naive. The Western prisoners who've been decapitated were captured before and after my one week in Aleppo, which required a journey from and back to the Turkish border. That's prime kidnap territory. I suspect I was lucky. I wouldn't try it again under current circumstances.

But the Nusra fighters I spent time with were completely respectful--if a bit war crazed, which is understandable. I liked the two fighters who took me on a walking tour, including a run past Assad-regime sniper positions.

The quick version of my view of Syria and Iraq is this: at the outset, many of the Syrians fighting to remove Assad were Western-leaning. I met with a group of former university students in the FSA who had waited so long for the CIA to deliver promised aid that they had given up and were turning to the Nusra front and other extremist groups. 

They described a stark choice: stay true to more liberal democratic ideals, and run out of ammunition, or join Islamist groups that are better funded and supplied. 

As one said to me, seething with anger: "What do you expect us to do?"

I was embarrassed to be defending liberal ideals in front of young men who felt completely betrayed by those same ideals.

I think that if the West had done much more to support moderate elements in the opposition from the start (instead of stringing them along with promises that weren't kept, and which only humiliated those moderate leaders in people's eyes), we wouldn't have the unmitigated disaster that is now northern Syria-Iraq. (Iraq is related fallout from the failure in Syria, but also has its own causes, which I don't have enough direct experience of to comment on intelligently.)

WB: It seems that war reporting is becoming more and more dangerous: some have attributed this to the growing reliance by news media on freelancers.  What do you think is the future of reporting from war zones and other crisis points?

PW: Over the 25-odd years that I did war reporting, I lost journalist friends and colleagues in virtually every conflict. I’ve always been a bit put off by foreigners, whether they’re aid workers, journalists or any other unarmed civilian who chooses to enter a war zone, who try to claim what is effectively a right to special protection.

The simple truth is that no one is safe in war. That’s why we should be doing a lot more as a civilization to prevent them.

Foreigners drawn to conflict areas by the desire to help civilians, witness their suffering and so on should reconcile themselves to the risks of kidnapping, serious injury and death, which all civilians face. I think the only responsible way to work in areas of conflict is to make peace with whatever horrible thing can happen before it does. Then it is clear there’s no one else to blame but yourself.

As outsiders, we have the privilege of passports that allow us to flee to safety whenever we choose. If we decide to enter a war zone, we should focus on innocent civilians who have no easy escape route.

I think there is a shift, especially in the most notorious cases such as Syria and ISIS-held/threatened areas  of Iraq, toward targeting foreign journalists, who may have felt at least a thin veil of protection from the PRESS that’s so often emblazoned on journalists’ kevlar vests, cars and such. That used to help deter targeted attacks. It still does in some places. But increasingly, I’m afraid, the word PRESS is an invitation to be singled out for kidnapping or attack. (I stopped advertising my affiliation long ago, on the theory that blending in as much as possible reduces the risk slightly.)

There are enough well-known examples, including strikes on known journalists by Western militaries as well as by militant groups, that I don’t need to rehash any here. I don’t think they are a direct result of an increase in the use of freelancers. Yes, staff journalists have greater access to training, insurance and other support in some media agencies. But none of that will save your life when it’s your time.

I see war as a very mercurial killer, which chooses its victims randomly. How else can I be alive and whole, at least physically, when so many others around me, good people mostly, were taken?

To me, technological changes are more significant than constantly shifting risks in trying to figure out the future of reporting from wars and other crises.

When I left Syria after a week in Aleppo, lamenting the lack of foreign journalists, especially the marquee names who have the star power to bring in a large broadcast audience, a colleague replied: “It’s all on YouTube anyway.” That was an awakening, of sorts, for me.

Ordinary people are providing a lot of detailed information on social media from some of the most dangerous places on Earth. So the notion that foreign journalists need “to witness” is rather quaint now.    

We can’t turn our backs on foreign conflicts and crises. But we can work differently, recognizing the amount of raw reporting from the ground that’s available to anyone who cares.

As journalists, professional story tellers, we should have the skills to make our audiences care. That is one essential element that we can bring to the table. The Internet has brought a new, important demand: Our audience won’t accept problems with suggested solutions anymore. If they’re going to invest their time and emotions in trying to grasp a distant problem, they increasingly insist on options to help change things for the better.

That demands activist journalism, which is a term that I know scares a lot of my colleagues (some even shout at me when I raise it). It’s a complex subject, but for clarity I’ll say here that I’m not advocating reporting that’s heaped with more opinion. There’s more than enough noise out there now and the din is only getting louder.

The activism I’m suggesting requires more digging for facts that challenge myths and assumptions that perpetuate an us-against-them world. To me, the future will be brighter if Western reporters turn their investigative skills on their own governments, intelligence agencies, military planners and others who have a hand in foreign conflicts, and crises that may escalate to all-out war.

Far too little is known about how foreign involvement, covert and otherwise, along with policy decisions, geo-political maneuvering and such fuel conflicts like Syria’s civil war. Filling in those vast blanks in public knowledge would go a long way, I think, toward making real solutions more obvious, and ways of preventing future wars more broadly understood and debated—in time to save a lot of lives.

WB: Dan O'Brien says the two of you pitched a show in Hollywood. How did that compare to other experiences you've had in your life?

PW: That Hollywood pitch week was a bizarre experience.

My role was to explain how my personal experience as a war reporter-photographer would contribute to a show we pitched as morally ambiguous, darkly humorous and laced with raw emotions fired by conflict. Our list included combat sex, scheming among colleagues, bravery under fire, self-sacrifice for innocent civilians, struggling to defeat The Big Lies and such.

In other words, we were offering a show that was viscerally real, and which would take viewers to war as journalists and other civilians actually experience it: No heroes, yet lots of heroic acts. Much more distressingly, yet intriguingly, grey than comfortably black and white, good and evil.

So I had to talk about things, including ghosts, that make me cry. I don’t know how often cable TV executives watch pitchers break down in tears in their very plush Hollywood offices, one of which look like the interior designer graduated from Star Trek.

So I can’t say whether I was an unusual case. It certainly felt weird, though.

I still think we have the makings of a very entertaining TV show, one that would regularly blow holes through the more imaginary world of war that people expect from years of watching them on the news. -

Photo: Paul Watson by Dan O'Brien

Photo: By Paul Watson for the Toronto Star. A Free Syrian Army fighter surveys the massive devastation after President Bashar Assad's forces struck a six-storey apartment building Sunday, killing at least 20 people


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