“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
It is famously said that history is written by the winners.
Everyone likes a hero, after all. But the reality of the past, as events actually unfolded, so often tells a different story. The story of the lesser known though no less heroic individuals whose role was driven neither by glory nor politics, but by circumstance.
It’s those stories that are captured by the process of 'bearing witness', a term that denotes the actions of photojournalists, journalists and activists who take the time to find the stories of the unknown heroes, to document their war wounds and create an alternative, and perhaps more authentic, archive of the past.
In a recent BBC documentary the legendary war photographer Don McCullin, one of the 20th century’s self-confessed war junkies, reflected on the moral dilemma of his enduring internal monologue when he was forced to confront his personal and professional role in war, saying: “Why am I here, what’s my purpose, what’s it got to do with photography, what good is it going to do anyway, these people have already been killed?”
The answer, as his work testifies to this day, is that without his observations, history as experienced by ordinary people would have gone undocumented, confiscated entirely by the so-called victors.
It’s an ineffably loaded task – to seek out and document the rawest human experiences in such a way that retains a person’s dignity while jolting the heart and the intellect of the observer or reader.
What exactly do you need to reveal in order to elicit a response? Is the purpose of ‘bearing witness’ simply to inform or is the underlying motive to generate a reaction, in the hope of affecting public perception, social norms, individual behaviour, political change? And why does it take graphic images portraying physical distress and bloodshed to arrest an outsider’s attention? That debate is tackled thoughtfully in a recent article by Thomson Reuters’ Magda Mis, ‘War photography, war pornography’.
The wider issue, of the enduring complexity of bearing witness, and what it means for the ‘subject’ is something I continually return to, particularly in my own bid to record the story of the Ugandan Asian Diaspora - the story of what happened to just some of the 30,000 people expelled from Uganda in 1972 during the tyrannical and murderous presidency of Idi Amin.
The challenge is to elicit intimate details about the past lives of people who, since fleeing a country broken by its leader’s divisive and brutal agenda, have successfully rebuilt their lives - but not before experiencing a great deal of turmoil, emotionally and practically.
It’s a rare privilege to be granted access to anyone’s internal world, particularly where that world has been carefully guarded and hidden - sometimes even from the individual themselves. For in asking people to recall experiences from which they have necessarily moved on, there is the latent concern of potentially inducing a kind of secondary traumatisation.
The process of bearing witness effectively involves you intruding on an Other’s life, digging into every part of it. That is of course the job of a good journalist or biographer, in the quest for ‘the truth’. But it’s one that has to be approached with great care and sensitivity, as well as rigour and the quest for the facts.
So how do you approach it in such a way that avoids you merely parachuting in and out of someone else’s life story? The point is to engage, to take the time to hear the details and to listen with an open as well as a reflective mind.
You cannot be nor is it desirable to be wholly objective and impartial – that level of detachment can only lead to a story that merely has the veneer of reality you impose based on a pre-existing agenda. To truly bear witness to something, to write about or photograph something in a way that will have a tangible impact, you need to care about it.
If you want your readers and observers to react thoughtfully and with emotion, then in the words of Ernest Hemingway:
“Find out what gave you emotion; what the action was that gave you excitement. Then write it down making it clear so that the reader can see it too.”