THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US by Masha Hamilton
It was the summer of 1994 and I was back in the states after a decade
spent covering bloody clashes in the Middle East and the turbulent
collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union when I first heard the news
about Kevin Carter. I already knew him as a member of the Bang Bang Club
- a group of photojournalists based in South Africa and notorious for
their often-reckless coverage of apartheid’s final deadly days. I’d seen
his Pulitzer-winning photograph, published by the New York Times, which
personified the heartbreak of the Sudanese famine with the image of a
tiny girl squatting on scrawny knees, head drooping heavily to the
ground, a vulture lurking behind. The image haunted me, in part, because
the girl was close to the age of my own daughter. Close to the age of
Carter’s daughter, as well.
I wasn’t prepared for the news of that July. Two months after he’d
collected what he’d called the highest acknowledgment possible of his
work, and had been feted and praised, Carter parked his red pickup truck
near a small river where he used to play as a boy, attached a garden
hose to the exhaust pipe and gassed himself to death. “The pain of life
overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist,” he wrote in a
note he left on the passenger seat.
Word of his suicide came just as I was realizing for myself what
covering a lesser degree of violence had cost me, so I understood pretty
quickly that what might at first seem inexplicable, if examined for a
moment longer, was not.
Journalists who regularly cover war pay a price. Stepping around those
pointlessly killed in warfare, or interviewing someone who has just lost
the one closest him, takes a toll. The typical penalty is a repression
of emotions that begins, by necessity, in the field. This isn’t
initially a bad thing; in fact, at the time, it’s crucial. The aftermath
of combat often leads to the most profound moments in people’s lives. In
order to be fully present, journalists must shove their own shock or
fear or revulsion into an inaccessible corner and ignore it - at least
long enough to cover the story, maybe longer.
I remember the first time I came face-to-face with a body - a policeman
sprawled in the middle of the road, killed during a domestic quarrel
that turned into a triple homicide. I sneaked past police barricades,
found myself standing next to another cop who turned out to be the
victim’s brother, and listened as he poured out his anguish - or, put
another way, I exclusively collected the quotes that would land the
story on front pages across the country the next day. As the
congratulations rolled in, I felt nauseous and ashamed. I left town for
the weekend, holed up with another journalist friend, and then decided I
had to accept the predatory, voyeuristic aspect to the job I loved, or
quit. So I suppressed my emotions, and kept smothering them as I
witnessed bloodshed in Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and
interviewed victims of horrendous crimes.
The difficulty is that this skill of suppression, once honed, can impose
itself on one’s personal life. Those who have spent long months in war
zones may find themselves reluctant to invest too fully in other arenas
as well, shy about emotional involvement, stingy with their feelings.
Then, the act of covering war can turn into what social critic
Christopher Lasch has called “a refuge from the terrors of inner life.”
Another repercussion of war coverage is a strange and growing compulsion
to witness violence - the lust of the eye, as the Bible puts it - as
well as a craving for the rush of risk-taking. It may seem
contradictory, but it makes a mad kind of sense. In the midst of that
death and destruction, the journalist can begin to feel invincible - in
fact, maybe has to feel invincible in order to keep on - and that
feeling is addictive. In my own experiences, I never really believed the
fighting would claim me, even when the shooting was right there, even
when I was stepping over spent bullets, swimming in tear gas or accosted
by a furious, drunken Soviet soldier. I never bought the cliché about
one’s number eventually coming up. Yet sometimes I found myself
palm-damp scared. And maybe that signaled an intuition I should have
listened to, but I usually didn’t have time, and I survived anyway, and
there’s an unparalleled, heady victory in that.
Of course, it requires more suppressing of emotions - in this case,
The effects of covering war and near-war are not all negative; there is
an almost ecstatic camaraderie in the shared experience of moments that
those “back home” can never know. “We had shared something together in
Sarajevo so intimate and incommunicable, a humility and compassion among
individuals unconnected by blood tie, which I have never found
elsewhere,” Anthony Loyd wrote in his book My War Gone By, I Miss It So.
In addition, covering conflict can offer a journalist a glimpse at a
deeper humanity, one in which trivial concerns are recognized for what
they are, and people pressed up against the wall really do the right
Then there are the other times, when it seems no one is doing the right
thing - not the participants, and not the watching journalists. Two
months before he claimed the Pulitzer, Carter was among the
photojournalists in South Africa who witnessed, from only feet away, the
summary execution of white right-wingers by a black policeman. The
photographers captured the fear on the victims’ faces right before they
crumpled and died. Then the photographers turned and ran. “Inside
something is screaming, "My God,'” Carter said. “But it is time to work.
Deal with the rest later. If you can't do it, get out of the game."
Deal with it. Dull your emotions. Carter didn’t, in the end. This novel
is dedicated to him, and other journalists like him who cover war and
give up pieces of themselves to do so.
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