Art & Document (formerly the journal of the Center for Documentary Arts) is a project at the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice. Created by Timothy Cahill, Art & Document presents artists, writers, and thinkers whose work promotes the common good, bears witness to suffering, and manifests qualities of beauty, compassion, dignity, justice, and mercy.

22 April 2011

Tim Hetherington II

From Sebastian Junger's meditation on his colleague and friend, who was killed this week in Misrata, Libya, photographing the war there:

Maybe Misrata wasn’t worth dying for—surely that thought must have crossed your mind in those last moments—but what about all the Misratas of the world? What about Liberia and Darfur and Sri Lanka and all those terrible, ugly stories that you brought such humanity to? That you helped bring the world’s attention to?
After the war in Liberia you rented a house in the capital and lived there for years. Years. Who does that? No one I know except you, my dear friend. That’s part of Misrata, too. That’s also part of what you died for: the decision to live a life that was thrown open to all the beauty and misery and ugliness and joy in the world.
And the rest:

21 April 2011

In Memoriam: Tim Hetherington

I woke this morning to the sad news that documentary filmmaker and photographer Tim Hetherington lost his life yesterday in Misrata, Libya, covering the fighting between the army of Muammar Gadaffi and opposition rebels. The British-born Hetherington and an American colleague, photojournalist Chris Hondros, were both killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Gadaffi forces.

Hetherington will long be remembered as a consummate war photographer and humanitarian. He trained his lens less on the drama of battle than on the terror and psychological assault that defines the war zone.  Among the work on his website are portfolios of the civil war in Liberia, of war graffiti, and perhaps most subtle and affecting, a portrait series of US soldiers asleep in their outpost camp on the front lines of the Afghan war. In their faces and postures, Hetherington recorded the trauma many of these men are sure to carry long after their wartime service ends.

In Darfur Bleeds, a brief film made by Hetherington for Human Rights Watch, the humanitarian concerns that motivated his work are fully on display. The film documents the destruction of a village in Chad, ostensibly demonstrating how the war had spilled over the border from Darfur. But Hetherington refuses to turn the event into an abstraction, and pays moving tribute to the individuals who perished in the attack.

I had the good fortune to meet Hetherington this past July, when he was at the New York State Museum screening Restrepo, the documentary he made with author Sebastian Junger about American soldiers in the Korengal Valley of East Afghanistan. I had more than a general interest in the film. At the time, I was preparing the photo exhibition Battlesight , and knew the work of one of the photographers in the show, Balazs Gardi, depicted the same part of Afghanistan where the film was made. Indeed, as I discovered, Balazs's photographs were of the identical Army unit and villages in Korengal, even of the same four-day battle seen in the movie. It was remarkable; more than one combat scene in Restrepo was also documented in Balazs's powerful stills, and Balazs is among those acknowledged by Junger and Hetherington in the end credits.

Hetherington and I arranged to do a telephone interview a few days later, when he was back home in New York. He was called away before the interview was completed, so it went unpublished. I looked at it again today, and feel now as I did then, that I was speaking to an exceptional and courageous artist and man. In Hetherington's memory, I offer excerpts of that conversation now. It begins with my question about a scene from the film.

There’s a moment in Restrepo, just after one of the soldiers has taken fire. He’s almost giddy from the experience, and says, “Once you’ve been shot at, you can’t come down.” Somebody off-camera asks, “How are you going to go back to the civilian world?” “I have no idea,” he answers. Talk about that moment, that experience. Do you feel the same sense of a high in a war zone?

Tim Hetherington: When you hear what that man is saying in that clip, he’s specifically talking about the adrenalin of a battle. But I think for many of the soldiers there, the group experience of what they went through, that bombing, was very meaningful to them. I mean, if you take an 18-year-old and he’s part of that group, and the job he’s tasked with is defending the group, his life takes on a purpose and a significance, a meaning, that must be extremely gratifying. Then when that 18-year-old comes back to America, to society, suddenly he loses all that sense of purpose and meaning. I know many of the guys miss that meaning and significance.

I think it’s the same way with journalists­—I know, for myself, that sure, adrenalin is a part of the experience. When I came out of Afghanistan in August 2008, it was like someone had pulled the rug from under my feet because I had been drip-fed adrenalin. So chemically that does something to you. But on the other hand, covering world events, covering these situations, gives your life a kind of meaning as well. It’s very gratifying to be at the center of world events as they unfold. You feel that you have some kind of significance. That is part of the reason you keep going back. It’s not purely a combat adrenaline thing; it’s more than that. And for Sebastian and I, we got close to these guys. That’s why, when I came out of Afghanistan, I missed them. I missed being up at Restrepo.

So there’s a sense that what you’re doing has a purpose, that it’s useful?

You’ve totally hit the cornerstone of my work. I always wanted to be useful and add utility. That’s why, as I’ve said before, I’m really not interested in photography, the art. I recognize that it is an aesthetic medium, so I pay attention to that. But the craft of it isn’t my primary concern. I’m not interested in the craft and art of photography per se; I’m interested in visual communication, and that ranges from the still to the moving image.

You have that perspective of working in these two related, but very different mediums. What are your thoughts about that?

The still image offers the audience a greater imaginative engagement with the subject. You look at a picture, you have to enter into a conversation with the image. That conversation is predicated on a lot of different things—your own personal experience, what you see in the picture, but also your own visual library, what you have stored in your head about the subject matter you’re seeing. When you see a moving image, especially video contextualized with sound, you’re literally being dragged through the experience. You’re not imaginatively as engaged in that. You’ve being shown something that’s more concrete. 

I’m from the photographic trade; that’s part what I do, and I understand the strengths and weaknesses of it. I think [the photojournalistic] community is caught up with the aesthetic craft of image making more than what it says. We don’t unravel enough what images say; we’re too held up on the surface level. The problem with photographs is that they can be an unreliable form of witnessing. I understand we all want to believe in the veracity of a photograph. I have a photograph of my mother on my mantelpiece. I want to believe that that image is true. We need to believe images are true. I get that. But as the actual makers of images, if we are engaged professionally in the business, we have to understand that that is also a fallacy.

What did making Restrepo teach you about warfare, about yourself, and, more broadly, about humanity?

We sought to really mine the embedded process, deeper than anyone had mined it before, in terms of the amount of time we spent with the guys, the way we embraced the unit, for all intents and purposes became part of the unit. That was a very profound experience. I had never done that before. I had been embedded with a rebel army in Liberia for six weeks, but never reached that kind of connectedness with the individuals. As a documentarian, either still or moving images, you seek to have this very, very close connection with your subjects, and I really had that with the soldiers out there. Following on from the subject of young men and war, which is a subject I’ve been preoccupied with for some time now, I really came to understand how this bonding, this sense of brotherhood that soldiers attain, that that is really the heart of the war machine. You take a small group of guys, you get them to train together, live together, bond together, they form this brotherhood. This isn’t friendship. This is brotherhood. Guys in the unit admitted they hated each other, but they would die for each other. It’s this sense of brotherhood that’s the cornerstone of the war machine. It’s not Apache helicopters or aircraft carriers or missile defense systems; that is all icing on the cake. This sense of a small group of young men who will kill and be killed for each other is at the heart of it. That goes back to time immemorial. The siege of Troy would be the same thing. It’s an obvious thing but also quite a profound thing when you start to understand that.

Tim Hetherington at the New York
State Museum, July 2010

18 April 2011

Love and Justice

Hugo Perez
For the past week I have been ruminating on what was in every way a fine and moving evening last Tuesday, when we screened Hugo Perez's Neither Memory Nor Magic, a film portrait of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti. I had moist eyes more than once as I watched this beautiful and poignant work, which, though it depicts the life of a man who died miserably in the Holocaust, is ultimately about life, not death; courage, not fear; beauty, not brutality. Radnóti's poems, the few I know from the film and from Carolyn Forché's anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, have burrowed deep into me. He bore witness to the barbarity of the Nazi labor camps where he was imprisoned, with a voice at once elegiac and indomitable, and though he never flinched from the horror of his circumstance, his poems ultimately are expressions of profound love. Love for his wife Fanni, for the music of language, for the world:

. . . tonight the moon is so round!
Don't go past me, my friend— shout! and I'll come around! 
I was just admiring, up there, your eyes' blue sheen,
when it clouded over, and up in that machine
the bombs are aching to dive. Despite them, I am alive

My definition of the "documentary arts" is broadly inclusive, as evidenced in the mission state on this page; it's meant to embrace all art that bears witness to the struggle, striving, and triumph of the human spirit. Bearing witness in this sense is no passive, legalistic stance. It demands an active engagement with the world and, perhaps more deeply, a committed relationship to soul. As Forché writes in the introduction to her book, witnessing art "will have to be judged . . . by its consequences." Among the consequences must include art's ability to advocate for life, to stand on the side of compassion, generosity, care; in short, to love. As a position, this is not at all simple or easy. The instinct of a great many artists who fall loosely under the heading "documentary" is, I observe, not toward love as much as justice. I once asked the poet Hayden Carruth which of those two imperatives was "more important"; he declared in favor of justice, since justice implied love. I'm not entirely sure I agree with his choice, but the logical equation is not at all straight-forward: all love may encompass justice, but too few things that pose as "justice" can be said to espouse love. Indeed, the concept of justice is commonly defined according to the duality of good and evil, a useful dichotomy if one is in need of enemies or dominion, but not one that accommodates grace. Grace, simply put, is treating others not necessarily as they "deserve," but as love requires — as fellow travelers on a divine journey. This is a radical notion, one that runs counter to logic and experience, yet it seems to me just where we can situate Radnóti, and where the artists I most admire reside. This does not mean I take no interest in art that seeks to expose injustice or address suffering. Far from it. That is also an act of witness. Yet I have long believed, and maintain more strongly now than ever, that art's greatest power is not as a mirror, but as a torch, beacon, guide, path — whatever metaphor works for you — to higher consciousness. Art elevates humanity not so much via the enlightenment of argument and evidence as through the illumination of the soul's mysteries and wisdoms.

This is what Hugo's film accomplishes. There are passages in it as moving as any I've seen in a documentary film; in one, the screen painfully dissolves to black, a darkness broken by one of Radnóti's poems like a herald from heaven. I want to express my gratitude to Hugo for his work and for being my guest in Albany, and thank all those who attended and stayed for the lively Q&A afterward. More screenings are planned for the future; the Opalka Gallery, my partner in last week's event, will be co-host and venue for a series of four films beginning in October. I am currently programming that series and will have more information to share on it shortly.

The audience during the Q&A

Poetry excerpts from "Forced March" and "Letter to My Wife," translated by Emery George, from Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché. 

04 April 2011

Neither Memory Nor Magic: Part II

I fell beside him; his body turned over,
already taut as a string about to snap.
Shot in the back of the neck. That's how you too will end,
I whispered to myself; just lie quietly.
Patience now flowers into death.
Der springt noch auf, a voice said above me.
On my ear, blood dried, mixed with filth.*

When Miklós Radnóti's body was discovered in a mass grave in 1946, he had been dead a year and a half, one more of the staggering millions who perished in the shadow of Hitler between 1939 and 1944. Unlike most of the victims, however, Radnóti did not vanish after death nor remain silent. Already celebrated in his native Hungary as an important poet before his internment in German labor camps, Radnóti rose like a phoenix to bear witness to all he endured as an enslaved prisoner. When his body was exhumed, his wife found a small notebook in his pocket that contained his last poems, and many of his greatest. The so-called Bor Notebook, named for the Serbian copper mine where it was begun, is one of the twentieth century's abiding testaments of artistic courage amid barbarity and suffering. The poems Radnóti composed in Bor and on the forced march before his execution possess a strength, pathos, and compassion that take them even beyond literature, into the highest precincts of the human spirit.

On April 12, the Center for Documentary Arts will premiere an expanded and re-edited version of Hugo Perez's Neither Memory Nor Magic, a film portrait of Radnóti. The screening, presented in collaboration with the Opalka Gallery, will be shown at 6:30 in the gallery's theater, Sage College of Albany, 140 New Scotland Avenue, Albany. (If you haven't read my previous post about the event, there is additional information and a trailer there about Radnóti and the screening.) This is a proud moment for the Center for Documentary Arts; Hugo Perez is a gifted young filmmaker whose work is insightful and visually beautiful, and the opportunity to see this film in the intimate setting of the Opalka theater, with the director in audience, is a rare privilege. Perez and Radnóti each embodies the Center's humanitarian mission with work that speaks to individual conscience and calls us to empathy. Radnóti's poems are creative acts so potent they leave you changed. The same can be said of Perez's film, which was awarded the prestigious Chairman's Award of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

. . .  Lonely the vigil I'm keeping;
in my mouth I taste that half-smoked cigarette, not your
kisses, and dreams won't come, no sleep will come to relieve me,
since I can face neither death nor a life any longer without you

Neither Memory Nor Magic—the title comes from a Radnóti poem—has been eight years in the making.   Perez traveled to Hungary and Serbia to visit the places where the poet experienced his greatest triumphs and most desperate hours. He interviewed more than fifty people, including friends who knew Radnóti in Budapest before the war and a fellow inmate who shared the horrors of Bor. A poignant image early in the film shows an exhibit in a Hungarian school in which Radnóti's poems are displayed impaled on barbed wire. Later, Perez is welcomed by Radnóti's widow Fanni into the apartment where the couple lived together. And flowing like a strong current through the film are the poems themselves, which voice their author's hopes, joys, fears, anguish, and finally surrender in language both humble and haunting.

For its art, for its humanity, and for its portrait of grace in the face of brutality, this is a film not to be missed.

Hugo Perez, right, interviews Ferenc Andai in Serbia,
where he was interned in a forced labor camp with Radnoti

Perez graduated from Yale University in 1993 with a degree in English. His training as an artist began in Little Havana, Miami, amid relatives who fled Cuba after the revolution. He grew up suffused with a sense of exile, yet entirely at home among the movies and stories of his native country, America. His Hispanic heritage is the occasion for some light irony in the name of his film company, M30A. The appelation derives from the Latin American custom of naming a revolution after the day and month it was started. In Perez's case, the revolution was the launching of M30A itself, which took place the next to the last day of August 2003
I spoke to the filmmaker earlier this month as he was putting the finishing touches on NMNM.

TC:  What is the genesis of your film?

Hugo Perez: You could say that it started in Saratoga Springs, New York in the summer of 1996, when I had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn Forché and was introduced to her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. The whole idea of that book is that poetry can be almost documentary in nature, a poem can be like a mini-documentary. The book covers the twentieth century from Armenia to Rawada through the eyes of poets. This idea of poetry as witness was one I was quite taken with. Right in the middle of the twentieth century—right in the middle of the book—is the Holocaust, and one of the poets featured in that section is Miklós Radnóti. In fact, the story of the Bor notebook is the story she starts out her introduction to the entire volume with. The first couple pages are about Radnóti, and the notebook coming out of the grave. I read it and was really moved by it. Then eight years went by. I met this guy named Gregory Carr, who had a foundation called the Carr Foundation and at that time was interested in supporting documentary film. He asked if I had any ideas for a documentary that would celebrate the power of poetry. That’s perhaps the only time I’ve ever been asked that question, and will likely be the only time for the rest of my life. He asked with the intention that he was looking for a film to support. I thought back to Against Forgetting, I sent him a copy of the book, we talked about it some more, and we decide that Radnóti’s story captured the essence of poetry of witness. Ultimately, the foundation wound up supporting my film. Sometimes you choose films, and sometimes films choose you.

Why Radnóti, of all the poets in the anthology?

A couple of things. There isn’t anything else like the story of the Bor notebook. Literally, his final poems were in a grave for a year and a half before anybody saw them. His notebook with his final poems were soaked in his blood, blood of a poet. It adds a special drama and quality to his particular story. And also the fact that it was the Holocaust, this monumental moment of evil—it captures everything we were trying to say about poetry in the twentieth century.

What was it you wished to say?

In the case of Radnóti, in the last weeks of his life he must have known he was going to be killed. He must have known that perhaps nobody would ever see these poems he was writing. And yet he continued to write. He wrote four poems while he was on a two-month death march, before he was shot into a mass grave. To me that’s very powerful— even when you’re a week away from your death and can barely walk, you care enough about what you do, and believe in it enough, that you write a poem. As a poet, as a writer, you can’t focus on the outcome of your work, who’s going to read it. There’s something about the act of setting things down, putting pen to paper, that is meaningful in and of itself.

And the documentary was a way not just for us, but for you yourself to come to know this man?

I went in not as a scholar but as a filmmaker and storyteller. I wasn’t looking to make the definitive statement on Radnóti. I was trying to find connections that would help me understand him and the story of his world in a way I could present to audiences. Over the course of a couple years, I was back and forth to Hungary six or seven times, we interviewed more than fifty people, including a handful of people who had known him; I literally walked in the same places he walked. I went to Serbia to see the Bor copper mine, where he was a slave laborer. We followed the course of the last hundred kilometers of the death march, the different places where he stopped and he camped. There’s not much left of that time, but you get a connection of the geography, the place he was in, the sky that he saw. The film is episodic in nature, especially the last forty minutes, it’s a string of little stories that take you from the labor camp to the death march to his death and after his death. There’s a voice in each of those little segments that takes you through.

The film is a portrait of artistic courage and a love story between the poet and his wife Fanni.

Oh, definitely. One of the great privileges and pleasures of this trip was getting to meet and spend time with Fanni Radnóti, who is still alive today and still lives in the apartment they shared together. She had never done an interview. She has really been the keeper of the flame for Radnóti, she has assured that his legacy lives on. Every significant project on him that has happened as happened with her blessing or some conversation with her. I tried to get her to give me an interview and she wouldn’t. I finally persuaded her to let me film her, which I use as the ending of the film.

How did the experience enhance your understanding of Radnóti's poems?

When I read his work, it felt very personal, like he was speaking to me. Making the film helped me understand his world better. The thing I came to understand more was how he developed into who he was. He was Jewish by birth but not by culture. He was a very secular guy who as a teenager got introduced to the great Hungarian poets, and decided he wanted to be one of them. He went and he made himself into a great poet.

* Excerpts translated by Emery George, from Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, edited and with an introduction by Carolyn Forché.


A ruler who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food. Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep th...