Reporters at War by Molly Hannon
The murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi this past year was a reminder of the perils and also the fateful price journalists sometimes pay for the truth. This year, the film, “A Private War,” about the life and career of renowned American war reporter Marie Colvin, who died in Syria 2016 debuted. An homage to the fearless reporter with the usual Hollywood narrative about a hero tied to her inevitable fate is present throughout the film. But there is much more to a war reporter than becoming eulogized on the big screen—however romantic the notion.
Such an idea holds little appeal for Berlin-based war reporter, Gabriele Riedle. Riedle, who served as Max-Kade visiting professor last semester in the German department has reported from conflict zones since the fall of the Berlin Wall. She has lost friends and colleagues, witnessed horror and atrocity, spent time with warlords and their wives and also their mistresses, but remains resolute in her quest to document conflict honestly as both a witness and as a creative writer.
For Riedle, it is crucial—perhaps more than ever— that journalists continue to report on global crises despite the difficulties and dangers that loom. In her final lecture at UVA last semester, she addressed the practical, ethical, and representational questions raised by conflict reporting. Much like the Batten School’s Humanitarian Collaborative led under the direction of Kirsten Gelsdorf, Riedle is interested in the different genres and media that are available to cover wars, armed conflicts, and humanitarian crises? Is objectivity possible, especially in cases when a reporter is embedded with an army, which in some cases, is the enemy itself? How can journalists avoid sensationalizing a crisis or portraying themselves as heroes?
In her closing lecture which took place on Nov. 30, she took students, faculty, and staff on a historical tour of war coverage, beginning with the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Civil War marked a turning point for the war reporter—due in part to the rise of photography which altered the way war was documented and distributed to the masses. The now eponymous photo, taken by Robert Capa (who would later found Magnum Photos) showing the sudden death of soldier signaled a new era of conflict reporting—foreshadowing the important role photographers would play in 20th century reporting.
Riedle highlighted how during this time photography was viewed as a new medium that could bring humanity together. It had a common language. While today’s current media landscape—now supported by the ease of iPhones and social media channels may hint that the war reporter is obsolete, Riedle argues that it may be more important than ever to have war photographers that possess a unique kind of empathy, as well as artistry when it comes to documenting war.
“There is a certain expectation of how war should look,” said Riedle. “A lot of photographs follow certain trends—or tropes—especially the pieta image of a mother holding her dead son. It’s overdone and tells us nothing besides the horrible loss individually inflicted on people. Magnum Photo has a tendency to always award pictures of a similar style— a mother holding her dead son.”
Just as the UVA Humanitarian Collaborative is exploring how images can convey urgency and compel people to act regarding a humanitarian crisis, Riedle is concerned with a similar theme as a reporter and often confesses that documenting conflict is not easy—even with the snap and flash of a camera. It’s not just writing down what you see.
“When you’re there [conflict zone], you hardly sleep. But a lot of the time, it can be pretty boring and then boom something happens,” said Riedle. “But when you come back—go back home—sit at your desk for hours on end trying to make sense of what you have witnessed while the life below you continues completely unaware of the suffering and the conflict in another part of the world where you have just been. It is hard to make sense of what you have witnessed and translate that to your work. It’s more than just about being accurate.”
She pointed out how writers—even though they may witness the same event, will often interpret that event in a variety of ways and also be driven by different motives. Citing Martha Gelhorn, one of the great war reporters of the 20th century and her ex-husband, the novelist Ernest Hemingway. “Both covered the Spanish Civil War,” said Riedle. “But then Hemingway went and wrote this blockbuster novel, For Whom the Bells Tolls, while Gelhorn took a creative non-fiction approach to her coverage of the war.” An approach that poetically captured the fear and despair of the Spanish people and the inevitable dread and doom that permeated daily life.
Riedle’s admiration for Gelhorn is evident in how she discusses the famed war reporter’s career—which spanned over sixty years. Before the advent of social media and citizen journalism, reporters such as Gelhorn relied on oral interviews, notebooks, the close proximity of sharpened pencils, and the not to mention a fierce determintation and loyalty to their craft. Riedle, who has never written online—is a print journalist—a rarity in today’s media landscape, even for veteran war reporters like herself. She is also the author of several books—which discuss the perils of conflict reporting in a hybrid almost post-modernist style that reads more like fiction (she admits that she hates history books).
Reading an excerpt from her upcoming book which is told from the vantage of a war reporter being sent to some unknown-fictional war zone to write an obituary about a fallen reporter, Riedle presents the otherworldly quality of being embedded in a conflict zone and how that can transpire for the individual. One could argue the same could be extended to her home of Berlin – “once there was a wall separating Berlin and went through Mauerpark and through Mitte and all of those bustling hip cafes”—sounds like something from a dystopian nightmare, when in fact it’s history. It actually happened.
The power of her text is its ability to immediately immerse the reader into the psyche of a war reporter. War reporters tend to have the stigma that they are adrenaline junkies—people who are unable to live in the real world. While it takes a certain kind of person to constantly risk their life for their work, Riedle finds it unfair to classify war reporters as those who are unable to lead normal lives as seen in the film “A Private War.” Instead, she urges people to think about how media can either inform and either alter their perception of a place, of a conflict, of a certain time. How do reporters such as Riedle continue to do their work honestly without sensationalizing a culture, or worse, their own work. How does one convey sympathy and humanity while telling an accurate but thoughtful story? The verdict is still out.