Review: ‘Witness’ turns camera on photojournalists

Review: ‘Witness’ turns camera on photojournalists
A moment from the war-photography documentary “Witness.”
(Eros Hoagland / HBO)

Amid the rise of the Internet, political partisanship and the media conglomerates, the press may have lost some of its post-"All the President’s Men” rumpled luster, but combat reporters remain romantic figures. Particularly the photojournalists, strung with cameras like so many bandoleers, putting themselves in harm’s way to get the shot that will explain, better perhaps than words ever could, the impact of war.

What drives them to go to places others flee, to risk their lives for a picture? And once there, what is their primary responsibility — to possibly aid those wounded or in danger or to simply document them?

These are some of the issues addressed in “Witness,” which premieres Monday. With Michael Mann and David Frankham as executive producers, the four-part series chronicles the chroniclers, following four photographers as they make their way through Juarez, Mexico; Libya; South Sudan; and Rio de Janeiro.

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Telescoped, at times literally, through the lenses of these journalists, the stories that emerge are more experiential than educational — viewers are parachuted into these far-flung settings with little or no prep on either the history of the region or their guides. As we follow in the photographers’ wake, information, both cultural and personal, emerges, but the filmmakers are more intent on capturing their subject in motion than in reflection.

The result bears as much resemblance to a fever dream as a documentary. Startling moments of vivid beauty and violence give way to the more mundane work of reportage — images of a photographer at work turn into the image he or she has shot, framed then again by the filmmakers, and moments of actual revelation come at you sideways.

In “Witness: Juarez,” for example, Eros Hoagland joins law enforcement officials at a crime scene where a young man has been shot. We watch as, bleeding, he cries for help and falls out of his car. As Hoagland narrates, many people are standing around watching this happen, including him, because he is taking the picture.

“Juarez” is the first to air; at 25 minutes, it is also the shortest. We follow Hoagland as he navigates the streets of the most dangerous city in North America, talking to members of the community, of the police force and Charles Bowden, author of “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” All say essentially the same thing: The drug lords control the city, thousands die and nothing seems to be working.


Hoagland, who has worked in Central America and the Middle East, attempts to evoke the emotion of the city, his imagery both joyful and disturbing. We learn, eventually, that he was drawn to his profession after his father, Newsweek photographer John Hoagland, was killed in El Salvador when Eros was a boy.

He remembers, he says, all the pictures taken of him and his family, of his father’s funeral, and how upsetting it was to experience. And he remembers his mother telling him that the photographers were just doing their job, as his father had done his job.

This sentiment infuses the series, providing whatever connective tissue there is between the stories. None of the episodes, which run about an hour apiece, are neatly packaged fables of heroism or determination or regret. Instead they are open-ended tangles of all these things and more.

In the Sudan, French photojournalist Véronique de Viguerie goes into the jungle in search of the Arrow Boys, an armed militia fighting the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army. As she interacts with the various villagers who will help her find them, she reveals that she is pregnant, and indeed her belly grows as the story progresses. Some women, she says, would go home, but this is what she does.

It is not a perfect series. At times, the overlying images — here is the moody photographer, here is the photographer moodily taking the photograph — become overly artsy, and it is a trifle distracting that all of the principals could model for a living if journalism stops paying.

But the biggest obstacle is the series’ intent. The photographer’s belief that the image exists, at times, beyond the narrative is a difficult point to make in a film that requires, at some level, a recognizable story line.

In “Witness” we are left with far more questions than answers or even observations. At times in each of the episodes, it’s difficult not to wonder what, exactly, these films are about. The horror of war? The artistry of capturing that horror? The need to believe in the existence, still, of pure truth tellers?

Fortunately, they’re all good questions, important and worth asking in any format.



Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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