One of my favorite Dart moments came at the end of my fellowship in 2008.
I had just finished attending a Saturday panel that included two Dart fellows and was standing outside the room feeling a bit sad that the week was just about over.
Then John Moore and I started talking.
For those do not know him, John is one of this generation’s finest conflict photographers. While perhaps best known for his photographs before and just after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, he has been making high-quality images in dozens of countries since 1991.
John shared his reaction to an earlier presentation we had heard where an academic had asserted that many people who do the type of work John does are adrenaline junkies, addicted to the high they get from dangerous situations.
John disagreed. “I’m not an adrenaline junkie,” he said, in essence. “I do this work because I know that many times, if I don’t, no one will.”
He explained later that he did not think that he was literally the only person in the world willing to go the type of places in which he works. Rather he was sharing a deep-rooted commitment to go to some of the world’s darkest places, record what is happening there and share it with the world.
I understood what he meant.
At The Chicago Reporter we do computer-assisted projects that often takes months to conceive, execute and complete. Many times the work involves spending substantial amounts of time finding and cleaning data before we ever start to analyze it.
I still remember spending weeks in the summer of 2007 clicking through a listing of civil suits trying to find ones that relatives of people who had been killed by police officers had filed. Some of the victims had last names like Johnson or Williams. As you can imagine, hundreds of people with those names had sued someone. This meant going one by one to find a proverbial needle that in many cases did not even exist.
One intern in particular did not appreciate the assignment’s repetitive nature. Yet we talked to her that we wanted to her to keep looking not just because that was her job, but rather because such work is the essence of what makes us The Chicago Reporter.
We do this kind of work because it needs to be done. Many times, if we don’t, no one else will.
I thought of my conversation with John last night here in Orvieto, Italy, where I am participating in the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.
I was eating a pasta dinner with Ossama, an Egyptian doctor and a psychiatry professor at United Arab Emirates University, and Shari, a fiery Zimbabwean whose organization has documented for the past 16 years the Mugabe regime’s enormous atrocities. Banned since 2002 and supported entirely by foreign funding, her group has produced 25 reports about human rights. Her blue eyes flashed with indignation as she described the thousands of torture victims she has met and whose stories she has recorded.
We are talking about victims arriving bleeding on her lawn the night before Christmas. About women bayoneted to death. About the skin of men’s backs being ripped straight off.
The torture of political opponents real and imagined is just one of many elements of misery the Zimbabwean people endure. One of a handful of white people left in the country, Shari spoke about people dieing needlessly because the country’s hospitals were all shut and locked in 2008. She described prisoners being starved to death because there was no food to feed them, children going to school just 24 days in a year and Weimar Germany-like inflation in which prices tick upward by the minute.
In the mid-30s, the life expectancy for Zimbabweans is the world’s lowest, she said.
The work is both dangerous and draining. Shari has received death threats while shopping for food and members of her group have broken through barriers established by members of Mugabe’s youth brigade to rescue torture victims.
Ossama asked Shari what keeps her going in the face of such adversity.
Although Shari’s initial answer was that she is an adrenaline junkie, she started nodding when I shared my memory of my conversation with John and our work on the police shooting project. Shari’s fierce commitment to not have the victims suffer the additional indignity of being erased and denied after having been tortured and killed inspired me.
I feel tremendously fortunate to have two weeks here in Italy, and, when I return to Chicago, I know I’ll be working on our projects with renewed purpose, thanks to my discovery of the common purpose we at the Reporter hold with Shari and John.