NOTE: I wrote this post on Sunday, but was unable to publish it due to problems with Internet connection.
Today was the second day of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, and the international component was as strong as yesterday.
I met new colleagues from Russia, Botswana, Tanzania, and Costa Rica, among others. My teammates on our hackathon squad were from Brazil and Nigeria.
The class I taught in the late morning about the Access software included journalists from the Ukraine, Slovenia, Brazil, Colombia via Ireland, Peru, Russia, Germany, Denmark and the United States.
I rode the bus to and from the conference with Kenneth Okpomo, an award-winning journalist and creative writer from Nigeria’s Delta region. Dunreith, he and I ate dinner together at the nearby shopping mall.
We talked about Fela, the iconic Nigerian singer whom we dubbed a ‘decadent prophet’ for the accuracy of his verses and his sybaritic lifestyle.
Kenneth educated me about the presence of Chinese merchants in the country as well as the number of undocumented Nigerians living in South Africa who resort to 419, the name given to fraudulent activities that they conduct.
Kenneth said he cried when he saw many Nigerians in a South African restaurant eating the remains of customers’ food-a measure they told him they took to survive. He also learned that many of these folks tell their families back in Nigeria that all is going well for them-a deception that also pained him.
He proudly showed me pictures of his eight-month-old daughter and his fiancée whom he will wed by January, and shared his gratitude that God has provided resources for him and, by extension, for them.
These experiences were remarkable and exhilarating, and one of the most meaningful parts of the day came during the panel about doing sensitive investigations that Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Director and friend Bruce Shapiro convened, and on which I had the honor to participate.
Each told extraordinary stories of suffering that they had elicited and figured out to how to convey with compassion and respect.
Solange on how to listen
Solange went first.
Speaking in Portuguese that a university student translated, she told a wrenching account of finding out about, then working for months to connect with, a youth victim of torture during the Brazilian dictatorship whose parents had also been tortured.
Solange described how she built trust with the gentleman, how she went back over and over again to learn more as well as to work to verify his story.
She explained how she always used a tape recorder in order to give him her full attention.
Solange would not interrupt him, but rather would listen until he finished talking.
To do so, she said, could mean missing the most important part of the story.
This included the pauses and silences.
She talked about how worried she was before the story was published in 2010, and how gratified she was that the family said they appreciated what she wrote.
Solange told us that he man about whom she wrote killed himself in February of this year, how his family said what she had written about him was a source of comfort during the most excruciatingly painful of moments.
Marcela and her sources’ dreams
She spoke in Spanish, and I translated her words into English.
She told the packed room about the work she has done for the past 15 years recounting the stories of Mexico’s relentless violence, the murders and disappearances and displacements that accelerated during the drug war initiated in 2006 by former President Felipe Calderon.
She urged the audience to not think of investigations as only involving data and paper, but to get up and out and into the world.
She talked about going to a workshop run by a non-profit organization and asking if any of the people there were willing to talk with a journalist.
She found herself facing a line of 30 women, all of whom were carrying pictures of their murdered and disappeared loved ones.
Marcela explained that at moments like that, and at other moments when she felt she had made a mistake, she did not always feel equal to the task with which she had charged herself.
But she also talked about how there is no Truth Commission in Mexico, so she and others with whom she works are doing the hard and dangerous work of documenting what has happened in their country.
At the same time, she asserted that it’s necessary both to represent victims not only as grieving relatives, but as people with rights for which they are fighting.
She uses a variety of techniques to enter that space with her subjects
She asks them about their dreams and, at times, simply records what she sees.
For example, as a way of denouncing the common practice of having children see the bodies of murdered loves ones before they are taken away, Marcela recorded the sounds of children playing and answering her question about what they saw.
She takes extensive care to make sure that people understand the potential consequences of going public, about how she gives them time to reflect and consult before deciding.
Marcela gives the sources the option about changing their names and addresses, and even of not having the story published
The narrative responsibility we have does not mean that we should not ask hard questions of those in government.
Connection between conflict photography and data analysis
I went last.
I talked about the importance of integrating emotions and the investigative aspect of our work, of the necessity of self-care and placing yourself in a supportive community of like-minded folk, and about a surprising discovery during our Dart Center Ochberg Fellowship conflict photographer John Moore and I made about the motivations for our work.
On the surface, even though we are in the same field, what we do could have hardly been more different.
John’s one of the world top conflict photographers who’s worked in dozens of countries and who shot the iconic photograph of Benazir Bhutto right before her assassination.
At the time, I was doing data-oriented race and poverty investigative work at The Chicago Reporter.
But on the morning that the fellowship ended, John talked about why he does the work he does.
It’s not, he said, because he’s an adrenaline junkie, as one of the speakers had suggested about war photographers.
Rather it was because he felt that if he didn’t tell that story, no one else might.
John did not literally mean no single person would photograph the events he did.
Rather he was describing the responsibility he felt to go after, bear witness to, and document what was actually happening in the world.
I told him that we felt the same way at the Reporter, and that in fact we told interns nearly those identical words when they started to flinch at the seemingly endless set of record-checking that we assigned them as an integral part of our investigations.
There are moments, and there have been a number of them recently, where I literally have trouble believing my great fortune in believing alive and having the kind of experiences I’m having, where I have to step outside what I am doing for just a minute and remind myself what is actually happening.
In those moment layers of work and love and family and history and connection and passion converge in a way in which I feel that dreams have been converted into reality.
Today was one of those times.