As Christoffer and I stood in the midst of the rickety huts of Charahi Qambar, a refugee camp for the internally displaced on the outskirts of Kabul, an unexpected and slightly eerie sensation came over me. It was my first time in Afghanistan. My first time in a war zone. My first time working as a journalist outside of Scandinavia. Watching the toddlers waddle around in the mud-coloured melt water – in bare feet or wearing plastic sandals without socks – while listening to the village elder brag about his accomplishments and complain about the authorities, I felt myself drifting.
The dirt on my boots was real enough. As was the freezing cold, which had already taken the lives of roughly a dozen infants in the camp that same winter. Yet I was not quite there. I was in the newsroom back home explaining the story to the editor. I was in the kitchen of the reader, flipping through the pages of the morning paper over breakfast. I was peering over the shoulder of the blue-collar worker, checking the news on her smart phone on the subway to work. To them, everything that I was to experience, process and report in the coming months and years; the deaths, the heartbreak, the savagery, the resistance, the compassion and the bravery, would be the anomaly. To the kids of Charahi Qambar; fatigued, malnourished and curious, the anomaly was me.
We were introduced to five-year-old Daoud. No one knew why the boy with the coal-rimmed and lively eyes couldn’t speak or walk properly. Whether it was a congenital disability or some deficiency disease. Medical attention was beyond the financial means of his family.
He found me funny. It surprised me a little as I have no natural aptitude for the whimsical. I growled and made faces, he shrieked with delight and buried his face against his aunt’s shoulder. Inside the rat-infested hut beside us, Christoffer was trying to capture the despair that cost innocent children their lives. Daoud and me ruined the mood somewhat.
As we left the camp, Christoffer wanted to get a wide-angle shot of that makeshift town of mud and misery. He inadvertently sent a group of burka-clad women scurrying as he climbed a small boulder to gain a better vantage Point.
I snapped a picture and posted it on social media with the caption: “As a foreign correspondent, you are always surrounded by women.” It received lots of cheers.
No matter how much the world is shrinking, an ocean of distance will still separate our realities, I thought to myself. Also, I just reduced the burka to a joke for likes.
A couple of days later, spring finally arrived. Before that, winter claimed one last victim: a five-year old boy with the brightest eyes and an enigmatic smile.
It is a strange thing, when the feeling of not belonging becomes familiar. Sometimes comforting. Sometimes unnerving. Occasionally we are greeted as champions. Other times as vultures. Both are equally wrong and equally painful. Mostly I just feel like a tourist coming to collect shards of a war that is someone else’s everyday Life.
We try to capture that everyday life, hoping that it will somehow convey something universal about the terms of existence and how the things we take for granted are affected when survival is on the line. We try to create recognition and identification. We look for common denominators. And we try to portray those we meet as more than the sum of their suffering.
We don’t always succeed. As in any other line of work, relations of production apply. We depend on the news industry to purchase what we produce. That industry depends on selling news to consumers. Consumers demand tragedies. At least that is the consensus that determines our commissions.
The journalist is frequently hailed as a servant of democracy and enlightenment. More often, I feel like a hawker who touts the torment of others.
A memory: We are in northern Syria, travelling with Kurdish rebels. A commander praises the high ethical standards of his troops, explaining that they always give their enemies proper burials. Later his soldiers show us the corpse of a fallen member of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra. They have left him to rot in the sun. On the way back to our car, the language barrier makes conversation difficult so instead we all start dancing.
While the economic conditions for conducting journalistic work has changed, and with them the content, the need for journalism has not. And as long as there are media outlets that stay true to their mission, correspondents will always be needed. The major wire services may claim full geographical coverage but having someone in the region or, best-case scenario, in the country, is not the same as physically being at the scene. Testimonials from affected parties are always important, but they remain sources, and relying on sources will without fail result in a degree of separation between you and what you hope to cover. The only first-hand information we can ever hope to gather is through our five senses.
There are correspondents who stick to one region, dutifully remaining at their posts safeguarding the international flow of information. Sooner or later I imagine I’ll join their ranks. Learn the language, the culture and the local life-blood that is unique to each society and takes a lifetime to understand. But for the time being I travel the world in ceaseless pursuit of stories, driven by selfish restlessness and dreams of the permanent adventure. In this, I am far from alone.
As a freelance correspondent, your work entails being deployed in and forced to navigate social topographies often completely unknown to you. Thus, the crucial journalistic trait of conveying credibility even when completely clueless becomes even more important for the correspondent. No one has described this perpetual dilemma, the representation of reality, with greater clarity than Erich Auerbach in his monumental Mimesis:
"The historical comprises a great number of contradictory motives in each individual, a hesitation and ambiguous groping on the part of groups; only seldom […] does a more or less plain situation, comparatively simple to describe, arise, and even such a situation is subject to division below the surface, is indeed almost constantly in danger of losing its simplicity; and the motives of all the interested parties are so complex that the slogans of propaganda can be composed only through the crudest simplification–with the result that friend and foe alike can often employ the same ones. To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend."
So, too, foreign correspondents need to render their accounts comprehensible. Fill the gaps of knowledge. Connect the dots. Interpret. And, to some inevitable extent, invent. It is at this point that the journalist’s own persona, for better or worse, intertwines with the narrative. And the journalist becomes part of the reality he or she describes.
Perhaps this is the fate of the foreign correspondent; doomed to always distort reality in the effort to accurately capture it. As we cannot circumvent this impossible equation, what remains is to analyse how we approach difficult topics and situations and act accordingly.
There are generally accepted guidelines for how journalistic work should be conducted. But just like any given set of axioms, these are not innate. They are agreements. And like any medium that transfers meaning they relate to the surrounding context of norms, values and beliefs. Which are in turn embroiled in a state of constant renegotiation. An on-going struggle, through deconstruction and reproduction, with obvious political overtones and implications.
For decades, Swedish news outlets have been in agreement that unless circumstances call for it the ethnicity of individual perpetrators should not be disclosed when reporting about crime, so as to avoid the unnecessary stigmatisation of vulnerable groups. Now, a growing populist movement is demanding that this ethical consideration be discarded. As immigrant kids rioting in impoverished suburbs sell more newspapers than the tax evasion or drunk driving of the average Swede, a prejudiced and inaccurate portrayal will be cemented. And so, journalism in itself becomes a battlefield, where a war for decency is being waged.
Another memory: We are on the Mediterranean, just outside the coast of Libya. The girl who is sharing her story with us is 16. She was ambushed and kidnapped at 13, held captive by a warlord, raped and tortured for years. When she finally escaped, a group of human traffickers subjected her to the same abuse again. We thank her, then disinfect, remove our protective suits and step in to the cabin, out of bounds to the refugees that have just been pulled from the ocean. The cook has made clam and asparagus risotto. We enjoy it with a fruity red wine that goes surprisingly well with the seafood. Outside, 285 refugees from 16 nations are crowded together on the hard steel deck, receiving nothing more than bread and water. It is one of the finest meals I have ever had.
Journalism has a lot to learn from science’s structured search for knowledge. But journalism is not science. There are basic guidelines for how journalistic work should be carried out. Issues should be illuminated from different perspectives and all concerned parties should be allowed their say. But good journalism takes a stand for everyone’s equal value, and taking a stand is by definition the opposite of remaining neutral. Impartiality as an ideal methodological state is neither achievable nor desirable.
Journalism also has a lot to learn from art’s unrelenting ingenuity and capacity to cast new light on questions that persist in haunting us. But journalism is not art. Seeking and reporting the truth might be mission impossible, but there is valour in the endeavour.
- At its worst; journalism uses exoticism and sensationalism to produce cheap thrills that make us strangers to one Another.
- At its best; it is unrivalled in its ability to bridge cultural distance and express immediacy.
For myself, journalism allows me to reconcile my genuine desire to understand with my unbearably pretentious desire to explain. The cost – always being the outsider, never quite reaching one’s aim – is a reasonable price to pay.
This is an op-ed, a debate piece. The content and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.