Seekers and Shooters: A Quaker Photojournalist Reflects on Witnessing

By the time I graduated from college, I had burned out as an activist. I’d spent years telling people, stridently, what was wrong with the world, trying to change their ways. I rarely succeeded.

The next year, I left for India. I spent seven months volunteering and wandering, camera in hand. I loved photography but I was not yet a photographer. It was in India where I first discovered that taking photos helps me see better. As environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind.” Slowing down enough to take photographs is a practice, like meditation, that helps us become more aware of what is right there, in front of our eyes or inside our minds.

That year, in a backwater village, I found my calling as a documentary photographer. It was 1996, and the World Bank was constructing a dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat. Upstream, I met activists fighting the dam that would flood their homes. I photographed a quiet woman, Kamla Yadav, who announced she would drown in her yard rather than be forcibly resettled. She quoted a local slogan, koi nahin hatega, bandh nahin banega: “No one will move, the dam will not be built.”

Later, after some of Yadav’s neighbors had indeed drowned, and my portrait of her appeared in print, I realized that what I should be doing is witnessing: listening, and using photos to tell human stories that would otherwise go unseen and unheard.

Today, I am equally a Quaker and a photojournalist, and these two tracks of my life cross-pollinate constantly. Both live as witnesses, and there are many parallels between photography and Quaker worship.

The first similarity is in our intentions. We are searching for Truth and insight, willing (ideally) to seek this Truth out no matter where it leads us. We know the way may be hard, yet we persevere. At times we feel blessed by how our seeking brings us fellowship with the world around us; at other times we feel lost in the wilderness.

One key parallel is in the skills required for bearing witness: an ability to observe quietly and contemplate, listen, and have compassion—for ourselves and others. This very act of listening compassionately, observing, and recording someone’s daily life, empowers those whose troubles have been ignored. Intuition, flexibility, and attentiveness prepare us for the world’s continuing revelations. French inventor Louis Pasteur said that, “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” We never know when the next decisive moment will arrive, but when it does we must be alert or it will pass us by.

How can we deeply witness the pain of the world? Quaker theologian Janet Scott explains in What Canst Thou Say? what is required: “It means that we join ourselves to the risk of creation, to the venture of authentic human being, that we ‘stand in the Light,’ reveal that measure of Truth that is known to us . . . that we face the pain of the world and match it with forgiveness.”

This is a tall order. To understand how to be effective and sensitive social witnesses, it is instructive to consider the opposite. The Department of Homeland Security has a new slogan: If You See Something, Say Something. It is a call to arms, deputizing a nation to be witnesses. “We are simply asking the American people to be vigilant,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in a February 2011 press conference. “Security is a shared responsibility and each citizen has a role to play in identifying and reporting suspicious activities and threats.” This rhetoric— vigilance, suspicion, threats, terror— makes everyone seem like a potential enemy. It is opposite of the call to be a social witness, in contrast to a history of Quakers who treat everyone—even enemies— as potential friends. I’d rather emulate photographer SebastiĂŁo Salgado; when asked about how he chose sides while photographing both sides of wars in West Africa, he replied, “I support the side of humanity.”

Quaker photographer Arthur Fink writes, “Photography is part of our spiritual lives. It’s about discovery and expression, about worship and reverence, about self and other.” He asks, “Can we hear each other with Love, searching to find the truth— perhaps even the Divine Inspiration—in each [person]?” He suggests key skills for any kind of witness: “Practicing active listening, offering feedback to test our understanding, and formulating questions that clarify what was already said.”

Not all photographers are as sensitive as Salgado or Fink. Too often we photojournalists operate more like an army, parachuting into a crisis, witnessing events, shooting until we bag the shot, taking no names and moving on. Though sometimes the only option, such reportage is at best incomplete. It informs us of the events that happened, but not why they happened.

I cannot tell you how to be a witness; I can only describe how I have done it. In 2007, I moved to Ukraine and spent two years photographing Chernobyl survivors. My commitment to this project began when I discovered how often photojournalists distort Chernobyl. They visit briefly, expecting danger and despair, and come away with photos of deformed children and abandoned buildings. This sensationalist approach obscures more complex stories of how displaced communities adapt and survive.

In contrast, I sought to create fuller portraits of these communities. There is suffering, but also joy and beauty, endurance and hope. Living directly in the villages where I photographed gave me access to events and people with an insider’s perspective impossible from afar.

I made friends. I drank tea with Viktor (seen below). I drank vodka with my landlord Nina. I photographed my neighbors. Sasha, a recovering alcoholic, taught me how to cut hay. Slava, a doctor at the Chernobyl plant, taught me to make borscht. I went to church. I went to the bar. I often wondered: If I had been born near Chernobyl, would I stay? I am interested in questions about home. How do people cope when their homeland changes irreversibly? Today, I don’t have one definitive answer to this question; I have 82 contradictory answers. When we create the space and time to listen deeply, we soon get beyond the simplistic, black-and-white, right-or-wrong construct of any issue. It then takes conscientious discernment and clear intentions before we can summarize accurately what we have witnessed and report it back to the world.

For many of the people I interviewed, losing their homes was as traumatic as the accident itself. I heard compelling stories about problems with alcoholism, mental illness, unemployment, medical care, birth defects, and corruption. Some overcome these difficulties; others surrender to them.

When we become witnesses, we don’t just observe the existing conditions of a situation. Inevitably, we become involved. Essentially, my photos from Chernobyl are a visual diary. It is a mistake to think that I created an authoritative work on the subject of Chernobyl. Witnessing is a deeply personal act, and we just have to hope that if we drill deep enough, we will find something universal.

What, then, did I find in Chernobyl? I saw that the people I met are not victims, mutants, or orphans. They are simply people struggling to live their lives—like you, like me.

I used to aspire to change the world with my photography. In time, I’ve understood that my witnessing is not about change but about reflection: I’m holding up a mirror. As photo editor Howard Chapnick wrote in Truth Needs No Ally, “Photojournalism has not stopped wars, eliminated poverty, or conquered disease, but neither has any other medium or institution. . . . Photography, as witness to history, gives testimony in the court of public opinion.”

As I photograph, again and again I ask myself: what is my purpose for witnessing here? “Raising awareness” is too vague a charge for me. In his eloquent treatise Photo Synthesis, photojournalist Bryan Moss writes, “Most photographs that make a difference, however, make only an incremental difference in the human condition. Someone looks at pictures of other people and is reminded that human beings are all neighbors, more alike than different. As Edward Steichen said early in the 20th century, ‘The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.'”

I’ve now left Chernobyl and moved to upstate New York, where I’ve started a new project on hydrofracking. There is a war brewing here in the southern tier of New York and the hills of central Pennsylvania. A mile underground are vast natural gas deposits. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a new method of drilling for gas. Pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals down wells under high pressure fractures the shale and opens fissures so that natural gas can flow more freely.

In fracking, half the population of this rural region sees the end to the economic troubles they have known for too long. The other half sees an end to the rural region itself, with fears of water contamination, air pollution, forest fragmentation, industrial truck traffic, and human health problems. The issue of fracking is tearing apart these communities as it stands to change them forever.

I seek to engage the people and communities I photograph in frank discussions about their own local issues. My ultimate goal as a witness is not changing the world but reconciliation. As Quakers, this is something we all can do: listening to others as deeply as we listen for the Spirit within, then interpreting and reflecting those words so that others can hear as clearly as we have. For me, I can think of no work more important.

As Quakers, we must recognize that prayer and witnessing are part of a single process. In Quaker Witness as Sacrament, Daniel Snyder discusses the “apparent dichotomy between the pulls of an inward call to a spiritual life of contemplation and an outward call to respond to the problems of the world.” He concludes that the two are inseparable: prayer is “a kind of inward activism,” while political witness to Friends testimonies is a kind of “outward prayer.” Surprisingly, activism need not require us to convince anyone or change anything external. As we deepen our skills at listening with compassion, we discover that in some situations this is all the action that is needed. We may shift our focus to a more tender role—witnessing and offering service to others.

You are a witness. We all are. Unfortunately, injustice is all around us, in our communities, our meetings, even our families. Photojournalists travel the world reporting suffering, but neither the travel nor the camera is necessary to be a social witness. Once you’ve seen something that concerns you, all you need in this digital era is a cell phone and a clear intention.

I celebrate the rise of citizen journalism. There are organizations like Indymedia, publishing political news from an activist perspective, and Demotix, which sells eyewitness photos to mainstream media. Global Voices has over 200 bloggers who report on citizen media around the world. Blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter: speaking out has never been easier. In fact, the ease of communication makes it all the more critical for us to discern first, instant message later.

Do we see clearly what is happening, or does our preconceived judgment cloud our vision? We need to be open to continuing revelation in activism just as we are in worship, and ask ourselves: is my witnessing and reportage an act of service or an act of ego?

The trial witness tells just the facts. The journalist reports. The activist tells the world. The Quaker seeker is led to speak. What have you witnessed, and how will you respond?

Michael Forster Rothbart

Michael Forster Rothbart, a member of Ann Arbor (Mich.) Meeting, currently attends Butternuts Meeting in Oneonta, N.Y. He recently returned from two years in Chernobyl on a Fulbright Fellowship to photograph and interview people who still live near the site of the nuclear disaster. His photographs are traveling on exhibit; see for details.