The Risks of Bearing Witness: Discussing Marie Colvin’s Legacy

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Photo: WPA Pool/2010 Getty Images

"Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?" — Marie Colvin

The death of legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed by Syrian rocket fire in the city of Homs along with photographer Rémi Ochlik, has sparked a massive outpouring of tributes and homages from her colleagues across the world. New York brought together two of her fellow conflict reporters for a conversation about the inherent risks of bearing witness in dangerous places, and the particular challenges and advantages for women in war zones.

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Tenth Parallel; her journalism has appeared in the Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and Harper’s magazine, among others. Emily Troutman is a writer, photographer, and videographer who has worked in Africa, the Middle East, and Haiti.

Eliza Griswold: Just to start off with a few words about Marie, who was the best — not one of the best — woman in the field today. I first met her in a minefield in northern Iraq, eye patch and all. Stories about Marie's courage, almost insane courage, precede her. She had her eye shot out when reporting on the Tamil Tigers, she married the same man twice — which is very brave — she wedged herself into Gaza's tunnels.

But she was in no way a gonzo crazy person — one of those, I hate to say it, mostly American war reporters (not women usually) who is all about themselves. She was about the people living and dying in the field, and it is in no way surprising to me that she died doing what she felt called to do. She was tough as hell, but not the empty bravado, bearing-witness-in-leather-pants type of reporter. For an entire generation of women, she was the best there was, and that there could be.

Emily Troutman: I didn't know Marie, so I can really only speak for myself, having just a few years under my belt. There’s a very thin line between bravery and bravado. They’re certainly the same thing from my family’s perspective. When I see women Marie’s age in the field, I wonder how they’ve managed to do it. How they’ve managed to keep their personal life intact.

Griswold: I don't think they've kept their personal life intact. Not even close.

Troutman: Well ... yeah.

Griswold: Sometimes, when reporters die, we forget that they chose to be there. I know for me, my mother has said that if I die doing what I love, she will understand and that's how we leave it. If I die doing this, then that's how it goes.

Troutman: I guess my mother feels the same way. At least that's what she says. But I think the bigger question for me is how I would feel if I were a mother. There are sacrifices women make to do the work Marie did that men don't have to make.

Griswold: I don't think it's possible to be a mom and do what Marie was doing.

Adam Pasick: Have either of you had experiences in the field where you were in danger and you thought "this story just isn't worth it"?

Troutman: No, I've never felt the story wasn't worth it, at least in the moment. But I was in Congo, Goma, and North Kivu province, working on stories about conflict and rape. Afterward I had nightmares that someone invaded our house there. In my dream, there was no way out, and I was filled with terror. And I remember being in the dream and thinking, "This story isn't worth it." So I know the thought is lurking around.

In that case I was just shooting photos for myself. But it is a good example. Because in many ways I was drawn to the story because it "isn't worth it."

Griswold: What do you mean by that?

Troutman: I think we often seek out stories where the risk is greater than the reward because by reporting on under-reported stories we raise their importance. We lift it up. Sometimes the rewards aren't immediate, they're cumulative.

Griswold: There are many, many times I've been in dangerous situations, most of them in the stupidest moments of reporting. I don't like to write or talk about them because it's bullshit, people going somewhere, writing about their "risk" and not just the people who are living it.

Troutman: I like to think and write about both things. For me, I think reporting is a form of communion. When I take on a risk, it helps me be more empathetic. And I know my readers identify more closely with my risk, and that it can be transformative to help them see how it is not unlike the risk that others' take in their daily lives.

Griswold: Not my thing. Not at all.

I feel so strongly about this idea of the cult of the reporter. Honestly, if this work was about personal risk I might as well put on a pair of socks as a blindfold and wander out in New York City traffic. Yes, risk is a thrill, sadly, it feels important, and egoic and noble even, but it's not, and can't be, the point of the work.

I am not, and will never be, half the bad ass Marie Colvin was. The only eye patch I've worn was to a Paris Review softball game after I scratched a cornea on a dress tag. Hardly noble. However I have been blindfolded, and handcuffed, and had a gun to my head because of a law I broke and a bad decision I made because I didn't care what happened to me. As a result, another reporter was held for six weeks, while I was released the after a pretty rough interrogation the next day. I think of this almost every day, and there have been other, worse incidents that there's no point talking about. None of that, however, has anything to do with the work. If anything, it distracts from the reason I hope I am there — which is just to share people's stories of complicated lives, or horrific injustice.

Troutman: As a relative beginner, I think often about the risks I take. I wonder how it will impact my future — whether I will want or be able to have my own family, whether I will be able to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol and adrenaline addiction that I see in so many of my colleagues, whether I'll just head out blindly one day on a dangerous road and not come back.

Sometimes I talk about those risks in my stories because people connect to it and because talking about my fears makes me feel less alone in them. I don't at all believe the risk is the point of "the" story because I think there are many stories.

Pasick: Is there a shifting calculus you use — the importance of the story, the level of risk, and maybe even tragic episodes like the war corro deaths we've seen in the last year — to decide whether to accept an assignment?

Troutman: Because I am freelance, I seek out most of my own stories. Sometimes, when I make a decision to go somewhere, I do feel that I'm negotiating an internal calculus. But once I'm there, it's a little different. Ultimately, I feel driven by a deep curiosity and sometimes that leads me places I never would have decided to go, if I had been given the choice when I was back home sitting on the couch. I end up places I didn't know about. I go down alleys to look for stories I didn't know were important.

Griswold: Here's how this works. I just am back from Afghanistan, did a story that I could have reported from Kabul, but the meat of it lay in a risky province. It was safe enough to fly to the provincial capital, which I could do, but to assess the ground situation, I had to get out there to the sticks. Once I got out there, I assessed with a couple what the conditions on the roads were. IEDs go off every day, and insurgents watch the roads. It wasn't about my getting on the road and being "okay." It was about what would happen after, to the people I talked to, whether the trip back (which is when these guys hit) would endanger other people.

We always want to go. Nine times out of ten, it's okay. You do what you can to manage those risks and you make sure you assess the position you'll put other people in. Honestly, most of the time, it's a hell of a lot safer than it looks from a distance.

Griswold: Here's the secret: It's actually safer and easier to be a woman doing this work. Here's why: First, most violence is random and if you're a woman in a car and some nut comes up armed at a roadblock and sees you in the back of the car, chances are he'll hesitate. You get twenty seconds to get away, which is what you need. Second, it's more expensive, complicated and morally questionable to kidnap a woman. You have to hire a woman to watch her. She has to have a separate room. And your fanatic friends will look down on you, "Dude, you took a girl?"

That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. It does and we have colleagues who have suffered terribly and I don't want to undermine their experience.

Troutman: I agree in some ways. My experience as a woman is that people in the street treat me with less suspicion, but public officials don't take me as seriously.

Griswold: When you meet with public officials, they are speaking only to your institution. So if you're just out there working for yourself, I'd imagine that would be tough.

Troutman: I think it's more that the level of sexual harassment is high.

Griswold: Hmmm, that's not my experience at all. Though I will tell you, I had to wear a burka last week and the driver got into an accident and I barked at him from beneath that sweaty nightmarish tent and he paid no attention. That was certainly because of the burka, so you're right too.

Pasick: Have the attitudes of your male colleagues shifted during the years?

Griswold: You know, frankly, where I see the sexism? Editors who think twice about sending a woman where they send a man. This is a risky thing to say and not universally true, but you do see it. Also, quite realistically, there is the baby thing. If you get trained to work for a certain outfit, and they have to calculate losing you to being a mom fifteen years earlier than your male counterpart, then there are some actual figures there to contend with.

Troutman: I prefer to work with men. It's a form of protection.

Griswold: It depends entirely on the story. Men can shut access down in much of the world

Griswold: What about Marie's legacy? What does a reporter like that leave behind? Does it make any difference?

What set her work apart was her experience, and her willingness to go and go and go. Fact that the story was not about her, was about what she was covering.

What do you think, Em? What do you hope your work leaves behind?

Troutman: I hope my work makes people feel closer to things that once felt far away. I think Marie's work certainly demonstrated the importance of being physically close to a story.

Griswold: Yes! Great point

Pasick: What's your favorite Marie story?

Griswold: She did this unreal Romeo and Juliet tale about Gaza's tunnels for the Sunday Times Magazine.

Troutman: I think I will be most impacted by the story which has come out since her death, how she had just witnessed the death of a 2-year-old baby. She was thinking about that child. She was motivated by that moment. She was staying because she felt an abiding obligation to see and tell people about what she saw. She made it real. It demonstrates a constancy that I admire.

Griswold: She was a very good reporter doing her job. I think the last thing she'd want is a lot of guff about bearing witness and the like. The reporter is a transparent figure at best. The closer we bring people to an experience without putting ourselves in the way, the better.

Troutman: I think there's a lot of different ways to tell a story. And Marie's death — whether she would want it to be or not — is part of that story.