Everyday, from the around the world, we receive images in our newspapers, magazines, inboxes and online articles dispatched from some of the most dangerous places on Earth. Usually accompanied by an article or text giving an overview of the situation from whatever far flung place the pictures are coming from, we’re usually on to the rest of our day before that image has a chance to linger. And given that the media tends to work in cycles, while situations in places that made headlines months ago may still be evolving, reporters in general are on to the next thing. But that’s where “Witness” comes in.
The four-part series starting this week on HBO is executive produced by Michael Mann and David Frankham, and it takes viewers right on the ground with three seasoned photojournalists: Eros Hoagland (“Juarez” and “Rio“), Michael Christopher Brown (“Libya“) and Veronique de Viguerie (“South Sudan“). Immersive and powerful, these brief journeys go right to the frontlines of the conflicts and issues in their respective countries, revealing narratives that are far more complex than the soundbites that are generally given to them.
We caught up recently with Mann and Frankham (who also directed “Rio,” “Juarez” and “South Sudan”) recently to talk about “Witness,” what prompted the series and how they managed to shoot in locations that were both volatile and perilous. But from the start, both Mann and Frankham approached the series as a way to the kind of in depth reporting that isn’t done very often anymore.
“Basically I had an idea for the series and I was very, I was a bit frustrated, or very frustrated with the way the news kind of tries to create this summation of all of these events in the world…and I’m talking about TV news in particular. So it was that and I was quite fascinated with war photographers and friends with war photographers, conflict photographers and the way they get into stories,” Frankham explained. “So because of that, I went off and created with Eros and [cinematographer] Jared [Moossy] the ‘Juarez’ episode or film. From that it was really a way to kind of explain the entire series. Explain how we could like use the photographers as characters that help us get inside these conflicts and get closer on a human level to the conflicts and what was going on.”
Once that first episode was finished, it was brought to the attention of Mann, who was already fascinated by the subject and quickly came on board and helped develop the series. “I have a long-standing interest in war photographers and photojournalism since way, way back. I thought that what [Frankham] had captured…by just moving through the conflict zone with photo journalists in a very intimate and subjective way, [was] that you were experiencing a fraction of the bigger reality but expressing it in such an intimate and human way that it became a fractal and contained all the issues of the larger conflict.”
But their common curiosity about those who embed themselves in these troubled spots around the world wasn’t the only link between the pair, as Mann expressed his own desire for creating a portrait with depth and impact.
“My interest in this kind of material probably began in ’64 when I was in a civil rights march in Chicago and Cicero, shooting with a 16 millimeter camera…and a lot of friends of mine went to work for [British investigative program] ‘World In Action‘ which made ‘60 Minutes‘ look like ding dong school,” Mann shared. “In ’70 I did a documentary on returning to the United States [‘17 Days Down The Line‘] and wound up out in Albuquerque, there were a lot of Vietnam veterans against the war. So I mean the subject has had a lot of appeal to me for a long time…But when I saw David’s ‘Juarez’ piece I was knocked out. He brought that intimacy…there’s nothing wrong with historical summary with the news, with analysis, I love it, I read and watch a lot of it. As a dramatist what’s truly impactful for me was what these guys were able to achieve, what ‘Witness’ shows.”
However, “Witness” is not claiming to be a definitive statement on any of the places it visits. The recurring emphasis in speaking to both Mann and Frankham is less on presenting an authoritative package, than an experience which translates the intensity, uncertainty and responsibility of being in these locations and using the images to share a story or many stories, that make up the complex web of everything from the ongoing drug war in Mexico to the unstable, post-revolution Libya.
“It wasn’t looking for a balance, it was looking for how that individual photographer relates to it and each person relates to it differently,” Mann explained, adding: “They’re there to record something that becomes a fraction but somehow encoded in the image that they make, encoded in that image is the power to move us. And that’s why these images sustain.”
But getting those images was no easy feat. Working with a very small crew of five people max, the production team was light and fast, aided by Canon 5D digital cameras that allowed them to remain mobile.
“We go as five and that includes our subject, lead photographer and then Jared, who would be like our DP and then the segment producer, the director and a digital tech who is just making sure that we’re not losing any data, backing everything up and taking care of the cameras and all of that. So every day we kind of hit the ground because as four of us sometimes we’d split up into two and two but we all have cameras, we’re all filming,” Frankham detailed, adding: “These photos don’t happen in front of you. Veronique I think sums it up quite well: part of it is getting to these places [and] putting yourself in these situations and we can’t do that with a crew and you can’t do that with a big crew and you can’t do that with a TV camera on your shoulder, I think that immediately effects the situation. So we tried to be as small and as invisible as we could be. And I think it was quite effective. As I go back we went back through the edits and go back through it now, with the screenings, I feel so many moments that it feels like the camera’s invisible and that we’re capturing this experience.”
And watching “Witness,” it’s certainly a unique piece of storytelling, both visceral and haunting, giving viewers a generous look into the heart of places where history is being made almost on a daily basis. And for Frankham, he hopes the show can recall an old school era of reportage that could enact action.
“…when this idea was first coming and developing I kind of thought of it as the new ’60 Minutes.’ When I was a kid, on Sunday you would see something on ’60 Minutes’ that you had never heard of before and on Monday everybody was talking about it. And it was so effective and so you know it created change and I think that this is a way of like going back out to those,” he shared. “I remember the kids in Brazil sniffing glue out of the little jars, you know? ’60 Minutes’ told that story that stuck in my head from I don’t know, thirty years ago. And that [report] changed that you know? The companies who were responsible for the glue like it ends over night because of the power of that. So there’s this naive side to me that believes that we could keep telling these stories, going into conflicts and trying to engage people.”
As Mann, he hopes to continue to share these remarkable stories. “I’d love to do some more, we’d like to do another set,” he said.
“Witness” airs on HBO, Monday nights at 9 PM starting tonight.