Last week, I was at Steppenwolf for Young Adults training session, talking in front of a group of teachers getting ready to spur discussions about their George Orwell’s Animal Farm play with high school students across Chicago.
The organizers felt that Orwell’s masterpiece of a book held up a mirror to the Russian Revolution, so they decided to bring in a photojournalist, whose role in society is often called a mirror. (I also had a lot of experience with Cuba, as Orwell had with Russia, so there were some interesting revolutionary parallels).
In preparing what I would say, they pointed me to an essay by Orwell called, “Why I Write”.
His words struck deep at the heart of motivation – a gut check if you need one.
He talked about the four motivating factors of writers, which I would argue sums up the motivations of photojournalists as well.
- Sheer egoism
- Aesthetic enthusiasm
- Historical impulse
- Political purpose (advancing society)
I was asked in front of the class, of course, which one I felt most applied to my motivations as a photojournalist. I said, frankly, “All of them.”
In the same order, there is the:
- “Look at me!” quality of being able to secure unique and enviable access as a photojournalist.
- The joy of being able to create art called photographs that don’t always have to have strong news value.
- The privilege and responsibility of witnessing and recording history.
- The belief and hope that our pictures will help change society.
But to be honest, I’ve lately been in a state of mind where I look at “historical impulse” and all I can think about is the dedication of someone like journalist James Foley.
I taught photojournalism at the Medill graduate school, but he was before my time. I’m sure he would have been in the class and I wish I could have met him.
He had the kind of unyielding dedication to conflict journalism that I knew from the beginning of my career that I did not. He was truly in the middle of dangerous revolutions.
Over the years, I’ll sometimes meet photographers who want to work in conflict zones, and to be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered if their egoism was more a part of their desire to see action more than any historical impulse. Just last week, a photographer speculated on Twitter about whether he should go down to Ferguson in order to get something for his portfolio.
There is no such doubt with Foley. He seemed incredibly grounded in the historical impulse and a plain dedication to the truth.
But even that would be too limiting to describe his dedication, because the more I read about him, the more he appeared dedicated to something far more personal. He felt a deep calling to testify for people caught up in the ugliness of war.
About 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since 1992. So many have sacrificed not just for political ideals but also for very personal and human reasons.
Orwell overlooked a fifth ideal that motivates many writers and photographers:
- To help others.
For that, Foley and others are inspirations for journalists, writers and photographers everywhere in our roles as mirrors to power and revolutions.