By Mike Hale | Published in The new York Times
“Witness: Juarez,” the first in a series of four HBO documentaries about contemporary war photographers, is the visual equivalent of a fast-paced duet, like Mozart for still camera and video camera rather than violin and viola.
The photographer Eros Hoagland and the cinematographer Jared Moossy travel the deadly streets of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in tandem, and our view jumps between their lenses; their photographs and moving images echo and amplify one another.
The half-hour “Juarez”, is a bracing, at times mesmerizing introduction to the “Witness” series, a project of the filmmaker Michael Mann and the documentarian David Frankham, who directed three of the films. (Mr. Frankham’s contributions are “Juarez” and “Rio,” about Mr. Hoagland, and “South Sudan,” with the French photojournalist Véronique de Viguerie; Abdallah Omeish directed “Witness: Libya”, which features Michael Christopher Brown.)
The subsequent films are each an hour long, and while all have powerful material, particularly the South Sudan chapter, they’re also more diffuse and more prone to sentimentality about the violence and social disorder the photojournalists bear witness to. “Juarez” is light on emotions and politics, focusing instead on the work.
Mr. Hoagland, a freelancer who works frequently for The New York Times, tracks down the scenes of drug-related murders in Ciudad Juárez with the help of a Mexican photographer, Guillermo Arias, and also embeds with the Mexican police, a practice he defends as “a free ride to a place we couldn’t go alone because we’d be killed.”
He offers practical tips — “You don’t want to arrive too soon, because the gunmen are still going to be there” — as well as philosophical guidelines. After he and Mr. Moossy (who photographed all four documentaries) race to the scene of a shooting and film the victim as he staggers out of his car, calling for help and dying on the street as soldiers and police officers stand by, Mr. Hoagland says: “I wasn’t there to mourn for him. I wasn’t there to console his family. I wasn’t there to — I was there to document it. It’s a piece of history.”
Mr. Hoagland’s comment that getting “too hung up on emotions” would make his work suffer — “I have to use that shield as much as I can” — takes on an extra resonance when you know that his father, John Hoagland, was killed in El Salvador in 1984 while taking photographs for Newsweek. (The photographer played by John Savage in Oliver Stone’s film “Salvador” was based on John Hoagland.)
In “Witness: Libya” Mr. Brown revisits his own direct brush with death: He was wounded by the mortar round that killed his colleagues Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in 2011. His chilling narration of the photographers’ movements that day is delivered at the scene, with current shots of blasted buildings and scarred pavement interwoven with videos and photos taken right up to the moment of the blast and in its aftermath.
The overall subject of “Libya” is the chaotic situation there in the wake of the 2011 revolution, with various factions fighting for power and revenge, and the film reflects that chaos. Images like the charred remains of the convoy that carried Col. Muammar el-Qadaffi when he was captured or an ammunition depot where stacked crates of missiles and bombs sit unguarded, are undeniably powerful. But the interviews and scenes of protests and confrontations that take up the bulk of the hour don’t cohere into a persuasive picture of the country’s current condition.
What’s more interesting is to see where the approaches of Mr. Brown and Mr. Hoagland agree or diverge. Both express the view that documenting a crisis is less about capturing the violence than about seeing the life around it — “the whole situation that people are living in,” as Mr. Hoagland puts it. But while Mr. Brown talks about the importance of identifying with his subjects — and is seen dancing with a roomful of Libyan militiamen — Mr. Hoagland reiterates the value of standing apart. “I’m not there to tell you what’s happening,” he says. “I’m there to show you what I saw, what happened to me, and then you can come upon your own conclusions.”
HBO, Monday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Produced by Blue Light Media and Little Puppet. Michael Mann and David Frankham, executive producers; Eros Hoagland, Michael Christopher Brown and Véronique de Viguerie, photojournalists; Jared Moossy, cinematographer; Antonio Pinto, composer. “Witness: Juarez”: Directed by Mr. Frankham; Ike Martin, Alison Kunzman and Youree Henley, producers. “Witness: Libya”: Directed by Abdallah Omeish; Julie Herrin and Josiah Hooper, producers. “Witness: South Sudan” and “Witness: Rio”: Directed by Mr. Frankham; Mr. Herrin and Mr. Hooper, producers.