"So the Audience Will Never Forget"
Jon Alpert is an award-winning reporter and documentary filmmaker whose recent work includes "Baghdad ER" and "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq," directed and filmed with Matthew O'Neill for HBO. Alpert is also a co-founder and co-director of the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV).
Dart Center: What do you think is stressful in a reporter's work, and specifically in your work?
Jon Alpert: Stressful? What's stressful? [laughter]
Strange cultures, whether it's the military or Iraqis. Dangerous places where people might want to hurt you or kill you. The fear of not capturing the story, of losing your access, of broken equipment, competition with other reporters — sometimes just seconds differentiate success or failure. (It used to be that days were the time unit, and we'd be beating the other reporters by days. But now with satellite phones and portable computers the time clock has been sped up, increasing stress.)
In TV-based work there is a technical and artistic component that is different from print. Print reporters can just stand and observe — TV people need to electronically capture the moment. And if you miss it, it's gone forever — that's another element that adds stress and necessitates you pushing in, in a manner that might seem to be thoughtless or inconsiderate of trauma victims.
DC: If you think about traumatic situations you have been as a professional journalist, what was the hardest thing to experience in those situations? What have you learned from those experiences?
JA: I remember walking over an entire field of human skulls in Cambodia and standing on the bones and thinking of all things: What's the best angle to shoot? Where is the light coming from so I can get the best images?
I remember interviewing the former head of the Cambodian student association who was sent with his family to work on a farm. They were allowed only one cup of watery rice soup a day. His grandmother died. They kept the body in their room for a month so they could get her soup ration. They eventually had to resort to cannibalism to survive. There were wells filled with skulls. I got a horrible infection from all the dead and decomposing bodies. I fought for the United States to send food to save the starving people. I lost.
I remember a young girl in El Salvador who had a huge hole where her mouth and nose used to be. The 14 soldiers in the Philippines who were turned into hamburger as I filmed their deaths. The mothers in Iraq who were holding up their shriveled dying babies and begging for help. I could fill pages and pages ...
I learned that war really sucks. And that it is important for me to document it in a graphic, emotional way — so the audience will never forget that war sucks. That is an important contribution and, ironically, drives me to witness the scariest, evilest tragic examples of human behavior.
DC: How did you get involved in filming violence and tragedies?
JA: The first time I was exposed to death and trauma was filming "Health Care — your money or your life" for PBS (1977-78). As a patient myself of the under-funded public hospital system, I had intended to show the tragedies that can result from medical care rationed by money. But when patients were dying — or died on camera — I was not prepared for the emotional impact that would have on the families, on the hospital staff, and on me. I am still haunted by the on camera death of Mr. Spenelli (the first time I had ever seen anyone die) and by the impending death of a baby whose parents could not afford the drugs that would save his life.
I filmed war for the first time in 1979. It was Vietnam vs. China and I was also unprepared for the reality of the battlefield. Even though I had rehearsed in my mind how brave I would be when the shooting started — how I would stand erect in a hail of bullets and hold my camera steady — when the first shots were fired, I reflexively and embarrassingly dove to the ground, my face coming to rest on a cow pie.
Over the years I've filmed more wars than I want to remember. With experience I've gotten better as a cameraman and as a reporter. But I still flinch whenever a car backfires and duck when a helicopter flies overhead.
DC: Do you think it would be helpful to arrange special educational and support programs for those who are going on a tough assignment and for those who already have?
JA: News organizations should have a simple pre-assignment session for all reporters. It should cover the ethical behavior of reporters towards trauma victims (advice that will probably be ignored) and a discussion about what it is like for reporters to be exposed to trauma. There should be a representative of management — a respected reporter who has gone through exposure to trauma — and a psychologist. And it should be made clear that counseling is available anytime — without prejudice.
DC: Is there anything you fear as a reporter? What helps you sustain yourself?
JA: I don't like to cover traumatic situations if I don't think my reports could help, educate, sensitize and ultimately change things for the better. I'll drive a car fast if I need to get quickly from point A to point B, but I won't drive fast just for a thrill.
I am often frustrated by an inability to find an effective outlet for what I think are important stories. This is as damaging to me as the traumas I witness.
I'm fearful of being marginalized, or ignored, or of being useless. I don't worry so much about being hurt. Once you survive the danger — and you can do valuable work as a result — you feel better about yourself and are proud of your accomplishment. So the next time you are more easily able to walk yourself over the danger line, because you know that's what you need to do in order to do good work.
I don't know if other people's experiences are similar to mine. Maybe that's why some of these drunk old reporters can take themselves to danger — cause it is a way to redemption and accomplishment. It's good to feel valuable and useful. So many people say: "Oh you've become an adrenaline junkie." But that's not correct in my case. I've become an accomplishment junkie — wanting to observe and capture events that are important and that, I guess, by mission and association make me feel important and useful to the world.
I wish I could find a continuous outlet for my reporting. It's when I'm unable to pursue the work I want to do that I feel most vulnerable. It's almost the opposite of burn out. If I feel I'm making a contribution — a unique contribution — if I'm constructively occupied, it deflects trauma past and present.