The other day in this space I was jawing on about TV coverage of Hurricane Sandy. It was mostly negative, my take, and mocking. Fact is, what will be remembered and resonate months from now is a handful of still photographs of the devastation. Today, note that first.
The Hurricane came along and disrupted the U.S. presidential campaign, as everybody knows. It came at that point where pundits and voters were still discussing the third and last debate between Obama and Romney. One of the topics being discussed was not what was debated but what was ignored – Mexico in particular, and Latin America in general.
Mitt Romney made a glancing reference to the U.S. doing business with Latin America, calling it a "huge opportunity." Neither he nor Obama mentioned Mexico and the chaos there, with an estimated 50,000 deaths in the conflict related to drug wars.
That gruesome situation in much of Mexico is on full display in Witness: Juarez (HBO Canada, 9 p.m.), the first episode of a powerful new series produced by filmmaker Michael Mann and documentarian David Frankham that profiles war-zone photographers at work in Mexico, South Sudan, Brazil and Libya (by Abdallah Omeish, the Libyan film is only one not directed by Frankham). The series is not celebratory or analytical, but it is at times breathtaking television. It bears witness to those who document with photography the barbarity of human actions, sometimes on a large scale and sometimes on a scale so pitifully small it is even more poignant.
The subject of the Juarez episode is Eros Hoagland. He looks like everyone's idea of a dashing photojournalist, risking his life to get the telling image in the chaos of violent conflict. But Hoagland is no cowboy addicted to the rush of danger. A no-nonsense, sometimes melancholy man, he goes about his work in a pragmatic manner. "I'm not there to tell you what's happening," he says. "I'm there to show you what I saw and you can come upon your own conclusions." His job is a vocation, really. His father was John Hoagland, a photographer killed in 1984 while on assignment for Newsweek in El Salvador.
The picture that emerges of Juarez is dark and profoundly sobering. Death after death, the connection with drug cartels or the police is usually unclear. There is no trust. "I'm more afraid of the police than I am of the youngsters around here," says one bewildered man. Not long after the man shouts this observation, Hoagland comes across a man in a car who has been shot and is bleeding to death. Nobody knows who shot him or why. Hoagland takes pictures as a group of locals watch warily at a distance, just waiting for the man to die.
Hoagland is also at the centre of Witness: Rio (airing Nov. 26) in which he is chronicled photographing incidents in the complex drug and gang wars of the "favelas." Those are the Rio de Janeiro slums that the local government is attempting to clean up as Rio prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. It is in Rio, Hoagland says, that "the pictures we take have consequences." But is clear, too, that he is weary of the ceaseless web of lies that permeates the situation in Rio, and the emotional impact on his psyche is evident.
The longest program in the series, and one with a slightly different tone, is Witness: South Sudan (airing Nov. 19), which focuses on French photographer Veronique de Viguerie. We watch as she goes into the South Sudan jungle with the militia called the Arrow Boys as they seek and hope to destroy the Lord's Resistance Army, led by the notorious Joseph Kony. The tone changes here because de Viguerie is willing to dwell on her motivation and talk about the feelings that sometimes envelop her, as a human being and a woman, while she goes about her work.
The photographers profiled are all extraordinary figures, compelled to do something that is dangerous and heartbreaking. In the end, though, it is the photographs we see that matter most and linger longest.
Witness doesn't seek to glorify those who take the photographs. It documents them and their work without commentary and in a spare manner that is deeply revelatory. Whether we are taken to the grim, death-addled Juarez or the exotic, terrifying jungles of South Sudan, we are given a portrait with compelling luminosity. This is uncommonly good television about a craft and expertise that can achieve much more than television itself reaches for. It is often unsettling, at it was meant to be.
Winess airs on the next four Mondays at 9 p.m.