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.