Source: Larry Busacca/Getty Images North America
James Brabazon, internationally renowned war correspondent and film maker, gives a vivid, frightening but hypnotic account of what it takes physically, emotionally and personally to report from a war zone.
James Brabazon is dressed casually in jeans, black t-shirt, and boots. In appearance, he is tall, dark, and handsome. His personality is friendly, engaging and witty. Exactly how you would imagine an award-winning war correspondent. However, behind the self-depreciating laugh and quick wit there is an ordinary guy ready to admit: “reporting on conflict and war has consequences for everyone involved with you.”
James baldly states: “Half my friends are either dead or divorced.” Hardly, a good job recommendation? It doesn’t take long for the attentive audience to discover that James while very much alive, at least for now, belongs to the half who are now divorced.
James Brabazon is in Galway to promote the documentary film he made about his friend, Tim Hetherington. Tim, an award winning photographer was shot and killed while covering the war in Afghanistan in April 2008. Or as James graphically and angrily puts it: “Bleed out while someone, who was unprepared for the reality of war, held his hand.” James begins his talk with three short film clips from various conflicts he has documented.
Despite the beautiful autumn sunshine streaming through the windows of “The Space” (the room hired for Brabazon’s talk) a definite chill descends. The final clip shows a young black boy, no more than eighteen, being unceremoniously executed. He is shot in the head. At point, blank, range. As the boys lifeless body lies on the brown earth James zooms in for a close up. The boy’s shocked, unseeing eyes steer straight into the camera lens. A frightening, vivid and disturbing image which stayed with me long after I left “The Space”. How James Brabazon was able to film that scene and the effect it must have had on him is beyond my comprehension.
In his brisk East London accent, James acknowledges: “Anyone can go to war. You can be drinking coffee in London one minutes and ten hours later arrive at the Syrian border with Turkey.” You can leave the space where coffee, a warm dry bed, relative safety and clean drinking water are taken for granted. And enter the world where scabies, dysentery, whizzing bullets, murder, death and mayhem are the norm. All for the price of a cheap airline ticket.
He calmly informs the attentive audience of aspiring journalists that: “If you report on conflict you live outside the law.” Every day in a war zone you make unethical decisions, tell lies, bribe people all to get the story. “You become embedded in the conflict”. It seems to survive and report on these conflicts you must learn to operate in the space between; right and wrong, good and evil, law and unlawful. There is no black and white. Just shades of grey and greyer.
Thus what are the consequences mentally, physically and emotionally for the reporter? Well we know James is now divorced. He spends vast tracks of his time away from his two young sons. He admits that after reporting on the war in Liberia he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had to seek counseling. He almost died from dysentery and has been shot at numerous times.
It would seem that to move between these two opposing worlds’ necessities a certain degree of emotional detachment. After all to be able to leave your family and friends behind not knowing if you will ever see them again cannot be easy. You learn to live in the space between war and peace.
So what drives a man like James Brabazon to take such risks? To put himself in such danger and discomfort to film images of unimaginable horror? He is unequivocal in his response. He is the “watchman.” He believes passionately that he has a moral obligation to uncover the crimes that others want to keep hidden.
James is no hero, at least not once in the conventional sense. He is a driven, ambitious individual. Perhaps some would say dysfunctional. But he has great courage and conviction. He believes passionately that what he does can help the plight of the ordinary person brutalized by conflict and war. He is the voice and silent witness for people who are all but forgotten in the struggle for power.
I am reminded of a quote from Bob Dylan: “I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” James Brabazon understands that responsibility and is prepared to risk his own life to give hope to the forgotten. An in-between hero.