Home late from Brooklyn--near 1 a.m.-- on Friday night on the 3 train, escorted to the station by a recently returned soldier from Iraq, the deserted streets opposite the monumental Brooklyn Museum felt oddly safe. On the train in our still de facto segregated city we were the only light-skinned folk and there were about ten men sleeping in their hooded sweatshirts--a homeless underground riding the trains at night for shelter--a New York most of us never see or acknowledge.
We'd been to a gallery opening in Crown Heights, the gentrified side of Crown Heights, and when we'd arrived and surfaced from the train, we'd crossed Eastern Parkway, walked in the wrong direction, and found ourselves in the 'hood, far away from the gallery. There were three of us-- a burly man, two tall women--but we could have gotten rolled, for sure. We went into a store to ask directions and everyone was helpful and kind. We were two journalists and a photographer, had been to more dangerous places, and always survived, more than survived, we'd been invulnerable. We were not afraid. We were on the street, but not of the street.
I remember talking to war reporters in London at one party at another, returned from one war or another. They partied hard and recounted their exploits without reference to the dead bodies they had photographed, or the near-dead moments they had experienced. I thought them callous. I did not want such callous disregard to ever happen to me. But a numbness set in after 9/11 and then when I worked on "Another Day in Paradise," my two-year project with humanitarian workers, and, then again, when I worked on a revision of my family's war story, "Searching for Fritzi." To be numb or callous is not good for the writing, or anything else.
It is true, of course, that a certain distancing is required as we work and that we develop a narrative persona, or journalist's persona, to get the story and retain our own sanity. This must happen no matter what we are writing about--small stories and big ones. But we must guard against becoming numb or callous.
These days, a broadcast reporter can often be seen tearing up during an interview. S/he is not ashamed to show the audience an emotional reaction. Even war reporters and photographers--Jon Lee Anderson, James Nachtwey, Nicolas Kristoff, Scott Pelley, many others-- have achieved the tender balance between sensitivity and distance. They seem to take shelter in the work itself, the value of their reporting, and their humanity and integrity.