Janine di Giovanni is one tough reporter. She’s been to some of the world’s worst war torn regions, met with some of the world’s worst war criminals, and seen human suffering first hand, yet she remains committed to reporting about the human condition and portraying her subjects with compassion and dignity. She was nearly killed in Kosovo, had to sleep in the car, eat candy bars for dinner, and jump into a ditch being used asa latrine when the unit she was with got ambushed in the middle of the night! She’s dodged her fair share of bullits and gives us some of the most honest and riveting firsthand accounts ofwar .
We are very lucky to host her at the Walker as part of our Writing Conflict Drawing War series. I was also very lucky to talk with her and get her thoughts about the future of newspapers, and how art can make a difference.
di Giovanni has been a reporter for over 20 years. She has won the Amnesty International Award for human rights reporting, has written several books, and like Lee Miller, is elegant on top of it all.
Allison Herrera: I know you haven’t seen the Brave New Worlds exhibit, but i’m wondering if you think art can make difference and make people take action against things they think are unjust.
Janine di Giovanni: I’m not up on contemporary art, but I certainly think art can make a difference. Just look at a painting like Guernica. If you know what it stands for and why Picasso painted it, it can make you cry.
I also think that photography can have a huge impact. Like the photographs Lee Miller took during WWII.
And in a place like Bosnia. During the war, a lot of people were making theatre based on their reactions and experiences about the war.
AH: You’ve been a war correspondent for many years and covered regions where the nature of conflict is very different. How has war reporting changed? Do you think reporters are targeted more now than they were in the past?
JG: Journalists have always been at risk. That’s what happens when you’re a war correspondent. This is a business where there is no half way. I’ve lost several friends.I think journalists are targeted when governments don’t want the outside world to know what is going on. Look at what happened to AnnaPolitkovskaya after she had been reporting on Chechnya.
The people who really deserve credit are the Afghani and Iraqi reporters who are always at risk of being hit by an IED, but don’t get the credit that Bob Woodruff did. The local fixer, or the local driver don’t get nearly enough credit for putting their lives on the line.
Particularly in WWII, there was a lot of censorship, and journalists were targeted then. It was Lee Miller who broke that censorship and instead of waiting for D-Day to happen like a lot of other reporters, she went out there and really covered the war.
Furthermore, I don’t believe in being embedded. You can’t get the truth that way or get the real stories or interact with real people that way.
AH: What do you think the future of newspapers is given that a lot of companies are downsizing their staff and trying to appeal to a market that might not be interested in reading “hard news”.
JG: I was lucky in that I was reporting in the “golden age” of journalism which was the 1980’s. I worked for the British press where there is a wonderful history of narrative reporting. When I was doing reporting, we were given a lot of freedom and newspapers had the budget to do it. I don’t know what it will be like for the next generation of journalists who don’t have what we had.
I like buying newspapers. I get the International Herald Tribune, and a French newspaper.I don’t like reading news online. I like to get ink on my hands, I like to tear things out.
AH: How do you get people to care about regions of the world where there is a tremendous amount of suffering, but is so far removed from their daily lives? Does reading about it, having an awareness about it make a difference?
JG: I really hope so. I’ll give you an example of something that happened a few weeks ago. My husband, son, and I were coming back from the circus on the metro in Paris. An African woman got on and it looked as if she was pregnant. She had just given birth a couple of weeks ago and was living in a hotel for immigrants in Paris. They’re terrible places. One had burnt down a couple of years ago. She said she desperately needed money to buy food for her child. My husband and I looked through our wallets. I had a couple of euros, but noticed I also had 20 euros.I thought to myself,”She needs this more than I do.” I handed it to her and she threw her arms around me and thanked me and thanked me. We just stood there with our arms around one another on the metro while everyone else acted like nothing happened just reading their newspapers.
I am just a vessel for people’s stories and I hope they effect people the way it has affected me.
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