War Zone

Conflict Photographer Eros Hoagland on His Dangerous Craft

Eros Hoagland, of HBO’s documentary series ‘Witness,’ writes about photographing conflicts.

Like many photojournalists who cover violence and conflict in the world, when I started out I was very idealistic. My photos were going to change the way we interact with each other and make the world a better place.

I no longer lie to myself and say that what I do is for the larger good of mankind. I don’t believe that. If someone says such a thing, they sure as hell better be able to prove it. And in all my years photographing various conflicts around the world, I haven’t been able to prove it.

What the pictures I take can do is provide information and perspective—whether it’s with cold hard facts or contextual ideas that get people thinking and asking questions. As photojournalists, we’re not problem solvers. We’re witnesses. And that’s why I was excited to take part in HBO’s new documentary film series Witness, executive produced by Michael Mann and David Frankham.

This series of documentaries gives audiences a better understanding of the decisions photojournalists have to make before pointing their lens in a particular direction. In cities overcome with violence, war, and crime, there are many stories that contradict each other. My job is to identify the common denominators in what I’m seeing and hearing, and develop a hypothesis from there.

Due to the rapidly changing media landscape and ever-shrinking budgets, some photojournalists are put on the ground with little time and few resources. Often journalists go into a region just to add a couple of quotes and pictures to a story written before their plane even touches ground. What I love about Witness is that you see the photojournalists develop ideas in an unbiased way, not driven by any agenda or propaganda, and acknowledge they don’t know everything. This is, in my opinion, the way it should be.

When I traveled to Rio, for example, I knew very little about the conflicts that were going on there, so I needed to spend some time getting the lay of the land. I kept hearing gruesome stories about the government hiding murder victims’ bodies to reduce the homicide rate in the city, which would soon host the World Cup and the Olympics. When you watch the chapter on Rio in the film series, you’ll see me follow that lead.

My experience with Witness allowed me to reexamine why I do what I do. My work is as much anthropological as it is journalistic. The two go hand in hand. War, conflict, and violence are all parts of human nature. I’ve been able to deal with the tragedy and ugliness I’ve seen by realizing it is part of who we are. I accept it. There are certain currents you just can’t swim against. Violence and mayhem are often two of those currents, just as love and nurturing are two others. Accepting this basic truth has given me a great deal of perspective on the world I photograph and ultimately the world I live in.

The conflicts of the last few decades are driven primarily by organized crime. Combatants can wear the uniforms of the state, the colors of revolution, or street tattoos, but it’s all gangsterism in the end. Two basic factors lead to this kind of violence: competition over resources and the desire for dominance over other people. These are at the root of every conflict in the world. I don’t believe all wars are strictly economic. Seeking power is a huge part of it. Everyone talks about the drug war in Mexico, but there’s a lot more to it than drugs. The scenes I’ve been seeing suggest the Wild West is alive and well along the northern Mexican border. You’ll see dirty cops, masked outlaws, and corrupt politicians, guys with cowboy hats and guns—it’s a grittier, bloodier version of the classic Western.

I’ve been starting to work again in Central America to cover the expansion of transnational organized crime. The world of organized crime is a very gray world. Who’s the criminal? Is it the government, is it the cartel, or some revolutionary group? How much does the civilian population bear responsibility? It’s very complex, and you never know whom you can trust.

Pictures lie all the time. I don’t believe my lens conveys the ultimate truth. I know full well that my photos are only part of the truth, and it’s up to you to decide the rest. Cases certainly exist with a clear victim and a villain, but in my line of work, it’s as if everything is in a bag—you can shake it up and take your pick. I’m on the hunt for thematic images that give perspective on a particular place. Good pictures should make you curious. If I’ve made you curious, I’ve done my job.

A lot of aspiring photographers are going to watch this HBO series. But people should know that if you travel to any hotspot in the world, 50 photographers are likely already on the ground. Brilliant local journalists are working in each of their respective communities. The big stories are well covered. So if you are going into this line of work, you need to know what your motivation is, because as I have learned firsthand, the consequences are grave. Not just for you, but for all the other people you depend on to gather information. Drivers, shop owners, and other locals—those whose trust you’ve secured over a couple of days or weeks. They are the ones who often give you bits of information, the ones who have a deep desire to reveal the truth as they know it.

In Witness, there’s a scene where gangsters ask me to film them secretly as they pay off local police. On the one hand, the transaction makes for great pictures, but on the other, someone will likely be killed once these photos surface. This is the dichotomy at play every time you point your camera where it’s not welcome.

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When I was 15, my father, John Hoagland, a respected photojournalist, was gunned down trying to bring perspective to the conflict in El Salvador. At his memorial, one of his colleagues from Newsweek handed me my Dad’s cameras and bags and said, “These are yours now. What are you going to do with them? Keep your mind open.” I’ve been trying to do that ever since.