PuSh Festival: Photog: An Imaginary Look at the Uncompromising Life of Thomas Smith is a life-or-death journey
Some will say they’re hard-wired for danger. Others are compelled by moral reasoning and ideals, a sense of duty. But almost all conflict photographers have one thing in common: they’ve abandoned relative safety for total chaos, telling real-life horror stories one image at a time.
But the power of those photographs can vanish with a simple flip of the page or a click of a mouse. Somewhere between self-preservation and willful ignorance, many of us are actively disengaging from first-hand accounts of wars and human-rights atrocities. We don’t have to look. We don’t want to look. Neither did theatre troupe Boca del Lupo’s Jay Dodge, performer-writer of the powerful new stage production Photog at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Why do we keep turning the channel and watching Glee?’ We’re more and more connected to the world and yet we seem less and less willing to look at it.”
It’s early on a Saturday morning, and Dodge can’t help but smile ruefully into his coffee as he thinks back on how this life-changing journey began five years ago, when he and his partner Sherry J Yoon, Photog’s cocreator and director, decided to delve beyond the images. The couple contacted Yoon’s journalist friend in New York who had fallen in with a group of award-winning conflict photographers. In November 2008, they travelled from Vancouver to the Big Apple and conducted on-camera interviews with Tim Hetherington, Michael Kamber, Ashley Gilbertson, and Farah Nosh.
“We were pretty profoundly impacted by the interviews themselves,” Dodge says. “And the interviewees were as well, because none of them had ever been asked about the nature of their experiences. They’re always asked about what’s going on in the conflict, what’s going on politically. But we were curious about their personal experience, because as artists we’re curious about why we’ve lost this connection.”
Out of that interview process, Dodge says, friendships were forged in surprising ways, especially with Hetherington. Boca del Lupo collaborated with the acclaimed photojournalist on Sleeping Soldiers, an interactive video installation that debuted in 2009. About a year later, in November 2010, Photog: An Imaginary Look at the Uncompromising Life of Thomas Smith, commissioned by Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, premiered to rave reviews. That same year also found Hetherington nominated for an Academy Award for codirecting the Afghanistan-war documentary Restrepo.
Then, on April 20, 2011, Hetherington was killed while covering the civil war in Libya.
“We had been picked up to tour the piece [Photog] in Montreal a month later,” Dodge says. “We knew it was high-risk. Obviously, you hear about journalists getting killed regularly, unfortunately, and then you become friends with some of them and you think, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen to them.’ It was an enormous shock when it happened.”
Photog is now dedicated to Hetherington, and during its run SFU Woodward’s will also exhibit Sleeping Soldiers in its lobby. Restrepo will screen for free prior to the January 23 performance.
While Hetherington’s death has cast a shadow over the production (Dodge says he thinks of his friend every time he takes the stage), Photog still condenses all four photojournalists’ stories into the narrative of a man (played by Dodge) who’s plucked out of Iraq to deal with his home in Brooklyn, which is being torn down to make room for condos. Back in America, he finds it hard to reconcile the vast differences between a world of relative privilege and a world at war. The character’s internal struggles are contextualized on-stage with some high-tech multimedia tricks, such as live feeds and projections using real photographs from the interview subjects. Much of the dialogue is lifted from the interview transcripts.
In addition to examining the why of lost connection, another big question lingers. Even Dodge, who has lived and breathed Photog for years, is still at a loss to fully explain why conflict photographers run toward the action, rather than away.
“One consistent thing seems to be, when you start taking pictures, it [fear] leaves,” Dodge says. “It’s this filter or a shield or an activity. That brain function, like, when a soldier has to fire a gun—you’re scared until you’re doing it.”
If it sounds like Photog is carrying a heavy burden on its somewhat untested shoulders, well, it is. Dodge is aware of Boca del Lupo’s responsibility to the photojournalists, Hetherington’s memory, the subject matter, and the people depicted in the photos. But like the life it examines, there’s a rich complexity to the piece. In fact, Dodge promises, laughing, there will be moments of humour in the most unexpected places.
“It sounds weird, but all of the people these interviews were based on have a tremendous sense of humour,” Dodge says. “You find yourself laughing at things you wouldn’t normally be laughing at, because that’s the world we live in. You have to find a way to cope. I think it’s a triumph in some ways, too, when you can find lightness and humour and find your way back.”
Particularly when the journey is as life-and-death as the one in Photog.
Photog: An Imaginary Look at the Uncompromising Life of Thomas Smith runs from January 22 to 26 at Studio T at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.