I was a cub reporter at the Minneapolis bureau of the Associated Press when historic flooding inundated the Red River Valley between Minnesota and North Dakota in the spring of 1997. It followed a historically cold winter in Minnesota, full of blizzards and record-low temperatures, that left a massive amount of snow still on the ground in April—when it melted all at once. Followed by thunderstorms.
“We’ve had so much fun here,” a Red Cross volunteer in Granite Falls, Minnesota, joked to our AP reporter on the scene. “Floods, blizzard. We’re expecting the asteroid next.”
Fifty-thousand people evacuated Grand Forks, North Dakota—most of the city’s population. The city’s downtown, paradoxically, caught fire. Sewage backed up. Phones didn’t work. In one particularly macabre tableau, a mother driving with her 3-year-old daughter slid into a partially frozen creek near rural Kent, Minnesota, and, having escaped the car, went looking for help in the dark, in 8-degree weather, soaking wet. After three hours of walking, they collapsed in a field and died.
We turned our bureau’s conference room into a kind of war room, pinned a map of the region to the wall, and plotted a route for covering the hardest-hit places. As it happens, the bureau had recently landed a reporter who served in the military before becoming an AP correspondent in Rwanda. He had covered the aftermath of that country’s genocide as well as the fighting in nearby Burundi and Congo. He was the natural person to wade into dangerous waters.
He drove through floodwaters churning with ice chunks—in a tiny white 1987 Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible, as though it were an Army jeep—to isolated farming towns that had become islands. He crashed on locals’ (presumably dry) floors and called in his grim stories.
He seemed, for the most part, to enjoy it.
Becoming Part of the Story
A mercenary motive has been ascribed to professional eyewitnesses at least since, well, the paintings in Mia’s “Eyewitness Views” show were made in the 1700s. A remarkable assembly of so-called “view paintings,” the works bear witness to spectacles of all kinds, from volcanic eruptions to royal pageantry—the dramatic news of the day. And, like journalists, the artists who made them were driven by curiosity, adrenaline, and a paycheck.
Some of these artists were clearly proud of having a front-row seat to history. In at least one case, an inscription on the painting itself indicated it was made from experience, not from afar. These were the 18th-century equivalents of TV reporters standing waist-deep in hurricane floodwaters. They wanted the story, the thrill, and the credit. And they got it.
To make this analogy explicit, the exhibition includes contemporary news photographs of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and other major events, while noting some differences. The artists sometimes altered the scenes they depicted, to achieve the desired effect—a taboo in objective journalism.
But journalists’ motives, too, influence their work—more than most would like to admit. Errol Morris, the documentary filmmaker, recently wrote a book about famous examples of photojournalism that may or may not have been staged to enhance the narrative. A Dust Bowl image of a cow skull in a dried-up field—moved there by the photographer. Cannon balls strewn about a barren valley in one of the first photographs of war—possibly placed, as well. And Morris isn’t sure that’s as bad as it sounds.
“I would call it a fantasy that we can create some photographic truth by not moving anything, not touching anything, not interacting with the scene that we’re photographing in any way,” Morris told NPR. “If you think you’re going to create an unposed photograph, think again. There is no such thing.”
Eyewitnesses, after all, cannot remove themselves from a scene and still bear witness. It’s up to us to understand that what they see is inevitably some part of themselves. That their perception doesn’t just influence the truth, somewhere outside the frame or between the lines. It is the truth.
Top image: Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s 1771 painting The Eruption of Vesuvius, lent by the Art Institute of Chicago to the “Eyewitness Views” exhibition now up at Mia. Volaire included an inscription to distinguish his view of the famous eruption from those of painters who did not actually witness it: “painted on-site by the chevalier Volaire.”