Song under fire

From battle softened veterans to adrenaline junkies, a new song theatre production celebrates the work of war correspondents worldwide.

Helen Chadwick
20 June 2014

Helen Chadwick and other performers in “War Correspondents.” Credit: Simon Richardson. All rights reserved.

I sat drinking tea and eating a Kipling cake in a one bedroom flat in Deptford while my photographer friend Jon went up into the loft to fetch his photographs of Georgia. I was about to go there for my first song expedition, to meet Georgians and be inspired in my own song writing by their singing.

Jon emerged down the ladder, his arms laden with large black and white images that he laid out on the floor. Under the pile of photographs of Tbilisi and the Caucus mountains were many images of Grozny during the First Chechen War: five fighters standing in the destroyed upper window frames of a bombed out building; the pock marked walls that once held a house; faces of women which spoke of constant shelling and so much loss. Those photographs are still ingrained in my memory.

Jon talked about the perils of attempting to tell the stories of the Chechen war, and of other news photographers working in Chechnya. They were stories of confiscation, capture, torture and expulsion.

I was struck by the normality of tea and cake, juxtaposed with the devastation witnessed in Jon’s photographs.

That afternoon stayed with me, and some years later I decided to create a song theatre performance based on interviews with war correspondents, with the aim of paying tribute to people like Jon.

The idea was to interview journalists who had experience in conflict zones, and then to create songs, and finally a whole theatre performance, from these clips and stories. I had done something similar when interviewing my neighbours in Dalston, East London, for a piece commissioned by the Royal Opera House called “Dalston Songs.”

I joined forces with theatre designer and visual artist Miriam Nabarro, who has worked as a humanitarian worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, Sudan and Eritrea. She and I met with friends and colleagues who had photographed and written in many of the wars of the past twenty years. Some work for major organizations and others independently.

While on a song theatre project in Italy I also met, almost by chance, Giuliana Sgrena, who had been taken hostage in Fallujah, Iraq, whilst reporting on the bombing there, and who later wrote an extraordinary book about her experiences called Friendly Fire

We also interviewed people on skype and spent ten days in Georgia, talking to journalists there who had reported on the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia. These journalists had a very different perspective on conflict in their own country, which had a clear psychological impact on their reporting.

Hence, most of the research for the performance was undertaken, not by reading articles or books, but by talking to war correspondents and hearing their own reflections. Common themes and questions emerged over time. They included: Why do you do it? What kind of censorship have you experienced? How has the work changed since 9/11? What is the cost to you personally?

One of the main themes of the interviews was that of ‘being on the side of those who suffer’ - wanting to report about the experience and suffering of civilians in war. Journalists also spoke about how reporting has changed so much over time. “It’s the death of news” said one interviewee, explaining that reporters in the Vietnam War could work as independents. Now, being a journalist is not only less safe and less protected than before, but reporters can also be targeted themselves by those with weapons.

We encountered a diversity of experience and view points, meeting one journalist who told us that “war is a drug,” and talked about the adrenalin rush it brings with it for reporters; and another who said something very different. Instead of becoming battle hardened, he “found quite the opposite happened to me, and I became a battle softened veteran.”

Perhaps the most powerful theme of all is the desire to tell the ‘truth.’ An American journalist called Larry James quoted Kenneth Best, a Liberian war reporter. When Best was asked why he was publishing articles that risked his own life, he said that “I keep hoping that some day, if we keep telling the truth, it will be better for all of us.” Those words became a four-part harmony song which ends the performance, a theme whose importance goes way beyond war reporting.

Why song? Brecht wrote “In the dark times will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing.” The forms of the songs sometimes reflect the world the correspondents speak about, containing complex cross rhythms, harmony and dissonance. The view points of journalists about their own work translated into song allow a gut feeling response which goes beyond intellectualizing.

I ordered the songs and the interview clips into a loose four movement “symphonic” form which was staged in April and choreographed by co-director Steven Hoggett. It is now touring the UK. The first movement provides an introduction to the idea of war correspondents (they don’t exist, say some).

The second movement focuses on working inside war itself, the nitty gritty of being bombed and trying to get reports out and published. The third movement is slow and dark, focusing on the story of a journalist who is taken hostage and a look at post-traumatic stress disorder or “a bruising of the mind”.

The fourth movement of the piece conveys a more reflective philosophical tone on truth, repetition, and apathy. This loose structure does not in any way dramatise the individuals involved, but it does attempt to offer up some insights into what they think and care about. One correspondent who came to see a performance was relieved to see that his life and those of others were not being sensationalised.

Journalists who report from conflict zones are reflecting on the experience and unfolding of wars in words and pictures. They are the link between war itself and people’s understanding of war. Without them we would know very little. Without them we would care much less. Song theatre is a beautiful way of reflecting on their experience of war and war reporting.

When I saw Jon’s photographs in that Deptford flat - a man who gave up war photography in order to give his children a better chance of a living father - a seed was sown that came to fruition in these songs and this performance. This is our attempt to pay tribute to the extraordinary work of these unassuming and unsung heroines and heroes.

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