The New York Times’ Lens blog is a gem, and it proves it again with this latest post, about photojournalist Bryan Denton’s experience in Libya. Okay, so, most of the post is written by C. J. Chivers, which is like cheating—Chivers is one of the ten best reporters in the world right now—but even so, the whole package is emblematic of what Lens has been able to do consistently: go deep, really deep, into the real craft of reporting.
Here’s one part that really struck me. This…
Denton: We departed from Benghazi on April 13 [aboard a Greek ferry that had been pressed into evacuation service]. The trip lasted about 16 hours. There was evidence of artillery impacts on some of the structures in the port, so we knew that the area had come under fire. The entire trip between disembarking and arriving at our safe house was probably an hour. As with other stories in the past, it was one of the more stressful periods, primarily because you are new on the ground and haven’t yet picked up on how things work yet. I often equate conflict with music and dancing. It takes a little while to figure out the rhythm. But once you do, you can start to dance.
…followed by this:
Denton: [C. J. Chivers] has been great to work with on this story because, as a former Marine with many years of war reporting under his belt, he has a great deal of experience and perspective on how battlefields work and shift.
In Misurata, a great deal of planning and thought went into each story before we reported it; finding out what exactly was happening at the locations we were planning to report from, how we were planning on moving there and how much time we wanted to spend on the ground. Misurata is not a place where you want to hang around on the street and wait for stuff to happen.
Whenever we were outside of the compound we were staying in, we were wearing full body armor, including eye protection. We carried personal medical kits, including tourniquets, in case one of us was wounded while reporting. We’d check with each other periodically, and when it was decided that both of us had what we needed for the story, we’d pull back to our safe house, and get to work on filing the day’s story.
I like the demystification there. War reporting isn’t some magical, macho art form; it’s a sequence of decisions that you make very, very carefully. Yes: courage is a prerequisite. But like most reporting, this is a craft. It’s something that can be learned. It’s something that a person can practice and get better at—under the tutelage, say, of a master like Chivers.
I really highly recommend the entire post: it’s at once totally harrowing—horrifying, really—and surprisingly cool, collected, cautious. This is the world of the war reporter. This is the world of the craftsman.