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Interview with David Frankham

Witness: Libya

HBO

What inspired you to tell the stories of these conflict photographers?

David Frankham

I think a big part of it came out of the disconnect with television news and how things are being portrayed. I was quite fed up with this anchorman telling us what's going in in parts of the world they've never been to. It really struck me with the pirates in Somalia - all these people were telling us what was going on, but they were just reading scripts. I just didn't believe it, and I found it to be maybe disingenuous and definitely boring. At the same time Véronique de Viguerie, one of the subjects, was with those pirates, on the ground, getting these incredible photographs. And I remember thinking, "Why is the story not coming from her? From that first-person interaction?" I've always been a news junkie and a photographer and had friends who are conflict photographers. I find them to be very interesting characters - they all have their different ways of working. I thought if I could get the audience interested in these characters, then I could also pull them into their subjects. You might not sit down to watch a documentary about South Sudan, but you might sit down to watch one about Véronique.

HBO

How did you want this series to be different from other documentaries about these conflicts?

David Frankham

I was trying to take a native approach. I think a lot of documentaries live by a set of rules that I don't feel like we needed to hold to as much. As long as we were following these characters and their journeys, I didn't feel like we had to do point-counterpoint on everything. This is us, 30 days on the ground, and this is what we witnessed. The other thing that bothered me about the news so much was this idea of summing things up in a minute or 30 seconds. I wanted to do the opposite of that; I wanted us to leave the audience with more questions than answers. And I think each journey does that, and we as the filmmakers on the ground felt like that - we always walked away with more questions. I can't sum up the drug war for you in 40 minutes or an hour. It would be silly. But I can give you a fractal of it.

HBO

Why do you think the news fails at telling stories from that perspective?

David Frankham

I think there's a lot of great journalists, both writers and photographers, who are doing that. But we see things like Newsweek, which isn't going to be in print after the end of the year. Budgets are getting slashed on a lot of the traditional ways where photographers and writers got to go to these fronts to tell these stories. I'm hoping that this will spark a renewal - especially with these photographers we're highlighting on this show - so that they can go on more of these journeys. But the power has been lost in a way. I can't speak completely as to why, but it's a bunch of things: We're bombarded by so many images that maybe they don't cut through the way they used to, maybe it's part budgetary, maybe in some ways a single image has lost context, maybe we've gotten numb to it ...

"What is so important that we'll all put our lives on the line to go cover it?"

HBO

How did the photographers react when you asked to follow them?

David Frankham

When we got very serious about it, Eros Hoagland and our DP, Jared Moosey, came to L.A. to talk about it, and they were very leery. Because there are a lot of ways this show could go wrong and become sensationalized or obvious or cheesy. In the wrong hands, it could become lousy, and they had their fears about what it was. So we sat a lot and talked about what it wasn't. And then when we went to shoot the Juarez one, it was an experiment. I said, "Listen, if we're not proud of this, if this isn't everything we want it to be and speaks as strongly and honestly as we want it to, then it goes to the shelf." Once that got going and we did the first one and the other photographers could see it, they got the context a lot quicker. Then my conversation with Veronique and Michael Brown was really, "What is so important that we'll all put our lives on the line to go cover it?"

HBO

You traveled to so many dangerous places with these photographers, did you it make you nervous to expose yourself to so much personal risk for the project?

David Frankham

There are moments when it's quite frightening and you're asking yourself, "Hey I've got a three-year-old little girl, what am I doing going through the jungle with a military that's just looking for a firefight? What am I doing out there?" But those are just flashing moments. Most of the time, you just get on with your work. You're waking up every day trying to get to the story, get to the people, get to the conflict. Then you come home late and tired, eat a bit and argue about what worked and what didn't. I think there's a bit of tunnel vision, in a way. There's something about looking through a viewfinder and focusing on things that puts you in a different place.

Witness: Libya

From executive producers Michael Mann and David Frankham