Interview with Eros Hoagland
What compels you to report from these dangerous places?
Above anything else, it's just become my way of seeing the world. It's definitely been a doorway into finding myself, as well as just learning things about other people and cultures. It certainly can be exciting sometimes. I was in Afghanistan in 2009, way up in a really remote mountain valley pass, with U.S. soldiers and marines. And we were on an 8-hour mission to an ambush, and basically, I was hiking up the most beautiful scenery imaginable but in very hostile territory. And I was thinking to myself: "God, my job is awesome. I'm actually getting paid to do this." And on the one hand, it was this really acute sense of being on the doorstep of history, but at the same time, it was like some kind of childhood war fantasy. And, I'm really open with myself about acknowledging that war fantasy; I think that at some time, all men have it. ... It's a way of at once escaping the daily life in North America, but it's escaping to produce something that can be valuable to the general public and to myself, as far as building on my own experiences.
Why had you chosen to report on Juarez at the time you were filmed for this project?
Juarez was just one of many places I was photographing that had to do with the Mexican border. It was a logical place to go to make pictures because it's one of the most violent cities in the world, which fit in well with a broader reportage I was doing about the border itself - not just the drug-trafficking and murder, but about the whole scene there. Juarez was very important, but I don't believe it was so important all by itself. That's one of the problems I had with the overall coverage of the drug war: People would just go to Juarez and think, "I got it." But it's just one chapter of many. But it was a logical next step for me, and I've been there several times since WITNESS was filmed, learning more and more - and becoming more confused.
At the moment you crossed the border into Juarez, what was your mental checklist like? How does that one trip fit into a bigger project?
I've been working on the border since 2005, and this was shot in 2010, so I was five years into it. At this point, I have some ideas of places and situations where I might like to go that I think I can make a picture in, but I have a checklist like, "Let's contact the police and see what they're doing. Let's contact this minister and see what he's doing ..." But in terms of actually making frames, it's just what happens. Sometimes I do get a sort of artistic preview in my mind of the type of actual frame I want to make, but typically you just go and see what happens.
How do you deal with the lack of safety in these places - mentally as well as logistically?
You don't feel it constantly. I think if you feel danger or a threat constantly, then it's either far too dangerous and you should leave immediately, or it's in your head and you need to slow down your thought process. I try to maintain a clear head, so that if I do get a sudden rush of panic or anxiety, it's coming from a true place of gut instinct. It's easy to psych yourself out and start thinking about something over and over again. Working in a place like Juarez, the danger is being targeted and executed, whereas the danger in Afghanistan was more getting caught in a combat situation between someone else and getting unlucky. So in Juarez, you don't really have that threat of being shot because somebody else is fighting and you're taking pictures of it - it's more that someone is going to kidnap you and assassinate you. I personally don't think there's a ton of danger in it for me because I'm obviously an American, and in Mexico, I think it's pretty bad business for organized criminals to be killing Americans. Not to say it couldn't happen, but I'm not a first-choice target. If I were a Mexican journalist, it would be a totally different ballgame. I'd be scared as shit. The bigger issue that I was concerned with in Juarez was getting the Mexicans I was working with into trouble.
In the film, you explain your status as an observer. Is it difficult to maintain that personal distance from your subjects?
It can be very difficult. And it just really changes with the time and the place and who you're dealing with. Other times, it's easier to be a third party to everything: "I'm watching this, I'm not going to get caught up with my emotions. I'm seeing someone dying in front of me, but I don't know them." And for fear of sounding harsh, I can't let my emotions get ahead of me for every dead person that I don't know. When it's someone I know - because it does happen - it's very difficult. Usually I find that if it's that hard for me emotionally, I have to put being a journalist second to just being a man.