Jul 4, 2016

Journalism - a requiem

Two years after visiting Ho Chi Minh (in 2014!), this will be my last post for the trip. 

It's something that touched me deeply, and i thought i'd dedicate a separate post to it (then life happened. I'm sorry it took so long!). 

On the first day of arrival, we explored the tree-lined streets of the city and ended up at the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes (they renamed it due to, um, diplomatic reasons). 

While the displays seemed somewhat imbalanced (lots of not-so-subtle finger pointing at the United States etc), there were still some notable exhibits. The first floor had exhibits on the battle of dien bien phu (that was when i remembered cramming about '边府之役' in high school), posters calling for peace, as well as outfits that were worn during that time (combat jackets, leather boots, horn-rimmed glasses and the like; fashion was indeed influenced by war). 

As we moved upwards, the exhibits got more serious. The cruelties and atrocities that took place weren't easy to stomach; effects of Agent Orange, for example. We had to take a breather to digest what we just saw, and there were many American tourists who did the same.

On the top floor of the museum, we entered the final exhibit. 

An exhibit of war photographs taken by 134 war photographers who were killed on assignment, titled Requiem. 

I didn't expect it to hit me so hard. 

Walls after walls of images of war, from LIFE magazine, Newsweek, the AP. Some dug from the attics of families who wished to forget. Some salvaged from the trash. 

But all records of what took place in history.  
Larry Burrows, on his last story 'The Edge of Laos', three days before his helicopter crashed in Laos. (Photo by Roger Mattingly)

There were stories about legendary war photographers Henri Huet, Robert Capa, Larry Burrows.

And what's more, the exhibition also included photos by Viet Cong photographers, showing the other side of the war. War does not only concern white men. There were works by the Japanese, French, Vietnamese photographers (who had to work in much more difficult circumstances), women photojournalists, and many of them died on the job. 

Is this what it means to be a journalist? 

The thankless task of recording history as it happens, to be on the front line, splattered by blood and shattered bones, to show the people back home that this is how war looks like.

In the midst of the exhibition was a thick folder, a sincere if clumsy attempt at documenting the photographers. Some had ample information on their backgrounds and some with just a name. 

Meanwhile, some remain nameless. 


It was an exhibition that i wasn't ready for. Recently i finally got around to watching 'Spotlight', a movie lauded as a win for journalism when it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. 

I'm not sure how to articulate my thoughts without this being another eulogy to the death of journalism. 

What Requiem showed, it felt like the pinnacle of war journalism. It showed that there are people in the world who willingly sacrificed their careers, worldly comforts, and even their lives, to cover history as it happened. That journalism can be more than mere sensationalism, listicles, pageviews, and clicks. That when something is done right, it resonates, clear as a bell, five decades later.

As someone who 'writes' for a living, as someone that barely belonged under the umbrella of 'journalism', I have been taught to think of nothing but 'content'. 

Content for more pageviews. Content for more clicks. Content for more likes. 

Whether the content is good or not, it doesn't matter at all. 

What matters is that you join the 'conversation' by creating noise. Mindless noise. 

What matters is you managed to squeeze in a few more clicks in a game that's dominated by big fish. 

If you don't like it, then too bad. That's how the game is played today.

'You'll have to play the game.'

Pray tell, what exactly, is this game you're talking about? 

Why are you spending your life and every single breath that you take by churning out inconsequential things that was only worth the extra page view? 


It's heartbreaking. 

Fifty years on, would there be an exhibition dedicated to the listicles that i wrote today? 

For more on Requiem, here's a piece by The New York Times.