We recently published Lillian Tsay’s evocative “When a Photographer Falls.”
Here, we ask her two questions about her story:
1) One of the things I really like about this story is that the reader is never given a location — this could be anywhere. Were you thinking of any place in particular when you wrote this? Would it matter if you weren’t?
I thought it was a little bit obvious that this piece was inspired by the recent Russia-Ukraine War, although I wish that the war had never happened. However, it is correct that I deliberately want to leave out a specific location because unfortunately, those unfortunate events in modern warfare can happen anywhere. I was also inspired by a friend’s research on documentary photography, which reminds me again of how critical photography is in shaping our empathy towards those events we normally (thankfully) don’t experience with our own bodies.
2) I think it’s such an interesting thing, that journalists/photographers are witness to devastation like this, yet they can’t help (no matter how hard they try to stay ambivalent) but to become part of it. You demonstrate this so powerfully with the ending of this story. Do you think there is any way to witness without becoming?
I remember that there was a time when war photographers faced a lot of pressure for “not doing enough” at the site. I want to show that while the camera is a powerful tool in the war, it’s not invincible. It cannot document the smell or the sounds, and the same goes for the photographer. He or she is also another helpless person on the battlefield. As for whether there is any way to witness without becoming, I think I am hesitant to give a positive answer here. By being on-site, the photographer is already part of the war. With all the international law specifying that soldiers should not harm journalists and photographers, many of them still violated the rules, or you can say that bullets just don’t have eyes. I think the photographers knew this well, too, and yet they still made their decisions to pursue this difficult path.