Unheard sufferings for art

Photojournalism's dark side influences a new play.

What lies behind the striking, sometimes horrifying, images from combat zones that we see on the television news or in the pages of newspapers? What has been sacrificed to capture them?

In the play Bare Witness, the mind of Dannie Hills (played by Daniela Farinacci) is in a fragmentary state. She's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and, through photographs, trying to piece her life together in the aftermath of a calamity in Iraq. Dannie has risen from rookie to experienced, award-winning photojournalist but the life she chose has not been an easy one, filled with danger, destruction and loss, as well as a constant questioning about the morality of her work.

Playwright Mari Lourey says Bare Witness, opening for a season at The Street Theatre on November 6, is ''not a documentary play; it's a ripping yarn''.

But that's not to suggest it wasn't extensively researched or that it doesn't deal with serious ideas. Lourey says all the events depicted in the play happened - in such trouble spots as the Balkans, Iraq and East Timor - but that her characters, including Dannie, are fictional composites and fictionalisations based on fact.

''It's not TV on stage,'' Lourey says - given the range of locations and the long period of time it covers, trying to attain documentary realism would be impossible. ''You can't create a war zone.''

Instead, the story is told through the characters and with impressionistic imagery - ''not war photography'' - as well as a soundscape and a score played on cello by Kristin Rule, all intended to convey the feelings of what such experiences would be like.


In the play, which is directed by former Canberran Nadja Kostich, Dannie starts out as a rookie, a newspaper photographer wanting to make a name for herself. While on holiday in Europe, she meets a group of photojournalists including Irishman Jack (former Canberran Adam McConvell) and travels with them to the war-torn Balkans. She befriends the prominent photographer Jacek (Todd McDonald) and takes a photo in what might be considered morally questionable circumstances that makes her name.

Her blossoming career will take her to troubled East Timor where, brittle but wised up, she develops a personal and professional relationship with East Timorese journalist Jose (Ray Chong Nee). Things become more serious for her there and, when next seen, she's in Iraq, the scene of what Lourey calls ''the final tragedy of the story''.

Bare Witness premiered in Melbourne in September 2010 and, with most of the same cast, began a regional tour in September this year that ends in Hobart in November.

Lourey says the seed that grew into the play was planted one night in 2003 when she was talking to the wife of a photojournalist friend on assignment in Gaza, who seldom heard from her husband. They talked about the enormous risks and low rewards of the freelance photojournalists, the moral and philosophical questions involved, as well as the ongoing effects of such a hazardous occupation. The woman suggested it would be good material for a play.

When the photojournalist returned, his wife was convinced he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and Lourey talked to him about the idea of a play - and they began to form the basis.

Lourey says the modern idea of the photojournalist began taking shape in the 20th century, with people such as Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War, and developed from there.

''Vietnam had a huge impact,'' she says. And so did the advent of digital cameras, forcing some who couldn't afford to upgrade out but increasing the speed and immediacy of the work.

And photojournalists continue to ply their trade, often risking their lives for little money or certainty. Lourey says the play is, in part, a recognition of them and their efforts.

Bare Witness is on at The Street Theatre from November 6-10 at 8pm. Tickets $40 full, $37 concession, $29 student. Bookings: 6247 1223 or thestreet.org.au