In February, NBC News journalist Ann Curry, a familiar face to millions of North American viewers of the U.S. TV show Today, set out on a return visit to Darfur, Sudan and neighboring Chad. This trip, her fourth to the region since 2006, was different. The Washington School of Photography had sought out her talent for taking still photos and asked Curry to shoot a collection that would document her travels in an exhibit to be shown to policymakers, Darfur activists, humanitarian workers, photo enthusiasts, and members of the general public.
That exhibit opens Friday night in the Washington, DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland with the New York-based journalist and TV anchor in attendance. Curry acknowledges that still photography can often be the most effective way to capture the depth of the human suffering.
“People diminish the power of the still image sometimes as the power of the video image has become so prevalent. But there is something that makes you stop, when you see an image that is deeply powerful. It can make you just stop and stare and make you not want to look away. And I think when you look at certain kinds of tragedy like you see in Darfur, you need that second. You need that breath to fully take in what you’re seeing to fully understand the depth of suffering,” she said.
Accompanied by her NBC producer and her videographer cameraman, Curry proceeded to chronicle the images of a six-year tragedy that has been declared a genocide by some, including the US government during the administration of President George W. Bush, and has produced condemnation from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which posted an arrest warrant in March against Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charging him with war crimes. Curry says that as a journalist, undertaking her first gallery exhibition, which is expected to draw influential Washington policymakers, does not stem from an activist fervor toward the highly energized Sudan anti-genocide movement, but from a commitment to document human suffering and speak up for people without a voice.
“I did not say yes to having a showing of my photographs. What I said yes to was allowing my photographs to beckon people who care about this issue and might want to gather for a dialogue, for discussion about what should happen for these people. Remember, what’s happening in Darfur now is that all of the humanitarian organizations have been kicked out, and the rainy season is coming, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who are hungry and who face possible disease, and we will never know about it unless we are actively trying to find out the information, because it is almost impossible to get inside Sudan,” she observed.
Curry says her two NBC colleagues were able to add creative dimensions to her perspective with still photography to capture vivid images she was able to use in her reports on television when she returned.
“The three of us would look at different edges of the story, like I would see how Mike, our videographer would shoot an angle, and he would look at how I was doing it. And then we would trade places and I would see what else I could get in a still image as he was shooting something that was moving. I think with (producer) Antoine (Sanfuentes), there was a lot of inspiration that we were able to give each other, a lot of encouragement. Our mission was not to shoot pretty pictures. Our mission was to document what we were seeing in a powerful way that would connect with others,” Curry pointed out.
Without hesitation, she insists that telling the story about Darfur demands that the narrative must be seen from the perspective of the victims, those who are enduring the pain of the tragedy that continues to unfold as citizens in the western region of the country endure janjaweed militia attacks on population centers.
“From the point of view of the victims, it is very clear what’s happening. You know it from what they called you, how they hit you, how they hurt you, and how you are suffering still from the memory of it. In Darfur and in neighboring Chad, women have been actually asked, ‘what tribe are you a member of,’ before they are thrown to the ground and raped so that the perpetrators will know that they got the right tribe that they were trying to scare out of the area,” she claimed.
Curry says she was not an eyewitness to government-supported janjaweed attacks, but she was able to view still-smoldering villages just days after they were burned and pillaged. Through interviews with survivors and getting orphaned children to illustrate what happened with crayons and paper, the NBC team was able to piece together and confirm what had happened.
“To get an image of a janjaweed attacker is very difficult to do. So what I did was give pieces of paper and drawing utensils to children, and I asked them to draw their lives before they were made orphans by the attacks and what happened during the attacks. Every single one drew beautiful flowers and the little African huts they lived in, and animals in the before-pictures. And when they drew the attack, almost all of them drew pictures in flags of the Sudanese army. And they often drew pictures of helicopters,” she noted.
Those accounts, says Curry, without dispute bear out the claims of international groups and others that the Darfur attacks have the government military’s fingerprints behind the militia’s execution of the attacks.
“Look, janjaweed are militiamen. They don’t have helicopters. Some of them are wearing the uniforms of the Sudanese military. So then, you gather that evidence. And then you go talk to people, one by one, in many different villages over this course of many years (four years in my case), and you hear the story over and over and over again,” she confirmed.
The imagery Curry uses invites a curiosity of how her photographs can document the accounts by villagers.
“It’s almost the same. First, they could hear the helicopters, or they could hear the sound of hooves, whether they were camels or horses. And then, there were arrows, and they could see their roofs caught on fire, with the arrows burning. And then, the noise and the shooting and the beating. And virtually every time, they talk about seeing Sudanese military uniforms,” says Curry.
Photographs of Sudanese children with their drawings of what happened are included in the Curry exhibit Exposing Darfur. It will run through 5 June in suburban Washington, DC, and the NBC anchor suggests it could go on tour to other communities around the United States in the months ahead.