Media, recent, Security, World Affairs

Agnès Bun’s Invincible Summer

Meeting Agence France-Presse photojournalist Agnès Bun is a disarming experience. She looks younger than her age, but her youthful appearance belies an intensity forged in her frequently dangerous and sometimes harrowing line of work. As we talked about her career and her reluctant memoir, There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon (translated from the French by Melanie Ho), she spoke quickly and wasted few words, which made our interview a challenge and a pleasure.

What is a reluctant memoir? It’s one written as a result of benevolent pressure from her peers and admirers, who implored her to aggregate a series of blog posts she had written for the AFP website about her experiences in the field. Eventually, she agreed but she hasn’t looked back since. “I wrote most of the chapters in one go,” she says, “and I haven’t reread it since it was published.” She isn’t the type of person to be detained by self-aggrandizement—she seems to be endowed with more humility than egoism. Instead, she reports and moves on. But sometimes her work leaves scars from the past—bloody slices of tragedy that have stained her conscience and left her torn between wanting to forget and needing to remember.

Some of her reporting has been enjoyable, such as her stint covering of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. But her elegant memoir also recounts her inglorious, perilous, heartbreaking, and occasionally fetid assignments, which reveal her palpable sensitivity to the plights of others. The book offers a collection of glimpses into the world of someone who reports on lives lived on the edge of hopelessness, in warzones and refugee camps and the devastated sites of natural disasters. Her prose is intelligent and direct as her training as a journalist would demand, but it also yields a poetic sensibility: “The sun kissed the hillsides, the sea, the people, my face; it was sweet and beautiful.”

Bun’s work ethic is the product of many influences, not least among which is her family, but none of which is the single locus of her motivation. She is principled but self-deprecating, and admits to feeling that she has yet to really help anyone. However, others seem to recognize something in her that she doesn’t sense about herself. “It seems whatever I originally turn down turns out to be good for me.” She originally turned down the offer to work in Asia for AFP.

Her job is frequently a difficult one, but Bun refuses to complain about its hardships. “My work is a privilege,” she says, “and even though there are tears and heartache, I would do it again.” She has a way of connecting with people who are normally reluctant to speak to the press. “People aren’t used to a journalist who admits to knowing nothing. I simply turn on the camera and say, Hey, tell me what’s happening here. Tell me your story.” Of a woman she met in Nepal after the earthquake in 2015, Bun says, “Years later, I don’t remember the number of victims but I remember the sidelong glance of her eyes, her swallowed sobs and a sadness that shriveled as it strove to express itself.”

Bun’s parents escaped the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s—some of her family members were tortured in Cambodia. Although she would be born in France, Bun also escaped too in a sense. Had she been raised in Cambodia, she says, “by now I’d be married with fourteen kids.” Her Asian features were a source of anguish as she was growing up in Europe. “I was teased but wanted to be accepted. When I was assigned by AFP to live in Hong Kong, I could finally walk down the street without feeling like an outsider, yet I remained French at heart. Because of these things, I’ve always struggled with identity.” However, the complicated attitude to her own identity has helped her to connect with people in situations where they too are unsure.

The unfolding Rohingya crisis has only recently attracted the attention of the Western media, but it has been fermenting in various forms since before WWII. The current iteration of the crisis began in 1982, when Myanmar’s government conducted its first census in decades but did not include the Rohingya people, a Sunni-Muslim minority group, effectively rendering them stateless. On August 25, 2017, a series of attacks were conducted by a Rohingya insurgency group, the ARSA against 20 police posts. The reprisals by the Myanmar army were swift and devastating. They burned and looted villages, slaughtering thousands including children, and gang-raped or sexually assaulted countless Rohingya women. By October 23, an estimated 600,000 refugees had arrived in Bangladesh. Most adults arrived with only their children—those they hadn’t lost while fleeing—and a few items of clothing. When the UN described the persecution of the Rohingya people as ethnic cleansing, the AFP assigned Agnès Bun the unenviable task of reporting from the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The stories Bun reported from the camps are stark and might have crushed her faith in humanity. “I’ve seen videos of Buddhist monks in their robes beating people with sticks,” she recalls. “As a Buddhist myself, I was appalled by what I saw.” Her story reminded me of a line from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian; “Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.” She spoke with people who had never been offered the chance to speak about their plight. Many of them wept before her camera. “They had never asked each other how they felt, because they knew what the other refugees were experiencing. But when I asked them, it all poured out of them.”

Bun’s frankness about her own frailties lends her reporting the credibility and moral authority of honesty—the authenticity with which she writes closes the distance between journalist and reader, and her videos transport us into the world she covers. She doesn’t preach or presume to judge us for how we respond. Speaking of her time in Ukraine, she recalls the naiveté with which she thrust herself into a dangerous situation in rebel territory, and how she then burdened a stranger with responsibility for her safety: “During our first meeting, I also read in his eyes and on his pale face a fear for me and for the new responsibility that had just fallen on his shoulders.”

Agnès Bun shooting in Sri Lanka (Pic: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi)

As a guileless collection of scenes, There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon is both gut-wrenching and lovely. The journalists on the front lines in warzones and natural disasters don’t retire to luxury trailers at night to pen their reports over crudités and a cool glass of Riesling. They are often hungry, thirsty, and covered in dust and bugs; they sleep fitfully and use fields as bathrooms, redolent with the stench of human waste due to a lack of functioning sanitation; they wade through murky waist-deep waters for a shot and count the bullet holes in the walls that might have ended their lives had they arrived just minutes earlier; they are cut and bruised and fearful of kidnap and rape; they see the abandoned corpses of dead children. But they also bring us pockets of dignity from among the rubble, and stories of the constant and persistent will to survive.

While we can turn away from Agnès Bun’s work if we wish to do so, Bun and her colleagues don’t enjoy the same luxury. They keep shooting so as to bear witness to stories that would otherwise remain unheard and unseen. Sometimes, however, Bun has found the responsibility to report in conflict with her keen sensitivity to the human need for dignity. “In the Philippines a woman was screaming at us for filming their misery, as though we were using them. I shut my camera off.”

Bun had arrived in the Philippines after the scourge of Typhoon Haiyan, and she was unprepared for the tropical heat and the spectacle of broiling human suffering. Her supervisors had given her only a few hours to get to the airport, and she hadn’t packed well. “I had no sunscreen and carrying the heavy camera equipment around on my burned shoulders cut into my skin. At one point, before having to walk several miles to another site, I gave my water bottles to a little boy who was dehydrated.” By the time she arrived at her next location, she was dehydrated herself, her lips and throat burning. But after a scolding from her colleagues, she could only think, “But he was dying of thirst.” In situations like these, she seems torn by her responsibility to look after herself and the responsibility she feels for others: “I realize that if I starve or dehydrate myself, it helps no one, but I can’t just watch it happen.”

She describes her time in India as the moment she found her “invincible summer,” a reference to Albert Camus. The full quote offers an apt description of the tenacity and courage of disaster journalists. “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushed against me, within me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.”

Agnès Bun in India (Pic: Chandan Khanna)

What Agnès Bun does for a living is remarkable. We need people like her; the reporter, the photojournalist videotaping the broken survivors of an earthquake, or filming the fearful smiles of a young mother who has given birth in the aftermath of a typhoon. Sometimes we need her simply to offer a kind human face to those tyranny and circumstance have left wretched and terrified. Her work reminds us that life is complicated. It can be tragic, jubilant, horrifying, and mesmerizing. No matter how desperate things get, summer will eventually and inevitably return for those who survive the punishments of winter. Those survivors must get on with living, and they need people with the courage and humanity to tell their stories.

“I worry I have not helped enough people,” she confesses. “Sometimes I feel useless. I don’t save lives the way doctors or NGO workers do in the field.”

I’m not sure I agree. None of those who tell the stories of the disenfranchised and dispossessed will ever truly know the effects of their reporting. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said those who survived the death camps were able to do so because they had a compelling vision of the future. When Agnès Bun turns on her camera, it gives her subjects hope that their stories will be heard and that there are people who care, and those hopes are essential to any future vision that might sustain them through hardship.

We read her work in the certain knowledge that past tragedies will be repeated in one form or another. As for Agnès Bun, her future is guided by wisdom beyond her years and faith in her principles. “If the opportunity ever comes up again to give a child my water bottle, even though I know it’s stupid, that it might hurt me, I’ll give it to him. If I ever don’t do it, I will no longer do this job because it means something has broken inside of me.”

 

Joe Hefferon is a retired police captain and crime writer. His most recent novel is Countdown to Osaka and his articles have appeared in Seeking Alpha and at About.com. He lives and works on the Jersey shore, south of NYC and you can follow him on Twitter @HefferonJoe

Featured Pic: Roman Pilipey

7 Comments

  1. Aleph from Paris says

    The problem is that AFP is state-run tax-funded propaganda agency that has lost not only credibility, but respectability. Photographs might be good, articles are too often atrocious.

    As a recurring example, AFP runs headlines such has “the airforce bombed [this village]” only to discover that the airplanes surgically removed the bandits that fired rockets at civilans first. Such an inversion of chronology and dissimulation of facts is a policy one can find dozens examples of. AFP is deceptive, manipulative, and irresponsible.

    It used to be independent before the Nazis seized it. The bloody commies claimed they liberated it, but they did not. they kept it, like a knight claiming he freed a princess while he still keeps her in a dungeon to rape her all day long. AFP is the child of Goebbels and Stalin.

    AFP has an enormous influence in France because of its network. News outlet can’t afford to have so many reporters. AFP articles are syndicated everywhere. State-run AFP is a major cause of France’s lack of indsight in both internal and external affairs.

    To me, reading this article about a fine reporter from AFP is like reading an article singling a philanthropic support by Madoff that would say nothing about his whole story. There is an elephant in the room here.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Corporate media is much worse And your example about Madoff and philanthropic support? We got that story about a thousand times by corporate media before anybody bothered to scratch the surface.

    • I am not expert on AFP and I have no idea what the reporting the commentator is complaining about is but the comment itself suggests AFP are a lot more honest than whoever posted this comment.

      “As a recurring example, AFP runs headlines such has “the airforce bombed [this village]” only to discover that the airplanes surgically removed the bandits that fired rockets at civilans first. Such an inversion of chronology and dissimulation of facts is a policy one can find dozens examples of. AFP is deceptive, manipulative, and irresponsible.”

      In other words the villages was bombed. The example AFP statement supposed to demonstrate its dishonesty was true.

      Bandits who fired at civilians with rockets makes no sense at all. Why would Bandits do such a thing? Terrorists might, rebel groups might fire at civilians or military with rockets but Bandits?

      The phrase surgically removed always makes me sceptical when used to describe dropping bombs. The implication is that only those specifically targeted are killed but the nature of bombs themselves especially within a village suggest that this extremely unlikely if not impossible.

      The unhinged rant about the Nazis, Goebbels, Stalin and rape talks for itself.

      If this is the criticism of AFP then my impression of it is quite good.

      • Aleph says

        Both of you understand nothing.

        Try to live a little longer, and with more experience you might get what is at stake.

  2. Morgan Foster says

    Well, we’ve learned something about what she does for a living, but surprisingly little about her as a person.

    Perhaps this should have been written by someone who knows her.

  3. ga gamba says

    Her supervisors had given her only a few hours to get to the airport, and she hadn’t packed well.

    Pre-packed jump bag.

  4. windlaw1 says

    Photographers and television crews are the real heroes of war and disaster reporting. They are obliged to be where the action is to record it at very real physical risk. Whether their reporting makes a difference is another question.

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