"Wherever something significant takes place, things are stirred and people suffer. It is evil, not good, which is the reporter’s breeding-ground". Wojciech Tochman discusses the condition of Polish reportage, what determines a good story and how journalism has to raise controversy.
Wojciech Tochman, reporter, born in 1969 in Kraków. His books have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Russian and Bosnian. Prominent among them are One Doesn't Burn Staircases, his first collection of reports, Like Eating a Stone, from Bosnia, Wściekły pies / Mad Dog, a compilation of stories about Poland, and Dzisiaj narysujemy śmierć / Today We Are Going to Draw Death, reportage about Rwanda.
He started working for the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in the early 1990s, in the reportage section. He has founded the organizations Itaka Foundation, which tracks lost persons and supports their families, and Heban Klub, which funds 50,000 meals for children in Rwanda every month. With Mariusz Szczygieł and Paweł Goźliński he launched the Instytut Reportażu / Institute of Reportage in 2009, which later became the base for the Polish School of Reportage.
He is a two-time finalist for the Nike Literary Award, Poland's top prize for writers (for One Doesn't Burn Staircases in 2001 and Like Eating a Stone in 2003). He was finalist for the Prix RFI Témoin du Monde in 2004, awarded in Paris by Radio France International. His latest book, about the Philippines, is to be published in October 2013.
Sylwia Wieczeryńska, Polish Press Agency: What is your opinion about the condition of reportage today?
Wojciech Tochman: I think it is on the positive side – both in Poland and abroad. Our journalism is recognized in Europe and in the United States. The number of Polish non-fiction books that have been translated into English, French, Italian and also some of the minor languages testifies to that fact. Polish publications are well known in Finland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bosnia.
What is Polish reportage like, then?
Polish media, broadly speaking, is parochial, it strictly sticks to it own affairs. The leaders, or maybe the owners of the newspapers, have decided that we ought to be concerned only with our own plot, and not so much with the neighbouring one. Supposedly some kind of trustworthy research has been done to prove this. Those coming from the next-door village, country or continent, are distant and strange – they do not concern us, until they become our threat, or refuse to cooperate. This attitude is sad and ridiculous.
In spite of this, Polish non-fiction authors tell stories about the world that is both near and far, about our neighbours. After all, nowadays we are all each other’s neighbours. I support that. My concern is, however, that not all of us know how to live next to each other, and reportage helps to learn how to do this. For instance, Jacek Hugo-Bader writes about Russia, Wojciech Jagielski about Africa, Witold Szabłowski about Turkey, Andrzej Muszyński about Asia and South America. I just finished my book about the Philippines.
Is Polish reportage at risk?
If that situation continues, it is going to be killed by money deprivation. Non-fiction literature has to be invested in. One needs to ride or fly to a place, to live somewhere – not just for a day or two – to pay for accommodation, for a translator, driver, for safety measures. All of this builds up to vast expenses. Our travels used to be financed by press offices, because the reports would be published in newspapers. Nowadays press cannot afford this kind of luxury. Apparently it does not pay to do that anymore – it is easier to buy some images from another end of the globe, add a refined caption, and pretend to be a global paper.
It is hard to contest that. We would be better off thinking, How can the reporters’ work be enabled? These expenses should be covered from public funds. Since the government dedicates, and rightly so, enormous amounts of money to theatre, cinema, or art galleries, then why shouldn’t it allocate much smaller sums towards non-fiction writing? People do read reportage; sometimes I’m under the impression that they read more of it than fiction. This should be encouraged! Especially in times when we read hardly anything.
Non-fiction literature is one of our best export materials. The Polish government is eager to promote us, it funds translations into foreign languages, organizes trips to guest-talks all over the world for us. However, all of this happens on the condition that a book already exists. And how much it costs to prepare one – nobody seems to ask this question. It is apparent that publishers don’t have the money to sponsor non-fiction literature. Authors take out loans in order to produce a book and then repay them for several years. During that time, they cannot have another loan – hence they are unable to work. We do not maintain the tradition of writers’ scholarships, which would have the potential to at least partially cover the costs of preparing a reportage. One is incapable of documenting a story via phone or the Internet – the journey to the place has to be made.
Can we say that there is a demand for reportage among readers?
People will always want to read about other people. Luckily, not everyone appreciates what tabloids have to offer. We want reliable stories, which pay respect to the portrayed persons: to their culture, distinctiveness, suffering and poverty. Reportage provides us with knowledge about them, and helps to better understand them. By reading good non-fiction literature we will always be able to notice that people, even though very different, are very similar to one another in their humanity. All over the world we tend to love, be merry or sad in the same way. Reportage brings people closer – tabloids don’t do that.
Are there any noticeable trends or prevailing styles in reportage?
This should be a question to literary theorists. But are they actually interested in the non-fiction literature? Rarely so. Are there any trends? There are definitely fewer and fewer Polish authors writing about contemporary Poland.
Is it not interesting enough?
Nearly all of us have written about Poland for many years. We have published books about it. My latest ‘Polish’ book was God Bless You [Bóg zapłać]. It was released three years ago. Our country, as seen and described by me, is not pleasant, but full of insecurities, hypocrisy, fear of the unknown and of the other. Has anything changed since then? Are we any different now? I don’t think so. So why should we repeat ourselves, keep writing the same things over again? I prefer to take off and get some work done. So do my colleagues, I guess.
From the point of view of our profession, the world outside of Poland seems to be more interesting. Maybe we should be happy that we live in a country that is not so pleasant, but nevertheless boring. For, wherever something significant takes place, things are stirred and people suffer. Reportage lives on human misfortune and harm. It is the evil, not the good, which is the reporter’s breeding-ground.
What helps you to identify that a story lends itself to reportage, that it will become good journalistic material?
A story needs to hold a mystery behind it, some kind of unknown. I am reading about something in a newspaper, I watch a short report on television, or browse through bizarre photographs brought over from the Philippines by a Polish student, and I start to wonder what is it that lies behind them. I know that there is something else underneath – I feel that I want to reach it, I want to find out about it. [...] My entire body is telling me: This is the topic for you. Or on the contrary: this is a topic, but please don’t come near it, it is not for you.
In one of your interviews you declared that you want to “bury human ease” with reportage. Why is that?
I think that one ought to write in a way that makes a text not only a source of knowledge, but also a source of a sentiment. When someone learns about something evil, unjust, about another person’s suffering, and does not react emotionally to it, it is as if he or she hadn’t found out about it at all. I believe that non-fiction literature carries hope for a change. I am not saying that reportage saves the world, because usually it doesn’t. However, if is sparks a change at least in one reader, it is enough to be happy about.
For instance, a white tourist upon reading this book or another will start wondering whether it is right to take pictures of poor inhabitants of Asia or Africa, without asking their permission first.
Why did you start writing?
I was always a curious kid, eavesdropping on my parents and neighbours – how shameful of me! I obviously don’t do that anymore. I use my nosiness to professional ends and, of course, I use a different name for it. It is professional inquisitiveness. It is the essential ingredient of any documentary story.
My job gives me freedom, I have no superiors, and my need for independence is almost pathological. Maybe then that is my reason for choosing to write reportage. And the most important thing: A reporter likes people. A reporter wants to understand interpersonal processes and relations. The more difficult it is for me to understand what happens somewhere between people, the more I don’t know, the more I see that story as a subject for me.
You are working on a new book about the Philippines. What is it going to be about?
It is going to be about the poverty districts in Manila, the capital, and about the current state of the encounter between ordinary, everyday people from the white and the non-white worlds. How do these worlds perceive one another? Where do they meet? What do they expect from each other? Has the colonialism ended, or has it only changed its face? Is reportage a fair thing? And what about photographing other people? Eli, Eli is going to be released in October, but you can already follow the development of the book on Facebook. Feel welcome to do that!
Source: PAP, 1.07.2013, translated by AM, 2.07.2013