Honoring Those Who Helped

WASHINGTON, DC, 1 November 2015 — Just over a week ago I donated the use and distribution of my photojournalism collection to the library at American University. The collection includes some 30,000 images that I generated since beginning my career in 1977.

During the ceremony marking the donation, I delivered a brief address, mostly to honor the people who helped me get to where I stood during that ceremony. Following is the address.

(Photo by Esther Gentile)

“On Being Here

Thursday 22 October 2015

Good evening and thank you all for being here, at this event.

Considering my background, here, at American University in our nation’s capital, really is an extraordinary place for me to be. How does a son of Italian immigrants, farmers and steelworkers, get to teach in one of the finest universities in the land? The answer to that, at least in my case, is that you get a lot of support along the way.

So, since the idea of donating this collection first occurred to me, I wanted this event to be not just about me but, more importantly, about the people who have helped me get to this place. To get here.

But first, what is the significance of this event? Today we mark the formal handover, to this library, of the use and distribution of some 30,000 images that I’ve generated over nearly four decades while working mostly for Newsweek Magazine. These include images from my coverage of Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa. They become part of this library’s collection of some of the visual history of our planet, of our time on it.

The most meaningful work – the heart and the soul of my collection — is that of Nicaragua, where I first covered conflict, where I first became politically aware, where I first was married, and where I made my first book. My collection of images from the 1980s Contra War is one of the most – if not the most – comprehensive and in-depth visual records of that conflict and of that historic time. This is partly because I lived in Nicaragua for seven years and had access to the ongoing story that few other journalists enjoyed.

With this donation, these images, these visual documents, become part of the public record, so that students, researchers, and non-profit organizations everywhere, can see for themselves what happened in those places and during those times. Many of these images were published, not just in Newsweek Magazine, but also in other magazines and in newspapers, around the world. But the vast majority of my students never saw them, because they were not even born yet. So now, for the first time, and with the use of the Internet, students, researchers and non-profits can see what the 1979 Sandinista Revolution really looked like. They can see the misery inflicted on the Nicaraguan people during the 1980s Contra War. They can witness the savagery of the Salvadoran Civil war. They can watch the Persian Gulf War unfold in the Saudi Arabian and Iraqi deserts. They can watch Cuban citizens mount home-made rafts and take to the sea in the hope that currents will land them in Florida. They can see U.S. servicemen and women in active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And not only can they now see the images that were selected for publication, but they also will be able to see so much of the work that was NOT published. As Susan McElrath pointed out in an interview regarding this collection, they will be able to see the story behind the story. The whole story.

This collection, then, today becomes an important addition to the information available at this university, this repository of knowledge and wisdom.

So who are these people who helped me – helped us – get here? I’ve listed a few:

My subjects. I tell students in my Photojournalism, my Foreign Correspondence and my Backpack Documentary classes that the most important component of their work is their subjects. The people who allow us into their homes and into their hearts. The people who allow us to tell their stories. We’re nothing without them, really. Without them we can’t do our jobs. These images exist largely because the people depicted in them had the grace and the generosity that allowed me to make them.

Over 40 years of traveling and documenting far-off people and places, I’ve learned that the poorest among us are the most generous. And so it is to them, the people in these pictures, that I am so indebted.

Who else has helped us get here?

My colleagues. Lou Garcia, who unfortunately could not make it this evening, was my first editor at United Press International. It was Lou Garcia who helped me decide to embrace photojournalism as an alternative to what he called, “the word herd,” of print journalism.

My editors at Newsweek Magazine. They believed in me. They supported me through some very dark days covering the conflicts in Central America. They protected me. Karen Mullarkey, Jim Colton, Guy Cooper, Hillary Raskin, John Whelan, Dave Wyland, Jim Kenney. None of these people is physically, here with us today. None works for Newsweek anymore. Two of them, in fact, have passed away. But their impact is here, among the tens of thousands of images that this institution receives today. They’ve left their imprint on these images. And on me.

I was fortunate to enter the profession at the tail end of what I call, “The Golden Days of Journalism,” when the craft was more about information and less about entertainment tailored to the lowest common denominator of reader or viewer interest. And it was these people at Newsweek Magazine who made that period so rewarding, so important, so meaningful. Each of them helped me get here.

My Nicaraguan family, beginning with my first wife, Claudia, her parents, her brothers and sisters. At a time when my country was attacking theirs during the Contra War, Claudia and her family took me in, and helped me understand their country and their people.

That Nicaraguan family includes my godson, Leonardo, who grew up partly in my home in Managua. He came here for this event from Boston where he lives now with his mother and her husband, an American friend and colleague of mine.

My colleagues and students and American University. I look around this institution and see some of the smartest, most hard-working, most dedicated and most accomplished people I’ve ever met, and I feel privileged to count them as colleagues and some of them, as friends. They help me feel welcomed, here.

I’ve saved the most important component of this support network, for last:

My immediate family.

My wife, Esther, who I met while on assignment for Newsweek Magazine in Havana in 1991. Esther has sifted through, and organized, this entire collection to help make sense of it. And every day she helps me make sense of where I am, here, and now.

My Mother, who is no longer with us, never failed to support me, even when I decided to work and live in a region at war. “As long as it makes you happy,” she would say.

My older brother, Lou, and his wife Carol, who are here this evening. Their sense of duty and decency has been my moral compass, guiding me between then and now. Their children and their grandchildren, are the family that I always come home to.

My youngest brother, Rob, also here tonight, from whom I’ve learned so much about loyalty, and grace under pressure.

I could not have asked for a finer support system.

Today I am honored to share this legacy with new generations of students, researchers and colleagues. And maybe, as a result of seeing the past, they can influence the future. That, at least, is my hope.

Thank you.