“I Can Smell Their Bodies”

WASHINGTON, 7 September 2010 – This is an exciting time to be a journalist, especially a backpack journalist. For the first time in the history of mankind, we have the power to “talk” with people everywhere, at any time, in a language that is universal. The visual language. We can share our own experience and the experiences of others. These experiences become the fabric of our lives. They are indelible.

Last week one of my students visited my home to share his documentary about fishermen on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, where I had worked in the 1980s. There was a scene in which some villagers had taken refuge from a rainstorm underneath a corrugated tin roof, these being so ubiquitous in that part of the world. Men, women and children stood underneath the metal roof, packed closely together, their brown skin shimmering in the heat and the humidity.

“I can smell their bodies,” I said. “I can smell their perspiration and the smoke from the wood fires of their kitchens. I can smell the rain.”

This is the power and the privilege of journalism. As backpack journalists, the power is ours to use. The privilege, especially, must never be taken for granted. (Photo from my book, “Nicaragua”)

— Bill Gentile