Feature: Courting war – Dan O’Brien on writing the story of a haunted photographer

“To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” ― Susan Sontag, On Photography

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(c) Tristram Kenton

Three years ago, writer Dan O’Brien heard a radio interview with Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson discussing the image that won him the 1994 Pulitzer Prize and the ghost story that accompanied it. O’Brien was so “shaken” by the interview he emailed Watson “reaching out to him and saying how moved I’d been by the interview, and maybe hinting at what I sensed was something we might have in common”. What followed was a “slow courtship” consisting of emails sent back and forth and culminating in the two spending a week together in the remote Arctic, and in the creation of the material for O’Brien’s play, Body of an American, which received its European première at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre on 16 January.

Body of an American is “very close to documentary”; the first act came from a “few sources: his [Watson’s] memoir, our emails to each other over almost a three year period and then interviews or journalism pieces Paul has done in the past”. The second act is then derived from audio and video recordings and from the week in the Arctic. It tells Watson’s story of “dealing with the aftermath of that specific image”, and illustrates O’Brien’s sense of “weird kinship with what Paul does”.

Watson’s story is “one of a haunting” by Sergeant Cleveland; the airman photographed in Watson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image of his mutilated body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in the midst of the US war in Somalia. As a war photographer, Watson lives with the photographed images of suffering more than most. O’Brien observes “the intensity of his [Watson’s] experiences” that made him hear what he truthfully believes was the voice of the dead Sergeant Cleveland, a belief he maintains whilst paradoxically “in the same breath says he doesn’t believe in an afterlife.”

Our media is saturated with images of war and to an extent they haunt us all, and yet because of this we are often anaesthetised to their effect. As Watson’s story is so powerful – and O’Brien has been writing about him for years – I wonder whether he himself feels haunted, but before the question is even posed he has used the word himself: “in some ways I was just kind of spooked by that story, and then in many ways I was haunted myself by what he sounded like… there was something familiar to me, something that took me a while to figure out… that was part of it too, I didn’t know why it stirred me up”. O’Brien has tried to capture something of this feeling in the play, and uses the character of Dan O’Brien as “a stand-in for the audience, as a relatively average person relating to someone like Paul”. This enabled him to get past his initial “oh god no!” reaction to realising he himself should be a character in the play.

If Watson’s story is of being haunted by the humanity in front of the camera, O’Brien’s is one of a haunting by the humanity behind it. “Part of the power for me from the beginning was getting to know somebody who was actually there, who took that picture that I remember… we’re inundated with so many images now, often of war, that you can become kind of numb to it and so part of the power was remembering the humanity of the person who took the picture, and then through Paul remembering and feeling the humanity of the people he’s met”. Reaching out to find the humanity of this experience creates Body of an American’s beating heart, although O’Brien admits “I worry to what degree are you compounding some sort of exploitation of this person’s demise by writing about it? And to what degree are you honouring that person’s story?” However, the honest, insightful and passionate way O’Brien talks of “the Paul Watson project” is testament to the fact that some stories just have to be told. O’Brien’s ‘Paul Watson project’ not only consists of Body of an American but also a poetry collection heavily based on the play and “an experimental chamber opera” that is “a hybrid of the poetry collection and the play”.

O’Brien notes strong similarities between the two, despite obvious differences; he says “working with Paul was a big departure for me because I’d never written anything that could be considered remotely political… so it was a new subject for me, and then in other ways it wasn’t new because I feel like, for the past 10-15 years, I’ve been trying to write about things that people don’t want to look at.” What Watson does in photographing war is “an even more pure example of that idea of capturing something that we either can’t see because we can’t be there, or helping us understand, or look at, or contextualise something that we’re too distracted or too frightened to look at”.

It is O’Brien’s hope that by telling the story of Body of an American he can help alter the way we view such images of war in the future. The UK production uses a lot of Watson’s photography “as a way to sort of let us hold in one hand these images that we see all the time and then in the other hand, especially for a tiny theatre like the Gate, to be so close to the humanity at least of the actor playing Paul, and to hear his experience… I hope it does kind of humanise it and by extension the events that he photographed. Maybe those events and other war photography we look at in the future will have a greater human complexity to it.”

Body of an American plays at The Gate Theatre 16 January – 14 February and at Royal and Derngate’s Underground Studio 27 February – 8 March. For tickets and more information visit The Gate Theatre website or the Royal and Derngate website.