Story

Reporter's Notebook: Sometimes, a Camera Can Be an Emotional Shield

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A 44-year-old father of father of five recounts the seven months of torture he endured while speaking with social worker Stacey Volkman (foreground) and Syrian-born pediatric neurologist Tarif Bakdash on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan about 15 miles from the Syrian border. Bakdash is leading a medical mission from Milwaukee to the Zaatari refugee camp that is home to about 80,000 Syrian who have fled the five-year-old civil war in their country. Bakdash is a 51-year-old pediatric neurologist who grew up in Syria and worked at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin. He recently quit his position there so he can find a job that would give him more time off for relief work. Image by Mark Hoffman. Jordan, 2016.

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan—Photojournalists consider a camera a tool; sometimes they can be a shield or a filter.

A camera in the right hands can illuminate a wrong that needs to be righted. Frequently those images are of emotionally charged situations.

I was alerted to a man who had been whisked from the streets of Damascus without his family knowing his whereabouts and then was tortured by the Syrian regime for seven months because he was born in city that was considered disloyal to the government.

After being treated for scabies, the burly man entered the small box of a room to speak with social worker Stacey Volkman with group leader and Syrian-born pediatric neurologist Tarif Bakdash as an interpreter.

He wept as he embraced and kissed us before sitting down and telling his story.

He gave me permission to make a photo I knew we needed to get to the heart of the story we are covering.

The camera was my shield today when I was a few feet from him making photos as he wept and recounted what happened to him in a Syrian prison.

This sounds horrible, but while I am doing this I don’t really hear or feel what he is saying; I’m just concentrating on capturing a moment.

I was given an opportunity to make a photo that not only will draw readers into reporter Mark Johnson’s story, but one that I hope will change hearts and minds of how people think about an estimated nine million Syrian refugees.

Reflecting on it now, I am moved by what I have seen and heard. I’ll be honest, if the roles were reversed I don’t think I would have said “yes.” Maybe he knows something I don’t.

I hope that when this story is published he feels I did right by him of making and using one of those images.