Dominic Bracco and Jeremy Relph make their living by telling tough stories.
The journalists have reported together from two of the most violent cities on earth: San Pedro Sula, Honduras and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Dominic's photography spans several continents and brings to life everything from the plight of traditional fishermen in the overfished Sea of Cortez to the effects of gun violence in Washington, D.C. Jeremy has written dispatches from field hospitals in Misurata, Libya and expat watering holes in Kabul, Afghanistan.
So when we scheduled a full week of D.C. education outreach with both Dominic and Jeremy around their Pulitzer Center project "Aqui Vivimos," which examines the culture and politics behind Honduras's astonishing rates of violence, we made sure to consider carefully how they would present that work to young people.
But Dominic and Jeremy guided the conversations by doing what they already do so well as journalists: dissecting complex scenarios to find their root causes.
"You guys probably know that there are some bad guys doing bad things," Dominic said in his opening to fourth-graders at Powell Bilingual Elementary School. "Do you know why people might do bad things?" Hands shot up. For money, students responded, maybe for food if they needed it, or for revenge. "When you get bullied, you might turn into a bully too," observed a student in the following session.
Dominic, based in Mexico City, spoke with students in Spanish and English throughout the week. Both he and Jeremy – based in Toronto – explained in straightforward terms the complex forces that have swelled the numbers of Honduran immigrants to the United States since a military coup ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.
The journalists spoke with nearly twenty classes in those five days. They also gave an evening talk at the Pulitzer Center with fellow New Yorker contributor and Pulitzer Center grantee Mattathias Schwartz.
Here are some of our favorite moments from the week:
The Bullis School, Potomac, Maryland
• "When we say gang violence, gun violence, it's sort of a lazy way of describing what's going on there," Jeremy told a Spanish class.
• "I want to fight to tell these stories as best I can," Jeremy explained the slow-journalism method he and Dominic both like to use, which involves a considerable amount of tea, coffee and conversation. "If we had an editor breathing down our necks it wouldn't look like we're working, but that's how you get the story – hanging out, talking to people."
• "Where there's creativity and beauty, there is hope," said Jeremy as Dominic clicked to a photo of four young men in a skate park. They'd chosen to work with these boys because they wanted to find out what "everyday life" was like in Honduras.
One of the most interesting – and encouraging – aspects of these school visits is that students tend to ask the same two questions. They want to know who's helping the people the reporting focuses on and also how the journalists handle the emotional toll of that reporting.
• Both journalists spoke to the emotional toll on themselves and emphasized the importance of acknowledging and addressing that stress, but also of not letting their own concerns get in the way of the reporting.
"Crying on the shoulders [of your subjects] – that's not your job," explained Dominic. "Your job is to report and they want you there for that. The reason they invited you is because they want someone to tell their story."
• "You can be really scared," Jeremy added. "You just take all the precautions you can take and then you go and do your job. Fear isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just being human."
"You have to think about what is the worst thing…what are the repercussions of what could happen with this publication?" said Dominic. "And does that outweigh journalistic merit?"
• "We wanna say 'Drugs are bad, we gotta get rid of 'em,'" said Dominic. "But it doesn't just work that way."
Eastern Senior High School, East Capitol Street, Washington, DC
• "The world is more nuanced, it's not black and white, not easy like that," Dominic told a world history class. "You've got to look at where people come from."
• "Would you blame most of this on poverty?" asked a journalism student. "Yes," replied Dominic without hesitation. "Poverty and a lack of education."
• "Getting to come back and talk to you guys about what's going on, that means a lot to us," Jeremy continued.
• "How do you cope with violence?" the reporters asked a world history class at Eastern Senior High School.
It's always interesting to see the parallels students draw between the causes of a global issue and what's going on in their own communities.
• "Get involved," they said, "or run away, or get used to it."
• Then Dominic asked students why the news media might oversimplify a report of violence. "People don't really care about criminals," one student responded. "Stereotypes," another added.
• The situation in Honduras is similar, the journalists explained. Not all the violence is drug-related or gang-related; in fact they estimated that extortion led to most of the deaths they reported on.
Sometimes the students ask accusatory questions like "How can you guys know about this and not do more?" The conversation can spread to everything from journalistic ethics and purpose to personal safety to the role of the United States in international affairs, to the scalability and sustainability of aid initiatives, to the root causes of complicated societal issues like those in Honduras where economic opportunities are slim and poverty runs rampant.
Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, Capitol Hill Campus, Washington, D.C.
• "Part of the job of journalism is to remain human," Jeremy told a Spanish class. "I think when [desensitization] happens you lose respect for the people who live there…because your job is to learn from them."
• We told students to follow Jeremy, Dominic and the project on Twitter and Instagram:
"Follow back!" the kids shouted as we packed up.
Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, near Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.
• "The poor of the world always bear the brunt of problems that we face…[but as a journalist] you just treat them like normal people," Dominic told the journalism club. "Go open-hearted and open-minded." He explained that he tries to make pictures that give dignity to the people in them.
McKinley Technology High School, Eckington, Washington, D.C.
• "If you show up and have that basic human decency, they're going to want to share," Jeremy told a journalism class. "I'm not here to impress them with me; I'm here to learn about them. The whole thing is for me I get to go and I get to learn from people. That's me – I like story."
• "Intimacy is the most important thing in a photograph," Dominic told the students, who were about to start their photojournalism unit.
Powell Bilingual Elementary School, Petworth, Washington, D.C.
• Dom and Jeremy compared the situation in Honduras to a scenario in which Powell's principal went on vacation and nobody got disciplined for anything. They explained the concept of impunity, or impunidad in Spanish. Sounds fun, right? they asked. The students disagreed.
• "This place would be a madhouse!" a student exclaimed two days later when Dominic and Jeremy asked students what would happen if impunity reigned at Sandy Spring Friends School.
Woodrow Wilson High School, Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.
• A student asked how the reporting on the issues facing Honduras put Jeremy and Dominic's own lives into perspective.
"I wish I could say it made me grateful," said Jeremy. "But the way we live here in North America is the exception. I think we're human. People [in Honduras] get used to their lives the same way we get used to ours."
"The world is more complicated than we all want to make it," Dominic added. "I try to really understand why people do the things they do. I think that's a positive way of looking at the world."
Sandy Spring Friends School, Sandy Spring, Maryland
• Jeremy and Dominic told most classes a story from student protests after what some believed to be a rigged November 2013 election. Students threw rocks at police, who fired back with tear gas and water cannons. Dominic, the photographer, ran into the action for some close shots, got tear-gassed and hit with a tear gas canister. His clothes caught fire and some students helped to put out the fire and got him some water. Jeremy bragged that as a writer he was able to stand at the back of the fray, taking notes and text-messaging his family – but still watching the action carefully.
Before long Jeremy spotted a student who was filling up gasoline containers that he planned to set on fire and launch at police. A security guard stopped the student, saying, "Why are you doing that? They have children, too."
Jeremy said he didn't see the student throw any gasoline.
Dominic Bracco and Jeremy Relph make their living by telling tough stories.