Depth of Field
One evening, on a highway south of Tunis, we stopped at a dim roadside shop. Ammar bought cigarettes from three men who sat in white plastic chairs. The shop was sparsely stocked, aside from a glass case mounded with small, honeyed sweets. One of the men motioned for Trevor to take some, and he did, placing two sticky squares in his palm. Then he held the glass open for me, and I did the same. When we pulled back onto the road, I asked Trevor why he thought it was important for people to see things they’d rather not see. “In America we have covered walkways and umbrellas,” he said. “It’s frustrating as a photographer. Everything is hidden in prisons, in old folks homes, in schools. We’re protected from so much of life—and death, too. I could forget death exists until a loved one passes away. But if I wander around Nairobi long enough, I’m sure to come across a body.”
“That’s different, though, from seeing someone get killed,” I said.
“Of course. I was in Uganda the last night of the World Cup. We went to a party for a local newspaper, and some reporters started getting texts that a bomb had gone off. We thought it must be a gas explosion. Then someone else got a text that another bomb had gone off at a nightclub. So we hopped on a boda-boda and went to the hospital. It was total anarchy. In one room, there was a pile of dead people, all these beautiful, young people dressed in their nice clothes to go out. It’s so impersonal. Something about bombing civilians, whether it’s the US dropping a drone on a wedding or Al Shabab throwing a grenade into a nightclub, I can never quite get my head around it.” There were photographers, he said, who saw that sort of thing every week.
Could he become one of them, I asked?
“I would not be okay.”
Two days after the bombing, Trevor’s photograph of a young victim and a nurse pressing a stethoscope to his chest made the front page of The New York Times. The next week, Trevor left for South Sudan, where he attended two more funerals for men he hadn’t met. He had little time to process what he had seen in Uganda. It was easier, anyway, to move onto the next thing. Eventually, when he left Libya last March, he went home to Lopez Island. “It’s hard to go home and talk about this stuff,” he said. “It never really comes up, so you just kind of turn it off.” He visits home twice a year, but doesn’t think he’ll live in the States again. “I like that I’m constantly forced to look at what I have and what others don’t have, and be comfortable with that. Once you’ve been in the world,” he joked, “the only place in America you can really live is New York.”
Several months later, when North Sudanese dropped bombs in the Nuba Mountains of South Sudan, Trevor went back. “That boy,” he told me. “I wish I had taken his picture. It would’ve protected me from some of the horror.” Trevor drummed his fingers on the wheel. He glanced inside a passing car. “And I just think it should exist. The picture of that boy should exist. Because five days ago, another bomb dropped on a village there, and it’s not going to be reported.”
One evening in the holy city of Kairouan, a few hundred kilometers south of Tunis, Trevor, Ammar, and I were perched in a dark corridor above the stone courtyard of the Great Mosque. Bats flickered in the rafters, and from the prayer room opposite us came a deep atonal hum, like from a hive of bees. Hundreds of men and women had come to pray that evening. They rode their bicycles through heavy wooden doors and propped them against columns that edged the courtyard. When the prayer was over, women draped in veils shuffled briskly across the stone and disappeared like black ghosts onto the street.
Trevor noticed Ossema and Marwen, two young Muslims we had met earlier, crossing toward us, and lifted his camera. They wore long white smocks and knit crowns. Their dress was Saudi but customary for Tunisian Salafists, who believe that Islam should be practiced the way their prophet once did. (Sharia law and jihad are among those ways.) The two men had not always been so conservative. Each was jailed during the last regime, and Ossema told us that in confinement he had become more devout. When he and Marwen joined us in the corridor, we spoke for some time. Then, in perfect English, Ossema said he had a question. “If Americans believe in democracy,” he said, “then why do they select a government that supports dictators who kill us?”