9. April 2019

Fixing up things

I've done a lot of different things journalists do over the last 25 years, but my favorite discipline is still to drive around the country and write stories about unspectacular people - workers, refugees, hillbillies of all kinds. Unlike politicians, artists, scientists or people who want to sell something, they don't push themselves forward. On the contrary, they have a certain basic mistrust of "the press," which, in my opinion, has increased in recent years.

This is not surprising. Since we have the internet and above all the "social media", people pay much more attention to their privacy. Today, nobody can be photographed as easily as 15 years ago. Those who are not already people of public interest prefer not to read their name in the newspaper (i.e. on the internet).

The other point is that they perceive journalists - if at all - either only as scurrying piecework workers in a media industry that seems incomprehensible but suspect to them (with which they are intuitively perfectly correct) or as part of the elites - no less suspect to them. They rarely, if ever, come into contact with the latter type in their world, but if they do, it seems self-evident to them that there is an unbridgeable gap between them and those "alpha journalists" that has rapidly widened in recent years.

The crazy thing is that most of the people I've written about in the last 25 years, when they've read my lines afterwards, have reacted with an overwhelming and touching thankfulness to me (at least if I haven't allowed myself any major mistakes in my job and haven't written any nonsense about them).

ITF Baltic week of action, Sept. 2018, Wismar

The reason is probably that the mere fact that someone is writing about them is literally something "impossible-real " for them. I'm not talking about the naive enthusiasm of school kids who are happy when a local newspaper reporter writes about their sports festival ("even the press was there"). It seems to me more than that, it is rather that their actions, their thoughts and feelings, even their existence, by becoming part of a storyline, acquire a meaning that was not there before. And that's really stunning, because the question of how important or insignificant the lives of all these people are has nothing to do with me and certainly nothing to do with a newspaper printed on cheap paper wrapped with smoked fish tomorrow. And yet there is undoubtedly this magic of the written word, of a story, of a narrative core that puts a few things in the right light in the chaotic universe and puts them in a meaningful order - or let's say: It's more that the reporter's job is to unearth that meaning as the paleontologist uncovers a fossil. Sometimes you need an excavator, sometimes a fine brush and sometimes dynamite.

These lines of my colleague Barista Uno from Manila do not go out of my head at this point, words so polished, edgy and clear that I wish I had written them: "One goes on writing in the hope that one’s readers will begin to see things in a different light. It is like opening a window for others. The alternative is to quit writing, close the window, and mope in a dark room."