A Thousand Words: Interview with Nicholas Kristof
Andrea Blanch: Was [“This Is What Our Yemen Policy Looks Like”] the first time you decided to use a picture instead of your words for a column?
Nicholas Kristof: I did it once before that I can remember; in 2003 during a terrible food crisis in Ethiopia, I used a photo I took of the back of a starving child who was all bones and it was the same kind of thing. I thought that readers would tune out my words but it would be harder to tune out an image showing what that desperation looks like.
Andrea: I'm curious, as a journalist how does it make you feel when an image has more impact than your words?
Nicholas: It's something I've had to reconcile with. I became aware of [it] a long time ago when I was a foreign correspondent and it became apparent that we were better off with an article inside the paper that had a photo – to draw in the eye on the front page. [Without a] photo we would be lobbying against [ourselves] being on the front page. I learned to always try to have a photographer with me because visuals make a huge difference, especially in a story that feels kind of distant, remote and, not urgent to readers. For somewhat similar reasons, I began traveling with a video journalist in the early 2000s. I kind of gradually came to appreciate that the visuals are tremendously important, and often are more persuasive than the words themselves.
Andrea: What do you mean when you call yourself a frustrated photographer?
Nicholas: When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. I just didn't know whether I wanted to be a writer or a photographer. I had a small paper where people did both, and I really enjoyed the photography and I really enjoyed the writing, but at that point all the photography involved darkroom work, and I didn't like those darkroom chemicals. I thought, "Who wants their hands in stop bath for the rest of their life?”
Andrea: Is there any image that has had a big impact on your life or that influenced you wanting to be a photographer?
Nicholas: Probably when I was a freshman in high school. I got a book called The Best of Life. It was a compendium of the best photos in Life magazine, and I spent so many hours pouring over those photos in that book; that was partly how I studied photography. Sebastião Salgado was in Congo with me in 1997, and I was running around writing stories that I thought were really powerful and there were incredible things happening – I was chased by gunmen through the jungle, I went into a diamond mine. I was so proud of my articles and then I saw Salgado's images, he captured Congo so much better than I did. It was humbling.
Andrea: Do you feel that if journalists could have greater access to painful subject matter that it would actually lead to meaningful changes in U.S. policy, and if so how has it done so in the pas?
Nicholas: I think there are many examples where photos have had a tremendous impact. There are a few photos that had a huge impact in changing American attitudes towards Vietnam: the photo of a little girl who was napalmed, the photo of the Saigon police chief executing a Viet Cong man, the photo of the Buddhist burning himself up. More recently, look at the Syrian refugees. There’s that photo of Alan Kurdi, the little boy on the beach. So I think that one's long-term reality has been that photos move people and change policy. And I wish that there were more photographers who were able to get access to document humanitarian crises. I think that would galvanize policymakers to address them in ways that they could not when it's simply me getting screechy in my column.
Andrea: Do you think that citizen journalism has a role to play in times like these when access is becoming more difficult for photojournalists?
Nicholas: Yeah. The conflict in Syria was an example of ordinary Syrians taking amazing photos and video clips to get the word out on the costs of the Syrian bombings. And so I think anything that captures those realities helps [prevent] barbarism.
This interview has been condensed and edited. You can read more about Kristoff and his work in our latest issue RISK.