Words of wisdom from Ryszard Kapucsinski

This one is for my journalist friends, particularly the anglophones and those primarily interested in the developing world. Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007) was a Polish foreign correspondent, arguably one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, certainly among the most prolific and the most committed to Africa. Kapucsinski covered Africa from Ghanaian independence to the Rwandan genocide. He also traveled and wrote in Asia, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Latin America. By his own estimation he covered “twenty-seven revolutions.” He wrote in Polish; several of his books, for example The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of literary reportage from Africa, have been made available in English. Unfortunately, not all of them. Autoportret reportera (Self-portrait of a Reporter) is a collection of reflections and transcribed interviews that outlines Kapucsinski’s point of view on the reporting profession, the modern media, the First World and the Third World. there is no English version, but fortunately it has been translated into French.
I was totally blown away by how much of what he had to say reflected or expanded on my own ideas…but of course a journalist of his caliber said everything much more articulately and was able to contextualize it far better.
Here are my selected translations.

On travel:
“I would say that at the end of 45 years of intensive travel, I don’t really know the world, even if I know it much better than those who hardly ever travel.”

“To know the world, one has to penetrate it as deeply as possible.”

“As much as I can, I will travel; I still travel and I will travel more. Even if we think we know everything, there are still so many things left to be discovered on this earth.”

“I consider that those who have the opportunity to travel are invested with a certain responsibility: they must show that other people have their own feelings and their own needs, that we have to get to know them and to understand them. And they [travelers] have to find a way of explaining this and proving it.”

“Knowing the world is an effort. It is never a pleasure, rather an effort that demands a certain concentration and a certain desire to know others, their culture, and so on. Only a person who concentrates fully on this effort is capable of it. Therefore it is necessary to be alone. One writes poems alone and crates paintings alone. If we conceive learning about the world in the same way, one also must travel alone.”

On the journalist’s profession:

“When describing the modern world, in a way we’re confronted with an insane asylum where the patients are revolting, a fire has broken out and the basement is flooded—a world where the situation changes every five minutes. That’s why the description of current events is very difficult, but a tempting and ambitious challenge for an author.”

“We are reporters and we do not have any political power or any ability to make decisions. On the other hand, by forming public opinion, we can help generate positive results.”

“To be a journalist, above all one needs to be a good person. Bad people cannot be good journalists. Only a good person tries to understand others—their intentions, their faith, their interests, their difficulties, their tragedies—and immediately, from the first moment, to identify with their lives.”

“To be a reporter is above all to respect others, value and respect their private lives and also the values that they defend…For me, a reporter must be humble and empathetic.”

“Stubborn, determined, confident, convinced that they are doing something of importance, but all the while patient and knowing how to see projects through. All these qualities are linked to the role that writers need to play in our society.”

“Today the media have enormous power; they can make people into idols or destroy them, ostracize them from society. This kind of power obliges journalists to have a keen sense of their responsibilities. Many of them do.”

“My mission consists of working in order that people are listened to, precisely by those who don’t want to listen, politicians in particular.”

“Reporting is my way of life. It’s a way of seeing the world that I would never exchange for any other.”

On foreign correspondence:

“In fact, I would tend to put my profession in the same category as that of a translator, only instead of translating one language into another language, I translate one culture into another culture.”

“To become a foreign correspondent, you need to fulfill eight conditions at the same time: physical health, psychological toughness, curiosity about the world, knowledge of foreign languages, ability to travel, and an open mind toward people and cultures. One also needs to be passionate, and most importantly to think about it seriously. It’s a destructive profession.”

“The reporter’s life and work depend on what he hears, and what others are willing to do for him. To be accepted by them he needs to learn to live among them…if you want to know Africa, you need to eat and drink the same things as the Africans.”

“Travel, for the reporter, demands an emotional plus-value. It demands passion. It isn’t motivated by anything else.”

“I often get asked if I meet Polish people in Africa. My answer is that I can meet Polish people right here in Poland, where I live. I have no reason to go to Africa for that. If I go to Africa, it’s to meet Africans, and to write about Africans.”

On war and risk:

“A pilot is also exposed to risk on the job, but we can’t imagine a world where air travel would disappear for this reason! The point of view [that no story is worth a life] is noble but less than realistic.”

“Whoever pretends not to be afraid is lying…the difference is that certain people manage to master their fear and function normally while others aren’t capable of that.”

“Any reporter returns from a [war] with a notebook full of information, of course, but he often comes back exhausted, worn out, with physical and psychological injuries and scars. He is a combatant, like it or not.”

On the North-South divide:

“The structure of humankind is marked with the seal of inequality. At present, we do not have the means—and we’re nowhere near having the means—to defeat this inequality. Even if no one admits it, people do not believe that it is possible for everyone to have a decent standard of living. Our historical experience shows that only one part of humanity can live decently at any given time. As a result, we enter the 21st century with injustice. And I would say that those who travel and see both sides of the equation are obligated to write on that subject.”

“In the early 1990s I went with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to visit the camps on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, and I experienced a profound ordeal. We went to one of the most terrible places you can imagine. The refugees received three liters of water per day to wash themselves, to do their washing and to drink. They ate a pound of corn per day, no meat, no vegetables. Hundreds—thousands—of people were dying.

We went back to Addis Ababa, and the next day I went back to Europe. I landed in Rome. It was a summer evening. The piazza Navrona was alive with people, loads of restaurants, people were happy to be alive, listening to music, eating. But I was obsessed with the sight I’d seen the day before.

This example illustrates the problem of the modern world. The people on the piazza will never know how their brothers and sisters live, barely two or three thousand kilometers from them. I took an enormous amount of pictures. These refugees had no more than the skin on their bones. Thirty-year-old men resembled their elders of sixty or seventy. And they were dying. The women were dressed in corn sacks, in sacks from the United Nations.

In my opinion, the fact that we live in two worlds that are so different creates a moral obligation to talk about it.”

“If and when we talk about the Third World, it’s generally when there are massacres going on, like in Rwanda for example, when something bad happens, something dramatic. We don’t get information about ordinary, real life.”

“Deformation is part of the laws of optics. The [camera’s] viewfinder always makes a selection, and shows one angle of reality that, through enlargement, becomes the definitive image. Viewers think they are seeing the world as it is. Africa is an example, to show that in a world bubbling over with information it is possible to practice total disinformation. Of course Africa is poor, but it is a normal world, normal life goes on there. There are tragic places there, obviously, where terrible things happen. That is where the medias concentrate, creating a false image of the whole continent.”

“We [in the media] only show certain things and we show them disproportionately. Take poverty for example. Someone who watches television could be forgiven for thinking that the worst problems of the modern world are terrorism, fundamentalism, drug trafficking and organized crime. That isn’t true. The greatest problem of today is that two-thirds of humanity lives in poverty, threatened with famine, without the least chance of seeing their situation evolve. In the recent past, the world was divided between West and East, democracy and totalitarianism. Now it is divided between rich and poor. This difference keeps growing. We are entering the 21st century as a divided human family. In the world, 268 people possess a combined fortune equal to that of half of humankind! We won’t change this dynamic; the forces working to maintain it and even deepen it are too established. But the television news is not going to inform us about this issue. The grand manipulation is that the problem of poverty becomes exotic. Poverty exists for the Discovery Channel and the Travel Channel. It has been confined there. ‘In the Bahamas, we stumbled upon a poor village.’ Poverty has become a tourist attraction.”

On the Western media:

“Today, information needs to be attractively packaged to be better sold.”

“The big media companies treat information as a product to be sold and not as a means to transmit the truth. Consequently, their image of the Third World is distorted: either developing countries are completely neglected, or—in a much more dangerous tactic—they are presented in the worst light possible. That’s how we receive ‘dispatches from hell,’ you know, in Bangladesh there is nothing but flooding, in Afghanistan monumental Buddha statues are regularly destroyed, in Rwanda massacres of the population are an everyday occurrence, in Pakistan drug trafficking goes on with complete impunity. The people who receive this information are tricked into thinking that they live in some kind of perfect world, a new utopia being attacked from all sides by hostile forces. For them the third world becomes a source of danger. They develop an internal self-defense reflex: “I have to protect myself from all these criminals,” these people think. “Why should I help these thieves or give them any money? They ought to go to work, to found companies, to connect to the Internet and buy mobile phones, to stop fighting each other and getting into these shady situations.”

“The West defends itself in putting its people on the defensive toward everything that is not Western. When we listen to the discourse of the Western media as concerns the [rest of the] world, we see that anything that isn’t Western is considered a threat. From the East we have the threat of the mafia, from the south we have fundamentalism. From Africa we are threatened by those crazy Africans who are killing each other, from Asia and Latin America by drug traffickers. Everything that does not come from western Europe is dangerous.”

On development:

“Here we have another illusion—technological progress does not automatically lead to well-being. What good is the Internet if you have no electricity? It does not automatically lead to the application of Western solutions either.”

On technology:

“New technologies make our work easier but will never replace it. All of the particularities of our profession, our values and our know-how, are unchanged. All the discoveries and technological innovations can definitely help us, but they are no substitute for our work, our evolution, our dedication, our research or our investigation.”

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About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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One Response to Words of wisdom from Ryszard Kapucsinski

  1. Pingback: The road is life… | Ruby Pratka – Year of No Fear

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