War does not stop at the frontline. It affects areas outside the battle zone, whether they’re only a few blocks away from the fight or far more remote. For Christophe Boltanski, these “fringes of the war” are as fascinating as the armed conflict itself. He has explored them for the better part of his 30-year career as a war correspondent.

A journalist for L’Obs since 2007, Boltanski has previously worked for Le Progrès Égyptien and Libération with postings in Jerusalem and London. He was awarded the Prix-Bayeux-Calvados for war correspondents in 2010 for his investigation in a Congo mine. Last year, his first novel, La Cache, received the prestigious Prix Fémina.

Daniel Hoffman interviewed Boltanski ahead of a talk the war correspondent will give at NYU’s La Maison Française tomorrow evening.


Daniel Hoffman: What do you call the “fringes of the war”?

Christophe Boltanski: I like the image of Fabrice at the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma. He arrives on the battlefield and doesn’t understand what happens or where the opponent’s camp is located. He sees Marshal Ney without having a clue of who he is. He’s an observer, not an actor. A total outsider. Somehow, his position is similar to the position of a journalist, particularly a war correspondent. For a very long time, the media have thought that being on the spot was enough to report on a situation, to make an issue understandable. I think that this has become less and less true.

Why is that?

Media themselves have realized how illusory this position was. The Timisoara affair, this fake mass grave in Romania, where Ceausescu’s political police were accused of slaughtering dozens of civilians, was a major trauma for European media. [1]

Then, came the Gulf War. The Iraqi army was then presented as the fourth largest army in the world, which didn’t prove right. During the Second Iraq War, there was the controversy over the WMDs. These events and others have made the media particularly vulnerable, especially in France. We now live in an era of suspicion. Journalists are assimilated to the establishment, the elites. They’re considered as biased and incapable of having a detached view on the world events. Media are still trying to figure out how to regain their readers’ trust.

What evolutions have you witnessed in your career as a war correspondent?

Today’s world is entirely reflexive. Everywhere you go, people know how the media work—whether they are Palestinian stone-throwers or Congolese warlords. And they talk to you in a standardized fashion and format. People are not part of the situation anymore. They film themselves on their smartphones as being part of the situation. It is true here, in Times Square, but also in war zones.

This is meta-journalism: a TV reporter films people who film themselves. As a journalist, what is your position in the midst of all that? Narrating what you see is not enough. You must also describe the context, the mechanisms. It’s like theater. We used to talk only about the play we’d see. Now, we must also describe the backstage, the scenery, the spectators in the balcony or the orchestra. And this is part of the story. War is not only people shooting at each other. We need to show both the shot and the reverse shot.

Contrasts on war zones have always struck me. In 2006, I was in Tyre, in south Lebanon, during the Israeli bombings on the city. There’s a small port in a Christian enclave with a hotel where most of the foreign correspondents were gathered. You had to walk in Tyre, because cars were considered potential targets. It was a hollow city, where you wouldn’t see anyone in most neighborhoods. But when you entered the Christian enclave, you found people drinking beers in coffee shops or swimming. And this happened only a few feet away from the shelling.

This is war. War is nothing but geography. We’ve tried to forget geography in our globalized world, but it becomes crucial again on a war zone. The essential part of a war correspondent’s work is to play with geography: cross roadblocks, get closer to the frontline, know when to leave.

Is it more dangerous to be a war correspondent today than it was a few decades ago?

War reporters have taken physical risks for many years. Journalists were killed in Vietnam and elsewhere, but they were collateral victims. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The problem today is that journalists are targeted as such.

When Osama bin Laden launched his first jihad against the US, he gave an interview to Peter Arnett from CNN in order to be taken seriously, especially by his own supporters. This was a time when even the cruelest enemies needed to go through the media filter to have their message shared.

It’s not the case at all today. Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi will never give an interview to CBS, ABC or The New York Times. ISIS has its own media: al-Dabiq, a glossy magazine, al-Bayan, an FM radio station, and even a production company with scenography inspired by Hollywood and video games. They don’t need the journalists anymore. On the contrary, foreign reporters are seen as enemies who can call into question their propaganda. They must be killed or kidnapped.

It has been said that the war in Syria is a war with no images. That’s not true: there are plenty of images, but they’re taken by the actors themselves. Any mortar round ends up on YouTube the very same day. Fighters spend their time filming with their phones. Often, these are images of atrocities.

How much of yourself do you include in your stories?

The first-person doesn’t have a good reputation at my magazine even if I think that we should use it more frequently. But I try to make it clear to the readers that I’m there. We, journalists, are part of a situation; in a way, we modify it. I’ve seen young Palestinians wait for TV crews before throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. We can’t pretend that we’re absent. Of course, it shouldn’t become a narcissistic exercise. We’re not supposed to be in the limelight, but we ought to mention the place from which we talk.

This interview has been translated from French and edited for content and brevity.


[1] The corpses discovered were in fact much older and had nothing to do with the Romanian Revolution.

Posted by Daniel Hoffman

A French native, Daniel has lived in Israel and the US in recent years. He is currently completing an M.A. in Journalism and European Studies at NYU. His work has appeared in Haaretz, The Forward, The Times of Israel and Bedford + Bowery in English and in La Vie, RTL and Le Parisien Magazine in French.

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