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  • Writer's pictureJonny Ainslie

Evan Williams - What is the iconic image?

I talk to reporter and director Evan Williams about the importance of truly global reporting, and the human qualities made visible on film.

As ABC’s South-East Asia correspondent, you interviewed the then freedom-fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, and later returned undercover to the country in Burma’s Secret War to follow rebel forces fighting the junta. Considering Suu Kyi’s recent silence in the face of the Rohingya crisis, what has your work taught you about world leaders’ relationship to power?

You’ve got to take it back to context. When I first did films with Aung San Suu Kyi she’d been under 6 years of house arrest and virtually the entire country saw her as a beacon of hope for democratic change, the end of 50 years of military dictatorship. Up until very recently, that is exactly what she represented. Actually, most Burmese still consider her the only hope for the end of military rule. I think ‘the test’ on an issue of ethnic difference, potentially genocide and war crimes, comes down to the political necessity for her to step up more as a statesman and a leader than a politician – and that’s where she has failed.

We really don’t know why that is. It could be personal antipathy for Rohingyas and Muslims, worry about losing support amongst the Buddhist majority, or being misled by the military that there could be a genuine security threat there, or buying into the long-held myth that they’re not from Burma and they need to go back to Bangladesh. It’s probably a combination of all those things; but it’s also a personal trait, I think. It’s about her being arrogant, not taking advice, believing she can control the situation. So to answer your question about leadership, it would seem that people who go into these positions of power sometimes have certain traits and characteristics to get them there, which mean they may not be open to different world views. That’s being charitable. Or, they have authoritarian tendencies that come out when the test is on, and I think that’s what’s happened with her.

Do you pass judgement on your films’ subjects?

I think you innately do that. You’d be lying if you pretended that you don’t have a subjective response to those people. But I think as a journalist you’ve got to be careful about what that judgement’s based on. Are you just doing it because you don’t like that person for some reason, therefore imposing your own values? Or are you judging them on the tenets they should be judged on, personal character in leadership, their motivations, are they (working) in the national interest of their country? I think you’ve got to judge them in your reporting, otherwise what are you saying? But you’ve got to base that on good information.

The thing that stays with me the most is not the horror, but the human spirit

What are your standards for good information?

I want to get as close as possible to that person, to start with them. If you can’t get access to them, then find the next layer in the circle, or people who’ve had direct contact at really key moments. You need people with a real insight. So, with Suu Kyi, she had meetings with senior UN insiders that we’re going to include in our new film – what did she say, what did she do in those meetings, it’s incredibly revealing.

Your stories often follow clear victims of a bad situation; is this a conscious choice to tell the stories of the downtrodden?

Oh yeah I think so – that’s where the drama is, that’s where the revelation is. It’s also where the pictures are. In Dirty Gold, the reason we did that story was because we heard young people, kids, are being sent down 30m under the water to scratch out gold. If you can capture that moment it’s an amazing piece of television, that’s evidence. And the audience goes down the shaft, we did that with a couple of GoPro’s on another miner so he could could film the young boy and see what he was seeing. The key there is that it was a story about a common commodity, and it was about getting into the story through something that shouldn’t be happening. Yes there’s a tendency to go through the victim, but it’s only because that’s the way into the story. Why does that man put his son at risk of landslide? Why would you do that? I want to understand that process rather than doing it for the sake of victims.

In your films, you often have to interview people who cannot reveal their identities. Is protecting your contributors always more important than producing compelling pictures?

Yeah absolutely. Often we’re dealing with situations that are very real, and very dangerous for people. You have to take that extremely seriously. And you may be dealing with people who might be so impassioned to get their story out they say “I don’t care, show my face – tell the world what’s happening”. But sometimes the information they’ve giving you is going to have an impact greater than that person appreciates, so we take a view that we won’t allow them to show themselves. Often they know the risks better than we do. So you have a proper conversation with them and if they decide to go with it then it is better that we can see them, it’s more believable. But there are so many cases where institutions will in subsequent years, not months, work backwards from a piece on television and find those people.

You approach somebody as a person and not a contributor, as someone you’re genuinely interested in – whether they’re the villain of the piece or the hero

You’ve often put yourself in danger for your work. Is there a part of you that enjoys it?

I don’t put myself in that much danger really, comparatively. Risk is taken very seriously, I like coming back from stories. There’s no point going into a dangerous situation if there’s a high risk of you not coming back. Because one, you can’t tell the story - then you’ve failed. Or you lose your life and limbs and can’t work, or the people who are with you, locals, camera people etc. So we try to assess risk as much as we can, we might go so far into a situation but not go that extra mile which would increase risk exponentially. However, there’s always that chance of accident.

I wouldn’t say I enjoy it, I don’t mind it. I don’t mind the risk if we think we’ve got a good handle on what the they are and have done everything we can to mitigate it. To me if it’s worth getting the story or the information, then I don’t mind it. But enjoying isn’t the right phrase. To be honest, part of it can be a bit of fun, it focusses the mind. Fun’s not the right word either…. it’s not fun, it’s a challenge. A challenge I enjoy solving.

Does it feed into why you first wanted to start doing this kind of work?

Partly. I thought if you do approach these things properly and there are things that aren’t being told, like the Burma story when I went in with the rebels; that was a very good example of when I thought, you know – I’ve been covering Burma on and off for years, we keep hearing little bits about it, but nobody’s been there – nobody’s seen it, witnessed it. Is it really happening how we’re being told? And it felt to me, without getting too fancy about it, that we’re in a position where we can bring these stories to life; both the negative, and the people doing positive things to help those people. And that’s the key: I did get into this to tell those stories. That gives me purpose. And sometimes you have to take a risk to do those things.

Awareness of an issue in the internet age can mean real-world funding and support. Do you think television journalism can generate an effective impact from an international audience?

I hope so. It’s often a very intangible thing, you never really know what impact you have; people wrestle with that, what impact they’re having. I think at best what you’re doing is feeding into a public discourse and global understanding of a situation. And that’s an incremental thing, an aggregate process. It’s very hard to point to a decision that made immediate impact, although it can happen. I’ve done stories looking at nuclear weapons programs and contact with North Korea that led to an American freeze on contact and sanctions that are still there. So I think it does change perceptions, people do talk about it if you’re doing it properly. But to me it’s more subtle, giving people ammunition to discuss things in a different way. You bring it to the pub. Hopefully that’s what it is.

I’m quite wary of campaigners going out there to prove a point, I’m sort of old-school and where I come from is “let’s present the facts as best we can, as independently and non-subjectively as possible, and let you make up your mind”. Increasingly though I’m being pulled towards the campaigning side, where you just cut to the chase and say: this is the situation, here’s the headlines, you’ve got half an hour. People probably watch one television piece a week at best. You’ve got to operate at that level now.

People’s time is such a commodity that the subtlety of ‘showing’ isn’t always enough

I think you’re right, there’s a positive and a negative. In terms of proper journalistic investigation we’ve got to maintain our credibility; we’ll show it, but also be making a point through the people we meet in the piece. We’ll try not to editorialise or campaign. If we can present the argument through the facts I think it’s stronger. But in this world, headlines get more traction, more tweets. That’s reality, and you can use that tool but you have to be careful.

What gets me moving is “let’s go and get this. Let’s find out who’s responsible”

Does this feed into why you favour film over print journalism?

Well I started in print, and I like print. Then I got into radio, then into television and long form television. I like it because it’s got other layers, it’s got emotion. You can have very powerful print pieces, but it’s not the same thing to me as having real people in front of you. You get a sense of the place, the environment, you get emotion, journalism, you get information – all those things combine; and I think you’ve got to operate on all those levels to make it as powerful as possible.

Your subjects are living people, not just characters. How do stop your reports from becoming voyeuristic?

It’s an odd thing for someone to turn up with a camera and film your life. I often imagine if someone wanted to come and film me it’d be incredibly intrusive, and I don’t think I’d like it very much. I don’t think I’m that interesting for one, but also it’s just an odd thing. A mistake I hear all the time is referring to these people as ‘contributors’ or ‘talent’, they’re not contributors, they’re people. And as soon as you approach somebody as a person and not a contributor, as someone you’re genuinely interested in – whether they’re the villain of the piece or the hero, you get a completely different relationship. I find that makes a big difference, and then to me it doesn’t become voyeuristic because you’re genuinely trying to reveal something. If it’s journalistic you may be trying to hold someone to account, in which case it’s public interest, or it’s a character you’re engaging to tell a story in a positive way. As long as there’s good justification for what you’re doing and it’s not just gratuitous, then it’s not voyeuristic.

You’ve covered stories in the UK, Into the Breach from 2011; but when you talk of public interest, why should people here be interested in stories about far flung corners of the world?

I do it because I’m interested in the world. And I think what’s happening in those far flung corners does affect us, we just don’t realise it yet. So why would I do a story about the rising middle-class right wing in Europe? Well because I think that effects the political discourse across all of Europe. Why would you do a story about Putin’s clampdown on the opposition? Well because they might become a strategic enemy of the country. I can justify anything about why I go and do them; but I’m just genuinely interested.

Why would other people be interested? I don’t know, it’s up to them. A lot of people aren’t. But if you do it properly, and you pick up on the universal theme, do it through a character and humanise them, I think people do connect. And I think young people in particular are thirsty for stories about people around the world because it’s increasingly unified. You’ve probably got more in common with kids now in Singapore and Shanghai than the generation before, it’s almost the rise of the city-state culture, Starbucks-ization of how it all works. I find university students have genuinely got an opinion, they want to know, they’ll go see a doc. Which is why there’s been a rise in the popularity of documentary and feature docs, television up until now has been decreasing that content. But look at what’s on Netflix. Those stories aren’t all about Britain, in fact, not many of them are.

And as the world is unifying, can you find those parallels between corruption abroad and what’s happening here?

You can do. I think you’ve got to be careful about drawing too many direct connections. But it can highlight the hallmarks of the problem, and you might see the same patterns emerging because you’ve seen it elsewhere.

You’ve described being haunted by the cruelty of ISIS recruiters in Syria: Child Soldiers of the Caliphate. What really is the thing that drives you to keep going out there when it can be so draining?

Again, not being too fancy about this, I’ve decided this is what I do. I make films, I’m a journalist. I try to get better at it - there’s always more to learn. But what drives me is coming across things, like Burma, and I feel that I’ve got the capacity, got the connections and the vehicle to get it out there so people know, so there might be some change. That may be wishful thinking, but I feel enthusiastic responsibility to get it out there. I mean why not, who else is going to do it? That gives me professional purpose rather than doing something better paid and more popular. It doesn’t worry me that I’m not doing that sort of television. But it is about purpose, it is. What gets me moving is “let’s go and get this. Let’s find out who’s responsible”. You hear about it, let’s go and do it.

Sometimes you won’t be able to help the people you film.


What is that like?

All I can do is do my job. And my job is to share what’s going on. And I’m very clear about that. Sometimes I turn up and they’re like “great, you can get me a UK visa” and it doesn’t always work that way. In the case of the young boy in Children of the Caliphate, we did generate a large amount of money for him, he got to a third country, was fitted with prosthetics and that story did actually have a great impact because people were so moved. But it was people who had the capacity.

Why do you often take background roles in your films? Even though you direct, produce, capture footage, report on camera – it’s often your voice directing the narrative.

Well I like reporting on camera as I can drive the narrative along where it needs to go. But for me the ideal piece does not have me in it. Ideally you’d find characters strong enough doing interesting enough things over a period of time in which they can completely dominate the film. It’s about them. I think journalists in general are a mix; some presenters are extremely egotistical and it’s all about their profile. But others who are more documentary filmmakers don’t want to put themselves forward because they care about people’s stories. I think the people I’ve met are far more interesting than I am because often the things they are facing are so challenging. And often they’re not doing anything particularly heroic – sometimes the smallest things can be so moving. In just about every situation I can think of, no matter how terrible, there’s always an aspect of human spirit, people refusing to give in. It’s often something which is overlooked doing an investigation, but the thing that stays with me the most is not the horror, but the human spirit. And that’s what people connect with.

With refugees that have gone through such terrible trauma, it’s not what they say – it’s what they don’t say

There’s a difference in form between your work and news items which just describe horror.

If you do news, you have to do news. Within good news you can find other layers too. But that’s often the ‘what’ happened, and I’ve always been interested in the ‘why’ or ‘who’. This works better for me, you’ve got to get your timing right so you’re not irrelevant – but you’ve got to be out there long enough so you’ve got something to say.

And relevancy is very important, I understand the practical element to it – people aren’t going to watch news that’s become history. But it does also focus us on something that tells us about our times, and the zeitgeist here. Do you try and put our domestic climate into your films?

I try to, but sometimes I find that the zeitgeist here at the moment is very introspective and very negative. One of the reasons I did that right-wing story in Europe was exactly because of the feeling here, Brexit and politics, nationalism. It was still a foreign story but a bit like “here’s where we could be going. These people are voicing something that we’re thinking too, but nobody’s really saying”. I guess it doesn’t work with every story, but I try to find it. It might be about greed, or about religion, a blind belief that can tap into a certain aspect of society.

Do you see a link between the intention behind your own work and that of historical war correspondents or photojournalists like Robert Capa?

If their motivations were to try and capture a moment of truth about something, in their way, in their medium. Which those guys obviously did, and they took far more risks than I have. I think to capture that truth, then yes.

I was thinking of that idea of an image for posterity, a snapshot of a time, a place, a people, that we may never see again.

There is some connection to that; obviously still photographs capture that moment far better than television. But what I do find I’m interested in is: what is the iconic image? It can be a series of images, a sequence within which is an iconic image that can sum up everything. And that finds its place in the piece. Or it’s a mood, a mood about the place, or that can embody somebody at a particular time. I look for that. You can distil things down very powerfully that way

To find an example, the Dirty Gold piece where you’ve got images of that kid going down there, it’s a smaller story but it’s also quite a big story; you think about the number of kids working in those kinds of conditions around the world, it kind of sums that up. The boy with his limbs amputated by force, something like that says something about a system that’s so cruel. With refugees that have gone through such terrible trauma, it’s not what they say – it’s what they don’t say, and it’s in their face. They stay with me, those moments stay with me.

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