“Storytelling is my oxygen”: Carol Guzy on the Importance of Witnessing

In the crisp days of early November, photographers (as well as other image-based artists and enthusiasts) gathered in South Bethlehem for the 2017 InVision Photo Festival at the Banana Factory Arts Center and SteelStacks. The festival combined contests, talks, workshops, and exhibitions to provide a unique experience for artists, one rife with educational, professional, and networking opportunities. Per ArtsQuest, the InVision Photo Festival highlights and wholly embraces its cultural location in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Carol Guzy’s November 4th talk, “Bearing Witness,” speaks directly to this ethos.

Chris Post, an award-winning photojournalist and program manager of emergency management at Northampton Community College, introduced Guzy, the only photographer to win four Pulitzer prizes. He described her as a “humanitarian photojournalist” who ensures that she perfectly captures the hope, however minute, of a single moment.

Guzy, a Bethlehem—or, as she tells us, “Beth’lum”—native, originally pursued an associate’s degree in nursing at Northampton Community College. She enrolled in a darkroom photography elective and immediately gravitated toward the “magic” of seeing the photograph come to life. She interned and held a position as staff photographer at the Miami Herald, then worked for the Washington Post. Now, she is a freelance photojournalist, and she travels domestically and internationally to document the stories of the unheard. At the time of the talk, Guzy had very recently returned from a month-long trip to Puerto Rico, and she noted the guilt she always felt for having the ability to leave such devastating circumstances.

She asked her audience, “How many pictures can you take until someone really sees?” While a rhetorical question, the potential answers hold weight for Guzy as it drives her work. Whether capturing moments at the fall of the Berlin wall, the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, or the destruction of Hurricane Maria, the images provide a “powerful voice” for the silenced. These stories must be told, and Guzy notes that “[p]hotojournalists are storytellers—we just write with light.”

Above all, Guzy emphasized the feeling of empathy in her work. “I can’t stress one word [empathy] enough. A small word with epic meaning,” she said. The camera functions as a way for us—as photographers, as artists, as people—to share in moments of suffering. For Guzy, “the camera becomes an extension of yourself, your eye, your heart, your soul.” Though Guzy didn’t name it, she seemed to encourage a more critical empathy that both recognizes its limitations and allows viewers to move beyond simply feeling bad for another person.

This sentiment also influences the important relationships she built along her journey. She stressed the courage of a transparency that exposes the photographer’s own human emotions. After she lowers the camera, she still remains in contact with those on the other side of the lens; as she put it, the people and stories become bound up in her DNA. The relationships also prove more significant than awards. While no doubt exciting to accept four Pulitzer prizes, she emphasized that “[photojournalists] accept them for the people in the pictures. […] It’s about the narrative.”

Giving this presentation in Bethlehem was meaningful for Guzy as she remembered and paid tribute to her sister and mother. Citing her own experiences of loss, she encouraged audience members to shift their perception—and lack of discussion—of grief. “Bring grief out of the closet. That suffering is increased by our culture’s lack of understanding,” she said. Guzy is considering putting together a photo-book to open up dialogue around this topic.

Guzy ended her talk with a quote from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The way in which we see these images (and what is not included within the frame) is important, especially in our current moment. Guzy warned that “[w]hen we turn away from oppression, our silence becomes complicity.” In this talk, Guzy offered her own experience as a way to challenge her audience to make oppression visible, to witness, in an effort to begin dismantling the systems that perpetuate gross injustice.

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