Ryszard Kapuściński on reporting from the front lines

In this interview from 1994, Eleanor Wachtel speaks with the celebrated Polish journalist and writer.
As one of the only foreign correspondents for the Polish Press Agency, Ryszard Kapuściński was often required to cover the news of an entire continent.
Listen to the full episode51:27

For many years, the celebrated Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński was the Polish Press Agency's only foreign correspondent. He traveled alone, carrying just a camera, a change of clothes and some cash, because — as he used to say — "The less you have the better, because to have is to be killed." A chronicler of 20th century war and revolution, Kapuściński covered more than 30 revolutions, surviving cerebral malaria, close calls with an Egyptian cobra and a scorpion, and four death sentences.

Through it all, Kapuściński kept writing  both news reports and nonfiction books. His 1994 book, Imperium, was based on his travels through the disintegrating Soviet Union during its final years. The book was an immediate success, widely praised and translated into 21 languages.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Ryszard Kapuściński from Berlin in 1994. Kapuściński died in 2007 at the age of 74.

NEW WORLD, NEW GENRE

I think it's time to talk about a new genre in literature. We're at a moment of transformation into this postmodern world, and we need a new approach in writing about it. On the one side, we have what we call fiction: literature, novels, television series which tell very personal stories of families or relationships. And on the other side, we have this form of media — news media specifically — that has developed over the past 20 or 30 years. It's very quick, very superficial and very manipulative, and it doesn't give you any background. In the middle, between these two extremes, is this vast, empty field which we have to fill up with the sort of literature that I'm trying to write.

WHY HE RUNS TOWARD DANGER, NOT AWAY FROM IT

​It's not that I like dangerous situations. I never met anyone who liked real danger. Danger is a terrible experience and fear is a terrible experience. I'm doing this work, and I accepted this work because it gives me a lot of satisfaction. And when I accepted the work, I also had to accept the dangers of the profession. Our profession — foreign correspondents working in third-world countries — is very dangerous. Every year, over 60 of my colleagues are killed. I'm alive because of luck. Some people have luck and some don't.

I've been to places where there is shooting and there is fighting, there's no other way to understand it but to experience it. I think that my passion for being there, my fascination, was stronger than the fear. For me, the higher place in my scale of values was to be there, to be witness. And it gives me a great satisfaction.

ON CURIOSITY, CONCENTRATION AND EMPATHY

I have a tremendous curiosity, and great passion for what I'm doing. I think this passion requires tremendous concentration. If you have the capacity to concentrate on a specific aspect of what you see or feel, it helps you discover the real essence of things. I think it's a question of empathy — I really feel myself to be among [the people I write about]. It's not artificial, it's not that I'm part of them just because I have to write about them. I think that people are very sensitive about this, because if you come in like a foreigner, they watch you, they feel that you are artificially there because it's your job, and they won't be very helpful.

Ryszard Kapuściński's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Canto Ostinato" composed by Simeon ten Holt, performed by Sandra van Veen and Jeroen van Veen.