The Body of An American

Either you were old enough to remember the horrific moment in Moghadishu, 1993, when US soldiers were shot down; or you’re old enough to remember the film Black Hawk Down. Regardless, the point is that you know what happened, you know the famous images, but you don’t know the story behind the photographer.

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The award-winning play The Body of an American follows a seemingly obsessed American writer, the playwright Dan O’Brien, retracing his friendship with the award winning photojournalist, Paul Watson. Over the last decade or so, photojournalists and their harrowing work, have become the foundation of much talked about controversy. Is it possible for them not to be affected by what they experienced? More stories have been coming out about photojournalists committing suicide because of the guilt of shooting such horrific moments in time. In 90 minute play The Body of an American, actors William Gaminara (Paul Watson) and Damien Molony (Dan O’Brien) jump through years of a sometimes weary relationship, but also through over 30 different characters, creating an exhilarating, fast-paced world and vision into the psyche of those working around the tumultuous world of war photography.

Although living in two different worlds, the mind-sets and emotional similarities between photojournalist Watson and writer O’Brien are beautifully captured in this simple production. Comparing family problems, experiencing death in Moghadishu and devastation on September 11, the actors Gaminara and Molony create a wonderfully poignant dynamic between them, and often hilarious unexpected moments for their audience.

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During its short run at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London, the play had a backdrop of images ranging from those photographed by Watson to icy landscapes of the Arctic (where Watson and O’Brien finally met in real life), and it is this that leads so wonderfully to the theatre’s choice of having a photographer as their artist-in-residence.

Cyrus Mahboubian was commissioned to produce an installation in response to the play and the result, although displayed in cramped conditions (yet suiting the theatre and play), was a series of stunning black and white photographs. Cyrus responded to the script by O’Brien, depicting the imagined aftermath of the iconic photograph of war that left Watson with his demons and hearing the murdered soldiers’ parting words (though we’re never sure this happened) “If you do this, I will own you forever”.

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Oddly, for a photographer, Cyrus chose to annotate each of his works with text from the script; with the intention of drawing his viewers’ attention to the richness of the script. The incident itself, and the concluding photograph, which was shot in 1993 and won Watson the Pulitzer Prize, is the focus of Cyrus’ work, understandably so given that the whole play heads back to that fatal moment. It’s the opening scene and the vivid detail in which the photo was originally taken, that stuck with Cyrus and inspired him to create the Gate Curate series of images.

Although it’s a shame my post is delayed, and you’ve now missed the London run… but… you never know, keep an eye out in the future because this is 90 minutes you’re definitely worth catching.

The Body of an American has finished its run at the Gate Theatre, but is headed to Northampton where it will play at Royal & Derngate Theatre from 27 February until 8 March.

All images are courtesy of Cyrus Mahboubian.

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