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Foreign Correspondent Martin Fletcher On Turning NBC News’ Archive Into a Moving Art Exhibit and Book

By Nina RuggieroMar 27 2023
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Though he’s long been revered at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, no one expected Martin Fletcher to open an art exhibit down the street at Christie’s — not even Fletcher himself. The former foreign correspondent for NBC News is best known for his 35 years of award-winning reporting from the most harrowing scenes in the Middle East and beyond. “My career was basically traveling the world, going to the worst places at the worst times, and meeting people on the worst days of their lives,” he told The Center Magazine.

Fletcher, who dedicated his time to telling the stories of those who “were dismissed from society” — forgoing interviews with heads of state and other dignitaries in favor of speaking to attempted suicide bombers and refugees — eventually found the pure adrenaline that had been fueling his work was shifting into something deeper. “I was becoming really affected by the people that I met and their stories,” he said. “What interested me was, what happens to them the day after a tragedy? How do they get on with the rest of their lives?”

Photo courtesy of Martin Fletcher
Photo courtesy of Martin Fletcher

He found the answer was simple: They just do. “It doesn’t matter what people go through, they manage somehow to pick up the pieces and get on with the rest of their lives,” Fletcher said. “What choice do they have?”

That’s where the idea for his exhibit, Teachers: The Ones I Can’t Forget, was born. “I wanted to do a photo exhibit creating moments from my own stories, just individual instants that really evoke an emotion,” Fletcher said. “My goal was to bring art to news reporting because normally they do not go hand in hand, but I always saw a connection.”

Being a journalist is about telling people what they “need to know,” he explained, while art is the opposite. “It’s about leaving it up to the viewers to decide, what do you want to get out of it?” he said. “And that’s what I wanted to bring together.”

So, with the support of then-NBC News president Noah Oppenheim, Fletcher delved into the archives, looking for the most moving moments caught on camera. He then digitally edited these freeze-frames to “create something larger, more evocative,” he said. “A different form, a different way of looking at what we do.”

He found never-before-seen footage of the moment an attempted suicide bomber’s device failed to detonate. “It is a unique moment of pain,” he wrote. “A real-life Edvard Munch Scream.” He found images of an HIV-positive orphan named Eva, and her school book labeled “school of struggle, class of hope.” “When I first met that kid, it was everything I could do not to break down on the spot,” Fletcher said. “An 8-year-old girl who describes her life in that way, what has she been through, how smart and wise is she?”

While learning life lessons from people in vastly different situations and corners of the world, Fletcher also learned about himself — even if some of those lessons took years to surface for him. While writing his new book, which shares its title with the exhibit, Fletcher said he realized that transitional moment that fascinated him so much — “this thing about, OK, something terrible happened, now how do you get on with the rest of your life” — is the story of his family, too. “My parents were refugees, they survived the Holocaust, and that’s what they did,” he said. “So I actually grew up in a household with people who were getting on with the rest of their lives.”

Although Fletcher said he never intended to write this book, his seventh, it quickly turned into his most intimate work yet. “It’s a really revealing book,” he said. “I really got into the nitty-gritty of what it’s like to meet these people on those days, and tell their stories, and be affected by them.” While the art exhibit is about evoking feelings from viewers, Fletcher said the book deals with his own emotions.

Fletcher’s passion for storytelling is palpable — if it wasn’t, he could never have pulled off the type of career he did. At age 75, he’s retired from traveling to the frontlines of the world’s most distressing moments, but he’s still working with NBC journalists and teaching them how to write in a way that gets to the heart of a story. “To get that, the bottom line is this: You’ve got to care,” he said. “You’ve got to care about the people. You’ve got to be compassionate, you’ve got to be curious, you’ve got to be cynical in a constructive way, and you’ve got to do what it takes.”

Photo by Nathan Congleton

The point of it all, according to Fletcher, is to make other people care, too — to tell stories that make them want to sit and watch, to listen and read. You do that, he says, by telling fair and accurate stories, not about places, events, or the weather, but about people. And many times, those people aren’t the ones at the top, or even the ones whose stories are comfortable to listen to.

“We make our world a better place by understanding it,” he said, “and you need to understand the bad as well as the good.”

Teachers: The Ones I Can’t Forget will be on display at Christie’s Auction House from March 29 through April 7. Fletcher’s book by the same name is available March 29. Its sales support Artolution, a non-profit dedicated to helping refugees around the world express themselves through art.

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