Jane Hartney has finally put down her camera. The world’s best camerawoman in her typical laconic style put it simply in an interview with me, “I feel like I am done with this chapter of my life.”
Interviewing the best camerawoman in the world, a woman who has covered wars in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and has filmed interviews with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, and Bashar al-Assad, is difficult. First it took me a while to convince her (I promised lunch) and then as soon as we met she announced to me, “I am a listener. I like to listen.” I had to convince her for once she would have to talk.
Jane spent 35 years working as a camerawoman, 30 for ABC News. For 20 years ABC News had its office across the hall from AP Television in Rome, I would see her daily and I had no clue about her glorious achievements. We would often have a quick espresso or cappuccino together but Jane was never one to talk about herself. Sometimes I would see her with loads of boxes of equipment trying to get it all in the creaky, old Roman elevator in our building. “Where are you going Jane?” I would ask. She would mumble some exotic place like “Tehran.” Always being nosy I would insist, “to do what?” and she would respond, almost grudgingly, something along the lines of “Oh, an interview with President Ahmadinejad, but keep that to yourself.”
Jane Hartney was born into an Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, New York. She was one of nine children. Her first attraction to cameras came in high school when she took a photography course. She explained to me, “When you have a camera, you start to look at things in a different way.” Once out of college she got a job as a photographer for WNED, the public television in Buffalo. Her job was to take photos for publicity, but she ended up working closely with a cameraman in the film department who was shooting stories on 16 millimeter film. Jane helped him out with the sound and he taught her how to use the camera.
Jane was eventually hired as a camerawoman for WNED and when the first video cameras appeared she learned to use one. “It was an RCATK76,” she explained to me, “they were monsters. There was a separate deck with the tape.” After nine years with WNED, at age 30, Jane picked up and left for Rome, Italy.
I have been working in the TV business for 25 years and I have seen very few camerawomen. Only now that cameras are getting lighter are more women taking the job. I asked Jane how it was being a woman in a field dominated by men and what she thought were the advantages and disadvantages for her. “I don’t recall ever feeling intimidated in any way about being a woman in this field, but I looked around and there weren’t any others. I think I was as strong as anybody out there and I was faster than a lot of them. Of course I’ve had my back aches and my shoulder aches, but who hasn’t? I’m fast. I’ve always been fast. I can run. I like the competition. That was part of the fun. “
There was only one moment in her long career during which Jane felt perhaps she was not being given a chance because she was a woman and that was when she arrived in Rome. According to Jane, “In Rome it was just the big time network news, no local television, and people didn’t believe I was a cameraperson. The first six months were very discouraging. “
Jane’s luck changed when ABC offered her a chance to work for them as a camerawoman in Beirut, “they must have been desperate,” Jane said. There was a brutal civil war underway and the airport in Beirut was closed so Jane arrived on her first assignment in a war zone on a boat from Cyprus. She moved into the Commodore Hotel — the center for journalists during the civil war. (American writer P.J. O’Rourke wrote a brilliant, hilarious piece for “Rolling Stone” magazine on the scene at the Commodore Hotel in Beirut in that period. Jane said she met P.J. O’Rourke there at the bar and when he told her he was working for “Vanity Fair” she just assumed he was a spy.) The city, divided by the Green Line, was home to Shiites, Christians, Druze, and there were so many players in the war — Syria, Israel, the PLO, Hizbollah, that is it hard to keep it all straight.
Bombings, shellings, gunfights, kidnappings and assassinations were daily fare in Beirut in that period, but Jane was not afraid. She loved it. She adored her Shiite driver, a man named Kassem Dergham. “He was my protector, he always got me to a story and then he got me out of it,” Jane explained to me, ” The first thing he would do would be to park the car ready for our escape. These are important things when you are in a dicey situation.”
I asked Jane if there was ever a moment where she felt particularly proud and she told me the story of going to the top of a building in Beirut and filming an area where there was some tension. While her camera was rolling she captured a massive bomb explosion. “It was like a nuclear bomb and I was rolling. It was nice.” Jane said smiling as only a cameraperson can at such a moment. “That night in the Commodore Hotel dining room ABC correspondent Dick Threlkeld stood up and in front of the gathered press corps congratulated me on the great job I had done.” Jane shrugged, “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
This response is typical of Jane — no tooting or tweeting her own horn. It is impossible to get her to brag about her accomplishments.
While in Beirut she covered one of the most harrowing stories of her life. On October 23, 1983, Jane was thrown out of her bed at the Commodore hotel by a massive explosion. It was the double truck bomb blasts at the US Marine and French military compounds in Beirut. As Jane was putting on her pants, her driver Kassem was knocking at her door. As she described it, “We were the first people out of the hotel, we flew. When we got there, there was black smoke everywhere, you could barely see where you were going. The bodies were all over the place.”
When asked if in situations such as the Marine barracks bombing she ever became emotional, got shaky, couldn’t take it, Jane responded, “You have a job to do, I always have to tell the story, you stay focused on the task at hand.” I came back to the subject of fear several times with Jane and have become convinced that she is truly an unusually courageous individual.
Jane has got such a long list of wars she has covered that it is impossible to talk to her about them all. She covered the first Gulf War and the second Gulf War, and has been to Afghanistan so many times she can’t remember. She says the first time was when it was occupied by the Soviet Union. She says the Soviets organized a “dog and pony show for reporters based in Moscow” and she was filling in as cameraperson so got to go along. She went back another time with Diane Sawyer and again with George Stephanopoulos after the US invasion. Jane won an award for her work with an ABC Team on the “Blood Diamonds” story around the civil war in Sierra Leone. Together with an ABC Team, she won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award for reporting on human rights and social justice for their reports in Sudan.
Again, I asked Jane to think if there was at least one time in all these war zones where she felt frightened, that she thought it might be the end. She recalled one. “It was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the border with Rwanda. There were refugees pouring across the border and I was working on a story with Sheila Macvicar when we came under fire. I remember putting my face in the dirt. The bullets were very close to us. Eventually some people came from behind to get us and told us to run back 200 meters. We jumped up and ran that distance and then jumped into a ditch.”
In the late 1980s Jane moved to Rome, the city that would remain her base for the rest of the career. From Rome, Jane covered the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of Soviet Domination of eastern Europe. She travelled to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. “It was a good story, very visual, people were living in their cars,” she explained, “a real people story, and at the same time a geo-political story. I saw communism disappearing with my own eyes.”
In the 1990s Jane was thrown into the war in the former Yugoslavia. She spent a lot of time in besieged Sarajevo where she said she had some “scary moments”, noting that it could be a bit unnerving driving down the famed sniper alley from the airport to the Holiday Inn, where all the journalists stayed, and from the TV station to the Holiday Inn. As she explained, “Sarajevo was a tragic, tragic situation. These people were under siege, they were living in a bowl. They were on the low ground and were surrounded by Serbian snipers on the high ground. “
While in Sarajevo Jane worked with a number of different correspondents, but she says one of her favourites was ABC Correspondent Jim Wooten who she described as one of the “best story-tellers” she has ever worked with. I was lucky to find a story that Jim Wooten told about her in an article called “The Cameraman”:
“Once, in Bosnia, just outside Gradacac, the two of us were ankle-deep in mud in a frontline trench, literally within shouting (and shooting) distance of Serbs whose weapons were pointed in our direction. We were taping what’s known in the business as an on-camera, that moment in the story when the correspondent appears on the screen, continuing the narration face to face with the viewer. It had been a relatively quiet morning with only a bit of small-arms fire now and then. Suddenly, in the middle of my spiel, all hell broke loose: heavy machine guns, mortars, artillery, all laid on in the direction and vicinity of the Bosnian soldiers with whom we were sharing the long trench. It frightened me, jolted me, left me utterly speechless. Yet, quite calmly, in between explosions, without taking cover or her eye from the viewfinder, Hartney said, “Take two.” Inspired or humbled by her equanimity, not to mention the urge to get out of there in a hurry, I managed the second effort just fine, or maybe it was the third. That evening, screening the videotape she had shot that day, I noticed that when the shelling had begun and all through its duration, Jane’s perfectly focused camera had wavered not one millimeter. Not a shudder, not the tiniest reaction.”
When she wasn’t dodging bullets in the former Yugoslavia, Jane was back in Rome covering the Vatican and the end of the life of Pope John Paul II. She travelled with him around the globe from Cuba to the Holy Land. She watched his health deteriorate and covered his death and funeral. As Jane explained about John Paul II, “I watched him. I looked at him through a long lens. I looked at his expression and I saw him deteriorate. I kept looking for something. Waiting and looking. With TV you can never feel like ‘ok, I got that shot and now I am done.’ You keep looking. “
In addition to conflict zones, Jane gained a reputation at ABC for flawlessly shooting big interviews. Her list of big name interviews made my head spin. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, King Hussein of Jordan, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hafez al-Assad of Syria and twice his son Bashar al-Assad….and the list goes on.
Perhaps one of the most memorable interviews was with Nelson Mandela on February 15, 1990, shortly after he had left prison after 27 years of incarceration. Jane was in South Africa with Ted Koppel and they managed to get the interview. I found this interview on YouTube and noticed that it was shot outdoors at night with sounds of children laughing and playing in the background. Jane told me they had been waiting for a long time hoping they would get the interview, they were outdoors and people were celebrating. The lighting on the interview is perfect and the sound is too. Koppel is excellent and Mandela is phenomenal. And that is Jane’s genius, no distracting light, sound or focus issues, just a brilliant interview. No one noticed Jane, but without her talent, it would have failed. I asked her about the interview and all she said was, “Nelson Mandela was a gracious, nice man. We need more of them.”
I asked Jane if it ever bothered her that she was often working with people like Diane Sawyer, Ted Koppel and Barbara Walters who were getting a multi-million dollar salary while she was earning much less. She said, “No, it never bothered me. I did not want to be the star. I am good at being a fly on the wall. Be there but not be there. Sort of invisible but you are always there. You want to be invisible.”
Since she wasn’t doing it for the money I asked Jane what drove her to do her job.
“It was demanding and challenging and extremely rewarding. At the end of the day I was telling stories that need to be told and if I knew I had a cassette and the story was there, I felt good.”
This is what anchorwoman Diane Sawyer had to say about Jane, “Jane is simply one of the world’s greatest war buddies, journalists, and co-conspirators on getting the story, ever. She is also an incredible video artist, video athlete, friend, and colleague.”
Jane worked with some of the world’s most famous TV journalists but her greatest physical and emotional attachment was to her soundmen, “I loved all my soundmen, every single one of them. They are another pair of eyes. They are looking out for you and you are connected by an umbilical cord. You share a lot of stuff.”
I asked Jane if in her long career she ever ditched her camera when she was in a dangerous situation. The answer was simple, “No, never. It was an extension of me, it was my eye.”