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War and peace: Pierre Toutain-Dorbec reflects on fiction, nonfiction and photojournalism

By Erick Bengel
Cannon Beach Gazette

Published on May 25, 2014 12:01AM

<p>Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, who spent 35 years as an international photojournalist, will publish his first crime novel next month. The novel is set in the Cannon Beach Hotel — which he co-manages in real life with his wife, Claudia — and much of the action occurs in Room 3.</p>

Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, who spent 35 years as an international photojournalist, will publish his first crime novel next month. The novel is set in the Cannon Beach Hotel — which he co-manages in real life with his wife, Claudia — and much of the action occurs in Room 3.

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<p>Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, a former photo journalist, is co-owner of the Cannon Beach Hotel. He has published 43 books, two of which he co-authored with the Dalai Lama.</p>

Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, a former photo journalist, is co-owner of the Cannon Beach Hotel. He has published 43 books, two of which he co-authored with the Dalai Lama.

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<p>Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, a former photo journalist, lounges in the Cannon Beach Hotel lobby. He has published 43 books, two of which he co-authored with the Dalai Lama.</p>

Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, a former photo journalist, lounges in the Cannon Beach Hotel lobby. He has published 43 books, two of which he co-authored with the Dalai Lama.

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<p>This photo, taken in Dharamsala, India, in 1985, shows the Dalai Lama perusing one of Pierre Toutain-Dorbec's published books as they prepare to collaborate on their first book together, titled "/>

This photo, taken in Dharamsala, India, in 1985, shows the Dalai Lama perusing one of Pierre Toutain-Dorbec's published books as they prepare to collaborate on their first book together, titled "Tibet."

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Pierre Toutain-Dorbec is a 63-year-old Frenchman with an easy laugh and a piercing intellect.

The Cannon Beach resident spends much of his time in the Cannon Beach Hotel and adjacent cafe, helping out his wife, Claudia Toutain-Dorbec, operate the two businesses. Among his chores is politely advising tourists not to bring their dogs into the building.

His days are much different than the 35 years he spent as a photojournalist for some of the most prestigious international publications of the 20th century: Time-Life, Newsweek, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Observer, Paris Match, Stern and others.

A former Vietnam War correspondent, Toutain-Dorbec has 43 books to his credit that capture daily life in locations ranging from Tibet, Nepal and China to Paris, Quebec and Los Angeles.

Two of these books he co-authored with His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

But the time he has occupied at the Cannon Beach Hotel is paying off. This month, he will publish his first as-yet-untitled crime/mystery novel, set in the hotel (specifically, Room 3) and at Haystack Rock. In addition, he is revising his second crime novel, “Never Say Die.”

CFS Publishing, a small independent company he owns with his wife, will publish both books.

“I did not want to go to big publishers,” he said. “I’ve done that for most of my life.”

Nonfiction was Toutain-Dorbec’s bailiwick until he left journalism 10 years ago. His recent foray into fiction, though, draws from many of his own experiences.

This makes the writing process as enjoyable as it is personal — and he admits he is writing these novels mainly for his own enjoyment.

“You do a book, you never know what it will become,” he said, chuckling. “The main point is to have fun when you do something ... If people like it or not, that’s another story.”

Raised in ruins

Toutain-Dorbec proudly declares himself “an opponent of any war.”

Even before he worked as a war correspondent, he had experienced first-hand the crushing consequences of warfare. He was, in fact, literally raised in the ruins of war.

Born in 1951, Toutain-Dorbec grew up in Orbec, a city in France’s Normandy region — a region destroyed during World War II.

More than five years after the war had ended, his city was still in shambles.

He remembers walking to school through trails that had small mountains of bricks and the debris of bombed houses piled on each side. Over time, some of the houses were rebuilt but, in many cases, not the lives that inhabited them.

Toutain-Dorbec grew up knowing that more than 50 percent of his family had been killed during the war. For this reason, he was always sensitive to what war really means.

The war zone

When his press agency dispatched him to Southeast Asia — where he covered the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1975 — his distaste for war only grew.

“I cannot say I enjoyed working as a war correspondent,” he said. “It was very, very tough. It’s not something you enjoy photographing.”

As an ambitious young photographer, he innocently believed that his work would make a difference — that bringing the reality of Vietnam home to his readers could, perhaps, help to end the carnage.

“You think that images can change something,” he said. But “you reach a point after a few years (when) you realize you changed nothing. The war always goes on.”

To this day, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

Back then — when they were less apt to become mere purveyors of state-sponsored pro-war propaganda — embedded journalists faced the same risks as the soldiers, he said.

“You share their life, and you’re on the front lines. Those bullets can be for anyone,” he said. “We lost a lot of journalists in the Vietnam War. It was a bit of a catastrophe for journalists.”

Such an experience, he said, creates “a pain you have to carry all your life.”

Peace at last

Following the fall of Saigon, he spent another seven years in Bangkok covering developments in northern Thailand, Burma and Cambodia “while it was having the Khmer Rouge problem.”

But after 15 years as a war correspondent, he had seen enough bloodletting. “I was sick of it,” he said.

So, as “kind of a therapy to counterbalance the war,” he studied Buddhism at Bangkok’s Wat Pho temple.

Eventually, he moved to India, where he remained for 15 years, reporting on religion and local lives.

“It wasn’t war anymore,” he said. “It was peaceful.”

During this period — when he turned his lens on India, Tibet and Nepal — publishers began asking Toutain-Dorbec to produce books of his photography.

Meanwhile, he earned a Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy from Banaras Hindu University.

Collaborations with ‘Kundun’

In the late 1980s, after he passed his exams, Toutain-Dorbec’s diplomat professor suggested that he visit the Dalai Lama at his sanctuary in Dharamsala, India. This was before the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled religious and political leader, won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent then-39-year campaign against China’s occupation of his homeland.

The two men struck up a friendship, sharing stories and, from Toutain-Dorbec’s side, photography.

“One day, he said, ‘You know, Pierre, we should do books together.’ And I said, ‘If you want.’”

Naturally, Toutain-Dorbec’s publisher told him to “go for it.” The result was two books, one titled “Tibet,” the other “Tibet: The Roof of the World.”

At the time of their collaboration, Toutain-Dorbec noted, the Dalai Lama wasn’t famous.

“Of course, he was a very interesting person to meet, and it was really nice to be in contact with him,” Toutain-Dorbec said. “Now he’s a mega-star. He’s like a rock star.”

End of an era

When he decided to leave journalism behind around 2004, he had long since grown disillusioned with how modern news operations run.

In his day, “it was kind of normal” for photojournalists to live in a foreign country for long stretches, become accepted by the native population and write a story over a period of many months.

Now, few media outlets still devote resources to stories of this depth, preferring instead more immediate coverage.

Toutain-Dorbec was no longer able “to do my job the way I have done it for a long time, mainly because (there was) not enough time to spend on a subject.”

“I’m not interested at all (in going) into a place for two, three, five days and not have any time to do my job properly because I have to send in images as fast as possible,” he said. “It’s not my way of working.”

But though he is in retirement, Toutain-Dorbec’s work continues to shed light on international affairs.

Because he was one of the only photojournalists in the world to document Cambodia’s totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime — now infamous for slaughtering 1.7 million people in Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields” — the United Nations, Berkley University and Rutgers University contacted him to use his photos in studies and exhibitions, while the trial of Pol Pot’s henchmen got underway.

Infotainment

In the age of fast-paced, wall-to-wall media, news consumers have become desensitized to suffering in the world, Toutain-Dorbec said. And it’s a global problem.

“They are overwhelmed by too many images,” which has led to the “banal-ization” of really pressing issues, he said. World events that should be considered exceptional, that people should try to change, become yet more mindless, titillating diversion for the infotainment junkie.

What’s more, much of the “news” people are exposed to is flat-out “idiocy,” he said.

“People, they stay home with their problems and their TV ... They are not really aware of what’s happening in the world today,” he said. “It’s not good to have a population which is not well-informed, because, in my opinion, a population that is not well-informed is much easier to manipulate.”

This includes, he said, getting people to accept the unacceptable.

“People must be ready to stand up and say, ‘No. This is too much. This has gone too far.’”



 

 

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