Hi everyone. Please follow this link to read my guest post for this great online literary magazine that “features writing by mother writers about the complexities and many faces of motherhood.” Literary Mama
Hi everyone. Please follow this link to read my guest post for this great online literary magazine that “features writing by mother writers about the complexities and many faces of motherhood.” Literary Mama
Hey everyone. I’m trying something new today and have picked up a guest-blogging gig with an old pal. I know Laura from the days when we danced to the African Jazz Pioneers at a Shebeen in the suburbs of Johannesburg while South Africa moved toward its first democratic elections. Who knew eighteen years later we’d be blogging authors still intrigued with the whole idea of connecting cultures. Kinda fun. Laura’s the author of a really cool book called Tro-Tros and Potholes that chronicles her solo adventures through West Africa. She’s now working on a second book, a very touching memoir about being raised by a schizophrenic mother.
It’s a pleasure to invite you to read my post about travels to Myanmar http://laurazera.com/?p=928
I’ve been bobbing to the surface as waves of jet-lag wash over me. From a muggy S.E. Asian climate I’ve flown to crisp and chilly mornings in Banff; a good sleep finally affords me an extended breath of fresh mountain air and I’m feeling good. Good enough to sit down and make sense of the last five weeks.
Five photojournalists whom I’ve been trying to peg down for the book were to be in one place, Chiang Mai Thailand for the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop. Once I found out, I had to go. FPW takes place in a different locale every year; previously taking place in Mexico, India, Turkey and Argentina. Next year will take them to Sarajevo. I booked our flights only three weeks before take-off, somewhat apprehensive about the idea of flying across the globe merely to sit down for a conversation with five women. Skype may have sufficed, but in my heart I knew it wouldn’t be the same. I also knew there was more to this trip than conducting interviews. It had a lot to do with my daughter’s and as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the importance of showing them the world beyond their own doorstep.
Eric Beecroft (the Foundry’s founder), suggested my girls take an introductory class with the photojournalist David Storey. They were the youngest to have ever taken the course and were asked to pursue a subject for the week and come up with a few strong shots. If all went well and a story came together, even better. Sadie chose street dogs and Jemima, orphanages. I wasn’t about to turn them loose on their own on the streets of Chiang Mai so ended up jumping taxis with them to orphanages, dog shelters and markets where puppies were being sold like souvenirs. Most of the time, I had my camera bag (same one I used in South Africa some eighteen years ago) slung over my shoulder, thinking I may take a shot or two.
Had I known the extent of what the girls would be doing when Eric suggested the class to me, I probably would have said no. Added to their individual work, David chose a group assignment of monks. My interviews readily took secondary status as the girls assignments took shape.
I was up at 5:30 with my kids this morning photographing monks taking alms.
Andrea Bruce and I were sitting down for coffee and my first interview in the restaurant of her hotel.
I forgot what it feels like, to be plugged into everything around me, camera in hand, completely in the moment. I was having so much fun…and there, in my lens were my kids, shooting away too. It was amazing.
Are you going to write your own story into this book too? Andrea asked me.
The book started out being about women in photojournalism — just about them and writing about myself felt awkward. I admitted to her that I’ve been struggling with the idea of including myself but more and more, feel it important. I’ve felt the support of each woman, as I met them, and their understanding of the journey I’m on. Communicating why the work of these women matters; why images of women in the world matters, has always been clear. My personal motivations for doing it…. was something that was slowly being revealed to me.
I made a pact before I left Canada for Thailand, that I would no longer write about my divorce or my ex-husband. No matter what he does or says, this journey is about what lies ahead. These photographers listened to my story of my children’s growing love of photography, how I unexpectedly found myself on the streets of Chiang Mai, shooting alongside them. I, in turn listened to them speak of one particular woman whom they’ve photographed who has made an impact on them for one reason or another.
Each talk, taking place in the context of the workshop, enforced for me that there had been something missing from this book — something that made me feel a bit of a hypocrite. I was writing of something I once adored yet I myself had barely picked up my own camera in some 15 years. And when I did, it was on autofocus and program mode merely capturing snapshots with little thought behind them. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to admit what photography still means to me. I’d pushed it aside for so long, because to journey out into the world with my camera, the way I wanted to, wasn’t an easy option.
Several times in the last few weeks, emotions arose that mimicked those I felt when I worked as a photojournalist in South Africa. It was an immense challenge but I was motivated by the fact I was learning about another country and it’s story. It wasn’t about me, but something so much larger. Back then, I ached to return home changed in some way, big or small, altered by being exposed to completely different people and events. The camera was a tool that facilitated this on a profound level. What I saw through my lens changed me. I was hooked.
Yet somehow I forgot…
I love the world so much more now because I’m taking pictures. This was Sadie, my 14-year-old, as we sat waiting for our lunch one day.
….until my daughters helped me to remember.
I said yes to Eric because he said the workshop could potentially be life-changing for my daughters. It was. They’ve been given the incredible gift of connecting to the world in a creative way. No matter what they end of doing in life they’ll forever be seeing people and cultures in a more intimate light. Following the workshop, we left Thailand for Myanmar — a land seemingly lost in time but on the precipice of change. Literally everywhere we looked, was a photo. My kids weren’t simply walking through it, they were framing it; most importantly they were noticing it for its beauty, its irony and neglect. They were understanding another country for what it was and their lives were being enriched.
What happened to me was completely unexpected. In the midst of telling the tales of these amazing photojournalists, I’ve picked up my own camera. I’ve felt myself step into the moment and back into the world — nothing more, nothing less. The auto-focus is off. Program mode isn’t an option and creativity is the rule. My senses are being informed by the people and places around me and I’m deciding for myself where my focus will fall.
This round of interviews had me sitting down with Andrea Bruce, Agnes Dherbeys, Maggie Steber, Adriana Zehbrauskas and Paula Bronstein. It was phenomenal and I thank each one of you, from the depths of my heart, for your support.
I also have to send out an extra special thanks to Eric Beecroft for including my kids. Your simple suggestion has reached far and wide.
That makes fifteen interviews in the can with a few more on deck…
What a journey!
I’m not going to tell the whole story here — these pages are not meant for this.
From the onset, I didn’t want to make this book about my divorce — no messy details I said. This is going to be about my life as it is becoming; not what it was and certainly not what someone else is trying to make it. And, I stand by that. Today though, I walk the edge. I’ve awoken to more s**t — stuff from my Ex I thought was of the past. Legally, I’m trusting things will be OK but it’s been enough for me to question how I will accomplish all that I need to. It’s a stumbling block that’s all.
I’ve been writing today about the amazing photojournalists I interviewed over the last few weeks. Keeping focused on their words helps ground me but I still have more to meet; many more stories to pull together. I have three more years of alimony — three years to reverse the inertia that broiled around me on the path of marital destruction. Shall I use these years to set an example for my children; show them the real me or let fear, intimidation and perceived limitations keep me in the same place I was in my marriage? No brainer.
This post today is an affirmation that this book about women in the world as seen through the world’s top female photojournalists goes on. That even if there are more emails to my lawyer crafted with shaking hands, this, what I’ve started is far more important. The process of this book is very much about me remembering the best parts of me. I’m stepping out into the world again, beyond the pristine perfection of Switzerland where I lived during my marriage and the beauty of Banff where I now make my home. I’m reaching back to a profession I wore for a short time yet never completely stored away.
Roaming the townships of South Africa, bearing witness to the signing of the country’s new constitution, seeing eighty year-old women vote for the first time in their lives and even the execution of another human being — it mattered. What I saw, meant something and altered me forever. Yet, what I accomplished beyond the simple making of images and how it actually affected me to this day, remains ambiguous. I am driven to pursue these questions because for several years a quiet voice inside of me has relentlessly been reminding me of their importance.
Yes, I’m living vicariously through women who are now doing the profession I’m kinda regretting giving up. I may be trying to make up for all the assignments, countries and people that passed me by over the years. I do it because I’m on a journey to illustrate things of importance that these women have chosen to freeze in time — the quieter issues that don’t catch our attention with automatic weapons, war mongering videos, and hate. The ones that because they exist, intimacy in the world is not completely lost and we’re given the chance to know others through their goodness and strength; not define them by the circumstances around them. I now have six interviews with female photojournalists under my belt. The process has just begun — the momentum builds for this book, and I don’t intend to stop.
I’ve just returned to my home in Banff; given the chance now to absorb the last few weeks. After a nine hour flight home, I’ve had time to put things into perspective. I’ve written along the way but each day, each interview seems to have enforced a certain insight that tells me I need to be out in the world more, soaking it up, listening and sharing ideas in order to do justice to this book.
I met with the photojournalist Holly Pickett in New York as she decompressed after the Arab Spring. Still unable to fully articulate what it all meant, she sat down with me, lifted open her laptop and took me through a story of Iraqi refugees in Cairo trying to carry on with life post-war. A photo essay she has spent months on that was never published.
Nadia Todres, devoted to Haitian girls showed me images of them, bellies bulging with babies looking far too young to care for them let alone amidst the devastation of the 2010 earthquake.
Paula Allen who took the time to sit for a couple of hours with me with great care, questioning me about where I want to go with this book, what I want to accomplish. She assisted me in figuring out that I want to take this book beyond the simple concept of photojournalists and what it’s like to be out there witnessing the very worst and very best of humanity.
Be vulnerable, Paula’s words to me keep bobbing to the surface as I write.
Paula works with Eve Ensler in The Congo — the very worst place in the world to be a woman. Ensler built The City of Joy for Congolese women who are victims of rape, helping them to rehabilitate. Also, since 1989 she’s been photographing women in Chile. Women, who with shovels, have ventured into the desert for 17 years looking for the remains of love ones executed and buried by soldiers under the Pinochet regime. I have enormous respect for Paula’s commitment to her subject matter, it’s truthful, authentic and meaningful. If she chooses to be a part of this book, I hope it’s because she sees the same in my work. Her work her words, are at it’s heart and mine as I write.
Iranian photographer, Newsha Tavakolian and American Kate Brooks were both invited to the Middle East Now Film Festival in Florence, Italy. I took a train there from Switzerland to meet them. They are two conflict photographers at the top of their game yet conversations with them took us to artistic places, to talk of portraits of women who have been silenced. In Iran, women are not allowed to sing solo. Newsha chose to capture this silence in images — remarkably communicating this injustice with portraits of the singers. Kate too shared thoughts of producing portraits but somewhat more intimate than Newsha’s — those of close female friends who have endured trauma in their lives. A potent idea coming from someone who has been on the front-lines of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a reminder for us to honour the battles that those close to us may be fighting every day.
Last on this trip was German photographer, Andrea Diefenbach. We met in Frankfurt. Andrea stuck with a project on children in Maldova — at times not knowing if it was a story or not. Fathers and mothers are mostly absent in these parts, working in Italy while their children are left behind being raised primarily by grandparents. Parental love comes to them on a truck from Italy, in a box, as panettoni, apples from Italian fields and even a computer for the lucky ones. For awhile Andrea thought things were fine there, life appeared to be working out for them and perhaps it wasn’t a story after all. Until she spoke to them, started to ask about their feelings, unleashing tears of heartache and hardship.
Perhaps love is the process of my leading you gently back to yourself.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
This book, as I write, is leading me back to myself. Each conversation with the photographers, a reminder of what matters. The photographs they take perform justice to those often ignored, silenced, and forgotten. I believe in the dignity that arises when we take the time; find the courage, to notice, to listen and remember. I also believe its our duty to do so. Should we fail, the world becomes about bravado, sucking it up, control and subjugation — fear.
I can’t reach my lawyer today — he’s in Switzerland and because of the time difference, no longer in the office. I think of so many days I’ve wasted like this, while someone holds my future (and my children’s) in the balance. Do I worry until I get through to my lawyer? Or, do I keep pulling the thread; focusing on this project thanking my ex-husband for the clarity of purpose his behaviour has brought me. Whatever it takes, I will get this done — see it through. It may take longer and I may have to chart a different course but life is messy — it just is. If we expect otherwise, we’re just uptight anal fear mongers who’ve lost the point of living. And who wants to be that?
In theory my book project on women and photojournalism started when I began research about ten months ago. In reality, I believe it’s beginning right now 20 minutes to seven on March 13th as I write the first words of my blog. I’m sitting in the performing arts center in Calgary where National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths is about to take the stage. Despite not yet setting eyes on Griffiths, I’ve already opened my laptop eager to put some words down before the lights dim.
Preparation, so far, for my book has been a lot of research and emailing to make the all important contacts with photojournalists working all over the globe. Yesterday had been a routine day scouring sites on the net. After arriving on a site showing the photography of Ami Vitale, I quickly shot her a note explaining the idea for my book, Intimate: Women in the World as Witnessed By Top Female Photojournalists.
A short while later I received her response: I’d be happy to speak and could also recommend a few other incredible women you might want to consider. Maggie Steber, Annie Griffiths, Lynsey Addario are wonderful women working on these themes as well. I’d heard of Maggie and had already been in touch with Lynsey who is working on her own book but Annie Griffiths hadn’t yet been on my radar. An hour after sending her a note she replied: I am actually in Calgary today…small world. (Calgary is just over an hours drive from my home town of Banff in the Rocky Mountains.) I am speaking tomorrow at the performance center here for the National Geographic Live Series. Let me know if you would like me to get a comp ticket for you.
That brings me here, to a balcony at the Jack Singer Concert Hall tapping away at my computer. I’m finally in the same building as one of the reputed photojournalists I hope will be gracing the pages of my books and I’m absolutely giddy.
A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel is the name of Griffith’s sold out talk. It’s also the title of her book , the one I just purchased in the theatre foyer. She has spent three decades working as a photojournalist and she did it, amazingly, while raising two children. In essence, she’s done exactly what I had once envisioned myself doing about twenty years ago. I thought I’d be the one, baby on back, camera in hand documenting cultures around the world. Instead, when the time came, my camera bag was put down; replaced, for all practical purposes, with a diaper bag.
Griffiths opened her talk by showing a photo of her first assignment as a student of photography, describing it as “the day I became a photographer;” explaining she was “in heaven” as she took the image of a tree bathed in light. In her book she writes, “It was the first of a lifetime of days when time stood still and I became far less important than what I saw in the camera’s viewfinder.”
I felt a pang listening to Griffiths. I have few regrets but in that darkened theatre in Calgary last night, in the very city where my photographic dreams began; as her experiences were unveiled, I was reminded of motivations long forgotten. The evening reinforced for me, the reasons for me gravitating once again to the world of photography but this time as a writer.
Griffiths’ words during her talk wondrously echoed those of my books proposal. She spoke of the tool the camera can be for communicating the resiliency of women in the world saying by doing so, “we can change the world”. She spoke of human connections and a certain “intimacy” that arises with strangers by virtue of having a camera in hand.
At one point Griffiths talked about an assignment she had in Nebraska on a family ranch. Staying as a guest, she was awakened one morning by the light, a sunrise so beautiful and luminous she grabbed her camera and tore out the door to get the shot. After hooting and hollering over the incredible image she had captured, Griffiths then noticed a line of cowboys also taking in a first in a lifetime scene – that of a National Geographic photographer shooting in nothing but her underpants. Her message, and one she also communicated to a crowd of Calgary school children yesterday afternoon: “Find something in your life that excites you so much, you run out of the house, forgetting to put on your pants.”
I awoke this morning completely charged up and figuratively speaking, completely forgot about my pants to finish this blog. I’m not yet certain how my book is going to come together but it has definitely begun. In a couple weeks time I will sit down in New York City with Paula Allen. She’s just returned from Haiti and before that the Congo. I hope to meet as many of these talented women as possible, talking to them about their work and women in the world.
Griffiths book is now on the kitchen table before me. I open it to the first page where she’s scrawled a note to my daughters. Reading it makes me smile:
Sadie and Jemima,
See the World!,
When I board that plane at months end, my daughters will be coming with me. Perhaps I didn’t do it the way I had planned over the years or the way Annie Griffiths was able to do it with her kids but I’m getting it, that it’s never too late to pick up the thread of the things we are passionate about. So thanks Annie – for that comp ticket last night but even more for standing in front of me, representing a life well lived and a world of possibilities.
At the time I was reaching out to female photojournalists around the world with the quest of writing a book, two of their male colleagues had fallen in Libya. I worried that my queries were ill-timed. They were coming together in solidarity to mourn their loss. I didn’t expect a response for some time. I was wrong.
Within a day, the replies came. The first was Barbara Davidson who had just found out she’d been awarded her third Pulitzer Prize:
“Sounds really interesting, I’d really like to be a part of this book project. Keep me posted and thanks for thinking of me. Best b”.
Next it was Andrea Bruce.
“I would be happy to be included. Let me know if you want to chat some….at the moment I’m in Mexico.”
On her heals, Holly Pickett —
“Sure, I’d love to be part of your book project. I haven’t read the articles yet, been distracted today by the death of a colleague and I can’t really think about anything else. But if Andrea signed off on it, I know it’s a good thing.”
Soon after, Kathleen Flynn was also aboard and finally, having just won her fourth Pulitzer, Carol Guzy came back with this —
“Hi Kendall, Yes I would be honored to be included in the book project…”
I took it as a sign there were things that needed to be said.
The idea for this book grew from an aching need to remember a life I had once been passionate about. It’s been some eighteen years since I worked in the field as a photojournalist. Any photos framed since this time have focused on the faces of my children. To return to a life of travelling to precarious hotspots is no longer in my maternal make-up. Yet, as my daughters mature, and as I emerge from a divorce, so too has my concern for issues affecting the world our youth will inherit. I find myself at 45 years of age enlivened to reconnect with issues that matter to me and to also show my children the world beyond their own doorstep. Things had been forgotten or perhaps denied for a time in my life. It’s time now to remember and even better, to illustrate how lives can be strengthened when we set our hearts and minds to work with courage, compassion and conviction. I begin this journey holding my daughter’s trusting hands to write about the stories of women and the tool of the camera in their grasp, reminded of the world I pushed aside.
I am passionate about the idea of telling the experiences of female photojournalists who are extracting from war ravaged countries stories that would otherwise go unreported. Were it not for their unique perspective, courage and access to stories, certain issues would never be played out in the world’s media because male colleagues either shy away from them or are unable to gain access. In a piece in the New York Times (NYT) on March 30 photojournalist Lynsey Addario (who was captured in Libya) explains, “In the Muslim world, most of my male colleagues can’t enter private homes. They can’t hang out with very conservative Muslim families. I have always been able to. It’s not easy to get the right to photograph in a house, but at least I have one foot in the door. I’ve always found it a great advantage, being a woman.”
The point is not that men aren’t capable of taking the photos that the women are, but women may choose, for example, to bring another woman into a story; make a connection with her that a man may not be able to. She may be granted access to a home, as Addario expressed, or hospital room that a male colleague would never be able to enter. A man, for instance, would not have come away with the same story as Barbara Davidson on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone – even if he did secure access to the people. These women agree there is a difference to their approach that is difficult to define but one I wish to track through telling their personal journeys and hearing them speak about the assignments they felt the greatest connection with. Added to this, I believe, women are natural communicators, more comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions. Because of this and because of the challenging nature of their work there is a rather profound voice emanating from these five women who travel the world that needs to be recorded.
These women photograph conflict but often choose to focus on the aftermath of war and violence. As Andrea Bruce relayed to me in an email, “Women often play the role of the survivor, the source of endurance in war time, and so I find myself drawn to the aftermath of war and its consequences more than the fighting itself, although I cover both.”
There are few women in the field, perhaps a dozen now currently covering conflict. What they bring to the world’s attention is both necessary and compelling. These women, in their own way, serve as a bridge of deeper understanding between us and them, here and over there, bringing our world that much closer together.
Holly Pickett was on the same wave length. She wrote back to me a few days after our initial contact. “Just wanted to let you know that I think your idea is a really good one. I think it is so very important to have women photojournalists. We do bring a different perspective and we reach subjects and viewers that our male counterparts sometimes can’t. So thank you. I think it will be an enlightening endeavor for us all.”
Why am I the one to write this book? I worked as a news photographer in South Africa during its transition to democracy. I came to understand the tool the camera is — a passport of sorts that takes an inquisitive mind into places off limits to most. It opened doors for me to the South African townships; political marches and rallies and even executions. From this experience I wrote my first book, “Black Taxi: Shooting South Africa — a photographic memoir. Because of this work, I have the benefit of understanding the character of these women who witness the very best and worst of humanity. Safety is always an issue for them; it is a physically demanding profession that also takes a hefty toll on their own psyche and personal life yet the drive to communicate with their cameras supersedes all.
In a piece I wrote for Tonic, I comment on how we are invited into people’s lives worlds away through images seen in the news and how uncomfortable this experience can be as we bear witness to others often excruciatingly vulnerable moments. The photojournalist interacts with this world absorbing images of life and death, love and hate, war and peace. We can understand the world that much more through her story, the one she has to tell.
With this in mind, I find Carol Guzy’s words interesting. She says, “I don’t believe in full objectivity. I think that’s nonsense. I think everyone is a subjective being, and somehow your thoughts and your feelings and past experiences are going to play a role in how you photograph things, how you view the world, how you interact with people.” This could be considered the core of the book: to know the thoughts, feelings and experiences of these women as they are applied to the job they do as women on the front line of some of the harshest stories in the world.
There are probably no more than a dozen women working in conflict photography in the world today. They have made it in the boys club but also in an economic environment that makes it very had to work as a photojournalist. This is an amazing accomplishment.of These women are artists. For them the camera is more than a tool, it’s a means of expression and they do it with breathtaking grace. Without their stories being known, the picture of the profession of photojournalism will remain incomplete.
I’ve just begun on this journey. Plans need to be made, my kids need to be consulted, research must still be done but I’m ready to peer at the world through the lenses of these women allowing them to pull the focus, allow for more depth, and stop the action on issues many of us have failed to notice. Care to take a look?