By: Tasha Tsiaperas
A woman weaves between a battalion of bikes, a camera dangling from her shoulder. To talk to the man who lost his leg to war, she crouches and leans in to listen. She takes no pictures. Only when the wounded warriors prepare to ride does she shuffle among the cyclists, occasionally snapping photos.
Those pictures won’t be published. They are stepping stones toward the image she’ll need to capture the drama of her story. Sonya Hebert, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and The Dallas Morning News photographer, is searching for the right character, the right moment, to snap for an in-depth story about the effects of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan on military families left behind. Sonya will spend days, even weeks, with people who may, or may not, end up as her photographic subjects. Unlike writers, she can’t string together quotes and reconstruct scenes to create an image. She must be there as life’s dramas unfold.
Written journalism and photojournalism share a common goal: telling a story. But to tell the story through a single photo, photographers must put the camera down first. Photographers Thorne Anderson, Kael Alford and Sonya Hebert believe the key to capturing an intimate image is to immerse themselves in the lives of their subjects, to work and live among the locals. Writers, they suggest, should do the same: Put down the pen and listen first.
Look at their photos. How did they capture the story of a baby lost, a village bombed, a child caught up in war? To capture that singular moment takes time. It means throwing aside the trappings of their work — the camera and the tape recorder — and hanging out with their subjects. “It’s a bit of an alchemy,” Thorne admits. “You can’t force a moment, but you can prepare yourself so that the conditions are right so you are more likely to be there for it to happen.”
Two Middle Eastern men crouch barefoot on a carpeted floor preparing a rocket-propelled grenade. A young boy sits in between the men, watching intently. The photographer snaps away, capturing a striking image of the conflict in Iraq in 2004.
But if you look at the photo, really look, you realize the photographer — Thorne Anderson — was on the floor. How does an American journalist get that close to his subjects? He has lunch and tea with them. He spends hours with them, talking, listening, his camera idle. When they lie down for an afternoon nap on the floor, so does he. “His brother showed up and I’m already on the floor. I’ve been doing it all day, so it’s no longer weird for me to be on the floor,” Thorne says. “If I’d just walked in off the street, of course they wouldn’t let me do that.”
War is hell, but it’s also a personal story, one best told up close — where the danger is. But getting close to a subject is difficult enough when the bullets aren’t flying. Most photographers get embedded with the U.S. Army, but Thorne spent days with the family in the photo and with fighters considered enemy combatants by U.S. forces. He refused to make snap judgments about the men in the Mahdi Army. “You can learn so much more about the world if you break outside of your preconceived notion of things and you can accept people on their own terms,” says Thorne. “Even when they’re terms that you personally have problems with.”
It’s possible to parachute into a situation and snap great images, but Thorne prefers the slower, more immersive, method. Instead of having a driver, he chooses to cram into a local bus wearing a tunic and a Middle Eastern cap. Oftentimes, he’s not taking a single picture. While spending time with the family in the photograph (see centerfold), the young boy fell asleep on Thorne’s knee. “For me, as a photographer, I remember when the kid was sleeping on my knee wanting to get up and photograph.” But those moments are crucial to getting people to open up later. “Frequently, it’s less about chatting and more about listening, which is a mistake that a lot of journalists make. They’re not really listening,” Thorne says.
That kind of attitude allowed him to follow soldiers in the Mahdi Army, who were plotting ways to kill American soldiers and other Iraqis. In 2004, he captured a rare glimpse of Mahdi soldiers lighting gasoline to melt the tarmac on an Iraqi road to bury an IED. “That’s a fantastic historical document,” he says. “But there is no way they are going to let you take that photograph if they think you are a spy or if you are constantly going around lecturing or judging people.”
At first, the militia wouldn’t let Thorne ride with them on night patrol. He showed up several nights hoping to tag along. Even after repeatedly hearing “No,” he kept asking. On the night the militia invited him to ride with them, Thorne spent most of his time having tea with the soldiers and going from barricade to barricade with them. Then he got his shot. “I knew that the longer I stayed, the more access I would get, so I wouldn’t push it too hard. Gradually, the access would unfold.”
Thorne, a bespectacled, animated man with a soft voice, didn’t plan on being a conflict photographer, or a photographer of any sort. He started as a children’s fiction writer, but began traveling and writing. “That sort of lead me to journalism,” he says. While pursuing his master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia, he fell in love with photojournalism after attending one class session. “One of the most attractive things for me is the demands of immediacy, that you really have to be there. You can’t do it over the telephone. You can’t reconstruct it. You can’t arrange it,” he says. “You really have to be there as the situation unfolds.”
Thorne was teaching journalism at American University in Bulgaria when the conflict in Kosovo erupted in the late ’90s. The war directly affected his students, students he had spent hours getting to know: Serbs and Croats and Albanians. “It was a very personal conflict, and it was only 150 kilometers from my house,” he says. Gradually, he began teaching less and became a full-time photojournalist.
He first went to Iraq in 2002 before the U.S. invasion. There, he honed his immersion skills and his ideas began to rub off on writers who worked with him. He shows his subjects that he fits in with them. “It means that when mealtime comes, I’ll help serve or help clean up. If they sleep and they sleep on the floor, then I don’t demand a bed. If they eat, and eat with their hands, I don’t demand a fork,” he says. “Participant observation doesn’t mean I pick up an RPG and fire it at the next American Humvee that comes by. But it does mean that I play with their children and when they fall asleep, I let them sleep on my lap.”
Water pours over the girl’s face. She is just a child, maybe 8. She lies nude on a floor, except for bits of wool covering her pelvic area. Her lips are pale, almost blue. She doesn’t move as the water washes over her eyes and nose. (See photo next page.) There’s a tiny wound on her side. It’s barely visible. Look closely. It’s there.
Kael Alford, petite, fair and clearly American, had been wandering around a recently bombed Iraqi village in 2003, searching for a photograph to document the savagery and grief. The Iraqi government had bused photographers from Baghdad to the city in the middle of the night.
As she wanders, Kael sees a crowd of mourners carrying the girl into a mosque. She follows. “I was looking for something that was happening in this scene, many hours after the event, that would relay the grief this community was feeling,” she says. To get her shot, she pushes through the crowd. The child had been mortally wounded only hours before. “This wasn’t ritualized mourning,” she says. “They were people who were clearly in love with this girl.”
Kael photographs the group of men sobbing around the girl and goes with the women into a side room where they undress the girl and bathe her for burial. Her body may still be warm. Kael, who understands a bit of Arabic, hesitates to document the ritual, but the women motion her to keep taking pictures. “One of the women pulled me forward and said, ‘Tell the Americans what this war looks like,’” Kael says. But even as she hovers in the corner of the room, Kael is thinking, Check this girl for vital signs. She just doesn’t look dead. She is.
Kael photographs a lot of violence. It’s inevitable when covering the world’s conflicts. At home, seeing it on TV every day, it’s easy to become desensitized. But some images force us to see. This girl doesn’t appear dead. She doesn’t appear fatally wounded. Yet she lies still, water streaming over her features. “She’s beautiful, and somehow that would be the storytelling element that brings it into that human space that we can all understand,” Kael says. “She looks alive and it’s puzzling.”
It’s a moment Kael believes she couldn’t capture in writing. She admits she turned to photography in journalism graduate school because she was frustrated by her written reporting. “I would see these events and then I would come back and sit and process it, then turn it into something that didn’t reflect what I thought I had witnessed in the world,” Kael says.
Kael struggled for a long time whether to publish the photo of the girl. Would editors use it with sensitivity? Was she exploiting this young girl’s death? Once she started showing the photo, she was impressed by the response to it. “They look at her and they think, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” Kael says. The picture captures the unreality of death. “She was just with us a moment ago. That’s how people feel in these situations. This person was just speaking to me earlier this morning, and suddenly there she is and it seems impossible that she’s lifeless.”
On first glance, it’s an image of a woman holding her infant close to her breast. (See the opening photograph.) But, look closer. The mother’s face is nestled into her baby’s chest. She’s clutching him, holding his head. Her eyes are squeezed shut. Her face is contorted in pain. She sits slumped on the bathroom floor. Her husband and her baby’s nurse are standing, framing the image. The infant, days old, is dead.
Just beyond the frame, a photographer is crouching, practically sitting in the bathtub, snapping the moment. Dozens of family members mourn at the family home. But only one other person is allowed in the bathroom while the grieving mother and father prepare to give their infant his only bath. Sonya doesn’t take the honor lightly.
Sonya spent months with the family waiting for the birth of Thomas, then days waiting for his death. She captured the moment for The Dallas Morning News series on death. “I want to find people in the middle of their drama,” she says. “To tell a really powerful story, I want to be with the people when the shit hits the fan.” Once Thomas was born, Sonya barely left the family’s home. She grabbed yoga pants and a toothbrush from a local store and slept on their floor so she wouldn’t miss a moment.
T. K. and Deidrea Laux knew their son Thomas had a genetic disorder before he was born, and they planned to have only a few hours with their child. If they were lucky, they would get a few days. Sonya asked for permission to spend time as they welcomed and said goodbye to their son. “I had been thinking about what is that going to be like. What’s that moment going to be like? How am I going to tell that?” she says. “It was really surreal, because you’re just sort of operating on adrenaline and intuition and emotion.”
She empathized with the family, but knew she could not lose sight of the story. “It was just heartbreaking to see her on the bathroom floor. I felt this great honor and privilege to be there,” Sonya says. “People do buy into the idea of storytelling. They want to let you do this.”
Sonya’s soft brown eyes, magnified by glasses with thick, colorful rims, are always scanning her surroundings. She hadn’t planned on becoming a photographer. She started out working as a policymaker in Washington, D.C., but as the Clinton administration came to a close, Sonya wondered what to do next. She knew she didn’t want to work at the White House anymore. “I don’t really want to be writing memos. I don’t know how sitting in meetings in Washington is helping anybody,” she thought. She had watched staff photographers at the White House and that gave her the idea to pursue photojournalism. She spent 10 months in Europe taking pictures.
Telling stories goes to the heart of what always drove Sonya: a deep concern for people. It’s why she worked in government. “Telling stories through photography was a way I could make the world better, just a little bit,” she says. “People can smell it when you are just looking for a story. They can also sense when you are there out of a deep concern for what their life is like, what they’re going through.” She doesn’t hide that side of herself on the job. “I think my role as a photographer, as a storyteller, is only enhanced by showing my human side, by letting them know I’m not just a photographer,” she says.
As Sonya hovers and moves around the bathroom seeking the perfect shot, she is aware of the sadness, despair and, more importantly, the love in the room. She admits she could’ve just taken a picture at the funeral, but this is the more powerful moment. Deidrea’s pain as she holds her infant son touches at the deeper vein of human emotion: What it is to lose someone you love.
“To share in each other’s experience, human emotions, that’s what I think photographers go after,” Sonya says. “That’s why I want to be there for those things. How can I really get to the raw emotion?”