When bombs fall in the desert, there’s no place to hide. In March 2011, as Gadhafi’s air forces flew in low over the outskirts of the oil town of Brega, Libya, the small group of rebels and journalists there hoped their luck would hold. Veteran combat photographer Heidi Levine was among them, capturing the rebels as they countered the attack. When the explosives and artillery fire hit the desert around them, rebels and journalists alike dropped to the ground. Levine crawled over to a longtime friend and competitor and kissed him on the forehead. “I just want to tell you I love you and I think your pictures are great,” she told him. Looking back, she says, “I think if I have it in me to kiss someone in such a situation, I am still what I want to be: woman and human.” One of the images she captured that day was included in a Libyan civil war series of hers that won a Picture of the Year International award.
While camaraderie under fire is no rarity, in many wars past it would have been unlikely for a woman to be behind the camera. During much of the 20th century it was exceptional for women to overcome barriers to working on the front lines. Those who did make it there proved that in a war zone, the battlefront is one of the places where gender matters least for a photojournalist: When bullets are flying, being able to do the job comes down to individual mettle.
In the 21st century, many of the world’s conflict zones are in places where laws and customs separate the sexes. Because of this fact, female photographers, who have now achieved equal status in the field, are able to access perspectives that are closed to men. Seeking out new vantage points on the front and behind it, they work to illuminate the many disparate elements forming the big picture of conflicts in our times.
Barriers and Access
Women working in conflict zones face a double-edged sword, especially in places where gender separation is part of the culture. They face lingering resistance to their presence in the field, and often must take extra precautions against becoming targets of violence. But for many female photographers these disadvantages are outweighed by the ability to gain better access to certain corners of society.
When Levine started covering conflicts as a young photographer with the Associated Press in the early 1980s, it was still unusual to find female photojournalists working in war zones. She recalls how one boss, a man, demurred when in 1984 she asked for an assignment covering the flight of refugees during the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon War. “He said, ‘What am I going to tell your mother if something happens to you? You haven’t even had children yet,’” Levine says.
Her persistence won out, and the assignment marked the beginning of an impressive career documenting conflicts from both the front lines and inner sanctums of the Middle East. She has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than 25 years and has photographed war and civil strife throughout the region for the French agency Sipa since 1993.
Lebanon wasn’t the last time she had to push harder than male colleagues to get assignments in war zones. Especially during the early years, Levine says, “Somehow I always had to fight to go where I wanted to go.” And the reason wasn’t always clothed in fatherly protectiveness. “When push comes to shove, not all men really want to see a woman on the front lines,” she says. “I think there’s this instinct that we just shouldn’t do it.” But like other female photojournalists, she is also quick to point out the camaraderie she shares with many male colleagues in the field.
Levine faced another vein of resistance when she became a mother, even as her children grew up. In 2011, as she arrived to cover the war in Libya, she recalls, “One of the male Italian journalists saw me and started shouting at me, ‘What are you doing here? You have three children!’ To have him publicly shout that at me I thought was really unfair, because you don’t hear people saying to a male photographer or correspondent, ‘Hey, what are you doing covering a war? You’re a father!’”
Because women working in conflict areas are more commonly targets of sexual assault than men are, they may take extra precautions when it comes to vetting fixers and assistants and being careful about their accommodations. And women are still frequently groped in crowds and may need to deal with contacts who misinterpret their relationships or try to take advantage of the chaos that accompanies war. “I once had a stalker in Gaza who actually scared my male colleagues to the point where they were afraid to be with me,” says Levine.
But being a woman can also prove an advantage. “I can slip behind lines where males can’t necessarily,” says Levine. During one long-term stint in a conflict zone, she recalls, “I would often just dress like the women. Male colleagues didn’t even recognize me. I would try to blend when possible.” She also gets a perspective on events that men seldom see. “I don’t want to say that women photograph differently, but sometimes our access draws us in differently,” she says. “If I’m in a room full of women mourning, especially Muslim women, I can stay with them longer. Being a woman allows me to embrace some of the intimate moments. I’m a female and I can enter the bedroom of a woman, whereas my male colleagues wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Being perceived as less intrusive or intimidating can also make it easier for women to move unobtrusively through the range of scenes in the theater of war. “You have to know how to weave in between all worlds,” Levine says. “You have to know how to behave, not only sitting on someone’s floor in a war zone or in a morgue, but meeting with high officials, moving in a motorcade, or riding on the back of a pickup truck with Libyan rebels on the front line.”
As for motherhood, Levine says it brings insight to her work. “Maybe I approach some of the situations I’m in differently because I am a mother, or I connect with women more easily in the field because I’m a mother as well,” she says. “I can imagine being in their shoes, God forbid, if I was on the other side of the camera. It’s a big part of me.” Having children also drives her to contribute to the effort to understand and resolve conflicts. “It draws me in closer and fuels my passion to do what I do,” she says, “because as much as I cover conflict, I hate conflict and war.”
On the Front
If there’s one place in a war zone where historically there have been fewer roles for women to easily slip into, it’s on the front lines. In the past, some female correspondents joined the military as nurses to get close to the action, and women in noncombat roles such as medics or supply-truck drivers were often the only other females in the vicinity when journalists showed up to cover active fighting. During the 20th century, a lack of facilities for women was a common rationale for denying female photographers and reporters access to the front, and women still encounter some grumbling about living arrangements. So women staying on the front lines improvise.
Photographer Andrea Bruce embedded with U.S. military units for the Washington Post about 20 times between 2003 and 2010 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has embedded for other publications about five times since then. She describes the experience: “Because I’m a woman, there are times when I live in random places. They need to separate me from the guys. So I might live in supply closets or some kind of remote, bombed-out building far from where the men are sleeping. But sometimes it’s several weeks of hiking in the mountains, so I just camp out where I can.”
Now that the U.S. military ban on women serving in combat roles has been lifted, Bruce can envision the situation changing, but not radically or quickly. “Maybe there will be a few more women at the outposts that I go to,” she says. “Maybe during the next war, which I hope will be a long time from now, I won’t have to live in supply closets or there will be a couple more women in there with me.”
Along with ad hoc living quarters, women embedded with the military typically face an ice-breaking period during which they have to allay skepticism about whether they’re up to the task. “When I work with the U.S. military, sometimes they’re too protective at first, because I’m a woman,” Bruce says. “It takes time for them to trust me—more than it takes them to trust male photographers. I have to stay steady, extremely professional, and strong.” She also finds common ground that isn’t based on gender. “I’m from a small town in Indiana,” she says, “so most of these guys are just like the guys I went to high school or college with. I relate to them.”
It’s this ability to relate to her subjects that enables Bruce and other embedded photographers to be there as newsworthy events unfold and to make images that give viewers insight into military life. “I recently read that less than one percent of the U.S. population has been personally involved in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Bruce says. “We need to show the similarities and humanity of cultures in war, whether civilian or military, to keep our readers connected. People aren’t going to understand what war is unless they see the reality of what war is—and no one else is going to show it to them unless journalists do.”
Behind Closed Doors
Resourceful female conflict photographers have a long history of circumventing the restrictions against women in war zones. During World War II, when the Pacific Fleet Rear Admiral forbade women to go ashore at Okinawa and ordered Dickey Chapelle to stay aboard a military hospital ship, she wangled her way into the combat zone by convincing lower-ranking officers that photographing transfusions in the field would increase blood donations from civilians in the States. She photographed the wounded there until she was arrested at gunpoint and flown to Guam.
But if U.S. military restrictions have sometimes seemed severe, there are certainly more extreme cases. Take Afghanistan. In the mid-’90s, as Western photographers experimented with the first digital cameras, the Taliban stormed into Kabul, declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and promptly put bans on photography. By 2001 the Taliban had gained control of most of the country, enforcing with an iron fist its prohibition of everything from keeping pigeons to printing animal pictures. It placed its most stringent restrictions on women, who were effaced from the nation’s landscape, hidden behind burqas and high walls. Some of the edicts, such as forbidding women to work outside the home, spurred photographer Lynsey Addario to learn more, and she ultimately traveled to Afghanistan.
“In retrospect it was pretty crazy,” says Addario. “I was dirt poor at the time, so I didn’t have a satellite phone in case there was a problem. I had no way of communicating with the outside. I just went on faith that nothing would happen.”
When Addario first arrived in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s ministry of information gave her permission to photograph buildings, allowing her to move around Kabul accompanied by a minder. But because her minder was a man, the effort to restrict her activity was foiled by the Taliban’s own rules. “I would pretend to take pictures of buildings and then go into homes,” Addario explains. “When I was inside, because I was a woman, the Taliban couldn’t enter, so I would photograph inside people’s houses.”
Addario photographed the fall of the Taliban in Kandahar in December 2001, and she returned to Afghanistan nearly every year through 2011 to cover one of America’s longest wars both on the front lines and behind them. She has also photographed conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, including the war in Iraq and the 2011 uprising in Libya. There she was held captive for six days with three other journalists by Gadhafi loyalists, who assaulted her and her colleagues and threatened them with execution. Her work has earned her numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize shared with colleagues at the New York Times, and a MacArthur Fellowship. But while her war coverage took her to the front lines, it continued to be behind the closed doors of Afghanistan that she explored the far-reaching ramifications of war in a world that rarely meets the public eye and is inaccessible to male journalists. “I went both to see combat,” she says, “and to photograph how it unraveled the society.”
She came back to that point of departure while embedded with the military, alongside the Marines’ Female Engagement Teams, an early exception to the U.S. military’s recently lifted prohibition on women in combat roles. In Afghanistan FETs are sent out with all-male patrols to engage with local women, who follow cultural restrictions against contact with unrelated men. It’s one of the ironies of the war that the extreme gender separation of the Afghan population may have led to greater gender integration in the military. Female photographers like Addario have been able to document this development, for the first time sharing quarters with female Marines on the front lines.
“I think with those Female Engagement Teams, that’s the first time that we have a kind of access that male photographers don’t,” she says. “As a female photographer, that makes it really fun because you can actually get images that are new and interesting that male photographers don’t necessarily have open access to.”
A Mosaic of Experience
While troops and civilians often cross paths in a conflict zone, the story of war is frequently one of people living divergent experiences in the same arena of violence. Military units and local populations live in separate spheres, the experiences of men and women grow further apart, and societies fracture as each community seeks to protect itself from outside threats. As photographer Kate Brooks points out, “When conflict breaks down society, life becomes more localized and one’s identity more significant. First you have your family, then you have your neighborhood, then your tribe, ethnic group, religion, and nationality.”
Brooks began covering war when she was still in her early twenties, during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. “My first trip into the country, I went to the mountains of Tora Bora, which were being heavily bombed by the U.S. as they tried to kill bin Laden,” she recalls. “As an American photojournalist, there was nowhere else I wanted to be at that juncture in history.” She spent the next decade covering wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Middle East, and North Africa, an experience she retells in her 2011 book, In the Light of Darkness: A Photographer’s Journey after 9/11.
After a decade of covering conflict, Brooks has looked closely at many of the pieces that a wartime society fractures into and has come to view her work as a first step toward seeing the bigger picture of ongoing strife. “I see it as a mosaic of human experience,” she says, “a representation of the collective consciousness of people in the region during a time when so many were caught up in events over which they had no control.”
Witnessing the lives of women behind the front lines, Brooks says, becomes an essential part of reflecting on what conflicts mean for a society. “I think the fact that we can more easily access the world of women is very important because of the role women play in societies where there’s conflict,” she says. “With men typically being the fighting force, women very often end up being the sole providers for their families and the future generation.”
Like other women who photograph modern conflict, Brooks creates images that may help us understand the effects of war long after the battles end. “It’s about having a fuller picture and understanding of where deep-rooted resentments come from,” she says, “and understanding how difficult it is to find a lasting peace.”
U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Stacy Pearsall served as a photographer with the Combat Camera unit from 2002 to 2008, when she retired from her role after being wounded in action in Iraq. She was given the National Press Photographers Association’s prestigious Military Photographer of the Year award in 2003 and 2007. She was the second woman to earn the award and the first woman to win it twice. We interviewed her about her experience.
How did you become a military photographer?
I was 17 when I went into the U.S. Air Force in 1997. The military has been a tradition in my family since the Revolutionary War. I wanted to do something in the arts, and I was looking at graphic design and photography. I told my recruiter I would take whichever opened up first, and it just happened to be photography.
While in Iraq, were you attached to a specific military unit? Or did you work more independently as photojournalists do?
I never stayed with one particular unit. I was Air Force, but I deployed with the Army and wore an Army uniform in Iraq. Our goal in Combat Camera was to share the military stories, but it wasn’t necessarily always from the military’s point of view. I went where the stories were. It wasn’t unlike what civilian journalists were doing, and we all had to adhere to the standards outlined by the NPPA’s Code of Ethics. In a lot of ways, our job in the Combat Camera unit was just like the job of the civilian journalists there. The difference is they got to leave. And I had a weapon; I was considered a combatant. So while there are parallels, there are definitely big differences.
Do you think you have a different perspective as a military photographer because you are a woman?
Decidedly so. I think there are a lot of things that impact one’s ability to relate to others and how others relate to you, and gender is definitely a factor in that. Being a woman allowed me to talk to my subjects on a personal level, where they could be more vulnerable with me. The soldiers would confide in me. If they got a Dear John letter or were expecting a baby, they would tell me, and they wouldn’t necessarily share that with the other men. I’ve had soldiers come and knock on my door after we had a long day of work and maybe we lost a soldier, one of our friends. They could cry in front of me and it was OK. I wouldn’t judge them. That open relationship definitely was an asset.
******Do you think you’ve had a different career experience than your male colleagues have?** ****
I think so. My husband was a combat photographer in the same unit, and his experience was totally different from mine; a big part of that was because he’s a man. We definitely had different types of access. There were operations that women weren’t necessarily allowed to go on. But I’m of the mind that I never demand respect; I earn it. I’ve always found a way to prove that I could accomplish the same things as my male counterparts and give them a reason I should be given opportunities.