How did you get started in photojournalism? I’ve been photographing since I was very young, like twelve or thirteen. My father gave me an old Nikon, and I became obsessed with it throughout middle school—and eventually high school, where I spent many evenings in the darkroom. It wasn’t until I moved to Buenos Aires after graduating from the University of Wisconsin that I started working for newspapers and understood how photojournalism is such a powerful, comprehensive medium for storytelling.
What have been some of the most memorable assignments in your career? It’s difficult to answer this question. All of my assignments are memorable and have impacted me in different ways. One that immediately comes to mind would be covering life under the Taliban 22 years ago. At the time, Afghanistan under the Taliban was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Women were all but invisible in public, banned from working outside the home—except for medical fields and begging—and attending school. All forms of entertainment were illegal, including television and nonreligious music. There were no mobile phones. Afghanistan was completely cut off from the outside world. I would travel there for weeks and essentially disappear into this other world.
I would also add that covering the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan for almost two months—living on the side of a mountain with the troops, witnessing the daily rhythms of war up close, and testing my own physical and emotional strength—was life-altering. The entire embed culminated with Operation Rock Avalanche, a battalion-wide operation where we jumped out of Black Hawk helicopters in the middle of the night into hostile villages and walked for about a week with everything we needed on our backs. We eventually got ambushed by the Taliban. Three soldiers were shot, and Sgt. Rougle of the battalion was killed. This experience was probably the first time in my career where I had a true, unfiltered window into the American-leWd wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
You’ve just returned from another assignment covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the New York Times. What have your experiences been like there? They have really varied. I first entered Ukraine ten days before the war started on February 14 and started working along the contact line in the east. When the war started, I traveled back to Kyiv and covered the capital for about a month, covering daily missile attacks and artillery strikes, millions of people moving their lives west or underground, the injured and killed, and, of course, the heartbreak. My second rotation was more military based in the south and east of Ukraine, which was interesting; I find that personally a bit limiting because my images are often based on access. Now, I am back working on feature stories and have been based mostly in Kyiv with a few trips elsewhere.
When you go on assignment, how do you account for spontaneity or stories in your creative process? Do you find stories emerging after you finish shooting or during a shoot? Both. I do a fair amount of research and try to figure out what to shoot before I go, but I love when stories lead to other stories. I think that is the beauty of reporting and photojournalism: people open up new ideas to me, and I learn as I go along. The more time I spend in a place, the more the story ideas come naturally.
Within your work, you focus on women’s rights and health around the world. I’m particularly fascinated by your project documenting maternal mortality. What inspired this project, and did anything surprise you about it? I was initially inspired by photographer Carol Guzy’s work on maternal mortality. I had no idea that giving birth could be so dangerous; it’s one of those things people assume happens all the time, so it must be safe. When I started researching, I learned that, in 2009, more than 550,000 women were dying a year in childbirth—I couldn’t believe it. I began working in Afghanistan; Sierra Leone; continued to Assam in India; after the typhoon in Tacloban, Philippines; and, very importantly, the United States, which has one of the highest maternal death rates in the developed world. The inspiring thing about this work is that most cases of maternal death are preventable with good medical care, so with more awareness and action, maternal death rates have dropped to almost half.
Tell us about your SVA Masters Series exhibition with the School of Visual Arts, which is running until December 10, 2022. What will the exhibition entail? The exhibition will feature work from roughly 25 years of coverage shown both in chronological order and by theme. Some of the themes I have consistently covered throughout my career, like refugees and the displaced, women’s issues, and maternal health, are displayed throughout the exhibition. The dates range from my first feature story on trans sex workers in New York in 1999 to work I have produced this month in Ukraine. We are mainly exhibiting framed prints, some vinyls and some cases of ephemera, from a flak jacket to correspondence to editors to old cameras.
How do you think photojournalists can effectively communicate the truth of events and enhance reporting in an “alt-truth” world? It’s extremely important for photographers working in the media to be responsible and accurate journalists and to have integrity. We live in a world in which social media posts are increasingly accepted as fact and where we have world leaders and dictators using fake news as propaganda. The role of photographers to document and publish reality is infinitely crucial to having an accurate record of current events—and, ultimately, a record of history.
Aside from your camera, what could you not work without? Coffee.
What are some challenges facing photojournalists that aren’t being talked about enough? The mental health aspect. Many photographers and war correspondents carry a significant amount of trauma, and either don’t talk about it or would never bring it up to editors for fear it will affect their work prospects.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Just know that this job is rewarding in countless ways, from being a constant source of inspiration to the possibility to travel and document the world and different cultures, bear witness to history, and meet and help be the voice of people around the world. But it does not come without cost. It is almost impossible to have a personal life while building one’s name. Days are long, and nights are often lonely. One has to be self-aware in terms of personal limits on mental and physical burnout. I can’t think of anything else I would have done with my life if I were to start over, but I can’t pretend it isn’t as taxing emotionally and physically as it is rewarding. ca