When Deborah Kogan settled into a friend’s New York apartment in 1998 to begin a memoir of her time as a war photographer, she had no clue how relevant her story would become. Neither did her publisher. In fact, when Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War was released in 2000, Kogan was advised to skip over the Afghanistan chapter while on her initial book tour, and stick to reading about conflicts and countries that Americans were more familiar with: Russia, Zimbabwe, Romania. Of course, times have changed, and now most Americans are more interested in Afghanistan’s 20-year history of war.
Shutterbabe, a reminiscence loosely structured around the men in Kogan’s life–her lovers, a friend and finally her husband and son–chronicles Kogan’s four years working as a photographer for the Gamma and Contact photo agencies while living in Paris. During that time, in 1989, Kogan spent a month inside Afghanistan, alone–the only American and the only journalist–traveling through the Hindu Kush Mountains with a group of Kalashnakov-toting mujahadeen who were looking for the front lines. Kogan was hoping to get some shots of the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan. Going inside alone was a risky move, one that Kogan concedes was foolish.
In today’s climate such a trip would be practically suicidal. Afghanistan has become a veritable killing field for journalists. With no national police force, no international peace-keeping mission, and scores of hidden land mines, journalists–with their high tech equipment and large sums of cash–are easy targets for roving bandits and groups of Taliban fighters. In the last four months, eight journalists have been killed while on assignment in Afghanistan: three when a rocket-propelled grenade hit their Northern Alliance armored personnel carrier in the northeastern part of the county; four who were beaten and shot when their vehicle was stopped by gunmen at a dangerous pass known as “black ridge” along the route from Jalalabad to Kabul; and a cameraman for Swedish television, who was shot when robbers broke into the house where he was staying in the northern city of Taloquan. Kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl also remains missing.
Things were not as dangerous when Kogan went overseas at age 22, fresh out of Harvard and raring “to go see war.” The early ’90s, she says, were a time before the big money muscle of CNN and other large news organizations–with the cash to pay for protection and information–changed the rules for freelance journalists. “Now you’ve got your freelancers who can’t afford the protection you need,” she says.
Kogan settled in Paris in 1988 and began knocking on the doors of photo agencies, looking for representation and an assignment. Through 1991, she lived mostly hand to mouth, financing most of her trips abroad herself, and rushing from dangerous conflict to dangerous conflict. The lifestyle was part of the appeal. “I was definitely looking to harden my skin. You grow up in the suburbs of America and you have no idea about what goes on in the world,” she says. “I don’t think that we will ever fix the world so it is safe for women to walk the streets alone, but I do think that we can sort of fix ourselves so that we emit a certain amount of toughness.”
From ’88 to ’91, Kogan covered rhinoceros poaching in Zimbabwe, chartering a plane from Victory Falls and landing alone, unannounced, on a small strip of land in the jungle, two miles away from any village. She also flew to Los Angeles to photograph members of girl gangs for the The New York Times, teenagers who later threatened to kill her (via phone messages to Paris) when they found out how much publicity they were getting. In Zurich, Switzerland, she posed as a student and ingratiated herself with heroin addicts and dealers, photographing a needle-exchange project gone awry, which turned one of the city’s largest parks into a haven for addicts. Unfortunately, her photography-student-on-vacation cover only lasted one day, and Kogan’s boarding house room was ransacked. She was stabbed and threatened before she left.
The job took its toll on Kogan. Her career ended one August evening in 1991, after high-ranking Russian officials, dissatisfied with the reform policies of Gorbachev, staged a coup d’etat aimed at restoring communism. Kogan was in Moscow with her fiance, working on a photo essay about Russian women, when word came that Gorbachev was missing. Kogan rushed out of her apartment, Leica camera in hand, just as tanks began to roll into Manezhnaya Square amid the crowds of protesters. The conflict mounted, and come nightfall three days later, Kogan found herself lying in the dark, backed up against a wall on one side of Moscow’s Ring Road. Her face in a puddle, she shielded herself from erratic gunfire, as blood from a victim not three yards away flowed over the concrete, soaking her clothes. Days of working without sleep had left her frightened, hungry and exhausted. And with a dead flash battery, she couldn’t even shoot back. “It was like, What am I doing here?” she says.
Kogan moved back to New York with her fiance, got married, and gave up the life of the war corespondent–briefly covering the New Hampshire primaries (she hated it). She worked for Dateline NBC as an assistant producer and later as a producer, but eventually quit to have more time with her kids. Pregnant with her second child and looking for a less rigorous work schedule, she photographed and wrote freelance while starting work on Shutterbabe.
Last November, Kogan returned to Peshawar, Pakistan, but this time she wasn’t alone. With her 6-year-old son Jacob in tow, Kogan delivered money and school supplies to children in the refugee camps and makeshift schools in Pakistan. (A diary of her trip appears in next month’s O magazine.) Prompted by George Bush’s State of the Union request for school children to donate a dollar each to help Afghan children, Jacob’s first grade class went a step further, raising $251 by selling homemade bookmarks. Some parents at the school were critical, making comments like, “Why give money to Afghans, that’s like giving money to the enemy.” So Kogan offered to take Jacob and deliver the money personally. More than $1,000 was raised, along with school supplies and donations of food. In less than a week, the two were off to Peshawar.
The trip was part humanitarian mission, part educational opportunity and a trip back in time for Kogan. Once again she was staying at the Hotel Pearl Continental, but this time Kogan wasn’t covering the “bang-bang” like the rest of the hotel guests–mostly reporters and photographers running around in their cargo vests and khakis. “The craziest thing was Julio Fuentes,” Kogan says of seeing her former colleague in the hotel lobby, one of the journalists murdered last November. “I couldn’t place him immediately and when I came back down to see him, Julio had gone,” she says. “The next thing I learned he had been killed.”
During the same trip she met Daniel Pearl, another guest at the Pearl Continental, and introduced him to her son. “Daniel was talking about his wife being pregnant and about how excited he was about becoming a father,” she says.
The encounters in Pakistan hit home for Kogan. “I was in a little bit of denial, I guess,” she says about the risks involved in traveling to Pakistan with her son. “But we weren’t doing what [journalists] were doing. We weren’t trying to get into Afghanistan; we were attempting humanitarian aid in Pakistan. It may have been naive. But when the World Trade Centers fell down, I thought that the idea to come back to New York to live the safe life raising my kids was kind of naive too. Americans need to be more aware of how we are viewed in the world. We are not alone on this planet.”