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June 2001

February 2001
Of Lovers and Lenses
Debunking the myth that only male photojournalists chase scoops and sex with the same intensity.

By Judith Shulevitz

Photojournalism goes with sexual adventurism the way big-game hunting goes with colonial conquest. When I think of great photojournalists, Robert Capa, so dashing and daring and dead at 40, comes to mind, but so does Ingrid Bergman, the world-renowned beauty he seduced and abandoned. In the mythology of the profession, a photojournalist is a man who seeks scoops first, danger second, and sex third, each with the same intensity and urge to depart in the morning. Deborah Copaken Kogan is a woman who embraced this image wholeheartedly, not aiming to change anything about it except the rule that says only men get to act that way. That she should have pursued photojournalism and one-night stands only briefly before trading them in for marriage, motherhood, and a less risky line of work seems, somehow, inevitable. Being a woman does impose different rules and require other accommodations, and it isn't sexist -- or Darwinian -- to admit it.

That appears to be the thrust of Kogan's argument in Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War (Villard) -- that being a photojournalist is no way for a grown woman to live. The book is Kogan's combined sexual and professional coming-of-age story, beginning with her undergraduate years at Harvard, when she used her camera as entrŽe to the netherworlds of prostitution and drugs in Boston; moving on to her apprenticeship in Paris as an agency and magazine photographer; and ending in full adulthood in her late twenties, when she was back in New York, married and with two children. By that time she had sold her cameras and become a producer for Dateline, working assiduously, if with some boredom, toward the female holy grail of flextime. When the book ends, NBC has refused to allow her to go part-time so that she can care for her children, and she has quit. This, presumably, is what gave her the leisure and incentive to write a memoir in her early thirties -- an odd thing for a young photojournalist to do, and made even odder by the relative dearth of photographs in the book. But Kogan has plenty of war stories to fill it with and a style likable and honest enough to tell them well.

These are literally war stories, since Kogan broke into photojournalism by shooting in combat zones few other photojournalists were willing to enter. She starts her narrative with her best war story, in which, a year out of college, she hitched herself to a team of rebel Afghani mujahideen traveling through snowy mountains toward Kabul in time for the Soviets to surrender. (The year was 1989.) Not only did Kogan, who is short and skinny -- and looked about 14 at the time -- entrust herself to Islamic holy warriors she didn't know, she had never covered a real war before and had no idea what she was in for. The answer was sleeping in freezing caves, eating liquefied mutton fat, contracting dysentery, seeing men whose legs had been blown off by mines, and encountering babies likely to die. Then there was the difficulty of taking pictures through a burka -- a body-length women's veil she describes as something like a Halloween ghost costume -- and the horror of losing her tampons in the mountains, so that her menstrual blood was left to drip into the snow.

Kogan is nicely self-mocking about the mortifying details of being female in a war zone, playing down her own undeniable, if at moments insane, physical courage. She's also eloquent about the way a photojournalist becomes possessed by the hunt for the perfect picture; like Kogan, I was an aspiring documentary photographer in college, and hers is the best description I have ever read of the strangely addictive pleasure of taking and making pictures: "I loved to press the shutter, to freeze time, to turn little slices of life into rectangles rife with metaphor....[I] loved to dip a naked piece of white photographic paper into a bath of developer and watch the image miraculously materialize, watch life, a moment, reborn." There's a chase-scene-like thrill to her "how I got this picture" accounts, especially when she includes the photograph (though she doesn't always).

What's disconcerting about this book, though, is that the sheer love of adventure and photography doesn't seem to be a sufficient cause for Kogan's foolhardiness. As we put the pieces of her life together, we begin to suspect that she was in search of some other, more elusive emotional prize; she alludes to it in quasi-feminist terms as "a personal mission" for sexual equality, but I'm not so sure.

For example, Kogan wound up in Afghanistan not only because of her professional interest in the war but also as a result of her obsession with a gorgeous French photojournalist named Pascal. (That her experiences with men count more heavily for Kogan than her career is hinted at by the book's chapter titles: "Pascal" is the first, and the rest are also the names of men she loved or had flings with.) One night at a party in his Paris apartment, she and Pascal were flirting in the living room while his girlfriend cooked steaks in the kitchen. Pascal proposed that they go to Peshawar together so that he could take her "inside" -- meaning into the hinterlands where the war was being fought. Kogan quickly said yes. Thereafter, playing the tough guy, she tries to pass off what is clearly an affair as a bit of mutually agreed-upon exploitation: She figured he had better contacts than she did and could afford to pay for a hotel room, and she couldn't. What's left unsaid is the fact that her end of the bargain consisted of sex. But she was not as firmly in control of her feelings -- or his -- as she claims to have been, and the relationship deteriorated to the point where he beat and nearly raped her, and left her to find her way "inside" on her own.

Kogan is not fully in control of the story as she tells it, either. One senses that she still doesn't understand why she was drawn to creeps like Pascal; this liaison is just one among several -- there were also Aidan, Sean, Jack -- that end in rape, near-rape, or some other form of violence.

She complains about the hypocrisy of sexual double standards, but even if Kogan were a man, one would suspect her of self-destructive tendencies. She went trustingly to hotel rooms with strangers, and specialized in sleeping with men who already had girlfriends. She doesn't appear to have thought too hard about the ethics of abetting cheating or of using men for professional ends. No self-professed feminist media professional would approve of a man exploiting a woman in that way; why brag about doing it to men?

Nor does Kogan grapple with the psychological implications of her need to entangle herself in potentially explosive sexual dynamics, particularly in foreign countries where sexual mores are fraught with pitfalls she barely seems able to understand. Her partners, meanwhile, come off as more confused than evil. Was Kogan naive, lacking self-respect, or just taking advantage of them? They dealt with their discomfiture the way creeps usually do -- by becoming abusive.

Other photojournalists, reporters, and documentary filmmakers -- female and male -- protect themselves, or at least avoid unduly threatening situations while on dangerous assignments. Kogan either couldn't or wouldn't, which may be a better explanation for why she left the profession than its bias against women with husbands and children -- though photojournalism probably is hard to reconcile with family life. Not to worry, though. Kogan has a bright -- and, one hopes, safer -- future ahead of her as a writer.

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