Three female photojournalists are honored for capturing humanity besieged in war zones
On April 4, 2014, veteran Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was seated in the back of a guarded vehicle at a checkpoint near Khost, Afghanistan. The 48-year-old, who had photographed the region and its people for more than 20 years, was covering Afghanistan's presidential election. While the car sat idly, an Afghani policeman stepped out of the crowd and opened fire, killing Niedringhaus immediately.
This was one of her last photos:
The Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award, created by the International Women's Media Foundation, honors the life and work of the Pulitzer Prize winner who spent more than two decades covering conflicts from Bosnia to Afghanistan. For the winners of this year's inaugural award, however, the acknowledgement is bittersweet.
"There's a lot of survivors guilt that goes into this," says winner Heidi Levine says. "They're very big shoes to fill."
Below, a look at the work of Levine and the two women who received honorable mentions, Rebecca Blackwell and Anastasia Vlasova. All three had either known Niedringhaus or were inspired by her work.
Heidi Levine, winner
Levine is an American freelance photographer based in Jerusalem. Over three decades, she has traveled the Middle East photographing such critical moments as the Israel-Lebanon war; the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria; and conflicts in the Gaza Strip.
"I cover a lot of conflict and war," she says. "But I don't like war or conflict. I'm driven to do it because my purpose and goal is to try to put a stop to what is happening."
While Levine finds herself a minority in the male-dominated field of war reporting and photojournalism, she says there are advantages to being a woman. "When, for example, I want to slip behind doors, especially in the Middle East where the sexes are so separated," she says. "In those cultures, not just any male can walk into a house without permission."
And while the opposite is also true — Levine has had to maneuver around her fair share of slammed doors — her work isn't about what makes her different. "I spent most of my career proving that I can do the same [as my male colleagues]. There are times when I try to fight against it and times when I'm more accepting of it. But I know what I can do."
"The camera doesn’t protect me emotionally," Levine says. "But it can make you realize how lucky you are to be behind the lens and on the other side."
Rebecca Blackwell, honorable mention
American Rebecca Blackwell had the itch to travel early on. A pivotal two-year trip across West Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia not only introduced her to photography but also solidified her desire to search out worlds outside her own.
She eventually moved to West Africa where she stayed for 10 years, working as a freelancer and later for the Associated Press, covering the Somali famine, Sahel droughts, and the Ivory Coast as it spiraled into conflict in 2010 and 2011.
Photographing in these communities where few international journalists work, Blackwell says she felt her work had a louder voice. "Every act of witnessing and documenting becomes important," she says.
"I wanted to find a way to tell stories that helped us relate to each other's humanity across the sometimes significant cultural divides. I'm not always successful, but it's what I'm trying to achieve in my work."
Outside Mpoko Airport in Bangui, Central African Republic | Dec. 23, 2013. | The protest was meant to be peaceful until armed forces sped through the crowd firing off several rounds. The two women in the center of the image were so distraught they tore off their shirts and undid their bras, Blackwell says. “I later learned that baring a woman's breasts in public meant the placing of a curse and signaled a complete breakdown in the normal order of things." | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Anastasia Vlasova, honorable mention
When violence erupted between pro- and anti-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, photojournalist Anastasia Vlasova didn't hesitate to venture into the war zone. "I felt that this is my place, my country, my duty," she says. "I really care about what's going on, and I want the world to care as well. These people deserve for their stories to be told in an objective, respectful, and sympathetic way."
Vlasova was reportedly detained and interrogated in the basement of an insurgent in Donetsk, Ukraine. But she never regretted risking her life to cover both sides of the conflict. "Showing this war is more than a job for me, as the front line is not that far from my home city in the southern Ukraine."
What keeps her going is focusing on the people, not the guns. "Showing the life of civilians caught in war is one of the most important things during conflicts and one of the least reported by Ukrainian media."
Vlasova says that while being a woman initially held her back from the front lines, she has come to realize her strength is in searching out those who are struggling with grief and the chaos of living among constant conflict.
Debaltseve, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine | Relatives attend the funeral ceremony of 11-year-old Artem Lytkin. "I've never seen people more miserable and abandoned," Vlasova says. "This image stays with me almost all the time, and it perfectly shows the loneliness of these people [in a] war zone and the indifference of others." | (Anastasia Vlasova)
That eastern Ukraine is her home brings with it a particular burden that doesn't end when she puts her camera down. But Vlasova says, she is emboldened by a quote from Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov:
"At the door of every happy, contended man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn't hear or see others now." [Anton Chekhov, Five Little Stories]
Vlasova says with each image, she aims to be that little hammer tapping on the shoulders of the public. Or, she adds, "maybe I’m too young and idealistic."
**The Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award was created in 2014 by the International Women's Media Foundation. It celebrates the courage of women photojournalists who risk their lives documenting conflict and war while capturing moments of humanity. The first award ceremony will be held in Berlin on June 25, 2015. For more information about the IWMF or any of this year's winners, go to their website.**