Published on March 7th, 2013 | by Setsu Uzume0
On the Ground with War Photographer Lalage Snow
When disaster strikes, there’s no time to think. Bullets fly, cars burst into flame and the only way to escape is to run. Lalage Snow is one person who runs toward danger, her camera capturing the surreal chaos of conflict – tear gas hovering over Bangladesh streets, and Russian jets screaming across the sky – and puts them directly before your eyes. You almost forget that a human being had to be there to take these shots.
A photojournalist, war correspondent and documentary filmmaker, her credentials are extensive: she has freelanced in the Middle East, Europe, Central and Southeast Asia before moving to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2010; her work has been featured in publications all over the world, from Glamour and Elle to BBC and the Wall Street Journal.
She originally caught our eye with her triptych series, We Are Not The Dead. The series attempts to scratch the surface of what soldiers endure, photographing British soldiers in Afghanistan the day before, halfway through, and after their tour is completed; a brief interview accompanies each photograph.
Refusing to be dragged down by the politically-charged, harsh stories that come out of the region, Snow also keeps a blog called Kabul Kitchen where she writes about navigating culture gaps through cooking.
We had the chance to talk with Snow about her experiences in the Middle East, and what happens when disaster strikes.
AA: What made you decide to become a war photographer?
LS: I had always been into photography. I started to work in consumer journalism and realized you could do it as a job, and that’s what I really wanted to do. As far as war, it was the excitement and adventure; you know, all the really frivolous reasons to go and photograph conflict. I did a Master’s in London in photography, and while I was doing that I decided to go on an EmBed in the military. My cousin’s regiment was out there in southern Afghanistan. So after a lot of paperwork from the ministry of defense I flew out. I’ve always been drawn to sort of dodgy places; before that I was in Bangladesh and I lived in Middle East for a bit as well.
AA: How do you prepare for a shoot?
LS: It depends. When I first started out I was working as a stringer for AFP (Agence-France Press). It was sort of my baptism by fire. I was in Bangladesh during some student riots where it got really violent. There was no prep at all. I happened to be there right time right place. The only preparation was running very quickly away from people with stones.
Preparation for [photo series] We Are Not The Dead was basically getting the subjects and soldiers to really trust me as a confidante. I’d trained with them for about 2-3 months in the field — freezing cold, boiling hot — photographing training but not photographing them individually. Once that trust was established we could do the portraits and interviews.
AA: How do you carry your equipment to places where you have to be constantly on the run?
LS: My kit is two cameras, a 35mm and a 50mm. I used to carry a belt that had different lenses but now I have two with fixed lenses, and if I wear a belt or bag for my film I keep other lenses in there. I’ve also got an 85mm for portraits, having learned about invasion of space [laughs], and a 17-40 Lens. I’ve got a Canon Mark I, and a Mark II which is great. I’m not gonna upgrade. I come from the mindset that if it isn’t broken you don’t need to fix it.
AA: What other equipment to you usually need to bring?
LS: I usually end up borrowing from the military if my vest isn’t good enough. When we’re in with the military we end up sharing with journalists from all over the world. They’re always heavy; there’s nothing you can do about it. Helmet-wise, I wish I had my own because it would probably fit better and not fall into my eyes. It’s like, “Bridget Jones does war photography.” Everything that can go wrong does go wrong and it’s completely hapless. I’m always losing my armor or my helmet or something.
AA: In the We Are Not The Dead series, the second photograph in each triptych seems to glow with the same inner fire as Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl”. Was that a trick of lighting or something more?
LS: The British do six month deployments, so each triptych was taken the day before, three months and six months. The light in northern Scotland and the desert is quite different. Both Scottish shots were in the beginning of spring and beginning of autumn on grey days in a storeroom that was lit overhead by two skylights.
I got some funny comments about the glow. I shot it outside using ambient light — no reflectors — just a black sheet for a background that blew away when a helicopter landed. I tried to choose a fairly shaded corner but it was always outside. The idea that I manipulated the light is quite hilarious, really. You can’t ask soldiers to sit for a half an hour while they’re busy, you need to grab them, have the five minute chat and let them go to do their jobs.
AA: It’s amazing to see the how different the soldiers look in their portraits over the span of six months. Did you notice anything in particular?
LS: For Adam Petzsch — seeing the difference in his eyes — he looks like a different person in the middle picture, and he was. He’d just seen something horrific. He was an officer in charge of this operation and had to suddenly do his job, do it quickly and do it well; so that’s what was going on in that picture.
Christopher McGregor is incredibly photogenic anyway, but I think he changed a lot. I knew them so well as people, so when I paired [the images] up it was a surprise.
AA: You did a series on British female soldiers on the front lines, as well as the rise of women in the Afghan army. The US just lifted the ban on women in combat roles in January. It sounds like your documentary Afghan Army Girls was incredibly well-timed. Could you tell me more about it?
LS: It’s funny because I’ve never filmed before and it’s a totally different art compared to photojournalism. You’re telling a story but in a completely different way. The documentary became about three girls, why they joined, and their civilian-to-soldier story.
AA: What were some of the things you learned while filming the documentary?
LS: Well, for example, it’s a common misconception for the West to think that all Afghan women are repressed and have to wear burquas, and that’s the way it is. In the 50s and 60s, before Afghanistan wasn’t completely destroyed, it was a much more liberal country. Since then, there have been over 30 years of conflict, whether it was the Soviet occupation, civil war, Taliban rule or the ongoing conflict there now. These girls are young — 18-25 — and have only ever known being a refugee or being brought up in this state of conflict.
There were three girls who were really pious who didn’t want to be filmed. One of them used to say to the others (and I only found this out after I saw the transcriptions) “be careful — you don’t want to be on TV. People will think you’re a prostitute.” It’s the way they’re brought up. Another girl, who was really beautiful, her mother accused her of inciting people to propose to her because her older sisters hadn’t gotten much attention. She was really ashamed. When I was taking a break for two weeks, it turned out that her fiancée had come to the base. He thought one of the American female soldiers was a man (because she had short hair), called this girl a prostitute and went to her house and tried to kill her and her father. It was completely bonkers. It’s like something out of Shakespeare or something.
AA: It reminds me of all those Regency novels that tell female protagonists, “you must marry this man or you’re a terrible person!”
LS: Exactly! One of the British defense ministers got into trouble because he described Afghanistan as being slightly Medieval. He got it bang on!
AA: I saw a documentary called Wings of Their Own where the US government sold planes to Saudis, but they refused to accept one of the planes on the grounds that a woman had piloted the plane over there. Do you ever encounter that level of culture clash?
LS: Oh god, of course, always. I’m not going to reiterate the situation of women’s rights in Afghanistan because it is what it is, but it’s quite funny because if you’re going to go interview someone, I never quite know if they’re going to shake my hand or do the whole hand to the chest bow. They know that foreign women are different, and independent, and just really weird.
AA: There was another article published in Telegraph talking about how female journalists are considered to be a third gender rather than “women,” so that Muslim men speak to them more frankly than they would to women of their own country.
LS: I’m glad you brought that up. It’s big over there. Being a girl, you can go into female prisons, or the hospital, or wherever, and you can interview women or men. You really are a third gender. You’re not a woman; you’re not a guy; you’re just Western.
AA: How do you cope with the danger of living in a war zone? Do you have any opportunities to create a kind of normalcy?
LS: I was watching Julie and Julia one night and it gave me the idea to start a cooking blog. I’ve always found it therapeutic. Anything we read in the news is all to do with insurgents and the war on terror — somehow related to al-Qaida — and yet there’s this community of expats living there, some getting rich off the war and some doing journalism. It’s this really absurd world that you don’t really see, and that’s what my Kabul Kitchen blog was trying to show. It can be really boring there, but then these strange things keep happening. I remember bread was really difficult to make because of the altitude; the quality of the flour wasn’t very good, and you’re never really sure about the yeast. It always went to mush and never rose properly. Oh, and the oven was always broken so you had to leave the door open or it would explode.
AA: If something happens in front of you, someone gets injured or shot, have you ever had to make the decision to take pictures or stop and help?
LS: I think it was in Bangladesh, actually. There was a boy –someone smashed rock into his head. I took one picture, just one, and then looked around, and this poor kid was surrounded by 15 other photographers. At that point I dropped my camera and was like, “for god’s sake, would someone help him!” Then I and someone else got him into a rickshaw. It’s one of those things that you can never predict. If it were to happen again, I would do the same thing. There are points where it’s not important — one tiny little photo that’s probably going to get lost in the ether anyway are not important if someone’s life is at risk.
AA: Do you ever find yourself becoming part of the story you’re covering?
LS: When you’re out there for a long time you do become part of the story and your understanding of the country, as a foreigner, becomes part of who you are. It forms you. I think a lot of people who spend time in different countries does add to who they are as a person.