Intermingling love and war
in a photojournalist's life
By BRUNO J. NAVARRO | Editor
NEW YORK (Fotophile.com) Deborah Copaken Kogan answers the telephone during one frenzied afternoon in her New York apartment.
"It's hectic right now," she says into the receiver, her mind tracking the tasks around her that cannot wait. "I have a friend who owes me money, the kids are getting ready for a bath, it's one of those moments."
"It's a subway station," she adds.
Among other things that day, Kogan was preparing for an upcoming appearance on the Today show to plug her new book, Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, an account of how a naive, headstrong Harvard grad from Maryland flung herself into the testosterone-filled world of war photographers, repeatedly risked life and limb, triumphed over it all and managed to find love in the process.
"While most 22-year-old women are making their mistakes in six-story studio walkup, I was making them in wars," she said.
Kogan said the point of the book is as much about her personal journey toward motherhood, as much as it is an account of her adventures.
The French word aventure, Kogan notes, can mean either "adventure" or "love affair."
This book is about both.
It begins with the memorable line: "There's a war going on, and I'm bleeding."
Kogan's chronicles open with her trip accompanying members of a militia on a truck in a remote part of Afghanistan. She gets her period, and her last box of tampons have been ruined when an Afghan rebel sat on her back pack and burst a bottle of peroxide.
"I started with the idea of menstruating in a minefield," she said. "The idea of losing an egg in a minefield seemed nice and metaphoric to me.
"What's going through my mind is, 'What am I doing here?'"
Kogan's tales of naivete and bravado might lead most readers to ask the same thing.
Fresh out of college, Kogan decided she would move to Europe.
"You're 22 years old, the idea of moving to Paris is really romantic," she said. "The land of Cartier-Bresson is as good a place as any to start."
The reality of Kogan's experience would bring far more contingencies than she had ever planned. From being abandoned in Afghanistan by a colleague and lover to having a military commander solicit sex in exchange for his cooperation on a story about wild game poachers, Kogan often found herself in impossible situations with no precedent for dealing with them.
Time and time again, Kogan would put herself in harm's way for the sake of a story, to eke out a living in the bloodsport of her chosen profession, while combating the expectations of her gender and simultaneously existing as a sexual being.
Shutterbabe also includes details about the violence Kogan experienced, not just near the battlefield, but on a day-to-day basis as a woman in modern society. She writes about being kicked unconscious in Harvard Square, date raped as a college student, mugged after leaving a Chinese restaurant and again by a New York cab driver, stabbed by a drug addict in Switzerland and groped by a rabbi.
"I had really, really bad luck," she said. "What was becoming evident to me, before I became a photojounalist, was that I never felt safe in real life. So what's the difference between not being safe and going to a war and having to be extra careful?
"I guess I thought, 'I'm going to war. At least I know that I'm expecting violence.'"
The day of reckoning for Kogan came in 1991.
While covering the Gulf War, Gad Gross, a friend and fellow photojournalist, broke from the U.S. Army press pools and hired a Kurdish guide to take him to the frontlines.
Iraqi troops overran the building in which he and others sought shelter, executing everyone they found inside.
"His death was basically it," Kogan said. "I'm not doing this crazy stuff anymore."
Later that year, Kogan and her husband-to-be, Paul, moved to Moscow, in an attempt to get in touch with his roots and closer to what they hoped would be quieter times.
History had other plans.
One day, a Newsweek photographer tells Kogan and Paul, an ABC News producer, that Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev is missing.
"We go to Red Square. Then, by mid-morning, that's when the tanks pulled into town," she said. "We were both fairly freaked out."
The pair splits up, and they're soon lost in the crowd and the chaos that followed.
Kogan, who stands 5-foot-2, sees nothing but the tops of people's heads and climbs atop a Russian armored vehicle.
"The tank commander says, 'What the fuck are you doing?' He started pushing me and shoving me," she said. "My Russian was terrible."
The scuffle would be captured by a Reuters photographer and printed in newspapers and magazines around the world, including the front page of USA Today. The accompanying captions identified Kogan alternately as a Russian woman and a protester.
"I didn't have a photo vest or anything, and my relatives are all Russian," she said. "I guess they thought I was a Russian photographer."
Later, a German magazine tracked her down and sought to interview "the hero of the putsch."
"It was a big, big mistake," Kogan told them.
Upon her return to the United States, a brief stint at a photo agency convinced Kogan that this was not the same career she chose at age 22.
"I can't do grip-and-grin. I can't do the politcal rally," she said. "What I liked about photography was the adrenaline rush."
Eventually, Kogan traded her career for motherhood, and through the trials along the way, Kogan said she experienced the breadth of male behavior and relationships.
"I talk about all these violent things that men do to me, but I also talk about all these beautiful things," she said.
Kogan said she's a "woman who embraces men." The history of art in one in which men overwhelmingly have been the ones to gaze at women, and Kogan said this is her attempt to cast that gaze back at them.
"I think it's important to understand I'm not man-hater," she said. "I've experienced them in both their violent states and their loving states." [2001.06] TOP
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