Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
There is a type of book-reading I like to do which in my mind I call “what were they thinking?” In the past I have suggested books like The Final Frontiersman by James Campbell, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts. While I find the behavior of the major characters in these books fascinating, I can also find them very frustrating. Yes, occasionally I will discretely cover my mouth and cough-speak the words “dumb ass” while in the middle of some inexplicable situation that could have easily been avoided with something called common sense.
However, in their defense, if the person of interest in these book had common sense they would not be worth reading about. When a person dies because of a lack of map reading skills or forgets to pack something called water for a long journey in the desert, they are saved the embarrassment of their shortcomings by the fact that they are dead.
When a person writes a autobiographical piece and does a blood-letting on their own mismanagement of their life, it can either be so embarrassing that I turn off and turn away or it can be captivating. In the case of Deborah Copaken Kogan’s Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, I was sucked right in.
After graduating from Harvard in 1988 at the age of 22, Deborah decided it would be exciting to make her mark in the world by becoming a war photographer. So she packs up her old kit bag and heads to Afghanistan where the Soviets are about to retreat from the field of battle. To say Deborah did not quite think through what she would be facing as an American woman crossing into a war zone from Pakistan with a bunch of radial freedom fighters would be an understatement.
This is not an understatement: “It’s not that I didn’t want to make an impact on public policy or think war was horrible. It’s just that by saying so I was putting the chicken before the egg. My true impetus for wanting to cover wars was, at its core, selfish. War was exciting, and I despised being bored.” (p. 18)
What book discussion groups will find so debatable in her writing is the constant attention to selfish detail that Kogan provides. Whether it is her inability to provide the basics of survival (like having film for her cameras), her use of other human beings including the men she sleeps with, or her seemingly misunderstanding of most of the cultures that she interacts with, readers will have questions about who she is and why she decided to write about it.
In her defense, Kogan may be the perfect war journalist. It appears from the stories in this book that most correspondents have no idea what is going on in these tense situations like war, government overthrows, or despicable social failures like mental hospitals and orphanages. Because Kogan craves the high, she is fearless in terms of taking pictures of dying soldiers, wounded protesters or sick children. She is also honest about her own needs as well and is unafraid to recount scenes set up for the sake of taking a picture so the rent can be paid that week. She explains it away by saying the following: “It wasn’t that I was lying. I did see drug addiction as a scourge. I did sympathize with the addicts. I was horrified by what I saw in Afghanistan and I did like making people feel uncomfortable with my pictures. But that wasn’t the main reason why I did it. I did it because those things–drugs, wars, whatever–were there. I did it because I was curious, because I was young and I was hopeful, because it was exciting.”
If it were not for photographers like Kogan, the world would not have the “decisive moments” that Cartier-Bresson advocated for. The photographs stand for themselves and their images are so shocking that we often do not ask who was standing behind the camera at that moment. But when the photographer writes about taking the pictures, then they become as big a target as the person framed in the lens.
“I am a vulture. I don’t even try to pretend otherwise.” (p. 145) That kind of honesty is what will make this a great book discussion title.