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A Woman’s War: Talking with Elizabeth Herman | The Nation

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A Woman’s War: Talking with Elizabeth Herman

Elizabeth Herman, photographer, Fulbright Fellow, and one of the 2012 Jezebel 25, has been busy collecting over the last two years. From Boston, Massachusetts to Hue, Vietnam; Siem Reap, Cambodia to Ajmer, Rajasthan, India; Cairo to Northern Ireland, Elizabeth has been photographing women involved in various conflicts around the world. After graduating from Tufts University in 2010, Elizabeth spent a year doing research as a Fulbright Fellow on the Liberation War in Bangladesh, continuing photography in her spare time. After a number of other trips abroad, she’s now back in the US, living in New York, freelancing and working as the International Picture Intern at TIME Magazine. Her research and photography have been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian and NPR. And for the first time, she’s exhibiting her ongoing project “A Woman’s War” at the United Photo Industries Gallery in Dumbo, Brooklyn. The Nation sat down with Elizabeth to talk about the transition from high school darkroom to photojournalism, how “A Woman’s War” came to be, and where she’s headed next. To hear more from Elizabeth, check out her talk this Thursday, November 29th at 7:30pm at the United Photo Industries Gallery. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bangladesh
Hasina Begum. Sirajganj, Bangladesh. August 2011.

How did you begin taking photographs?
I took darkroom photography all four years of high school. I didn’t want to go on to study photography in college but I wanted to continue doing it. So when I got to Tufts [University], I ended up getting involved in EXPOSURE [which is Tufts' human rights, documentary studies, and photojournalism student-run club, under the umbrella of the Institute for Global Leadership, which is directed by Sherman Teichman] …With them I learned more about documentary photography. In high school I’d done more art photography, like classic high school darkroom, taking photos of your friends with makeup on their faces, that kind of thing. Then when I got to college, I learned how to take photographs to tell a story. I did workshops with EXPOSURE, then once I graduated I moved to Bangladesh and had a research fellowship there and ended up working on documentary photography on the side, just by myself.

Bosnia
Katerina Kaltak. Ilidža, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What projects did you work on with EXPOSURE?
We did some local projects in the Boston area. And then we ended up doing these one or two week-long intensive workshops where you went with professional photojournalists abroad and worked on a single story. I first went to Siem Reap, Cambodia and then Ajmer, Rajasthan in India, Hue in Vietnam, and Houston, Texas. The first one that I did was [during my] sophomore year. You apply to the workshop with a vague sense of what the project will be, but you develop it over the course of the year. EXPOSURE works with the Aftermath Project, an organization that tries to promote photographers that do projects in the aftermath of a conflict. We also worked with VII Photo, which is a photo agency specializing in conflict photography… Aftermath is run by Sara Terry and VII Photo was co-founded by Gary Knight. Both Sara and Gary ran workshops with EXPOSURE students over the summer, and I took two workshops with each of them, which was wonderful in that it provided two very different, yet complementary approaches to photojournalism -- studying with each of them, and then going out and doing my own work allowed me to develop my own style and sensibility.

Was there tension between the approaches?
They both offer very different perspectives on photography ... And each of them was very good about saying this is my take on photography, which is going to be very different from what another person will say, rather than, “What I say is right and what they say is wrong.” It allowed me to pull different elements from each.

Egypt2
Aya Mohsen. Cairo, Egypt. May 2012.

How do you see the two mediums – art photography and photojournalism – as related to, divergent from, or informing each other?
What attracted me to photography originally is it’s beautiful, and it’s wonderful to work with. I can’t draw; I’m not artistic in that way. I love photography because it’s artful and it’s very technical as well. I think the great thing about photography is it’s just another way to tell stories. In high school I spent a lot of time developing the technical craft – I’m still working on it for sure, but … it becomes second nature. You’re photographing and you’re not thinking about the technical, it’s just about how do you make photographs that communicate the story you’re trying to tell. It was all about the photograph before, and now it’s about the photograph as a medium to tell a story. And different photographs serve different purposes …But generally, thinking about how to use photographs as a means to talk about something broader or larger.

Tell me about “Women Warriors” or “A Woman’s War”.
It started out as “Women Warriors” because I started the project on an EXPOSURE workshop where I interviewed women that fought with the North Vietnamese army. They were all soldiers and they all served on the Ho Chi Min trail. They were women warriors in the purest sense of the words. Then, when I took the project to Bangladesh, it evolved a little bit. It became about women who were actively involved in combat: some women fought and were soldiers, but some women were involved in other ways. There were organizers or there were peace protesters, or they did medical support. I had a problem with the term “warriors” as possibly glorifying war. I wasn’t actively trying not to do that, but I was also very wary that it could go that way.  So it became more about a woman’s perspective on war, as being one of many perspectives that aren’t often heard. It could be any minority group, kids perspectives [or any alternative perspective] and it just happened to be women because I’m a woman and it seemed one very large subset of the population that has been by and large unheard.  

Vietnam2
Lê Thi My Le. Hue, Vietnam. July 2010.

In which countries and on what conflicts have you focused?
It started in Vietnam with the war against the US. Then I took it to Bangladesh and spoke to women there who were involved in the Liberation War. Then I went to Egypt and spoke to women involved in the uprising in 2011. After that, I went to Bosnia and spoke to women involved in the Bosnian War – women on all sides: Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Muslims. Then I went to Northern Ireland and spoke with women on all sides of the Troubles there.

Not to encourage generalization, but were there any common themes?
Totally, that was the surprising thing. I had idea how to make it visually coherent, so I was photographing portraits of the women and locations. In the [United Photo Industries] Gallery show, it’s only portraits, but I also photographed locations where major events took place (a battlefield, or a road, or Tahrir Square) and more abstract things, around the ideas that the women spoke about. So, photographing their dreams or photographs that are more evocative than they are literal. …So I used visual tools to make it visually coherent, but I was worried about [the fact that] these are very different conflicts, these women were involved in very different capacities. But these common ideas kept coming up. One huge one is trauma. Many of these women experienced serious trauma and didn’t have the space to speak about it and are missing support whether from their families or loved ones or medical support. Another really important one is memory. One thing I’ve tried to go into more, and this goes back to trauma, is the role of memory. Sharing your story and being able to move beyond is a huge part of the reconciliation process for a lot of these women. So sometimes I’ll be interviewing women and will ask them something like, “Tell me about your childhood,” and they’ll talk for two hours. And it’s just because they haven’t had the chance to talk. And I could be anybody that’s sitting across from them.

Bosnia2
S. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. August 2012.

Did you feel like the engagement with memory, or how different women felt about the retelling process, was dictated by what cultural purpose memory is understood to serve in different cultures?
That’s a really interesting question. The degree to which women were open with me was definitely different depending on cultures. I think Northern Ireland was the most wary because there was the most media coverage. Egypt was also wary because there’s been a lot of coverage. Bangladeshi women were incredibly open because their stories have been totally ignored, so they were excited that somebody was interested, and especially that a foreigner was interested…Bangladesh was definitely a different sort of [situation] because I was learning the language and trying to make it feel like home, which of course is impossible but by the time I left it felt like a significant space in my life. I think that that is different because I was trying to connect to a country. You hopefully connect to each country you visit, but [learning] the language made a huge difference. But I think that the thing that made the biggest difference was the amount that the event had been talked about in general, and the amount that women had talked about the event [specifically].

How did you choose the countries from which you reported?
It was really about where I was able to find support to go. [With] Vietnam, I had the place before I had the project. When I was doing research I came across a book about this woman Karen Turner (Even the Women Must Fight). And she spoke about women in the war. That’s where I first got the idea. Then my research in Bangladesh was all about the Liberation War. And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to try and continue this? Then I went to Egypt on a fellowship right after I got back from Bangladesh and they’d seen my work in Bangladesh and wanted me to continue the project. I then applied for a grant to go to Bosnia. From Bosnia, I was shooting for an NGO in Northern Ireland. So each part of the trip has been funded by a different source. They talk about the changing face of journalism, you know – the first [project] was a school trip, the second one I had a fulltime job and just did this on the side [and all in the context of] a research fellowship, the third one was a journalism fellowship for two weeks, the fourth one was a grant and the fifth one I was working for an NGO on a separate project. So it’s been interesting.

NIreland
Mary Doyle. Belfast, Northern Ireland. August 2012.

You mentioned that you often get the question: why the focus on women?
I’ve had some men approach me asking why are you focusing only on women? There are male veterans that haven’t had their stories told. And that’s the point. It’s about what stories are being told and why the stories that aren’t, aren’t. I think one thing that turned me off of photojournalism at first was [I knew] I’m not going to be a conflict photographer. I have a lot of respect for people who do that. I think my anxiety level is too high for that. I think my mom’s anxiety level is too high for me to do that....And so I just thought, there are a lot of other stories that need focus and so I think that I was like what can I as a 24 year old woman coming from Mass. how can I play to my strengths and also be wary of the areas I’m weaker in, what project can I work on now?

Egypt
Anonymous. Cairo, Egypt. May 2012.

So what’s next? Are you going to continue A Woman’s War?
Yes. I’d like to do it in the US [focusing on] women that have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s really hard to find them actually. I think that just as Northern Ireland was wary, the US is very wary…[As for what’s next] I’m really excited to see the work presented. This is not the end of the project, this is kind of like a break. I’ve been working on it by myself for a long time, so it will be really nice to get feedback and see how people respond. Right now I have a lot of material – I have 100 or 200 hours of video footage and I’m thinking of turning that into a documentary. I have all these oral histories. So this is a moment to pause. I’ve done a lot of collecting in the past two years and this is the time to pause and think about what to do with it all.

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