Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Heidi Levine is an American photojournalist represented by the French photo agency Sipa Press. For over three decades she has weaved in and out of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. She has covered the critical moments in the Middle East including the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria, the Israel Lebanon War, the numerous conflicts and despair in the Gaza Strip, from the field, bringing front line action and behind-the-scenes human stories to the world’s major press outlets. Her photographs have appeared, often as cover stories, in numerous international publications including, Time, Stern, Focus, Paris Match, L’Express, Newsweek, Time, The New York Times Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, Amnesty International, Forbes Magazine, and more.
Levine began working as a professional photojournalist with the Associated Press in Israel as a staffer in 1983. In 1993 she joined the French photo agency Sipa Press and is presently represented by them.
Her other assignments include documenting the harrowing practice of female feticide in India for the Sunday Times Magazine, the plight of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, Syria and Sweden, the present exodus of refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria. In 2003,she covered the US invasion in Iraq and in 2006; she was embedded for one month with U.S. troops where her work focused on the lives of female soldiers. She has also worked in Afghanistan and Georgia.
Recently Heidi was awarded with the First Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award.
SB. Heidi, congratulations on winning the first Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. Anja Niedringhaus was your friend. What does this award mean to you?
HL. I am not sure I am able to find the words that describe how honored and emotional I feel to be selected as the first winner of this award that praises my dedication and courage in photojournalism and at the same time celebrates Anja's legacy. I knew Anja, I admired her dedication, courage and compassion for the people she met and was able to give a voice to. I worked with her on numerous occasions and often called on her judgement in conflict zones such as I did in Libya and also in friendship.
It is the greatest honor I have ever received in my career but at the same time I am heartbroken because she was killed. It also makes me understand how lucky I have been all these years and, ever since I was called and told I was selected as the winner, I have been reflecting back over all the years I have been a photojournalist. I have always been very shy on the other side of the lens regarding promoting my work and the level of recognition this award has given me feels overwhelming but proves that I have an unmeasurable amount of emotional support behind me.
SB. You spent 30 years covering conflicts. What motivated you?
HL. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in some capacity that involved helping others in need and it also seems as though people feel very comfortable with me. I use to do a lot of volunteer work with people that were at a disadvantage. When I took my first journalism course at UMASS, in Amherst, my Professor Dr. Frank Faulkner, spent time in Vietnam, both as a correspondent and a soldier and he openly shared his experiences.
My career really started in the Middle East by both luck and chance when I first got a job with the AP in Israel in 1983. My boss Max Nash was traveling frequently to Lebanon to cover the aftermath and ongoing Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and, in between, speaking about his own experiences of working in Vietnam with Eddie Adams and Horst Fass. I did not have to travel very far in order to document conflict and sadly the circle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians still continues, as well as in other places in the region and beyond. I know that most people find it very difficult to understand why anyone would want to willingly travel towards danger when most people are trying to flee to safety. I firmly believe that it is most important to bring awareness to what is happening and give a voice to those who are unable to do so on their own. At times, I have even asked myself the same question and best describe it as a “calling.”
Women mourn during the funeral of the boys who got killed by an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza cry during their funeral in Gaza City, 16 July 2014. Four boys died on the spot during an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, a fifth boy died shortly after the attack in hospital. Israel stepped up its attacks on 16 July by bombing the homes of Hamas leaders after the Islamist movement rejected a truce proposal and instead launched dozens more rockets into Israel.
SB. Was the photo evidence of injustice you captured able to change anything? Do you have a success story that supports the importance of documentary photography?
HL. This is a very relevant question and one I struggled with and asked myself after covering the war last summer between Israel and Hamas. It was the third war in five years and the situation still remains very fragile, as both the Israelis and Palestinians seem further away from peacenow than ever before. Actual change and shifts in policies take time, especially in a region that has been dealing with wars and conflicts throughout history. I have had people reach out to me and want to donate to some of the people they have seen in my photographs and learned about, so I feel that I have succeeded in impacting my audience.
Some years ago, I was working on a long-term story about Iraqi refugees and was following a family in Jordan that had fled from Iraq. Their son, Hyder, had been badly burned by a rocket that hit near their home in Baghdad and I and another journalist from Sweden both became very attached to the family and really tried to help them and kept documenting their lives even though we were both not on assignment. A doctor in the Boston area also became involved and Shriner’s Hospital offered the child free medical treatment and also the means to host his father as well. Unfortunately it is a bittersweet story because in the end they could not go because they did not have the latest Iraqi passports and feared traveling back to Iraq at the time.
On another occasion, one of my images of a young Iraqi child appeared on the cover of Amnesty International, her name was Haneen and she was also suffering from cancer. Soon afterwards, I received an email from a woman who lived in Hawaii who made the effort to track me down and write to me telling me that this child reminded her so much of her own grandchild and wanted to know how she could send money to help her. I know that my pictures of these Iraqi refugee children or any of the others I have documented could not solve the whole situation overnight but I do believe my pictures have created awareness and impacted others to feel a connection, regardless of culture or geographical location.
Rawya abu Jom"a, 17, at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City July 22,2014. Rawya was wounded when two Israeli air strikes attacked her family's apartment on Sunday night . Three of her cousins and her sister were killed in the attack . She is suffering from shrapnel in her face, her legs have perforated holes in them and her bones were crushed in her right hand .
SB. Most of your recent coverage was in places where gender separation is part of the culture. How did you overcome this obstacle?
HL. As a female American photojournalist, I have tried to fight against the logistical and often cultural barriers that have confronted me during my career. I am a woman, a mother of three children, and, often, a female in a war zone where many firmly believe no woman should be. My experiences have taught me that these obstacles that placed me at a disadvantage because of my gender are, in truth, challenges. At times, on rare occasions my access has been denied because I am a female. On the other hand, being a female has often enabled me to bond instantly with the women I am documenting and slip behind the doors that are often closed to men. It almost at times feels as though we have our own language, which is built on bonding, trust and understanding.
For the most part, I also feel that I am accepted by the males, although their initial reaction may be surprise and they may need a bit of convincing. Today, the presence of female photojournalists and journalists working in conflict zones is far greater than in the past and we are no longer such a rarity as before. Bullets and missiles do not discriminate between the sexes but I am aware and even more cautious of the dangers of being targeted simply because I am a journalist. While I was working in Egypt, women were targeted and sexually attacked so I try to take all precautions to ensure my safety and have even used my Canon 70-200 mm lens to hit someone over the head when he tried to grope me.
I try to respect the cultures and dress modestly and often cover my hair when I feel that showing my hair can be viewed offensive or even cause too much attention. I have curly hair so children love to touch it. I have never tried to hide that I am a woman or a photojournalist. In Islam, the sexes are often separated and I am prevented from photographing the prayer for the deceased inside mosques before the burial, however, during the war last summer in Gaza, I did manage to overcome that obstacle and convince the men to allow me to enter to photograph as the males surrounded and prayed by the bodies of two brothers that were killed. At times especially during a conflict, the people let that barrier down a bit because they want me to document their anguish. I believe that it is better to try and the worst case scenario is to be told no.
Sheik Adnan Raed ,center, as he performs the Muslim ritual of washing the body of a Palestinian man who was killed by an Israeli air strike on a cafe along the beach in Khan Younis over night at the morgue at the hospital in Khan Younis Thursday, July 10, 2014. Raed says that most of the bodies he has seen during the war are so severely burned and cut from the explosions that have caused their deaths that he has only been able to perform the purifying ritual on just a few as it is not permitted to do so if the body has been burned or cut according to the Islamic ritual .
SB. Do you believe women see war through the viewfinder differently than men?
HL. I am a woman and that is very much a part of my identity so I do believe men and woman do often see differently through the viewfinder. Many of today's conflicts are happening where the sexes are often separated and this is one example where being a female is often an advantage because I am allowed to document more intimate moments that are often closed off to male photographers. When I covered the revolution in Libya, I rarely ever saw any females on the front lines except for journalists. I am not sure that if my images were to be analyzed and compared to those captured by the men they would be so different except for one image that stands out to me, a young Libyan boy carrying a gun as he follows his father on the front line nearby the town of Ajdabiya which was still under the control of Qaddafi's government forces. I still remember one of the male photographers who was working with me closely during that conflict telling me that he just did not see it.
Libyan boy Amal Jamal holds a rifile as he walks with his father on the road where the rebels have staged their front line nearby the town of Ajdabiya which is still under the control of Qaddafi's government forces.
SB. Why did you choose to follow the Israeli Palestinian conflict for so many years?
HL. I started covering the Israeli Palestinian conflict by chance when I took the opportunity to work for the Associated Press. It was literally the start of my professional career and I felt it was a rare chance especially because I was so young and could learn so much. My most intimate work truly weaves in and out of each side of the Palestinian Israeli conflict. I do cover the other areas in the region. In a way, being a mother and a photojournalist, I could still go out and cover conflict yet make it home in time and still be able to cook dinner and tend to the other needs of my children and family. The longer I stayed, the more I felt compelled to document each side and the complexities for both. Unfortunately, the circle of violence to continues as well as other conflicts and wars in the region more fiercely than ever.
SB. How did the recent war in Gaza differ from other attacks on Palestinian soil you witnessed in the past?
HL. I have been weaving in and out of both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for nearly three decades, and over the last five years alone, I covered three wars in Gaza. Last summer’s 50-day war was especially vicious. For me, it was also intimate and shocking. The level of civilian deaths climbed each day and each day seemed to become more tragic than the day before. The presence of military drones buzzing in the air added a level of danger and I felt as though I was always being watched and even felt weary to carry my 70-200 mm lens. We were never allowed to get close to any of the fighters and most of us all agreed that if we even could, it felt too dangerous. While certain areas were under bombardment, most of us felt that we could only enter these neighborhoods only during the brief ceasefires which were also very frustrating. I often worked and traveled together with other photojournalists that I feel very close to and respect their judgement. This was not a conflict to put being competitive over our safety and the closeness of our relationships also helped us to emotionally handle what we were documenting.
On July 9, the war’s second day, I was photographing in a hospital in Beit Hanoun when a mother collapsed on the news that a family member had been injured, and I threw aside my camera to hold her. On July 16, I was sending photographs from my room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea when an attack on a beach left four football-playing boys dead; I found myself on the scene even before the rescuers. On July 26, I went with my Gazan assistant Ashraf Al Masri, with whom I’ve worked for more than a decade, to check on his home during a brief ceasefire, and we discovered together that it had become part of the 4 million tons of rubble left in Gaza this summer. Luckily, a week earlier, I had convinced Ashraf to move his 60-member family to a nominally safer unfurnished apartment in Gaza City.
On Aug. 13, I gave my friend and colleague, AP video journalist Simone Camille a phone number he’d asked for so he could cover the story I’d photographed a few days before about a Hamas bomb disposal squad. We planned to meet at the end of the day to share lemonade. Two hours later, while he was covering the story, a bomb they were trying to dismantle went off, and he was killed. My friend, AP photographer Hatem Moussa, was critically injured. Not a day passes without me wishing I’d never found the phone number in my scribbled notes.
Palestinian woman Fatimya Baz,73, rests on a cement barrier with a painted Star of David by the 3 kilometer (1.8 mile) long concrete wall, sprung up along the northern West Bank town of Qalqiliya's western edge Oct.11,2002. Israel says that the wall along with a electronic fence is necessary to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from slipping into Israeli towns and cities to carry out attacks. Fatimaya says that she can not even feel the wind anymore. Most of her farm land has been confiscated .The wall will separate thousands of Palestinians from their land and turn this town's 40,000 people into virtual prisoners, Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists charged. The barrier is expected to eventually run the full length of the 300-kilometer (180-mile) frontier between Israel and the West Bank, which it occupied in the 1967 Mideast war.
SB. How has what you witnessed there impacted your life? Many conflict photojournalists avoid talking about the post-traumatic stress they experience after covering war zones? Do you have similar experience and how do you deal with it?
HL. The war was taking a heavy personal toll but it was my intention to stay on for the full duration. On day 40, I received a phone call in the middle of the night: my grandmother had died in Boston. I knew I needed to be with my own family. I headed straight from the plane to her funeral. I felt guilty at times mourning her death at age 102, though she was one of the most precious people in my life. After all, I had spent weeks witnessing the deaths of so many children, some too young to have taken even their first baby steps.
Although I was surrounded by my family while I was in the USA, I felt very much alone as I was removed and away from the other photographers and journalist that had been a crucial emotional support system and understood me. It is very difficult to decompress when one leaves a conflict zone. It is very difficult to adjust or even deal with normal day to day issues and I found myself even becoming angry with people who complained in any way. I was not experiencing nightmares but it did feel difficult to keep my concentration and I had an incredible desire to take my hard drives and all the files of the images that I had captured during the war and throw them all away in the sea, just wishing it could not only be washed away or sink to the bottom for me but for everyone this war had impacted.
After two weeks of mourning, I returned to the Gaza Strip compelled to meet as many victims of the war as possible. My work had to be put on hold a few weeks later because, unexpectedly, I learned my father was dying. Soon after I got to Baltimore, he died at home in his bedroom.
When I returned back to Gaza in December, I found myself studying how people manage to continue with life. I spent two days in Rafa with Wael Al Namiah and his wife, listening to them sings love songs to each other from their wheelchairs. I met 14-year-old Mawar Shabari in Jabalya, where the women in her family helped her try on her two prosthetics, adorned with white spangled shoes so she could look as pretty as possible for her brother's wedding later that day. She had lost both her legs after being critically wounded on July 24, 2014 at a UN school in Beit Hanoun that was hit by Israeli artillery.
These cases and others highlight what still shocks and amazes me after so many years, and what my ongoing project tries to capture—not only the emotional and physical healing process, but the power of human resilience that makes itself felt here in Gaza, even with the knowledge that, despite all the bloodshed, this war is still not over and these people will be caught up in it yet again.
On almost a daily basis, I am still trying to help my driver and assistant Ashraf Al Masri and his family to recover from the war as they lost their home and all of their belongings. Even if I am not physically in Gaza covering the aftermath of the war, in some capacity I am always dealing with the consequences of the war on a daily basis. I am collecting clothes and I drag suitcases across the border to the family.
I am not ashamed to admit that I have been wounded emotionally and am suffering from post-traumatic stress from the war and luckily the days of trying to hide that have changed. When sleeping became impossible and the lack of it began to disrupt my ability to feel I could function properly, I did seek professional advise which I found very helpful. I think people assume we just get use to the situations we encounter but that is not the case at all and I have never felt the exposure has made me cold but in fact I feel even more sensitive. Just last night I was chatting online with another photographer who was with me in Gaza and he expressed that he was not the same after the war. I believe keeping that honest raw communication open is very important.
SB. What is it like to raise children and be a combat photographer?
HL. I never forget that I am a mother when I am photographing and today because of the advancements in technology, I can usually be reached or even at times be seen on a television screen during a news program. I have dealt with my children calling me in the middle of a gun battle asking me how to make spaghetti to even a call because one ate the other one's cookie. I tried over the years to make them feel that I was never totally out of reach, although it is often most important, to just stay focused on what I am doing and where I am.
I am a mother of three children who are close in age by just over a year. When I was pregnant and the First Intifada broke out, I took the decision not to expose myself to tear gas. It can be very challenging to keep a balance and, at times, I did have to put my children first or the other way around. It can be a challenging balancing act but I believe men with families meet the same challenges as well. I can be rather mothering or sisterly towards the males around me as well when we are working together and in return they can be brotherly as well.
I was once told that I could not be a mother and be a photographer that covered conflict and wars and was refused the opportunity of a job but I believe I have proved that I could. As a female photographer and a mother, I feel that I have an automatic connection with the women I document and they also feel one too. When I stand before a woman who has just lost a child, my camera does not protect me emotionally at all. In fact, I can only imagine myself how I would feel if I were on the other side of the lens. I try to be very respectful and am always reminded of how grateful I am to have three children.
Throughout different stages of my children's lives each one did express fear of losing their mother or wishing that I had a different career but today they stand very proud of me. I try to wear one of my son's coats when I am working in dangerous places, it gives me a sense of safety and a reminder of them as well. I regard it as my good luck charm. When I traveled to Syria, it was a year that my daughter was going to be married and the last words she said to me before I left were, " You cannot get killed and miss my wedding." Those words stayed with me every day during my trip. Perhaps I did not push as hard as I might have in Libya because I truly did need to make sure my daughter had her mother at her wedding. And yes, it is truly a challenge to be a mother and a photojournalist that covers conflict because it is not just me I have to worry about. But my children are so proud and stand behind what I do and I believe I have helped them to open their eyes to what is going on in the world and why it is important to be able to provide information. Now that my children are older, I feel they are more aware of the dangers and the consequences if something ever went wrong. I feel the same as well.
Iraqi refugee Hussein Yassin Hassan,35, ouside e the room he rents for his family in Amman , Jordan holds his three year old son Hyder . Hyder suffered extensive burns when a mortar exploded next to the front gate of their home in Baghdad, Iraq two years ago.The family fled Baghdad ,Iraq to Jordan one month ago . Hussein took his wife and children and fled Iraq just a bit over one month ago .They are Shiite Muslims and were afraid to make the journey over land for fear that they could be captured by Sunnis. After borrowing $1600 for the airline tickets to escape Iraq the family was left with 5 JD when they arrived in Jordan. They rent this room from a Jordanian man for 35JD ($50 ) a month. There are no windows and the decades of paint layers are peeling from the ceiling and the walls. There is just one low watt light bulb to give the room a glow . Hussein , a former driver that drove GMC's from Baghdad to Amman can not legally work in Jordan , the children can not attend school or obtain medical insurance.There 3 year old son Hyder was seriously wounded by a mortar attack and their daughter Nova suffers from heart problems. The family ate green apples for their dinner.
SB. Do your children understand the importance of your work or blame you for not being a mother like other children have?
HL. My daughters expressed wishing that they had a mother that was more 'normal' at different periods throughout their childhood but my son has always been very accepting and supportive. I do remember that my daughter use to hide a framed photograph around to hide it from her friends that showing an Israeli Jewish settler from Hebron about to punch me in the face. All three of my children feel very proud of what I do and are very excited and proud even more today as they read all the articles and interviews about me and the award. I know that it is almost more difficult on them to deal with the dangers especially now that journalists are being targeted and abducted. During the war last summer when I was in Gaza, I kept in communication with my children and family as much as I could. My son was really very emotionally supportive and was even monitoring all the news and sending me updates just to make sure I was aware of everything that was happening. I am aware of the emotional price my family is constantly dealing and I do try to consider that and at times even feel it is not the right situation or time for me to go away. There are constant sacrifices which can be frustrating and rewarding, it is a difficult balance to try to juggle and I am sure I have made some mistakes in which I could not be the perfect photographer and mother at the same time and had to put one role ahead of the other at times. I think all working parents face that dilemma as well and I know that the male photographers around me that are fathers too, are constantly facing the same challenges.
SB. In another interview you mentioned that you hate war but you also seem attracted to it. How long do you plan to be on the battle fields? How do you see your life after that? It is hard to give an exact time period but it is important to feel physically and emotionally capable?
HL. Although I have been labeled a war photographer, I do cover other stories but admit the majority of them do have something to do with human tragedy. A few years ago I did an online Master's degree in Photojournalism and Documentary photography which I felt was important for teaching in the future. One of the greatest aspects of photography is that I always feel that I am in a constant learning process and am very open minded about diversifying myself. I have an incredible passion for learning about other cultures, wildlife and environmental stories and more. Becoming a picture editor and utilizing what I have learned and working with other photojournalist in the field is also an option I feel passionate about considering in the future and feel would be very rewarding.