The Barnes & Noble Review
Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War is a fascinating coming-of-age memoir about former photojournalist Deborah Copaken Kogan's extraordinary experiences in some of the most dangerous, war-torn regions of the world. Born in the late '60s, Kogan grew up in the post-feminist era, firmly believing that she could pursue any career she wanted to. When she discovered the power and the thrill of photography as a high-spirited, intelligent undergrad at Harvard, she knew that she had found her calling; photojournalism promised the right balance of adrenaline-filled adventure and, idealistic though it may be, humanitarian effort. So, shortly after graduation, she set out in search of a war -- any war -- to expose the evils of the world, and soon she found herself on a bus with a group of Afghani freedom fighters during the pullout of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989.
And that is where Kogan's story begins. By book's end, she has documented a heroin epidemic in Switzerland, a racially charged conflict over rhino preservation in Zimbabwe, a distressingly inadequate orphanage in Romania, and -- the experience Kogan now remembers as the most frightening of all -- the violent demonstrations in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union. As she watches these events through the viewfinder of her camera, she witnesses a multitude of atrocities that profoundly affect both her inner character and her view of the world. Her descriptions of these experiences are full of compassion, youthful naïvité, and horrified disbelief.
But, despite the unorthodox nature of her job, there is an aspect of Kogan's professional life to which many working women will relate. At 5'-2", she is a far cry from the typical cowboy photojournalist, and professionally, she suffers a fair amount of harassment. Both in the offices of her photo agency and out in the field, many of Kogan's colleagues view her with suspicion. But as her story progresses through countries and conflicts, Kogan successfully surmounts these sexist obstacles, eventually earning the respect of her fellow photographers and proving that women can make outstanding photojournalists. Along the way, she matures as a person, and her stories become both increasingly poignant and enthralling.
And that's only half the story, for among the Swiss drug addicts and Romanian orphans Kogan also searches for a very different element of human nature: love. Each chapter of Shutterbabe covers not only a specific photo assignment but also a different man in her life, and her romantic escapades are just as exciting and potentially dangerous as the violent warfare she captures on film. From mean-spirited Pascal, who beats her with a telephone, to sweet but sad Doru, who carries Romania's burdens on his shoulders, Kogan's love life is turbulent and sexy, adding to the adventure. When she finally meets her future husband, her descriptions of their time together are touching, tender, and all the more meaningful after the slew of unsuitable Romeos who came before him.
By the final chapter, after a number of difficult decisions about the relative importance of career versus family (another dilemma that is sure to draw empathy from many working women), Kogan has demonstrated that, although the turf may be different, the search for love is often filled with as many minefields as war. Ultimately, her experiences in both types of battle make Kogan an inspirational role model for women and make Shutterbabe a thoroughly riveting read. (Stephanie Bowe)
Read an Excerpt
THERE'S A WAR GOING ON, AND I'M BLEEDING.
An unfortunate situation, to be sure, but considering it's 2 a.m., fresh snow is falling and I'm squished in the back of an old army truck with a band of Afghani freedom fighters who, to avoid being bombed by the Soviet planes circling above, have decided to drive without headlights through the Hindu Kush Mountains over unpaved icy roads laced with land mines, it's also one without obvious remedy. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Ask the driver to pull over for a sec so I can squat behind the nearest snowbank to change my tampon?
I don't think so.
It's February 1989. I am twenty-two years old. My toes are so cold, they're not so much mine anymore as they are tiny miscreants inside my hiking boots, refusing to obey orders. In my lap, hopping atop my thighs as the truck lurches, as my body shivers, sits a sturdy canvas Domke bag filled with Nikons and Kodachrome film, which I'm hoping to use to photograph the pullout of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
Actually, I have no idea how to photograph a Soviet pullout. Though this is my second story as a professional photojournalist, I'm still not clear on what it is photojournalists actually do in a real war.
The first story I covered, the intifadah, was more straightforward. Organized, even. I'd take the bus early every morning from my youth hostel in Jerusalem to the nearby American Colony Hotel, where all the other journalists were staying (and where I eventually wound up staying when my clothes were stolen from the youth hostel), and I'd go straight to the restaurant off the lobby. There, I'd ingratiate myself with any photographer I could find who had information about the day's planned demos, his own rental car, and a basket of leftover Danish.
After eating, we'd drive around the West Bank and wait for the Palestinian kids to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, which we knew they would do only once a critical mass of journalists had assembled. Then we'd record the resulting skirmishes onto rolls of color slide film while trying to evade arrest and/or seizure of our exposed films by the soldiers. Next, we'd all rush back to Jerusalem to the Beit Agron, the Israeli press office, where we would lie about what we'd just shot ("religious Jews," we'd say, or "landscapes,") and get our government-issued shipping forms stamped and signed accordingly. Finally, we'd head to the strange little cargo office at the airport in Tel Aviv to send our film on a plane back to our photo agencies in Paris. Simple.
But here in Afghanistan the situation is more obscure. I'm alone, for one, which among other things means I have no one to help me figure out basic puzzles like how to get my exposed film out of the mountains. Or how to write captions when no one around me speaks English, and I have no idea where, exactly, these photos are being taken or what it is I'm actually seeing. I'm just assuming that at some point, someplace, I will see some dead or bloody mujahed, or some dead or bloody Russian soldier, or some mujahed firing off his Kalashnikovs, or one of those great big Soviet tanks whose names I can never remember, or, well, something that looks vaguely warlike that I can shoot and send–again, it's murky to me exactly how—back to my photo agency in Paris.
I look over at Hashim, who's rearranging blankets, knapsacks and boxes of ammunition to clear more leg room on the crowded truck bed. He yanks my maroon nylon backpack from the center of the pile, fills in the newly empty space with a green metal box, mimes "Can I sit on this?" while pointing at my backpack, and, when I nod yes, he wedges it into a corner and plops his 180-pound rump right on top of it. A gentle crunching sound ensues, followed almost immediately by the smell of rubbing alcohol. Shit. My mind races to try to recall what else, besides the bottle of alcohol, I packed in that outside zippered pocket.
Then I remember. My box of Tampax. My one and only box of Tampax.
Well, now. I'm fucked.
Oblivious, Hashim slowly inhales a Winston cigarette and kneads his amber worry beads through his ragged fingers. Trained as a journalist, he's the one Afghani among my forty-seven escorts who actually speaks a few key English phrases such as "Food soon," "Danger, stay in cave," and "Toilet time, Miss Deborah?" But even though I know he will probably understand me if I say, "Please get off my bag," he definitely won't understand "because my tampons are exploding." And because "Please get off my bag" sounds sort of rude, and because the squishy backpack does look like a comfy place to sit while all of us are scrunched together on the back of this rickety old truck heading God knows where, and because my hygiene woes do not hold a candle to the miseries of jihad, I say nothing. Besides, I'm covered from head to toe in an electric-blue burka–an Islamic veil, worn like a Halloween ghost costume–which tends to hinder communication. Not only does it muffle my speech, it makes it impossible to guess, for example, that underneath all this rayon, under my shiny blue ghost costume, I cannot stop crying.
What on earth possessed me to come here?
In a word, Pascal. It's Pascal's fault I'm here all alone, and when I get back to Pakistan I'm going to kill him.
From the Hardcover edition.
What People are saying about this
A candid, sexy, and very funny romp that makes photojournalism seem like an X-treme sport. Deborah Copaken Kogan goes out and wrings enough terrifying heroics from the last bits of the twentieth century to make T.E. Lawrence jealous.
John Hockenberry, author of Moving Violations and A River Out of Eden
From the Publisher
“Shutterbabe zooms in on passionate self-discovery.”
“Eloquent and well observed, not only about the memoirist, but about the world: war, death, photojournalism and, of course, the worldwide battle between the sexes.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“A candid account of one woman’s attempt to claim the spoils of the American feminist revolution under trying circumstances: alone, abroad, practicing an art that fosters machismo and thrusts her into the midst of the most paternalistic cultures in the world.”
“Shutterbabe, like all good war stories, is flashy and exciting, but it also tells the story of a tender-hearted woman who traded war’s excitement for that of family life.”
—The New York Times Book Review
John Burnham Schwartz
A wise and unforgettable book, written with courage and love and intelligence and humility and humor, by a remarkable woman who, through hard searching and a compassionate heart, has found all the right words with which to tell her extraordinary life.
John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road