She couldn’t take a plane, so Rita Leistner decided to walk-to Iraq. For a light load, a lot was left behind. She took mostly cameras, a flak jacket and a good pair of hiking boots. Though the risks were obvious, the choice was too: $1,200 U.S. and a one-day hike would get Leistner into war country and, she hoped, the story of a lifetime. With the Turkish border closed and too little money to fly to Jordan or Kuwait and try her chances there, the choice was just as plain. Going home was not an option.
Now, Leistner crunches through layers of frozen snow in a hurried clamber up a steep bank in the Taurus Mountains. Her knee is twisted: a reminder of her fall last night by a cliff above the Tigris River. It’s inflamed, she is running, in scrambled formations with fellow photojournalist Steve Morrison and her guides to keep from being shot by patrol guards. The acetaminophen high from a handful of Extra Strength Tylenol leaves her sure of little, but she keeps moving. With the help of Kurdish smugglers, a tensor bandage and a stick, Leistner sneaks into Iraq. At this moment-a sunny, crisp April afternoon in 2003-she is also trying to avoid getting shot. She didn’t think it would be this difficult.
Breakneck action aside, Leistner doesn’t go into every story thinking it will be easy. Much of what she covers surely isn’t: the Iraq war, American women wrestlers, Quebec loggers, hurricanes. She does her research, gets to know her subjects and totes cameras along the way. The result is beautiful pictures, transparent and rife with an ardent point of view.
Now 45 and six years past her trek into Iraq, Leistner has built a reputation as one of the country’s most daring and dedicated photojournalists, and sealed it with numerous exhibitions and awards for her photographs of both sides of war and beyond. Leistner’s work stands as the photographic equivalent of literary or long-form journalism: sadly, a style that is facing the same fate in a difficult market glutted with competition. With magazine photo budgets growing skinny and newspapers relying increasingly on staffers who shoot, tape and edit it all, the documentary photographer is less visible than ever in Canadian news. A shame, as work like Leistner’s has a history of capturing stories-compelling ones-in more ways than just the printed word.
By my second visit to Leistner’s downtown Toronto apartment, a routine is already set. “Tea for you, coffee for me,” she says with self-assurance, setting a mug on a coaster and heading to her espresso machine. While the decaf drips, she forgets about the beverage for nearly 15 minutes, losing herself in a discussion on the philosophical nature of the portrait. A slight figure in braids, green corduroy pants and a blue bulldog-print T-shirt, she hardly looks the likely candidate to hang out with smugglers, soldiers and lumberjacks. But assumptions with Leistner are pointless. She’ll probably tell you the truth anyway. Among the topics explored in our first discussion: if I could be trusted; comrades she thinks are jerks; and ex-boyfriends. Brazen could be one way to describe Leistner’s attitude, but this really comes more out of candidness, a desire to get things right-which has likely been a large reason she’s found herself in the situations her photographs take her.
Leistner won’t have you believe she goes looking for action. “Every time I’m in a truly life-threatening situation,” she says, “I think to myself, it wasn’t worth it.” Though childless by choice, she compares her work process to giving birth: the pain, regret, wailing, swearing at your partner and, finally, a sense of accomplishment that convinces her to do it again. But not before she asks herself a series of questions.
“Am I the person in the best position to do this? Is there anyone else who can do this?” she asks, laughing. “How important is it that it be done?” If things fall into place Leistner will take great risks to tell a story. They did in 2003 when she got herself invited to live with the American 3/7 “Crazy Horse” Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, for her first four months in Iraq.
“But if Vanity Fair calls me and asks, ‘Will you risk your life to do a fluffy piece on the temples of Babylon?'” she says, referring to a time when the route to get to them was dangerous, “I’m not going to risk my life for some temple that’s going to be there later.”
Though she’d wanted to since the age of 15, it took Leistner more than 20 years to start taking pictures for a living. An early National Geographic and Life magazine addiction, though, already informed Leistner’s understanding of photographs as narrative. A story on Idi Amin confused her: how could war crimes still happen if someone had pictures to prove the act? “The only way bad things happen is if people don’t know they’re happening,” she reasoned at the time.
“It’s a really childish way of looking at it,” Leistner says now. “But when I think about it, it had so much to do with what I’m still interested in-the idea that witnessing something and telling stories about it can incite action and response.”
For years, only that much about her was sure. After graduating from the Toronto French School, Leistner spent a year waiting tables. She’d often thought about a job in journalism, but had no idea how to make it happen. A week before the start of classes the next year, Leistner applied to what was then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and Carleton University and got turned away for lack of a portfolio and planning.
Not that the grades weren’t there-they got her into the University of Toronto, where in between summers of tree planting she completed a masters degree in comparative literature, and earned a PhD scholarship offer from the University of Alberta. Though besotted with books-she had a reputation on campus as an intimidating academic and voracious reader-a traipse through the U.S. and Mexico and 40 rolls of film made her turn down the scholarship and take a job as a lighting technician in Toronto. What is photography if not about light, she figured. She sorted peanuts for commercials (“My first job out of grad school!”) and lugged heavy equipment in an industry that was, and still is, staffed mostly by men.
Leistner stuck with the job for six years before heading to Cambodia in 1997 to put her self-directed education into practice, chasing stories on street riots and poverty by day and teaching English in the early mornings and nights. And living the dream; a chance meeting with childhood hero Al Rockoff resulted in a year and a half of guidance from the eccentric war photographer before she moved to New York to study at the International Center of Photography. With newly acquired training and experience and raw beginnings of a U.S.-led war in Iraq, Leistner, who toted books and played Get Smart spy games as a child, was ready for action.
April 2004: The road to Baghdad is dusty and hot, which doesn’t help Leistner’s frustration as she returns from a night in Karbala with Maclean’s writer and friend Adnan Khan with no original stories. A year has passed since Leistner’s journey to Iraq, but now with open borders and the country’s major cities crammed with journalists, unique stories are rare-funding her own projects is financially impossible.
Sharing a ride with Leistner, a common practice among freelancers without expense accounts, Khan echoes the frustration. Which makes the sight of a bombed U.S. convoy especially urgent and causes them to make a mistake. Despite the driver’s protests, they ask him to stop so they can take pictures. A few shots in and they find themselves in the middle of a firefight between U.S. and insurgent army forces. Nearby villagers take them into a home and feed them tea and cookies while bombs shake the roof overhead, but the two having been spotted, the damage is already done. Before long, five insurgents bust through the doors and demand the family hand the westerners over. Fingers are dragged across necks as villagers plead for Khan’s and Leistner’s lives. While they are allowed to leave, their cameras and equipment are taken-scores of pictures, and months of work between the two.
A thick compendium of Robert Capa’s war photography lies on a pristine glass table in Leistner’s living room amid copies of The Walrus and Vanity Fair. Capa and the many other photographic heavyweights Leistner cites in our talks represent not only the contents of her library, but an entire tradition of photojournalism-one that saw Dorothea Lange capture the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl in images of bread lines and migrant mothers, watched Capa bring D-Day on Omaha Beach to people’s breakfast tables, and witnessed a redefinition of public life in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street photography in the 1940s. One that, with the death of photographic mainstays like Life and Collier’s, was singing its swan song well before a young Leistner began watching war-photographer films like The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields.
Though Leistner admits these popularized images of the hard-grit photographer are stereotypical and over-dramatic, several things about how the job was portrayed remain true. To get the intimacy and understanding in a photographic story-the trusting gaze of a child in Lebanon who has lost a home, the right light on a destroyed city skyline-it takes an exponentially greater amount of time than would be demanded of a spot news photographer who is largely there to shoot for next day’s deadline. Sadly, the question is whether news consumers can tell the difference.
Alison Nordstrom, curator of photography at the George Eastman House in New York, doesn’t think it’s a simple distinction. “In the conceptualization of a news story, the photographs are often secondary, but in the consumption, the photograph may be the only thing people pay attention to.” Having included Leistner’s work in a 2007 exhibit at George Eastman House, the oldest museum of its kind in the world, Nordstrom also believes that although we pay attention to pictures, what information we get out of them speaks to our understanding of a photograph’s ability to carry a story. “If you give a historian a wedding dress or a plow, they’re going to ask all the right questions: Who made it? Why was it made? What changes in its use have occurred over time? And yet if you give most historians a photograph, they go, ‘Oh, Main Street, 1905.'” While we’re aware of the slippery nature of photographs-their vulnerability to alteration, that what we see in a frame is the photographer’s filtered point of view-it’s certainly harder to ask Nordstrom’s questions of the glossy photography that often accompanies news stories.
“I think there are quieter moments after that you can call the news, or very interesting, very in-depth parts of a story,” says Louie Palu, a friend of Leistner’s who, after shooting as a Globe and Mail staffer for six years, returned to a freelance career in 2007. While the now-D.C.-based photographer has shot in high-profile destinations like Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, the impact of Palu’s quiet moments, like Leistner’s, is in the unexpected. A dusty, haunting black-and-white project on the hard-rock miners in northern Ontario and Quebec, for example, took Palu more than 12 years to complete.
He, like Leistner and a number of other documentary photographers, tends to find many of his stories days, months, even years after a breaking event happens. And even when they don’t: “I think that’s where Rita’s work plays a role,” Palu says, “filling the gaps that the mainstream media leave in their wake as they move from story to story that’s in the headlines.”
Veteran Canadian photojournalist Roger Lemoyne describes Leistner’s photographs simply. “A lot of her work is portrait-like. It acknowledges the relationship between the photographer and the subject.” In some cases the relationship is a direct one, as in a portrait series of the Crazy Horse soldiers-many of whom she’d befriended in her informal embed. Each one had the same mucky-green uniform and boots; each a different face, from sweaty-lipped new recruits to those harder-lined; and each with a piercing look of recognition and uncertainty about the future in the eyes that goes beyond what’s revealed in a typical headshot. They were photographed the night before an operation into insurgent territory, the first they’d ever participated in.
When Roland Barthes published Camera Lucida in 1980 he described two elements to viewing a photograph: the studium (the informative value and general interest of a picture) and the more elusive punctum (what grabs the viewer), something not all pictures may have. Though Barthes’ academic approach may not have had the journalist expressly in mind, it highlights the potential advantage pictures have in not only attracting readers but standing alone as agents of storytelling.
Of studium-based pictures, Barthes wrote, “I glance through them, I don’t recall them; no detail (in some corner) ever interrupts my reading. I am interested in them, (as I am interested in the world), I do not love them.” A celebrity stepping out of a limousine, a mayor snipping the ribbon at an inauguration: they are pictures we see next to news stories all the time, pictures that can be beautifully taken, can inform and often please.
Sometimes, too, they can be pictures that, according to Globe and Mail deputy managing editor for photography, Moe Doiron, stand in front of the story rather than tell it. They may look sharp, but also produced-props to the text of a story rather than illustrative of the story itself. And, specifically for newspapers, increasingly in a slick portrait style with the advent of the National Post and its emphasis on beautiful design and layout. It’s a photography trend that spread to other newspapers, to the point where Doiron received a phone call from a puzzled Globe reporter. The photographer for her story posed the subject on a chair atop a table in his living room for a better-lit portrait. “He didn’t ask the subject anything about the story, anything about his life,” says Doiron. “He made it all about the photo. And that’s the breakdown of what documentary photography should be and what’s happened in the past 10 years, where photographers have made it about themselves as opposed to making it about the story.”
While many, if not most, photojournalists are concerned with the aesthetics and style of their work, for photographers like Leistner it’s only because they act as agents for telling the story. “The point is not to make something ugly beautiful, it’s to make it compelling so people will look at it and pay attention. To me, good photojournalism is artful; if you’re a good photojournalist, you can make artful pictures that people will look at and are successful images.”
What photographer and viewer define as a successful image may not always match. Photo editors of newspapers and magazines say they must keep in mind what they think the public wants, and focus groups have told Maclean’s director of photography Andrew Tolson that readers prefer candid photography (a term he applies to the magazine’s style) in its pages. A reprint photograph of an in-demand celebrity can cost up to $1,000 to publish in a magazine; an original image of a firefight with insurgent forces in Afghanistan, maybe a couple hundred or more.
In the large majority of news pictures, Barthes’ punctum, the “element which rises from the scene … shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me,” is rare. It could be consciously composed or entirely unintended, one detail or many that seeks the reader out and demands her attention. It’s the arresting spark in photographs that haunts years of cultural memory: Sharbat Gula’s electric green eyes in Steve McCurry’s eponymous 1986 National Geographic cover, “Afghan Girl”; the naked pain in Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phúc fleeing a napalm attack in South Vietnam in a rush of terrified, gape-mouthed children. They can unite people in a cause or change public opinions about war.
In Leistner’s apartment the punctum rings out in a single image that pierces through the white walls, Christmas lights and vintage furniture: an Iraqi detainee with tied hands and a white bag wrapped around his shoulders and head, a slumping ghost facing a stone wall.
There are practical reasons why she keeps it. A wrong-sized print in a travelling exhibit of her work, it wasn’t something she wanted to throw out. “It’s a reminder, a hit of reality. Sometimes it just becomes part of my apartment. You don’t always notice everything on the walls,” she says, which is akin to a viewer glazing over image after image of disasters and conflicts international. Even though Leistner was there-she remembers the man, saw him tied, bagged, taken out of his home and interrogated-it’s not always easy to remember the vulnerability of that moment and the significance of a conflict she covered nearly six years ago.
It’s one of Leistner’s most disturbing photographs. Like the work of many conflict photographers, it is also a stark emblem of Leistner’s anti-war sentiment. It speaks to a darker side of the profession that many photojournalists continue to face when deciding how far to go for that punctum in their work.
Emotionally, sometimes pictures cut a little too deep. World Press Photo, a global competition and exhibition, the Oscars of the photojournalism world, is one such example. The 2008 Toronto exhibit is a conundrum, a frail plant growing out of the polished, granite floors of the financial district’s Brookfield Place. It bears strange fruit: bold photographs on an aluminum frame. A blurred photograph of a bone-weary soldier. A limp gorilla hauled up a grassy knoll on a stretcher of sticks, leaves stuffed in its mouth. The victim of a Mungiki gang attack in Nairobi slumped against a wall, blood and saliva streaming from his face. Professionals in suits and wool skirts stroll past them with craned necks, but many stop to stare.
The argument is that images like these needlessly feed on the pain of others. In an increasingly visual culture, inundated by pictures, video and constant forms of moving light, how much change do such photographs effect: at what point does it become pointless voyeurism?
When considering a story, voyeurism, for Leistner, is an issue of proximity. A photograph’s emotional effect can start from something simple-the type of lens used-or more complex: the kind of relationship the photojournalist forges with the story and its subjects. The former, for Leistner, is an easy solve; she avoids long lenses. “There’s something about the distance that gives that sense of watching,” she says. The latter, however, was a question of perspective not easily dealt with in the chipped, green-and-white halls of the al-Rashad psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Sadr City. Having found the place in Iraq in 2003, Leistner had come across the kind of quiet moment that would never make a headline. Al-Rashad, a strange oasis in eastern Baghdad, housed nearly 900 patients at the time. Most, Leistner was told by the chief of the women’s ward, could otherwise function in society with the right medication and treatment support. “I was drawn to these women,” Leistner wrote in The Walrus in April 2005. “Lonely and abandoned, many of them simply dropped off at the hospital like unwanted goods.”
Here was a story no one else had. Here also was a story that documented many lives of suffering. While the material was compelling, it was also important the story not become a spectacle.
“The closer you get, I believe, the less voyeuristic it is,” says Leistner. “It’s beyond voyeurism when you’re actually in the place. Voyeurism by definition does not involve interaction-a voyeur watches and does not participate.” But Leistner did: by doing stretching exercises with the patients [unveiled women she was told not to photograph], and spending nights in the ward to talk with them while one slipped poems under her pillow. Though doing these things resulted in some of her most acclaimed work, it’s hard not to wonder what the subjects gain, aside from a world-wide audience.
“Unfortunately, the answer is there’s really no easy way to help them,” she says. “There’s no one to send money to. One can be made aware of their plight, it can move people to do work with mental illness in their own communities.” While these photographs over time increased news coverage of the hospital, they were also exhibited as part of Vancouver’s inaugural Mad Pride Day in 2006-an interesting contrast between the city’s Downtown Eastside, where mental health is a community issue, and Iraq, where it is commonly hidden away from the public gaze.
“The work speaks to the fact that people with mental illnesses are marginalized everywhere in the world. Part of the story is that in a conflict situation the vulnerable are marginalized the most. It could help people see the repercussions, how war affects society as a whole. It’s easier from a distance to see it clinically.”
Baghdad, 2004: It’s no secret that al Dulaimi hotel in the Jadriyah neighbourhood of Baghdad is a common lodging for freelancers. The minders who shuffle about the cheap, baroque-decor lobby to monitor journalist activity know this, as do the correspondents who dub it the “eerie Dulaimi” for its reputation as a kidnap trap. Still, the $50-a-night price tag and sense of community it offers make it a natural choice for Leistner, who is staying there with three other journalists. One night, after a day of taking pictures, she scrambles eggs for the group as they share photos and talk about what they’ve witnessed, who they’ve met, fixers they can trust and drivers they can share. But rarely about the future. “If you start thinking about where you want to go after,” she says, “you’re no longer there 100 percent.”
And homesick, which is easy to be when covering stories solo. “We kept each other from that, because we created a sense of home among ourselves. In a way I didn’t want it to end,” she says now. “I know we were thinking that we could just carry on, just move the family somehow. That wasn’t the reality, but it was the feeling-that somehow everything we’d experienced in Iraq wouldn’t be able to hurt us as long as we stayed together. And that we could continue to do something.”
Which they did in 2006 by publishing Unembedded, a collection of work by Leistner, Thorne Anderson, Kael Alford and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. While out of Iraq for nearly five years now, Leistner still remembers times at the Dulaimi as some of her best there. A valuable thing in a line of work that has demanded of Leistner time away from family, no constancy of home, and a complicated romantic life: “Since 1998 I’ve dated photojournalists or journalists. But they’re all a bunch of lying and cheating dogs….” she said in a 2004 Globearticle.
Among war photographers and correspondents in general, this isn’t uncommon. Canadian psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein’s 2003 Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women Who Report It investigates how and why. In some of the only research done on the phenomenon, Feinstein found post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates the highest among photographers than any other kind of war correspondent, mostly because of the nature of what they do: get close, take pictures; get closer, take even more. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” Capa has been quoted all too often, and whether the proximity is physical (Palu’s closeups of an Afghan child’s amputated limb) or emotional (the years Rockoff spent covering the Vietnam War), there is always an effect on the photographer. To some extent, Leistner is open about this-largely because she feels it isn’t discussed enough.
“I think you need to be constantly examining yourself and your mental health so that you can continue to do the work without flipping out,” she says. “People suffer from PTSD and all sorts of things that don’t have such neat labels to them.” A friend of Feinstein’s since she came back from Iraq (a mutual friend thought Feinstein would like her work, and was right; he hangs her photographs in his office), she jokes about wishing they’d met as doctor and patient before she ventured into war zones.
“I was definitely being affected by the things I had been through that I wasn’t dealing with,” she says of her time between Iraq and moving back to Toronto. “I was drinking a lot. It wasn’t helping. I started getting therapy. I completely gave up drinking, which is one of the best things I ever did in my life. And I tried to work very much on myself. Because wallowing while doing all these stories on other people, I can’t really do the best job for them if I’m not taking care of myself.”
The notion of being prepared to do a community justice has been on Leistner’s mind these days with the Edward Curtis Project, a modern retrospective of Curtis’ controversial Native American fieldwork of the early 1900s. Set to open in 2010, this has involved Leistner working with Métis playwright Marie Clements on Curtis’ romanticized images of what he dubbed “the vanishing race,” and their lasting impact. Leistner has tried to photograph First Nations communities all over North America without replicating the kind of pictorialism (a late 19th-century photography style rooted in aesthetics) in Curtis’ work. He was known to pay individuals to pose for photographs, pick their outfits (traditional wear, when natives were dressing as modern as anyone else) and have them pose in ritual ways at a time when natives were becoming scholars and doctors.
Leistner has also taken posed photographs: of a young Haida man in a baseball cap and printed hoodie, and again in traditional dress. His surroundings (clapboard houses, electrical lines, a shoreline) and adolescent expression remain. He is still just a young man in clothes. In this way, she has begun to frame the kind of stereotypes she hopes to break: the idea that photography and First Nations communities don’t mix. “Most of the First Nations people I’ve met really appreciate photography. And why shouldn’t they? They’re human and we live in a visual world. People have said to me, ‘It’s going to take a long time to take pictures of First Nations communities,’ but it takes me a long time to take pictures of anything! And is it harder than photographing al-Rashad? I don’t think so, no.”
Downtown Toronto, June 2006: Leistner is on stage at the Carlu accepting a National Magazine Award for her story on the women of al-Rashad. Her speech is short: “Thank you to The Walrus, who supported this project for five months.” She turns to leave. Thinks twice, turns back, and pushes past co-recipient Antonio de Luca to finish: “Actually, can I just say that when I worked on this story, these patients said to me, ‘Take these photographs and show them to people, because without them no one will know that we exist.'”
For the months she spent on the story it seemed like no one wanted to, either. Told by journalists in Iraq she was crazy to take pictures of a psychiatric hospital when, in their eyes, there were better war stories to cover, Leistner returned to al-Rashad 30 times between covering bombings and rallies. Of those visits, she took pictures on only nine: of rumpled nightgowns, cigarettes and boxes of pills. Tear-stained faces and eyes that say as much closed as when they stare directly at the reader. When hospital administrators barred her from taking pictures, she snuck an overnight stay with the help of the head doctor, slipping out in the morning in an ambulance.
In 2007, Leistner was asked to speak at Ottawa’s School of Photographic Arts. She was also asked to choose what to her was a watershed photograph of her career. Pulling it onto her computer screen for me to see, amid the crowded bookshelves and note-lined walls of her upstairs study, she points excitedly at the black-and-white elements of the picture. An older couple, two plane-spotters, sitting on lawn chairs outside Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in 1995. The man shields his eyes and points to the landing airplane shadowing their heads. The woman, in a jungle-print blouse, cradles a tiger-shaped purse. A blurred figure rides a bike into the frame. Knowing what her pictures have pulled her through since, it seems a simple photo to take. This makes it surprising when she tells me, without a hint of guilt or admission, that she had driven by Pearson many times before this photo. She had seen the potential for a picture; it just took her months to build the resolve to take it.
“It’s humbling,” she wrote of the job. “The world is a sea of missed photo opportunities and untold stories, and all we can do is make a tiny ripple by pulling over to the side of the road, one photograph at a time.”