Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War by Deborah Copaken KoganShutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War

byDeborah Copaken Kogan

Paperback | January 8, 2002

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Fresh out of college and passionate about photography, Deborah Copaken Kogan moved to Paris in 1988 and began knocking on photo agency doors, begging to be given a photojournalism assignment. Within weeks she was on the back of a truck in Afghanistan, the only woman—and the only journalist—in a convoy of mujahideen, the rebel “freedom fighters” at the time. She had traveled there with a handsome but dangerously unpredictable Frenchman, and the interwoven stories of their relationship and the assignment set the pace for Shutterbabe’s six chapters, each covering a different corner of the globe, each linked to a man in Kogan’s life at the time.

From Zimbabwe to Romania, from Russia to Haiti, Kogan takes her readers on a heartbreaking yet surprisingly hilarious journey through a mine-strewn decade, seamlessly blending her personal battles—sexism, battery, life-threatening danger—with the historical ones—wars, revolution, unfathomable suffering—it was her job to record.
Deborah Copaken Kogan worked as a photojournalist from 1988 to 1992, and her photographs appeared in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, L'Express, Liberation, and Géo, among many other international newspapers and magazines. She spent the next six years in TV journalism, most recently as a producer for Dateline NBC. She lives in New Y...

interview with the author

Let’s start with an easy question. How did you get from a suburban household in Maryland to the warzones of Afghanistan, Romania, and Africa?

DCK: That’s an easy question? Ha! Okay, here’s an incomplete and meandering answer, because I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question: For me, growing up in the suburbs felt a bit like being in a very pretty, green, safe prison. I was bored most of the time and dreamt of running off to see the world from a very young age. When I finally got to college and discovered photography, I realized that by becoming a photojournalist I could not only get paid to do the thing I loved most (photography), I could see history in the making. I could travel to places I’d never otherwise see. I could live a life that was not safe and green and pretty but raw and dangerous and on-the-edge, a life that, because of its precariousness, would finally make me appreciate living.

On a more subconscious level, I’ve pretty much been plagued with dreams about the Holocaust ever since reading The Diary of Anne Frank at a very early--perhaps too early--age, and I guess I thought that by getting close to things like war and totalitarianism, I might begin to make sense of it all, figure out why and how man is capable of such colossal inhumanity. Which, of course, I was never able to do.

Also--and I know it might be hard to understand this--tooling around the world’s warzones, at the time, seemed like a fun (and exciting and interesting) thing to do.

What’s the most dangerous place you were ever on assignment?

DCK: I think the time I spent in Afghanistan (Feb-March, 1989) was probably the most dangerous: because of my naivete, because I traveled inside with the mujehaddin all alone, because of the nightly bombings and the mines and the cold and the lack of food and the chaos of the Soviet retreat. Although if we’re talking pure heart-stopping fear, getting stuck in a crossfire during the Soviet coup (August, 1991) was probably the scariest moment of my life.

But, as I tried to make it clear in the book, ’dangerous place’ is a relative term, especially for a woman. Some of my most frightening experiences--getting mugged, assaulted, threatened with rape, date raped--happened in what most people would call extremely safe places: my dorm room, Harvard Square, a New York City taxi, a luggage store, my very own bed.

Which, in a way, brings us back to the first question. If life is dangerous for a woman a priori, what difference does it make if I’m in a warzone or in my bed? Each of the six chapters of the book is named after a man in your life, but Shutterbabe is story about a fearless young woman who kicks and fights against sexism in her profession and in her personal life. So why structure the book around men?

DCK: It’s an arbitrary way of presenting a story, sure, but when I sat down in a coffee shop almost two years ago, trying to decide if I even wanted to write this book--trying to decide if I actually could write a book in a coffee shop on a three-day-a-week schedule, which was all the office space and babysitting I could afford after I quit my job at Dateline--it’s the structure I hit upon, scribbled down on a recycled paper napkin, and have stuck with ever since.

I realized that if I wanted to tell the tale with even a modicum of honesty I could not do so without including the men. Which, at first, pissed me off. I mean, here I am, this supposedly enlightened post-feminist woman, naming each chapter of my supposedly enlightened post-feminist adventure book after some guy. It didn’t make sense.
At least at first.

Then, as I began to organize the material, as I finally typed the first tentative words about that crazy time into my computer, it struck me. During those four years I spent trying to be an intrepid and independent photojournalist-slash-superhero, the men I had met and bedded and loved and hated along the way were not only casual bystanders to the narrative but rather an integral part of its underlying structure. Which doesn’t make me a traitor to the cause. It makes me human.

Also, if you think about the similarities between love and adventure in terms of risk and self-exposure, the men and the wars are not so different. Like I said in the book, the French understand this implicitly: the French word aventure can mean either ’adventure’ or ’love affair.’ I wanted to play with this notion, weave the two stories in and out of each other, draw parallels where parallels might not otherwise be drawn.

Did you actually write the book in a coffee shop?

DCK: I started writing this in May of 1998, after I left Dateline. I was very confused at the time--wanting to spend more time with my kids, but also knowing I would go crazy just being a mommy. My husband Paul had been pushing me to write this book since we first met, I’d been meaning to get it all down on paper for my children to read one day, so I figured I’d give it a try. See what I could accomplish on the three-day-a-week schedule.

But we live in a small two-bedroom apartment and I had two tiny toddlers at the time, who were constantly underfoot. And without my salary, we were severely strapped for cash. So I started writing the book at Xando, a coffee shop on Broadway and 76th St., where no one minds if you sit there all day, hogging up a table with your computer plugged into the wall. Other places I wrote include the following: my friend Maia’s apartment (before she fell in love, got married and moved to D.C.), the New York Public Library, Teacher’s College Library, the Starbucks on 86th and Columbus, Avenue Restaurant, my friend Suze Yalof’s apartment, and my friend Andy Behrman’s apartment. However, the problem with writing in restaurants and coffee shops and libraries is that you always have to find someone to watch your computer when you go to the bathroom. Or, if no one’s around, you have to shut down the computer and drag it into the stall with you. Coffee shops can be very noisy as well, which drove me crazy, but then at the quiet libraries I couldn’t make fact-checking phone calls. Using friends’ apartments is also fraught, as you don’t want to impinge on their lives and privacy too much.

Finally, as I was doing revisions this past January, I found a psychoanalyst’s office that I sublet three days a week for a modest sum. It’s my proverbial ’room of one’s own,’ and, God, do I love it.

The details of place and the dialogue in Shutterbabe are incredibly vivid. Did you keep journals while you were on photo assignments?

DCK: I kept a journal in Afghanistan, which I’ve since lost, but otherwise I did not keep a written record of my journeys. (Although, for each story I shot, I wrote up a two-page synopsis for my photo agency.) However, simply by looking at the pictures I shot, I was able to remember whole junks of my life. I decided I would write about only those things that left a strong residue in my memory, figuring that whatever events had left such indelible marks were the ones that were worth writing about. If I was fuzzy on facts, I called up some of the old boyfriends or people I worked with. I read old newspapers, looked through my portfolio at the stories accompanying my photographs. The dialogue is for the most part reconstructed, although I believe I stayed true to the meaning, rhythm, content and intent of each character’s voice. I also gave the book, in its early stages, to many of the characters I wrote about, to gauge whether or not I’d succeeded in getting their voices ’right.’ No one had any major complaints, and sometimes I was even reminded of important things I’d left out, which were subsequently added.

So what is a Shutterbabe?

DCK: Oh, boy. Okay, the short answer is that she is my superhero self, the person I became whenever I had a camera in my hand. In the original manuscript, I called this person ’Photogirl,’ but I didn’t think Photogirl was a good title for a book. And, oh, man, this book has gone through so many titles, none of them perfect for one reason or another. I didn’t come up with Shutterbabe myself, and I hope it will be taken in the spirit in which it was intended, which is (please!) tongue-in-cheek. I am not claiming to be a ’babe.’ I am short and cartoonish, end of story. It was my friend Evan, the father of one of my son Jacob’s classmates, who came up with it one morning when I was dropping off Jacob at preschool. I must have been looking particularly haggard that day after not having slept for two nights straight (while simultaneously nursing my daughter Sasha through a cold and trying to decide on a title so Jennifer, my agent, could that very same afternoon try to sell the book) because, as I was hanging up Jacob’s coat in his cubby, Evan turned to me, visibly concerned, and said, ’Are you okay? You look like shit.’ I told him my quandary, how I couldn’t come up with a fucking title for my book, and he very calmly asked me what the book was about. I gave him some long-winded response about coming of age, coming to terms with motherhood, self-exploration, transformation, love, the news business, wars, drugs, rhinos, rape, blah, blah, blah, but when he asked me to whittle it down I said, ’Okay, photography and sex.’ Almost immediately he came up with Shutterbabe, for which I am grateful, because while it’s not perfect, it’s pretty catchy--Evan has his own marketing firm (, bless his clever, entrepreneurial soul--and if such a title gets people to buy the book, then it might get them to actually read it, too. The title I would have preferred (but which I was quite forcefully dissuaded from using, even though the book is divided as such) is Develop Stop Fix. Others were Newswhore (unanimously hated by everyone except me and my agent--we still like it, in that reclaiming an insulting word kind of way), The Adventures of Photogirl, Shuttergirl (the title under which I actually turned in the finished manuscript to Villard, but they nixed it), Leica Girl (Get it? Like a girl? No? Neither did anyone else), Boys and Wars, and the ever-memorable, Circles of Confusion (a lens term, if you were wondering.)
Title:Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and WarFormat:PaperbackPublished:January 8, 2002Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375758682

ISBN - 13:9780375758683

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from not to be passed by! This book was an amazingly graphical description of a woman's role in the life of a photographer. Kogan is a gifted, humourous writer - she has a talent for transfering words into images. After I read this book I went out and bought myself a beautiful camera - fully motivated by the power of her words. I sincerely hope she is contemplating writing another novel.
Date published: 2002-06-30

Read from the Book

Chapter 1PascalTHERE'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 straightfor-ward. 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.THE FIRST TIME I noticed Pascal it was from afar, at a café on the rue Lauriston near the Sygma photo agency. That would have been in late September 1988, about two weeks after I'd arrived in Paris, ready to start my life. Every day, I'd go to that same café and spy on the photojournalists eating lunch there. Most afternoons, I'd order a croque monsieur and place myportfolio ever so casually on the chair in front of me, hoping that the sight of my work along with the Leica around my neck would somehow draw a photographer over to my table. In my fantasy, the photographer would ask to take a look at the pictures and then, duly impressed, he'd invite me to come join the rest of his gang at his table for an île flottante and a round of espressos. I'd sit down and, after modestly refusing to do so, I'd be persuaded by the other men-they were all men-to pass my portfolio around the group, one of whom would be an important photo editor who'd want to send me that very same afternoon to go cover a war. It didn't really matter which war because I knew better than to be picky. Any war would do.But that was just the fantasy. In reality, I had to settle for eating my sandwiches alone and in silence.On that first day I noticed Pascal, he strode like a bulldozer into the café, pushing in the cool autumn air from the outside with his angular torso. With what seemed like a single fluid motion, he unhitched the camera bag from his shoulder, placed it in the pile of sacks already there on the banquette, greeted his colleagues with an ironic "Salut, les potes!," pulled off his blue cashmere crew neck, knotted it around his shoulders, lit a cigarette and sat down to fondle a menu. His features were sharp and finely chiseled, his eyes sparkled with what appeared to be a touch of mild insanity, and his lips had corners that turned up when he smiled, like the Joker's in Batman. When his steak au poivre arrived, he sliced into it with the grace of an aristocrat, the tines of his fork facing down then up as one by one the freshly cut morsels disappeared into his mouth, each effortless bite punctuating the rhythm of his fraternal chatter. He is magnificent, I thought.Pascal was an up-and-coming war photographer, and I admired his work. His pictures didn't just show action, they screamed action. Bombs exploding, young children crying, soldiers cowering, grimacing, dying. Exactly the kind of images that I was desperate to start shooting, if only I could figure out how.After two weeks of getting nowhere with my portfolio-on-the-chair ploy and spending far too many francs on croque monsieurs, I realized I'd been going about it all wrong. With my shaky French, I called the general number for Sygma and asked to speak to Claude, the editor in charge of news photos. For whatever reason, perhaps because he couldn't understand me on the telephone, perhaps because it was a slow news day, he agreed to a meeting. The next afternoon, when I arrived at his desk, he started to laugh. "You're the little girl from the café," he said. A few of the photographers I'd been stalking, Pascal included, stared and tittered from behind the glass wall of the photographers' room.As Claude flipped through my portfolio, which was bulging with photographs of strip clubs and the men who visit them, his eyes opened wider and he began to shake his head. Then he muttered "Putain!" I knew putain meant "whore," but at the time I did not know it could also be used idiomatically to mean something more tame, like "wow" or "holy cow." But before I could figure out where the epithet had been directed, at the strippers or at me, Claude looked up and said, "Tu voudrais aller où?"-"Where would you like to go?"I cocked my head. I crossed my arms. "Israel," I said, more of a dare than a word.Claude smiled and, to my amazement, replied, "Fine." We made a deal: I'd pay for the trip; Sygma would pay for my film and development costs and then distribute the pictures upon my return. A break. At last.As I turned to leave, Pascal caught my eye and winked. Whenever I thought about that wink afterwards, I'd shiver.The next time I saw Pascal, it was two months later. I'd just arrived back from Jerusalem. Chip, my colleague and occasional lover, an American who'd lived in Paris for most of his adult life, invited me as his date to a dinner party Pascal was throwing with his live-in girlfriend in Paris. The live-in girlfriend part should have tipped me off, but then Pascal cornered me in the living room and challenged me, with his mischievous smirk, to a staring contest. No problem, I thought. I'll beat him hands down. But after what must have been less than sixty seconds of locking eyes with the man, I didn't just lose. I was hypnotized, rendered incapable of higher thought. Or even medium thought, like "Stay away. Girlfriend shares his bed."Within minutes of losing the staring contest, and battling an overwhelming urge to sniff Pascal's neck, I cooked up a plan. It was a simple plan, really. One that would solve what I was beginning to understand would be a constant dilemma: companionship on the road. With our cameras in hand, we'd leave Paris, our worldly possessions, the live-in girlfriend, and my less sexy lovers behind. We'd spend the next couple of years traversing the planet, bouncing from coup to insurrection, war to revolution, passing our days shooting pictures and our nights under the stars, making love to the gentle thrum of incoming mortar fire.Afterwards . . . well, I wasn't exactly sure. I didn't think in afterwards.Okay, so I had an active fantasy life, but this time I could smell the thoughts as they popped into my head. Or maybe it was just the big slabs of steak that Élodie, the live-in girlfriend, was preparing in the kitchen. In any case, while Elodie was off in the kitchen preparing the meat, while Chip was embroiled in another conversation, Pascal suddenly turned to me, blew a puff of his cigarette into my face, and said, "I'm going to Afghanistan next week. Why don't you come with me?"I sucked on my own cigarette, choked on it really, and blew the smoke back into his face. Then, composing myself, I shot him a conspiratorial smile. "Sure," I said. "Let's do it."It was as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Bookclub Guide

1. This memoir begins with the loss of an egg (menstruation) in a minefield and ends with the birth of a child at home. Discuss the metamorphosis of the author’s conceptions of motherhood.2. Often our knowledge about news events is shaped by the media’s portrayal of these events. At one point the author laments, after a photo of her climbing a Soviet tank is splashed across the front pages of newspapers, “Nobody wants to hear the truth when the myth is so much better.” Discuss the differences between the myths propagated by the media and realities the author saw in Israel (rock-throwing by the Palestinian children), Afghanistan (the mujehaddin yelling “Down with America!”), Holland (the quiet of the street versus the wire reports), Zimbabwe (a human life taken in the name of conservation), Romania (particularly the orphan photos), the former Soviet Union (the tank photo, the West’s embrace of perestroika versus the everyday reality of Soviet life), and even corporate America’s public lip service to family-friendly policies.3. How do you think the author’s experiences with random everyday violence influence her choice of career. What about her subsequent abandonment of this career?4. Examine the following statement from chapter five: “Whatever else we might choose to discuss, eventually it all comes back to either sex or the Holocaust.” What do you think this means?5. How does the author’s Jewish identity affect her actions and thoughts? In the fourth chapter, the author discusses the Hebrew word for love, ahavah, which is etymologically related to the word for giving, hav. How are Judaic notions of love and charity woven throughout the book?6. Each chapter in this book is named after a male of some significance in the author’s life. Three are lovers, one’s a good Samaritan, one’s her husband, one’s her son. Could this book have been written without the personal stories intertwined? Why do you think the author–an independent woman, crisscrossing the globe on her own–chose to title her chapters in such a way? What did each of these men teach her? What did she, in turn, teach them? Why do you think she dedicated the book to her daughter?7. Seeking companionship, understanding, a connection with others is one of our most basic human drives. But opening oneself up emotionally, like covering wars, is also dangerous. It makes us vulnerable. The French have this concept imbedded in their language: aventure can mean either “love affair” or “adventure.” Discuss this parallel as it pertains to both the author’s relationships and her work as a photojournalist.8. Throughout the ages, men have tried to control women and their bodies. Discuss this statement with regard to the author’s experiences both abroad (particularly in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe) and at home (particularly with regard to rape and assault.) Now take it further. How are all of the following things related: chastity belts, female genital mutilation, veils/headscarves/burkas, foot binding, high heels, workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, catcalls, spousal abuse, rape? Can you think of others?9. Western art, more often than not, involves men gazing at women. What happens when women gaze at men? Do we accept the frank female gaze or try to crush it? What does the way you critique this book say about you, your sense of morality, your acceptance or rejection of the female gaze? How does your gender and/or sexual identity affect the way you read this book? How does your age, religious beliefs, marital status, education or upbringing affect it?10. The author notes that all of her early heroes–Virginia Woolf, Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath–committed suicide. Compare the prose of Woolf, the photos of Arbus, the poetry of Plath. How do the different forms of their self-expression nevertheless offer some similar themes? How much of their psychology do you think was self-propelled and how much was influenced by the mores and values of the historical period into which each was born? Would a Woolf, an Arbus or a Plath born at the end of the twentieth century be less likely to commit suicide or not?11. The word “slut” has no male counterpart. Neither does the word “mistress.” How does gender-biased language affect out ideas about behavior?12. How will this book alter the way you look at a photograph in a magazine now, if at all?13. Is the embrace of family and its concomitant responsibilities an abandonment of feminism or an acceptance of biological reality? Why are many of the difficult choices faced by women–to abort or not, to “act like a man” or not, to marry or not, to procreate or not, to work outside the home or not–so fraught and politically charged that, whatever choices a woman makes, she will be lambasted by one camp or another for making them?14. What about the book’s title? Think about the double entendre: “babe” meaning “naïve”; “babe” as an appropriation of male language. Do you think the title works as an ironic conceit, or does it undercut the book’s message?15. How and why is humor used in this book? Is it ever inappropriately used? How do you deal with pain?16. Would this book have been better served if the author had transformed her experiences into fiction? Why or why not?

Editorial Reviews

“Shutterbabe zooms in on passionate self-discovery.” —USA Today“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.” —Chicago Tribune“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