Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

A passionate eye: Seeking the human condition in a war zone

Two young Kosovar Albanian girls smile as they welcome German NATO soldiers in Prizren, Kosovo in July1999 as homes burn in the background. (Alexandra Boulat / Association Pierre & Alexandra Boulat)
A passionate eye
She had an alluring persona, inherited a love and talent for photography and possessed a deep desire to find the human condition within conflict and war. Dr. Anthony Feinstein explains why an iconic photograph from the Balkans’ Civil War leads him to find out more about the photographer

About the series

Photojournalists are vital witnesses to global events. Through their lenses, we, the reader safe at home, glean a sliver of visual reality from places torn by man-made or natural catastrophe. As recent events have shown, kidnap for ransom and murder to instill terror has made journalism increasingly hazardous. This in turn has challenged journalists as never before when it comes to their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor at the University of Toronto, is a world leader on the psychological effects of war on frontline journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running a year-long project: Conflict Photographers. Once a month we’ll feature a frank and intimate interview between Dr. Feinstein and a photojournalist. Each article will showcase an image that represents a seminal moment in their life and career, and which often presents a window to a much greater issue.

In this sixth instalment of Conflict Photographers, Dr. Feinstein turns his attention to an iconic photograph from the Balkans’ Civil War.

I have a photograph in my office that tells the story of a civil war, a modern conflict with ancient hatreds going back centuries. Neighbours have turned on one another. Communities are at each other’s throats. A city, once home to the Winter Olympics, is now under siege and being destroyed piecemeal. Snipers high in the surrounding hills target children in the streets below. Artillery seeks out civilians in breadlines. Ethnic cleansing and concentration camps have returned to Europe, unbelievably, less than 50 years after the Holocaust.

So I choose my words carefully when I divulge how much I admire the photograph, for there is nothing to like or love in a subject so grim.

Rather, the attraction is in the way that civil war, conflict’s cruelest variation, has been subtly captured, generations of violence framed in an image from which we do not recoil, but which instead draws us in. Two young girls, Kosovar Albanians, are smiling, one enigmatically, the other brightly. The one who is laughing holds a bunch of flowers perhaps given to her by her NATO protectors. Behind the girls, out-of-focus, homes are burning. The Serbs have fled. Go a few months forward or back, shift location, and the same scene could just as easily have been playing out, with the roles reversed. Now it is the Kosovars’ homes that have been torched, their young men killed, their future no more certain than the flimsy, makeshift shelters of a refugee camp. So is written the history of the Balkans. And there it is, in one photograph.

Wanting to find out more about the photographer, I learn to my dismay that she died young. A couple of large-format photography books display the eclectic range of her interests and the creativity of her work, but very little is written about her apart from eulogies. I could have left it at that but for the image on my wall, which like all great photographs never loses the power to attract. So, four years after acquiring it, I travel to Paris to meet her mother. I am graciously received and soon learn that the photograph was also a favourite of her daughter’s. She had given it to her mother as a gift.

To gain a deeper understanding of a person’s character, it is often helpful to go back in time and explore childhood. These early years may give clues of what is to come and the history that emerged here did not disappoint. Her mother expressed surprise at how her “very cute, charming, soft little girl” changed over time to reveal a “curious, determined and driven character.” Her moods could be mercurial. She never said no to an adventure. The child who would in time become a celebrated photographer of conflict abhorred interpersonal conflict. Her mother regarded her as the family peacemaker.

With a father on contract to LIFE as a photographer and a mother running the Cosmos photo agency, it is perhaps not surprising that at least one of the couple’s two children would enter the profession as well. But not before their daughter spent years as a struggling artist, first in Japan with stints as a cabaret singer and model to boost income, and then in Paris. Festivities were about to begin for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, and with a camera from her father and at her mother’s suggestion, she focused the lens on a celebratory architectural project, the gilding of the dome of the Invalides. Success came quickly. The photographs appeared in a six-page Paris Match spread, which in turn led to an offer from Goksin Sipahioglu to join his agency, Sipa Press.

Sipahioglu was noted for an exceptional ability to anticipate events and obtain scoops. At first he sent his new recruit to cover local stories – strikes, politicians, fashion – but with his prescient eye, he could see that the simmering Balkans would be the next big news story. On June 27, 1991, when Slovenians shot down two helicopters of the Yugoslav People’s Army, signaling the onset of the Yugoslav civil war, his neophyte photographer was in the region. Sipa now rethought his decision to have her there; it was simply too dangerous to have such an inexperienced photographer in a war zone. Luc Delahaye was sent to replace her and she was instructed to return home. She refused. After years of drift she had found her métier.

I was intrigued to learn that her father in his distinguished career as a photographer had eschewed war. Philosophically far removed from Nietzsche’s dictum that to profit most from existence, man must live dangerously, he had refused a Vietnam assignment. He had seen the Second World War as a child, he confided to his wife, and that had done it for him. His daughter, on the other hand, had no such qualms, as he was to find out. One evening, while at home, he switched on the television. The Balkans were in flames. There, on the screen in front of him, he saw his daughter with her camera in the midst of a firefight. A bullet slammed into the very tree behind which she had taken cover.

Hard as it was for parents to see their daughter in such peril, neither of them ever tried to dissuade her from her chosen path. The dismemberment of Yugoslavia tested her courage and resilience, but in doing so also provided stories of great human interest. She became one of the very few journalists to gain access to the besieged town of Mostar, entering by caravan on horseback sitting atop crates of ammunition after a fraught two-day journey through the mountains. And it was her fearlessness, combined no doubt with her good looks and charm that persuaded Arkan, the most notorious of all Balkan warlords, to pose with his renegade militia for one of the war’s iconic photographs.

Father and daughter were very close. As an autodidact, she was learning as she went. Her dad, with his technical skills, was a ready source of knowledge when needed. If the two differed in their proclivity to work in war zones, what they shared was a passionate interest in the human condition. For, as her mother made clear to me, war in itself held little attraction for her daughter. What war provided was a conduit to the story.

And when the guns fell silent, what then? The photographs give the answer; her creativity readily found an outlet elsewhere. Indeed, her World Press Photograph of the Year Award could not be further removed from war. It is of Yves St. Laurent at his last show before retirement, the daughter completing a project on the designer first begun by her father 44 years previously, and who was now too ill to finish the cycle himself.

Behind the burgeoning career, prestigious awards and gathering fame, all was not, however, well. In a letter to her friend and colleague, the photojournalist Gary Knight, she let on how disillusioned she was becoming with her work. Her freewheeling spirit and iconoclasm were being cramped by the business dictates of her employers. “I’m reaching a dead end with a medium that I love…I’m losing inspiration and faith because the magazines I’m working for do not allow me to express myself, but only use me because they know that I know what they want. I’m some kind of prostitute here and can’t stand this position. OK, I can do it for money, but this is far from being enough to feed my soul…”.

To the outsider, these doubts were masked by an alluring persona. Her mother recalls that her daughter had a luminous presence that lit up a room. She had a way of naturally attracting people to her. There was no shortage of boyfriends, none of whom, to her mother’s bemusement, tended to endure. Relationships that blossomed in war zones faded once away from them.

It was while living with her partner in Ramallah that the headaches, which had first begun during a visit to Paris, worsened. Rather than seek the cause, she took handfuls of aspirin. Well-meaning friends suggested the problem might be due to dehydration. After all, she was living in a very hot climate. So she drank more water and took more aspirin.

When the aneurysm burst, the bleed was catastrophic, aggravated by the anti-coagulant properties of her analgesic. Getting by ambulance from Ramallah to Jerusalem was hindered by the security checks that such a journey always entails. All of which meant that by the time she was assessed by the neurosurgeons in Israel her coma was deep and the prognosis bleak. She was transported back to Paris on life support. When it became clear that recovery was not possible, the decision to turn off the ventilator was made by her mother. The funeral, held in a beautiful, small, rural church, brought together the photojournalism community to grieve and celebrate a remarkable life. Her mother remembers it as a wonderful outpouring of love and affection.

For a moment we sit in silence. The story is complete and a life has come full circle, albeit far too soon. I am filled with compassion and admiration for this woman opposite me who has had to confront, and, one hopes, transcended a parent’s worst fear. In the distance, fittingly, I glimpse the golden dome of the Invalides glistening in the late afternoon sunshine.

I have asked many questions, but before we end, I am asked one in return. Her daughter kept a diary in which she gave voice to conflicting ambitions. On the one hand, a desire to settle down in Paris and lead a more conventional life, but on the other, a restlessness, a never-ending, never satisfied drive to return to places on the edge. Where did this drive come from? It is clear to me that this question had long perplexed her mother, but notwithstanding a close and loving relationship with her daughter, had never been asked. And then it was too late.

It is a question that I am unable to answer completely, for I only know her daughter through her photographs and now this chat in a Parisian café. But what I can speak to with greater certainty is the neural basis for behaviour in general and, from this, extrapolate. And so I begin to explain the relevance of genes, epigenetics and heritability, neurotransmitters and enzymes, hormones and gender and how they intertwine with factors that are more difficult to quantify, like environmental, social and historical influences. I have an attentive listener, but I sense a certain skepticism too, for human behaviour with all its complexity will never fit comfortably into a neat, reductionist box. It is also surely unsettling to consider that free will, particularly a child’s free will, can be more heavily influenced by biological underpinnings than the love and unspoken wishes of parents.

Pathos envelops a life that has ended prematurely. So many unanswered questions left behind. But here, in this instance, there is also a body of work that endures, a creativity that lives on with the power to influence lives.

A woman walks into an exhibition of photographs in the south of France and is so moved by one particular image of young refugees that she starts up an NGO to assist children displaced by war. An image of another child from an exhibition in Dubrovnik leaves one man determined to track down what became of the child, and in the process he produces a documentary of his search, the photograph and the photographer. And then there is that photograph of the young women laughing against the backdrop of war, which has pulled me across the Atlantic to find out more about someone whose rare talent let her to capture the essence of the Balkan tragedy with such a deft touch.

Alexandra Boulat.

1962 – 2007

With thanks to Annie Boulat for the interview.

About Alexandra Boulat

Born in Paris in 1962, Alexandra Boulat originally trained in graphic art and art history before deciding to follow the steps of her father, LIFE Magazine photographer Pierre Boulat. She covered news, conflicts and social issues as well as producing extensive reportage on countries and people, including the wars in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999; the fall of the Taliban; the Iraqi people living under the embargo in the 1990’s; and the invasion of Baghdad by the coalition forced in 2003. In 2001, she co-founded VII Photo Agency. In the final years of her life, Ms. Boulat reported on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

More from the series

Three frames: 'It wasn't a calculated thing. I wanted to record it ...'

Joao Silva had been photographing war combatants and victims for two decades when he set out on patrol in Afghanistan with soldiers from Task Force 166 of the 4th Infantry Division. For most of his career, Joao Silva had been focusing his lens outwards, on the combatants and victims of war.

Capturing an emotion with empathy

David Seymour had a knack for setting his subjects at ease, an innate ability perhaps honed through his own unsettled past. As a friend once said of the photographer known as Chim, 'he picked up his camera the way a doctor takes his stethoscope out of his bag'

The absent: Bedrooms of the fallen a heartbreaking reminder of the cost of war

Covering the war in Iraq gave photographer Ashley Gilbertson a great sense of purpose, but his experiences there also left him scarred. Driven by a desire to humanize the war, Gilbertson's Bedrooms of the Fallen is a heartbreaking reminder that war reaches far beyond the battlefield

Embedly

Humanity's spirit and cruelty, in focus

Long before the refugee crisis in Europe, documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado captured the plight of the dispossessed in places such as Burundi, Bosnia and Mexico. His projects, as he explains to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, often took years to complete and at times left him physically and emotionally drained

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error