Within the first lines, Deborah Copaken Kogan gets us hooked on her cathartic and poignant memoir. You'll find yourself having as much fun with the privilege insight into the walks of photojournalism in the 80s and 90s, as well as with the humorous (self-deprecating at times) and lucid account of Deborah's love life.
Featured Book: Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War
Featured Photographer: Deborah Copaken Kogan
Category: war photography
Publication: Villard, First Edition, January 2001
"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."
(Opening of Shutterbabe by Deborah Copaken Kogan.)
I read Shutterbabe for the first time a few years back, in 2005. I loved it so much I could barely put down the book! I would rush through the day, longing for 40 minutes of peace, just so I could devour a few more pages.
Since then I’ve read it again and again, with years of interval at time. And, regardless of the fact that I already knew the story plot, I always found it an exciting read.
Shutterbabe tells us the story of a young Deborah Copaken Kogan, trying to work and gain respect in a male-dominated world: war photojournalism.
When she first started, she was a 20-something years old, blond, slim, not-so-tall, and oh-so-cute girl. She could never be taken seriously! Especially not by all those male photojournalists, that seemed to be more interested in her cleavage rather than her work. But through the quality of her photographs and her strong determination, she slowly gained terrain and went to places and lived adventures most people never really get to experience.
Her professional struggle being a woman relating professionally with men is counterbalanced in the book by her personal struggle being a woman – a healthy, honest, openly sexual woman – relating sexually and emotionally with men.
Deborah intercalates the two main themes of the book, photography and love, by dividing the book into three main parts – develop, stop, fix – and then subdividing each part into chapters named after men that had an impact or are important in her life. With each one of these men, Deborah lived different adventures, took different pictures and learned more about her and about the different types of ‘love’ life can offer. Each one of these men helped her through the path of ‘develop-stop-fix’ who she was and who she wanted to become. Some of her earlier experiences with men are disastrous; others are just meaningless. Even so, they are an important part of who she is, and shaped and prepared her for those two important men in her life: her husband and her son – the two last chapters of the book.
There is a subtle, but perceptible, change in her tone. First, we meet a Deborah that is a force of nature, uninhibited, curious and unattached. This makes her equally fierce to throw herself into the frontline of the battlefield or to the harms of a charming man she just met – both situations potentially life threatening, as she finds out. But different men and different wars wear her armor out, and the thrill of the danger is replaced with a realization of the risks she was taking, a greater self-awareness and the will to lead a less hedonistic existence. She understands the value of love and being loved and feels for the first time the desire to raise a family.
This book appealed to me in two different ways: as a woman and as a photographer.
We like to think we are living in an open society, but that is not the case many times. Much of the problems Deborah faces through the book arise from the fact that much like her idols — Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf – she is a woman with a voice, an opinionated, strong, and honest voice. And even more dangerous: she is a woman with a will of her own! This can be very unpleasant to people. I find it exhilarating. And inspiring!
I grew up in a conservative society and have had experience with working in environments not as welcoming to women as one would like – so I can very easily relate to Deborah’s struggle to be accepted as an equal amongst the ‘boy’s club’ photojournalism (specially war journalism) used to be back in the 80s and 90s.
Furthermore, I find refreshing and empowering reading about a woman who makes no excuses about her ambitions or her sexuality. Interestingly, she is also very unapologetic about later in life having changed her mind about her career choices and her will to become a mother. People are shaped by their life experiences and by those who cross their paths, they change their perspective and their minds. That’s healthy! That’s what’s called evolving.
As a photographer
As a photography enthusiast, I loved having a privileged insight onto Deborah’s early days as a photojournalist. I loved seeing mirrored in the pages of the book the same compelling desire I feel of registering the world within the four corners of a photograph. I might never felt the need of going to the battlefield, but I know of the rush you experience when you are freezing one perfect moment through your lenses.
The book is filled with some of the most amazing gritty photos, who can immediately bring you back to those days and into Deborah’s adventures.
I also particularly enjoyed all the historical references. The first time I read it, it really helped me consolidate some of my knowledge on photograph history.
In summary, Shutterbabe is an intelligent and humorous account of Deborah Copaken Kogan early days as a photojournalist and her path to personal growth and happiness.