Things you only know if you’re a war photographer

As Louder Than Bombs hits cinema screens, we spoke to Alison Baskerville about life as a female war photographer - and how she deals with life at home after spending time in conflict zones.


Photo Credit: Alison Baskerville

YOU’LL END UP IDENTIFYING AS A FEMINIST, EVEN IF YOU DIDN’T PLAN TO
‘It was only when I took a step back and started documenting women on the front line that I started to learn about inequality and gender. Until then, I’d often been outnumbered by men, but it wasn’t ever something that I paid attention to. As a photographer, you have the distance to see things objectively, and I realised how important it is to speak for the women who aren’t given a voice.’

AND YOU’LL HAVE TO TAKE FINANCIAL RISKS TOO

‘My first real experience of independent war photography was in Gaza. I didn’t have a commission, but I thought that if I wanted to understand conflict, then I needed to go to the heart of it. Looking back, it was a bit naive, but you should never go into photojournalism to make money anyway. And thankfully it worked out.’

Photo Credit: Alison Baskerville

FINDING YOUR MESSAGE IS TOUGH
‘When I document women, I try to show their dignity. I’m tired of the constant depiction of women as victims – it’s hard, because I know people want an immediate, emotional image. But I think photography can be dignifying, you just have to work hard at it. The best work comes from people who are photographing something they feel passionately about.’

IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT TO PRACTISE SELF-CARE
‘It’s hard to detach yourself from your experiences when you come home – especially if your work is celebrated. You can see that in the film, Louder Than Bombs – about a female war photographer and her relationships with her family – if you’re lauded by your peers as a success, then you really don’t want people to see you fall apart. So then the only people who you can take it out on are those close to you. There’s an ongoing struggle with your inner demons – and there’s very little support for you. The military is years ahead – you only ever go on one tour of conflict zones every year. As a journalist, you have like 24 hours between assignments, so you have to teach yourself how to decompress. I make sure that I go swimming on my first day back home – it’s something I’m not able to do when I’m away, and it’s a very simple, straightforward activity. Otherwise you just want to hide under the duvet and make everything go away.’

LEARNING THE BASICS IS CRUCIAL – BUT EVENTUALLY YOU HAVE TO GO IT ALONE
‘It sounds obvious, but you really need to take the time to learn photography and get the basics rights. You need to feel confident using your camera and thinking about the composition of your images. If you work for an agency, then you have to do what they tell you, and that’s good experience – although I wouldn’t do it forever, because it’s impossible to care about everything. And the best photography comes when you care.’

Photo Credit: Alison Baskerville

WEARING LIPSTICK WON’T AFFECT YOUR WORK
‘I get so angry about the idea that women in tough environments have to look manly. Screw that! Look as girly as you want! Don’t hide your femininity – if anything, it can actually help you in certain situations. But we shouldn’t let the gender thing dictate what women do with photography. I’m 41 and I’ve been through everything – trust me on this. Express who you are and be yourself. I see so many female photojournalists whose biggest problem is confidence. You need to be able to put yourself forward, and stop worrying about what other people think of you. They’re just worrying about what you think of them!’

YOU CAN’T LIVE ON COFFEE FOREVER
‘Eating well is really important, wherever you are. I used to survive on 20 espressos a day but you can’t function like that. Living on adrenaline wears you down. You need to find interests beyond work too. I’ve just started doing roller derby – it’s amazing. You have sixty women who all have different lives and different backgrounds, all taking their aggression out on something.’

YOU’RE NOT ACTUALLY ALL THAT SPECIAL
‘There’s a tendency to glamorise war photographers, but I spent 15 years in the military first, being told that I’m not special at all – and that’s actually really important to remember. The people who are special are the ones who are living through conflict every day and surviving it. I can get a plane home at any moment.’

Louder Than Bombs is out Friday 22nd April.

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