Portraits of a War Photographer

Last week, between watching Sebastian Junger‘s beautiful film homage to his friend, Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? and reading Alan Huffman’s Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, I feel like I knew this remarkable man. And I mourn his loss. th

I’ve thought about why I was so affected by this man, this story of Tim Hetherington. It doesn’t hurt that besides being extremely smart, charming, kind, and of excellent character, Tim was also handsome. With all of this, how could one not fall a little in love with him? Clearly everyone – women and men – did. But there’s something else about him that got under my skin, something sad and familiar.

In Junger’s film, there is footage of Tim during his first experience of war in Liberia.  Visibly buzzing from shock and adrenaline after a very close-call, he says something about feeling stupid for taking the risk – ‘all for a fucking photograph’. Yet he kept at it, making his way to war-zone after war-zone, with his clunky, old-style camera. He took the risks repeatedly, although his images were primarily faces, portraits of intimacy, capturing something internal, not typical war-action shots.

At a weirdly prescient talk in Moscow given not long before he was killed by mortar shrapnel in Libya, he tells his audience that the odds of staying safe the longer one kept at it, were not good. He knew. He knew early on in his career and yet, compelled, he continued, going closer and closer to the edge. Huffman writes that Tim recognized a pattern of behavior among soldiers and “He also saw the same patterns of behavior in himself. They were all looking for a sense of purpose, which the extremes of war gave them…”

In the film, one of the scenes that moved me the most was Tim with his family. The room brims with love as Tim kisses his mother, embraces, and holds his father. This footage was as affecting for me as the images of violence. He was so loved by family, friends, his stunning, smart girlfriend. Why did he leave them to knowingly move towards death? What did he seek? Yes, he left a powerful body of work behind — but it cannot outweigh the tremendous sense of loss that this fine man is no longer with us — too young. Read Huffman’s book and see Junger’s film and you will feel it too.

Something infects those who go to war – a kind of madness with no apparent cure. An essence of human nature is laid bare only out in those fields, amidst the mortared rubble. The weird and compelling intensity is like no other and impossible to adequately describe to one who has not experienced it. But Junger and Huffman have each done as brilliant a job as their subject did, in their loving, honest portrayals of the remarkable life of Tim Hetherington.

What a Painting Reveals

My remarkable friend Naomi in Kyoto, has generously featured a collage of mine on her website’s Chasing Writing in Art link. It’s humbling to be there with so many amazing artists.

Here’s my collage and a few words. Please check out Naomi’s site here.

Return from Journey Collage 1998 24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm
Return from Journey
24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm

I painted this piece at my home in Connecticut about two years after returning from living and working in a war zone. From June 1992- June 1996, I was with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation in Former Yugoslavia and UNICEF in Croatia and Bosnia. During that time, I met and married my husband and Molly was born.

I remember setting up my paints in front of the fireplace, imagining I’d capture a peaceful image. Instead, what I see now in this image, is torment. I recall the turmoil and demons we were living with, even as the trappings of our life seemed ideal. It was a struggle for us – especially my husband – to switch gears to a normal life away from war. The supposed tranquility  of a chair in front of a fireplace – this scene that should be cozy, looks like the center of a storm.

Indeed, it was. 

I still live in this house and love sitting by the fire. Twenty years on since the Balkan wars ended, almost ten since the death of my husband and these days, ghosts have mostly settled and my life is serene. I write more than paint. But I should attempt this interior again to see what would reveal itself.  I imagine it would be an image of warmth and peace – but who knows? The subconscious reveals itself almost in spite of us.

Moving Forward


Why aren’t we terrified to get out of bed in the morning? How is it that we can send our beloved children to venture out into the world on their own? Where do we find the courage when, like this past week in Boston, our world erupts in violence and a fog of fear descends? How is it that even when it is our own disaster, when we are at the epicenter of the storm, we carry on, eventually, finding at least a modicum of joy again?


That light can eventually penetrate the darkest night of the spirit, fascinates and inspires me. Religion is the key for many, but I find no comfort nor convincing explanation there.  I’ve seen up close, soldiers wearing the icons of their religions, pumping their AK47s in the air as they sped towards the front line, off to kill and maim under the guise of the superiority of their own belief.  The righteousness that religion inspires feels divisive and dangerous to me and personally, I find no comfort in it.

No, what fascinates and moves me is the grace to be found in uncertainty. The ability we have to move on in our not-knowing. To just keep moving. It seems that this is what survivors do – (and we are all eventually survivors) as dark as our individual night might be, instinctually, as long as we might cling to sleep, wish for our own oblivion, eventually, a crack of light breaks through.


It is this transcendence of the human spirit that touches me. Passing through the darkest siege, even with awful losses, violent memories, we continue. Time — terrible, wonderful, time keeps us shifting forward through the bleakest winters, through the insanities of war. And one day, we meet the spring – more beautiful than we remember – we go on, stepping forward, into and beyond the fear. A force of nature, of spirit, of love. A beautiful mystery.

The Next Big Thing ‘Blog Hop’

2012-08-01 22.53.39

Some time ago, the wonderful Nina Sankovitch, author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair tagged me to participate in an online ‘blog-hop’ or ‘blog-tour’. If this were a relay race, my teammates would be wondering where the hell I was. Well, huffing and puffing, I am finally catching up to answer some questions and pass the torch on to 5 more writers.

The Next Big Thing, as this online ‘blog tour’ is called, is a great way to find out what some of your favorite writers are working on and, discover new ones.

More about the next fab-five writers: Gabi Coatstworth, Lea Sylvestro, Jessica Speart and Linda Urbach,  Jennifer Wilson, later. First,  I must answer the 10 questions…

What is the working title of your book?The Things We Cannot Change: Loving an Addict Until Death

Where did the idea come from for the book?
 I don’t think I ever had an idea as much as a compulsion to write down the sometimes thrilling, often crazy story of my marriage.

What genre does your book fall under?
 Memoir with cross-over into addiction and grieving.

Which actors would you choose to play you in a movie rendition?
 I thought about waiting to post until after I scrutinized every actress at tonight’s Oscar awards with this question in mind, but instead, I solicited my daughter’s advice. She suggested Anne Hathaway – who she (sweetly) says I resemble. Maybe once-upon-a-time this was true …but in any case, she would be brilliant, especially in the scenes of misery of which (spoiler alert!) there are a few.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A love story between an American and British humanitarian relief worker launches hopefully in wartime Sarajevo, but turns into a tragedy of addiction and suicide in the suburbs of Connecticut.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
 I’m holding out for the traditional route. I work in a bookstore and would like to see it on the shelves. I have an army of friends and colleagues in the business who could help hand-sell it.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
 One year, but I’ve written many drafts since.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
 Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff. Honestly, there’s not much else on the Barnes & Noble shelves from the point of view of the sober, so I believe there is room for mine.

Who or What inspired you to write this book? I’ve been hosting authors for signings at B&N for years and I’ve learned from them that writing isn’t some kind of crazy alchemy (well, maybe a little) but rather demands discipline and time – so I mustered some of both and got cracking. I wanted my daughter to know that our story is nothing to be ashamed of. She’s read and okayed my manuscript otherwise, I would not put it out there.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I’ve yet to find anyone who has not been affected by a loved-one’s addiction or suicide. Survivors of tragedies find comfort in knowing we are not so alone and that life can get better again. There are also chapters set in exotic places – including Croatia, Italy and Kyoto – for the armchair traveler.

That’s it! Now let me introduce to you…

Gabi Coatsworth, a British-born writer who has spent half her life living in the United States. Gabi has been published in Perspectives, a Connecticut literary journal, and the Rio Grande Review (University of Texas at El Paso), online at TheSisterProject.com and in Mused, an online and print publication. Gabi is a prolific blogger.  She blogs regularly on local items of interest in the Fairfield Patch and The WriteConnexion – a writer’s life in Fairfield County CT. In 2012, she was featured in an anthology of women writers, Tangerine Tango. She is currently working on her first novel.

Jessica Speart is a freelance journalist specializing in wildlife enforcement issues, Jessica Speart has been published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, OMNI, Travel & Leisure, Audubon,and many other publications. She is the author of ten books in the Rachel Porter mystery series. In her eleventh book, Jessica chronicles her real-life sleuthing in the narrative non-fiction thriller WINGED OBSESSION: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.

Lea Sylvestro’s subjects range from woodchucks to witches, cancer to colonoscopies, travel, beach walks, birds, and beloved cars. Her essays explore the heart and humor in life’s big and little bits.  She writes from her eighteenth century house in the woods of Easton, where she lives with her husband of thirty-seven years. Lea’s day job is at Eagle Hill, a school for children with learning disabilities, and she still  finds time to be a women’s literacy volunteer in Bridgeport.  Her essays have appeared in newsletters for Save the Sound, The Aspetuck Land Trust, and Citizens for Easton as well as the Connecticut Post, Stamford Advocate, Danbury News Times and Minuteman newspapers.  She has two travel memoirs in progress.

Linda Howard Urbach’s most recent novel is Madame Bovary’s Daughter (Random House). Her first book, Expecting Miracles, was published by Putnam in the U.S (under the name Linda U. Howard) as well as England and France where it won the French Family Book Award. The book later sold to Paramount Pictures. Her second novel, The Money Honey, was also published by Putnam. Linda is the originator of “MoMoirs -The Umbilical Cord Stops Here!” performed by members of the Theatre Artists Workshop. It premiered at the Zipper Theater in NYC. She created and runs www.MoMoirs .com. Writing Workshops For & About Moms and was also an award winning advertising copywriter. (CLIO: “My Girdle’s Killing Me”)

Jennifer Wilson has been writing for 15 years for folks like EsquireNational Geographic TravelerBetter Homes & GardensBudget TravelBon AppetitParentsMidwest LivingIowa Outdoors, the Chicago Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer-PressSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and (the dearly departed) Gourmet and many others. She’s the travel maven for Traditional Home magazine and Midwest expert at AAA Living. Her first book, Running Away to Home, received the Best Nonfiction of 2011 Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Emerging Iowa Author Award in 2012.

A Memoir Excerpt Using the ‘Look Challenge’

My friend Gabi tagged me in her blog to participate in the ‘Look Challenge’. Click here for more details. I chose this excerpt from my memoir:

“Walking away from the Holiday Inn onto the open street, I imagined every sniper’s gun in Sarajevo trained on me. In theory, there was a ceasefire but the Holiday Inn was right on the front line and you never knew when a bored or drunken sniper might take a shot just for entertainment.  Wide as a boulevard, the street was deserted. It wasn’t far to the center of the city but I had never walked more than a few blocks in Sarajevo, and never alone.  I passed the towering, skeletal remains of office buildings, imagining someone watching from the dark interiors, sure a shot would ring out any moment. I wanted to run but feared drawing more attention to myself.

Ian had offered to drive me and now I felt stupid for walking alone, insisting I needed some moments of solitude before getting married.  Making my way across these sidewalks, I felt like a lost tourist who’d taken a wrong turn. In a sense, I was. I picked up my pace and tried to focus on breathing, gaze fixed on the mortar pocked pavement — these permanent marks in the concrete had been christened ‘Sarajevo roses’. How many of these scars marked someone’s death? Ian had earlier pointed out the block ahead where I’d be out of the range of the snipers.  I stepped up my pace.

I turned the corner, out of breath and steamy with sweat, heart pounding. A sign battered with shrapnel dents hung over a dark storefront.  ‘Frizerka’: hairdresser. Two middle-aged women in smocks sat on the doorway stoop.  Relieved, I greeted them, lifting my limp hair up hopelessly: “Dobor dan!  Ja sam treba hitna pomoc!”  ‘Hello!  I need emergency assistance’.  I mimed putting on a ring, and with a scramble of Bosnian words from my limited vocabulary, explained why I needed to look beautiful.  Laughing and  kissing my cheeks in congratulation, they ushered me through their dark shop to a basin in the corner. They washed my hair, scooping buckets of precious water either collected from rainwater or perhaps hauled in heavy buckets past drunken snipers. There was no running water in the city.

My racing pulse slowed. I was the only customer so both women, lit by the wan light breaking through the taped up windows, pitched in massaging my scalp, rinsing. We carried on chatting in snippets of languages.

By the time they finished I felt beautiful with my brown hair softly framing my face, blown dry with the help of a car battery.  The women kissed me again and wished me well, waving from the shop doorway. A little less nervously, I made my way down the deserted street and up sniper alley to get ready for my wedding.”

Hope, Despair, the Seasons

It seems counter-intuitive to plant and transplant when the leaves are falling and winter is headed our way, but experts say, autumn is the best time to do this. I find this  inspiring. Just when plants are fading, turning black and collapsing into the earth, we hopefully settle our transplants into a new patch scratched in to the soon-to-be-frozen earth. How do they make it through the winter?

Yesterday I moved a little pine tree that had gotten lost under the bullying boughs of the neighbors’ forsythia. It was easy to dig up – pines have shallow roots, that’s why so many succumb to storms. This is the only survivor of a pair Bosnian Pines I planted about 2 years ago. There was something so Charlie Brown’s Christmas-tree-like about them, I couldn’t resist. And the fact that they are Bosnian.

Can’t you imagine the wind relentlessly blowing through the needles, pulling the branches so that even in stillness, you can feel the mountain gusts?

We had a serious frost the other night, shutting down what was left of my relatively sad garden season. I retrieved the few green tomatoes and packed them away in a brown bag with the hope they might ripen. The basil and dahlias turned black. Good thing I retrieved this lovely beforehand.

As I was saying about inspiration — although this year was rough in the vegetable patch — with voracious furry and slimy creatures gobbling up the good stuff and tomato plants that grew huge and bushy but yielded few tomatoes — transplanting the little pine and a sage, I imagine next year. I notice the blueberry bushes – mostly just sticks these past seasons – have grown and filled out to be fine bushes. Next year, maybe I’ll get more than a berry or two.

See? My despondency about my garden losses is fading and I’m already starting to feel hopeful again about the future. Nurturing my Bosnian pine, keeping an eye that the needles don’t begin to crumble, can remind me that it is possible for hope to win over despair. Then, soberly, I realize this a luxury of my peaceful life.

I recall my short stint with the UN in Bosnia during the war, the winters of despair. Comparisons have been made to Syria — the world watching civilians get bombarded in their homes. Children maimed and killed. I will not pretend to have a solution — but I have a sense, a remembrance of the spirit crippling despondency of isolation, the sense that no one cares. A memory of biting cold winter that seems impossible to survive.  I will watch my transplanted tree carefully, remember and hope.

“Seek Shelter Now”

j.halman credit

This alert was emailed out by on of the local newspapers: Seek shelter now. Surreally alarming, don’t you think?  Tornado warnings are unusual in these parts and I’d wager that not many of us in the northeast know where we should shelter. Even after years of living in Kentucky where tornados are more common, I am not sure. (or the answer to the question – windows open or closed?)

But this headline resonated with me for other reasons, triggering memories. Seek shelter now! Is my home shelter? That question surfaced in my life more than once in the past, and not inspired by the weather. There were harrowing days when I needed escape from living with an addict.

I am reminded of the times when, as a traveler, I sometimes wearied of seeking shelter and longed for a home of my own as I peered out the train window at landscapes in Europe, in Asia.

I remember my first experience of war – shelling within days of my arrival to Knin in June 1992.  I had just checked in to a bleak Communist-era hotel, ready to start my job with the peacekeeping mission UNPROFOR when the building shook and my ears popped from a mortar shell landing just over the mountain. I went down to the lobby where the hotel staff answered my question of what to do? where to go? with blank looks. Marco, the interpreter from Belgrade I’d met earlier in the day, showed up to rescue me. His calm demeanor a comfort, he smiled and said, “There’s nothing we can do, so let’s go eat and drink wine”. That’s what we did, at first flinching, then, warmed by the good local wine, ignoring the thunder of shelling. A few years later in Sarajevo with my soon to be husband, shelter at the Holiday Inn meant sleeping under flak jackets but mostly feeling protected by the flush of new love.

The tornados did not land in our Connecticut city this time, but we were warned and I am reminded, grateful for safety today.

Paying Attention for What’s Next

What next? I’ve been batting this question around quite a bit, especially inspired by seasonal changes. Back-to-school activity, Monarchs frenetically flying around in migration prep, evening and morning temperature drops, these shifts into autumn prompt my own search for another gear.

‘What next?’ has recently been a question I particularly ponder about my writing. I’m ready to let go and get my memoir out into the world. While there are certainly still rewrites ahead on that, the question is, what to write about? I needed to write about my husband, our time in Bosnia, my daughter’s premature birth in Italy, struggling with his addiction, navigating Molly and myself out of the shadow of his suicide. The compulsion to tell that story got me up on the coldest of mornings, 7 days a week.

And the discipline stuck. For the past few years I religiously rose before dawn, before setting off to my day-job, rewrote, rewrote, rewrote. Now, it’s time to move on. I need to find a new story-itch and I think if I pay attention to the clamoring voices inside of me, I will. Perhaps that’s one of my best insights from years of living with insanity. Paying attention leads me to a feeling of serenity. Focused, present in a thoughtful way – that’s the state I aspire to be in as much as possible.

Writing helps me get there, especially if I do so with the expectation/hope of being read. So in a kind of letting-go exercise, I’m setting myself the challenge to come to this space each day rather than revisit old pages. If even briefly, to write — as a kind of meditation, or perchance to find my next story. It’s a start.

A Closet of Journals

Stashed in my closet is a plastic bin overflowing with journals of scribbled emotions, recordings of events, travel notes. From adolescence up until a few years ago, I compulsively filled notebooks with thoughts, thrills, anxieties and dreams. It was as if by recording it, I might save my life.

College journal.

Early journals have the curvy writing of teenage angst, annoyance with my parents, first love, terrible heartbreak. College – more adventures in love, discovering and floundering on my own. Studying was eclipsed by my desire to travel the world, so for a few months at eighteen, I traveled alone through Europe, a lined notebook (now missing) my constant  companion.  The next batch of beat-up spirals are scrawls of years in Kentucky where I enjoyed the friendship and support of the community of fellow Studio 70 artists. Kyoto is next – bicycling through the narrow streets, hours sitting in gardens – dream-like musings. Returning to New York, I filled books with my life in the city, job at the United Nations.  Pages brim with romantic thrills followed by heartbreak. Then, the war in Croatia and Bosnia – meeting and marrying N, having Molly.  The joys of being a mother, the pain and confusion of living with addiction. All of it jotted into these books.

From today I will try to write every day as a way of taking time for myself, of touching/listening to something from within, as a way of organizing my time in a way that some ‘work’ is possible. I would love to write – to have the life of a writer. For this I think I need not only discipline and stories to tell but an ability to listen and to tell, of the inner life. So from today I will take at least half an hour every morning, if not more, to keep this little journal. I can do this now as Molly sleeps…  a way of not just getting swallowed by the daily chores of my life.

I wrote this when Molly was 4 months old. The rumbling of desire to write a book –  I imagined a love story about  meeting and marrying N in Sarajevo during the war, giving birth to Molly prematurely in Italy. I thought I had the elements for a good story — little did I know of  the drama yet to unfold.

I no longer keep a journal. No time? No inclination? Because I blog instead? Perhaps a little of each. I think the answer is in the closet — that bin of books. I will probably just burn them one day. Braver now and less inclined to keep secrets, I am ready to move beyond the closet – and write with the hope of being read.

Admitting I am Powerless

The first of the 12-steps has always been a challenge for me, although I’ve had plenty of lessons. Like when my daughter was born 17 years ago last week — in the wrong country, almost 2 months early. You’d think that physically experiencing my powerlessness, I would have gotten it…

Mind you, there were things I might have done differently. (see, there I go!) I certainly should not have taken a helicopter to a UNICEF meeting 6 months into my pregnancy. Whipped through the sky by the Bora, a fierce wind that blows across the Adriatic in the spring, was like riding a roller coaster. It was the only time in my pregnancy I threw up. I felt her tightly wound up inside of me, my stomach taut. I imagined her holding on to the umbilical cord for dear life as we lurched through the air. Or perhaps it was descending the 17 flights of stairs from my office to the safety of the garage every time Serb shells were lobbed into Zagreb that spring. Maybe if I hadn’t done those things…

Or it may have been Molly’s first declaration of independence, claiming her right to Italian residency, like the smart girl she is. In spite of all our best laid plans, even though we had  plane tickets to England and an apartment rented in Oxford, and a midwife ready to deliver her. Molly’s name is instead, forever inked into the registry of births in an impossibly picturesque town in the heel of Italy. My little (just shy of 5 lbs) premie Italian.  I admit I cannot control a boundless love for her.



Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: