Daring to be Courageous in Work ‘That is Dangerous For Women’

Jodi_headshotFrom childhood I always believed I would be an artist, like many of my relatives. My paternal grandmother was a printmaker, my grandfather, an architect and an amateur bronze sculptor. My uncle was an accomplished painter and my mother a potter. But sometime near the end of my time as a college art-major, I veered off the art path.  I got interested in street photography and made a series of black and white prints from my travels along the U.S. –Mexican border.  My interest in the social and humanitarian dimension of the border and immigration led me to wonder how to best tell the stories I had experienced en route.

Long story short, I asked my mentor, a man who ran one of the best art-printing labs in the country, what he thought of my idea to become a photojournalist. Here was a prominent man, trusted by the best art photographers to handprint their portfolios, and friend to many of them as well.

My mentor told me that photojournalism was dangerous, and maybe not a good choice for a woman.

The last part stunned me. After all, I was raised to the “Free to Be You and Me” soundtrack, songs that championed the idea that girls could do anything boys could do (and vice verse). My mother is good with a drill and a belt sander and my father has no problem managing a load of dishes.

Riot police fired tear gas against protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 11, 2013, the 11th day of the Gezi Park anti-government protests engulfed many Turkish cities. Photo by Jodi Hilton

So, I dismissed my mentor’s advice, and took it as a dare: I would prove him wrong. I would be daring and courageous. During my first years as a photojournalist, I worked in newspapers. Interspersed with the more mundane assignments, I chased ambulances, photographed fires, floods and other disasters. In Ecuador I photographed street protests, in Honduras, ultra-violent Mara gangs. I eventually relocated to Turkey, where I covered many more protests, including the Gezi uprising that often featured violent conflict between protesters and police. I traveled across the border to Syria where internally displaced people were camped near the Turkish border and gunshots rang out in the distance. In Northern Iraq, I visited the Peshmerga frontline and through binoculars took a look at the black flag-bearing trucks that marked the ISIS frontline.

 

Fljurija Katunari, 18, with her two month-old daughter Elvira in a shack on the outskirts of Belgrade. Seventeen years after the war in Kosovo ended, many Kosovar-Roma families lack the documents, including a simple ID card, that would entitle them to social benefits, health care and the right to work. Photo by Jodi Hilton

My courage grew alongside my portfolio, and I thought that being in the middle of the action was actually a good choice for a woman, at least for a woman like me.

And then something happened. I’m not sure exactly when it started. But somehow over the last years I stopped longing to feel the thrill and adrenaline of an escalating situation. I had proved that I could be courageous in the face of danger. I needed a more compelling direction. It came to me shortly after I got rid of my gas mask; I rediscovered my initial keen interest in documenting human rights stories, and in particular, the plight of refugees, who are forced to leave their home as a matter of survival.

So now, my work is mostly focused on the everyday lives of people struggling to survive. I try to transmit empathy through my photographs, so that others may also see their humanity. Rather than capturing peak action, I’m trying to make nuanced images that initiate questions and encourage viewers to put themselves in the shoes of someone different than themselves.

Jodi Hilton photographing during a riot at the Hungarian border checkpoint in October of 2015. Photo by Maciej Moskwa

I’ve found that my art background is increasingly informing my work, too, as I look for any possible angle (using light, color, composition) to draw attention to the situations I’m documenting.

Now is the time to go back to my mentor, and tell him he was right, but that he was also wrong.

Because photojournalism isn’t only about covering battles, and the requisite courage needed to face down danger. It is just as much about empathy, expressing nuance. And art.

—–

Jodi’s is a photojournalist currently located in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her work has appeared on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Time, Vocativ, GlobalPost, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, PRI and National Public Radio. You can see more of her work on her website. You can also following her on Twitter or Facebook.

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