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  • November 21, 2013

Remembering A Compassionate War Photographer

Author
Kurt Mutchler

A few weeks ago the National Geographic lobby was so crowded with young schoolgirls I could barely make it to the elevators. The place was jumping with energy and I asked the ticket takers if the girls were here to see the Women of Vision photography exhibit. Indeed they were. It features the work of 11 National Geographic magazine photographers—Maggie Steber, Kitra Cahana, Jodi Cobb, Stephanie Sinclair, Amy Toensing, Lynn Johnson, Lynsey Addario, Beverly Joubert, Carolyn Drake, Diane Cook and Erika Larsen.

I was thrilled to learn that the young girls were here to see this wonderful work. At the same time it also brought a touch of sadness to my heart. I remembered another photographer who is no longer with us, Alexandra Boulat, who died after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2007 at the age of 45. She was a pioneer in her own right and her work belongs in the exhibit too. I miss her spirit, courage, wonderful eye and love of telling stories.

Women take up arms in a military parade in Tikrit, Iraq, Saddam Hussein's hometown, a few weeks before the beginning of the Iraq War.
Women take up arms in a military parade in Tikrit, Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a few weeks before the beginning of the Iraq War.

Boulat was born in Paris and in her youth studied graphic art, art history, and worked as a painter. In 1989 she joined Sipa Press, a French photo agency, and began her career as a war photographer. In 2001 she co-founded the VII Photo Agency, of which Sinclair and Addario are now members.

In a 2006 email exchange with me, she wrote: “Before I started to be a photographer I really had no idea yet about becoming a photojournalist. I became a photojournalist only because I was interested in stories, in journalism, in the life of people especially in extreme situations. My motivation to become a photojournalist was not influenced by pictures, but because of [the] incredible situation[s] some people were involved in.”

Boulat published six stories in National Geographic magazine and I was fortunate to have worked with her on four: Albanians: A People Undone, Feb. 2000; Eyewitness Kosovo, Feb 2000; Baghdad Before the Bombs, June 2003; and Diary of a War, Sept. 2003.

Baghdad 2003. Inside an official sculpture studio, Alexandra Boulat found Saddam Hussein riding a horse straight out of the Arabian Nights. It was a time when no citizen felt free to criticize the government, so the workers were worried about letting her photograph this statue, covered in dust and in need of repair.
Baghdad 2003. Inside an official sculpture studio, Alexandra Boulat found Saddam Hussein riding a horse straight out of the Arabian Nights. It was a time when no citizen felt free to criticize the government, so the workers were worried about letting her photograph this statue, covered in dust and in need of repair.

Boulat was no stranger to the battlefield, covering the Balkan conflict in the late 1990s. Always aware of the risk to her own life, she was driven to give voice to the unheard, to bear witness to the unseen, and to somehow make sense of all the madness. She was a rare soul who could take in the chaos of war and somehow make it viewable for the rest of us. In 2003, the magazine sent her to Baghdad ahead of the U.S. invasion to document the beginning of the Iraq War.

Before the invasion, Saddam Hussein’s government scrutinized foreign journalists carefully by monitoring all stories and photographs being transmitted out of the country. A lot of photographers were subsequently kicked out of Iraq because the government didn’t like the pictures they saw on the photographers’ digital cameras and laptop screens. Boulat, on the other hand, was shooting film—making it more difficult for the Iraqis to know what she was photographing. She knew this, was allowed to stay, and took advantage of it by traveling all over Iraq.

Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat was escorted by her government minders to photograph a hundred or so foreign Arab fighters at a military training camp south of Baghdad before the Iraq War. She found them training as mujahideen to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers. Saddam Hussein was a secular leader and a less than devout Muslim, but that didn’t stop him from trying to mobilize the Muslim world for a jihad—or holy war—and a rerun of the Afghan conflict with the Soviet Union.
Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat was escorted by her government minders to photograph a hundred or so foreign Arab fighters at a military training camp south of Baghdad before the Iraq War. She found them training as mujahideen to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers. Saddam Hussein was a secular leader and a less than devout Muslim, but that didn’t stop him from trying to mobilize the Muslim world for a jihad—or holy war—and a rerun of the Afghan conflict with the Soviet Union.
Baghdad 2003. As Alexandra Boulat moved through the streets she felt that the American bombing had slowed a bit, probably because of the sandstorm that stifled Baghdad for the past two days, blanketing the city in an ominous red glow and lulling its residents into a strange lethargy. People couldn’t remember anything like it in their lifetimes. Men with guns wandered around in the haze. They said the storm was a gift from God because it was thwarting the U.S. troops’ advance on the city. It was bizarre because this dusty, oppressive weather is exactly the kind people usually hate, yet everyone had embraced it. They had hoped that the storm would never end.
Baghdad 2003. As Alexandra Boulat moved through the streets she felt that the American bombing had slowed a bit, probably because of the sandstorm that stifled Baghdad for the past two days, blanketing the city in an ominous red glow and lulling its residents into a strange lethargy. People couldn’t remember anything like it in their lifetimes. Men with guns wandered around in the haze. They said the storm was a gift from God because it was thwarting the U.S. troops’ advance on the city. It was bizarre because this dusty, oppressive weather is exactly the kind people usually hate, yet everyone had embraced it. They had hoped that the storm would never end.
Baghdad 2003. Iraqis started oil fires in and around Baghdad as a desperate attempt to blind fighter jets and fool guided missiles at the start of the Iraq War—a medieval defense technique against 21st century high-tech weaponry.
Baghdad 2003. Iraqis started oil fires in and around Baghdad as a desperate attempt to blind fighter jets and fool guided missiles at the start of the Iraq War—a medieval defense technique against 21st century high-tech weaponry.

Just before the American bombs began to fall, National Geographic editor-in-chief Bill Allen called Boulat and suggested that she leave for her own safety. She would have none of it. As other journalists left the country, she hunkered down in a central Baghdad hotel and watched the bombs from her balcony.

In her notes she wrote:

“Third day of bombing. Jet fighters started flying over our heads dropping their missiles over the presidential palace buildings across the river from our quarters at the Palestine Hotel. The power of the explosions was striking. Every minute the sky lit up with a new explosion. The bombing was bearable so I decided to keep my position on the 17th floor of the Palestine Hotel and not to rush down to the shelter. The strike ended after 30 minutes and left dramatic smoke in the air. Buildings inside the palace complex continued to burn all night long and few explosions could be heard from far away.”

Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat got word that 50 people had been killed in an explosion in a shopping center outside of the city. Some of the victims had been taken to a nearby mosque. “Can I go in?” she asked when the door opened, not knowing what was inside. And maybe because she was a woman, she was ushered into a stark room where two women bathed the body of a young relative in preparation for burial. It was unclear whether the explosion was caused by a U.S. bomb or an Iraqi missile, but in the end it didn't really matter for this 12-year-old girl.
Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat got word that 50 people had been killed in an explosion in a shopping center outside of the city. Some of the victims had been taken to a nearby mosque. “Can I go in?” she asked when the door opened, not knowing what was inside. And maybe because she was a woman, she was ushered into a stark room where two women bathed the body of a young relative in preparation for burial. It was unclear whether the explosion was caused by a U.S. bomb or an Iraqi missile, but in the end it didn’t really matter for this 12-year-old girl.
No one knew how the Iraqis would react when the Americans arrived in Baghdad. A hundred or so citizens gathered in Firdos Square outside the hotel to topple Saddam Hussein's statue. When pulling on a rope around his neck didn't work, an American tank came to do the job.
No one knew how the Iraqis would react when the Americans arrived in Baghdad. A hundred or so citizens gathered in Firdos Square outside the hotel to topple Saddam Hussein’s statue. When pulling on a rope around his neck didn’t work, an American tank came to do the job.
Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat went to a neighborhood that had organized to keep away looters. Middle-class men had set up checkpoints and barricades on the streets, stopping cars and threatening anyone who looked suspicious.
Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat went to a neighborhood that had organized to keep away looters. Middle-class men had set up checkpoints and barricades on the streets, stopping cars and threatening anyone who looked suspicious.

Her images of Baghdad before, during, and after the siege remain a unique view of the invasion that few other journalists witnessed.

Legendary photographer Eugene Smith wrote: “To have his photographs live on in history, past their important but short lifespan in a publication, is the final desire of nearly every photographer-artist who works in journalism.” Boulat’s photographs live on in history, hopefully inspiring school girls, as well as young photographers, everywhere.

Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat wondered if there would be a moment when the Iraqis would celebrate the end of the war. On April 23, she realized this was it. Crowds of Shiite pilgrims poured into the city of Karbala, 50 miles from Baghdad, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, grandson of the prophet Mohammad. The most fervent cut their heads with knives to show their grief and sorrow. Under Saddam Hussein's regime, this ritual was discouraged as too extreme.
Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat wondered if there would be a moment when the Iraqis would celebrate the end of the war. On April 23, she realized this was it. Crowds of Shiite pilgrims poured into the city of Karbala, 50 miles from Baghdad, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, grandson of the prophet Mohammad. The most fervent cut their heads with knives to show their grief and sorrow. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, this ritual was discouraged as too extreme.
Baghdad 2003. As the fighting began to wind down, Alexandra Boulat watched Iraqis dig up victims of Saddam Hussein's regime. In a cemetery near Abu Ghraib jail, where hundreds of his opponents were executed, about a thousand people were buried with only a number to mark the graves. When a list of names corresponding to the numbers was released, families came to identify loved ones and give them a proper burial.
Baghdad 2003. As the fighting began to wind down, Alexandra Boulat watched Iraqis dig up victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a cemetery near Abu Ghraib jail, where hundreds of his opponents were executed, about a thousand people were buried with only a number to mark the graves. When a list of names corresponding to the numbers was released, families came to identify loved ones and give them a proper burial.

Read more remembrances of Alexandra Boulat, and learn about the Pierre and Alexandra Boulat Association here.

There are 30 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jim Morris
    May 3, 2016

    Wow. What a powerful person. It’s amazing that one person can capture such a topic like this.

  2. aamir jafri
    November 10, 2015

    truly heart touching. It is a place i always wanted to go as i know people of iraq are still under threats and i would like to document it.

  3. Alaric Crowley
    February 1, 2015

    What a strong woman! The ability to stare unpredictable and uncontrollable danger in the face and not waver or even flinch is a unique quality in humans, and an even more rare quality in artists.
    I agree with the author of this article, seeing the progression of the war was moving and powerful! For the past few years I have wanted to be a war photojournalist, and this merely accels my sempiternal desire for the career.

  4. Donny Holbert
    December 6, 2014

    This was a beautiful tribute. I stumbled on this looking for information on becoming a photojournalist, i know now, this is what i want to do. It took me 6 years after high school to figure it out lol.
    Now i just need to find out how to start…

  5. Abhirup Bhadra
    November 20, 2014

    For a photographer , truthfulness of his/her lenses is the biggest parameter and this is reflected in Alexandra Boulat’s work . Deeply inspired and motivated by her approach towards Photography.

  6. Issa
    December 19, 2013

    Alex never wanted to leave us she will stay with us every day when we take a good picture that really tells the story the beauty the sadness misery and life I miss her all the time I’m sad because she never wanted to leave

  7. Tim Lambon
    December 18, 2013

    Great to have this post of Alex’s work and a good write-up about her. I was privileged to call Alex a friend and many were the days we spent ranging the war zones of the world. I first met her in Sarajevo, during the siege, when we living in the shell of the Holiday Inn through the winter of ’93 and then in Rwanda at the end of the genocide; in Goma where she was documenting the Hutu refugees dying in their thousands of cholera and so on down through the years in the DRC when Mabuto was overthrown, in Indonesia where she was so happy to have been commissioned for the first time by National Geographic and I was on my way back into East Timor. So many poignant moments in terrible situations…. Serbia, Kosovo, Palestine, Israel, Iraq. And then suddenly she was gone, and I still mourn for her bright smile, her endless cigarettes and her extraordinarily bouyant sense of humour. She was one of the greats and I miss her.

  8. April Alvarez
    December 9, 2013

    Thank you Kurt, what a beautiful remembrance. She was a true humanist and a graceful presence in journalism.

  9. Paola R.
    December 4, 2013

    So incredibly touching and inspiring

  10. Bevis Fusha
    December 3, 2013

    Alexandra, what a lady! I still have her visit card from 2004 Perpignan. The most precious thing I have from her beside remembering her eyes and voice.

  11. Aristi Costopoulou
    November 27, 2013

    Her work is striking. The stories and images of her work reflect the energy and spirit of photo journalism.

  12. Kent Kobersteen
    November 24, 2013

    Thank you, Kurt, for a wonderful tribute to a great lady. Alex was a truly compassionate and gifted photographer. I feel privileged to have worked with her, and to count her as a friend.

  13. Mikko Takkunen
    November 22, 2013

    I saw Alexandra speak at a photo seminar organised by her agency at The Royal Geographic Society in London in spring of 2007 when I was a budding photojournalism student. I remember her spirit and energy making a big impression along with her incredible photographs. Wonderful to see this piece on the blog.

  14. BT GILMAN
    November 22, 2013

    Her humanity is reflected in her photographs. Thanks, NG, for the exposition in D.C. Please bring it to L.A.

  15. Zach Roberts
    November 22, 2013

    I feel ashamed that while I recognize her work, I’ve never heard of Alexandra. It’s some of the most stunning, moving work I’ve ever seen in photo-journalism. The photographic community is at a loss without out her out there working at her craft which she was so incredibly brilliant at. She will be missed.

  16. Zsolt Repasy
    November 22, 2013

    Wht an great tribute about a great photographer. Her images are truly powerful and real story-tellers. A great example for all photographersand story-tellers.

  17. J.B. Russell
    November 22, 2013

    Thank you Kurt for writing this article and helping us all to remember. Alex was nothing short of extraordinary – her work and as a person. She is missed by all of us who knew her and worked with her, and I’m sure by the countless people who she touched through her incredible images and stories.

  18. SputnikYuri
    November 21, 2013

    Very powerful photography. Tears and words are not enough.

  19. Andrea De Silva
    November 21, 2013

    Thank you very much for sharing this with us. I was very happy to read her story and I could see the passion in her work. I have complete admiration and respect for photo journalist like Alexandra Boulat. It is photo journalist like her that inspire me.

  20. Simon Gratton
    November 21, 2013

    A great loss to humanity. Incredible .

  21. Michael Sullivan
    November 21, 2013

    What wonderful work. And what a thoughtful tribute. Thank you

  22. Nancy
    November 21, 2013

    An amazing collection of photographs. Clearly demonstrates the human side of war. We are all brothers and sisters, aren’t we!

  23. MArisela Zárate
    November 21, 2013

    shivery!!!!!!!

  24. Steven Sharp
    November 21, 2013

    Sorry

  25. Guenther Boeth
    November 21, 2013

    I love here pictures they are well taken and I love here work.

  26. Ron Haviv
    November 21, 2013

    Alex’s work hopefully will live on to educate and inspire for many years. She put her life, energy and creativity in telling the stories she thought were important. We are lucky, especially the founders of VII, to have had her in our lives for as long as we did.

  27. Julie Wegner
    November 21, 2013

    What a beautiful job on the photos. We will miss her terribly.

  28. Lee Treadwell
    November 21, 2013

    Besides being a brilliant and compassionate photog, she certainly had extraordinary courage.

  29. nina berman
    November 21, 2013

    Thank you for writing this tribute to Alexandra Boulat and showing her work on this blog. She was a very special, brilliant photographer and a great friend to many of us. She loved working for NG and her presence in the photography community is deeply missed.

  30. M. Scott Brauer
    November 21, 2013

    I met Alexandra about a year before she died while I was interning at VII. She struck me as compassionate, friendly, and passionate about the stories she told. It was so sad to lose one of the greats.

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