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Interview: Heidi Levine

Interview: Silke Bartlick June 25, 2015

American war photographer Heidi Levine is the recipient of the first Anja Niedringhaus Award. She tells DW why she chose to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the last 30 years while raising three children.

Heidi Levine, Copyright: Heidi Levine
Image: Heidi Levine

DW: You started your career as a conflict journalist in Israel in 1983 and planned to stay just for a year. Now, more than 30 years later, you still live in Jerusalem. Although you cover other topics, why are you so interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

When I first started in my career, I was offered a job with the Associated Press in Israel, and it was only really supposed to be a one-year experience. Then I became a mother, almost at the same time. A couple years into my career, I realized I could somehow cover conflicts and still make it home and make dinner. Which can also be very complicated in itself!

Why did you choose to work as a conflict journalist?

You know, when I was growing up, I always knew that I wanted to do something that made a difference. I was also really influenced by the "Boston Globe" newspaper that paid a lot attention to photo journalism and what was going on in the world. There are many things that influenced me.

I've started my career in an area that is in conflict. But I'm not always in the middle of a gun battle. I also try to find stories behind the conflict to try to bring understanding about the people that are caught in it. I try not to take sides, I believe in coexistence. That's why I try hard to show both sides.

Anja Niedringhaus Award 2015, Copyright: Heidi Levine.
Levine has covered numerous conflicts in the Gaza Strip, as well as many other critical moments in the Middle EastImage: Heidi Levine

So what is your self-perception as a journalist?

I want to show the human cost of conflict. In the past, people used to say they didn't do anything to help because they didn't know. Well, today there is no excuse for someone to ever say that. And I feel that what I am doing is informing my audience and hoping that they will react and something will change.

Do you think this is at least sometimes successful?

Yes. I do! I still have to believe that change is possible. I still have hope although I have to say that my definition of hope has been challenged. You know, look at the world today: Conflicts are not just far away in the Middle East or in Africa. We are enclosed in them throughout the world. It hasn't stopped.

When you are at work, are there any lines you'd never cross?

Yes. I am not covering the conflict in Syria, because I feel that the risks are too high. I covered Syria before this war, but now journalists are being targeted and so many of us have been executed. Especially as a freelancer, I can't go to Syria right now.

How do you deal with death, injury and violence?

You never get used to it. Absolutely not. I'm known as one who is quite emotional about what I do and the people I meet. I am not afraid to put down my camera and to make sure a crying child gets proper treatment and try to make him feel better. After all, I am a mother, too.

Anja Niedringhaus Award 2015, Copyright: Heidi Levine.
Women mourn during the funeral of boys killed by an Israeli bombardment in the port of GazaImage: Heidi Levine

How do you capture your images in the heat of a battle?

Well, I must say that I really have been blessed with an incredible support system in the field. We all rely on sharing information, even though we are often put in positions were we are competing against each other.

I believe that when you cover conflict you do need someone with you. You need partners who can rescue you if something goes wrong. At the end of the day, you also need someone to talk about your experiences, because it's horrifying to witness what we do and then, you know, just go back to your room - when we even have a room or a place to sleep.

What do you look for when choosing your subjects?

Sometimes things are happening so quickly, you are not even choosing. But I'm looking to show how conflict destroys lives, how it tears families apart. I am definitely looking for emotion. I am also looking for something that helps everyone relate to the people that I am photographing.

Are there any photographs that will stay with you forever?

For me, all my photographs stay forever. I don't even like to delete the pictures that I'm never going to use.

When I left Gaza, I really felt my soul was broken. This is a conflict I've been covering for over three decades. So it's very emotional. I lost close colleagues. One was killed just two hours after he asked me for a contact number, to do a story that I did four days before.

Anja Niedringhaus Award 2015, Copyright: Heidi Levine.
Levine lost several friends and colleagues over the yearsImage: Heidi Levine

How do you deal with the pressures of your profession while being a mother of three children?

I won't say it's easy and I definitely had to multitask. When I'm covering the Palestinian Israeli conflict, I can brief on both sides in one hour and still make it home and prepare a dinner and wash the floors. But it's not always so easy to photograph a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv or Netanya and come back home and then have your children and say, "I'm going out…"

At times I probably wasn't the best mother in the world. You have to make compromises. We all have to make compromises from time to time, including the male photographers I am working with. There are so many fathers as well. Both women and men who cover conflicts have challenging professions.

In general, what does it mean to be a female and a journalist working in conflict areas?

When I started there were definitely fewer women working in conflict zones than today and it wasn't as accepted. Once in Libya a veteran correspondent started shouting at me, "What are you doing here? You have three children." I was really upset. It was my daughter's birthday that day, and believe me, the last thing I wanted was to be killed on my own child's birthday. I never forget that I'm a mother.

I went to Syria when my daughter was planning to be married that year and she said to me, you just can't get killed. And I have to admit, there wasn't a moment that her words didn't stay with me.

Anja Niedringhaus Award 2015, Copyright: Heidi Levine.
Palestinian men fleeing for shelter in Gaza City in 2014Image: Heidi Levine

You are the inaugural winner of the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. This award was created to honor the memory of AP photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed last year while reporting in Afghanistan. What does this prize mean to you?

(On the verge of tears…) It's super emotional. What can I tell you… Anja wasn't just my colleague. She was a friend, she was someone I admired, she was someone that reminded me I should laugh. And she wasn't just great in taking pictures, she was also great at life. Her mother's name is Heidi, too, so she told me that I had a special place in her heart. We had that kind of connection. So it's an incredible honor, but I wish I could trade it and have her back.

And what does it mean to be honored for courage?

You know, I've never really meant this to be. It's really about the people. They have the courage. How do people deal with what they've been exposed to and still even wake up the next day? I share this award with them.