We sip coffee in an elegant hotel lobby discussing bloody conflict, war and survival. It seems grossly surreal but the woman next to me has seen it all, living it intensely over the years. Heidi Levine is not how I expected her.... in actual fact I had seen many of her pictures but none of herself. She is rather petite, with delicate features and eyes that are ready to twinkle at the right prompting, but which quickly retreat back behind veiled and guarded scrutiny.
Heidi Levine is an internationally known, award-winning American photojournalist. Put like that, the title is pretty much minimalist, it tells very little. I spend over an hour discovering so much more about her. The images she captures and the stories she writes and reports on are transmitted around the world. They speak of fresh and ongoing conflict, its aftermath and the people who suffer through it. Her work is (mainly) about war, but not only.
Yet it all started innocently enough with a college newspaper. "I was studying journalism and was fortunate to have studied photojournalism under the guidance of an exceptional and influential professor who had been in Vietnam, both in combat and as a photojournalist. At the time I was torn between choosing a career in psychology, sociology or photojournalism. He inspired me to make my decision. I began taking pictures for the college newspaper and I guess that started me in the right direction. I always tended to veer towards the social aspect of life situations. When I was younger I worked with mentally retarded children, with the elderly. When my father took me to New York, I didn't go to see the museums..... I went to walk the streets of Harlem."
In 1983 she travelled to Israel on an impulse in a bid to sort out a part of her life. She stayed there since, getting married, setting up a home, having three children in quick succession, divorcing. She has gone through the normal personal life route of many women, against a backdrop of ongoing war, with a key difference that did not allow here to detach from it.
Her first assignments in Israel in 1983 were for Associated Press. "The South Lebanon conflict had started a year before and Menachem Begin resigned in September. The Middle East was already sizzling with action." Eventually she started working with the French-based photo agency Sipa Press in 1991 and by that time she had already seen a great deal of war. Over the years she has witnessed key events... she reported back on Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, she went for a short reportage in Kosovo, she travelled most of the Middle East, she covered Libya, Egypt and more recently Syria. But the most difficult, vivid and persistent conflict in her experience has been the Israeli/Palestinian situation and all that materialised along the Gaza Strip.
"I have lived in Israel for more than half my life. I have my family and friends there. But I also have colleagues and friends on the Palestinian side. I have watched them raise their families. I have seen people getting killed, losing their home, experiencing tragedies. It's all very personal and yet I have to be professional and unbiased about it when I'm out there on the field. I get exposed to the other side of the conflict through my work. Mine is a very abnormal situation."
We talk about her pictures, the ones she takes during her reportages. She surprises me when she excuses herself for their, very often, grim and gruesome quality, as if any of the atrocities and tragedies she has reported through her pictures are any of her fault. "I know sometimes my pictures can come as a shock to people. But I try to bring reality to the world and believe me, it's amazing what one sees." When asked about the awards she has received over the years, including the prestigious 2012 Nomination for an Emmy Award in the category of New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming, she acknowledges the information but seems not very eager to talk about them.
Does she ever get burn-out? Heidi pauses for a minute before answering. It is a personal question on a professional level. "I'm not numb. I can get emotionally involved when I'm working. I cannot detach myself completely from the terrible things which happen around me as I work. You have to understand that when you do this kind of high-risk work, you experience a lot of physical changes. While you're in the middle of it all you get an adrenalin high which can last for a week or two weeks at a stretch. It works excellently when you're on the field - it raises your awareness, helps you focus and stay alive. Then you go back home and the adrenaline simply crashes. My body usually collapses - I come down with a bout of bad flu or start feeling extremely exhausted. I cry a lot and start feeling very short tempered." As her body and psyche try to re-asses things, Heidi says she finds she can't relate to humdrum concerns. After she's seen someone's home being destroyed or after having witnessed people being killed, she explains her inability to fret over the mundane. "I can't feel much compassion for somebody who's worried because their washing machine has broken down. Certain things become pretty trivial in comparison."
Heidi describes varied situations witnessed or documented over the years - the rampant female foeticide in India; a wedding in a Zaatari refugee camp wherein people have created a self-made and fully functional economy;.... I ask what impressed her most. "Early this year I travelled with Jordanian army soldiers to photograph Syrian refugees as they crossed the border into Jordan. We reached the location as darkness was falling and were warned not to take images with flash lights. There was no illumination. We waited for a long time in total silence. Then we started hearing sounds approaching in the darkness - people shuffling their feet, whispering, talking, children crying....."
The seemingly interminable silent exodus in pitch darkness impressed on her so much that to this day she considers it one of the most dramatic events ever experienced. As she managed to work her way around taking pictures with great difficulty, she saw children carrying family belongings, families walking together, tired, worn out and yet hopeful of refuge. "We were expecting 100 refugees. There were some 2000 in all. I thought of the Bible and its stories of people seeking refuge. And I remembered how, in 2007 I had photographed Iraqi refugees fleeing into Syria, and there I was witnessing Syrian refugees fleeing into Lebanon. History repeating itself....."
I ask Heidi about the dangers of being female in a combat zone. "When there is a good logistical system in place, you can feel somewhat protected. In Syria for instance, this was not in existence so I felt unable to push myself, whilst in Libya I did this with less effort. Many female colleagues were raped in Cairo. I was fortunately not, but groping gets so bad sometimes, that I have learnt how to defend myself well. Then again I was almost kidnapped in Baghdad in 2003."
Almost...a car drove up behind her and a colleague as they crossed the street to go into a restaurant. As she was held at gunpoint and was being pushed into the car, Heidi instinctively threw her pouch towards her friend, in a bid to avoid the kidnappers from getting her preciously important satellite phone. The phone fell out and when the men saw it, they grabbed it, pushed her away and drove off. "Getting a satellite phone was important for them, I guess that saved my life. But today, I still jump when a car drives up behind me unexpectedly."
As a safety measure, she has learnt to cover her hair, natural curls which stand out in a typical Middle Eastern crowd. "I have to be careful - I don't want to fool people because that would be disrespectful. But in a crowded situation, being 'invisible' helps. I wear inconspicuous clothing, try to blend in, sometimes I wear traditional clothing so effectively that not even my colleagues recognise me. I wear practical things, army shoes. Recently my mother gave me a pair of boots with a slight heel. She wanted me to wear something more different, more feminine. I love feminine things too of course, and I wore them to work to please her. However I was caught in gun battle and running for my life was the only way to survive. I threw the boots away and made it to safety... barefooted."
The interview was made possible thanks to the Malta Institute of Professional Photography (MIPP) who invited Ms Levine to Malta, along with other leading photographers, for the Malta 2013 International October Convention. The Convention has been organised in collaboration with the Society Representing Professional Image Makers (SWPP) and with the sponsorship of The Societies of Great Britain. It is open to all professional photographers and photography enthusiasts and is being held this weekend at Le Meridien Hotel, in St. Julian’s. For more information regarding the Malta Institute of Professional Photographers (MIPP) activity and events, please visit: http://convention.mipp-malta.com/prices-and-booking