By James Estrin
Alexandra Avakian takes chances. She faced down militias in Somalia and covered riots and conflict in Gaza, Lebanon and the Caucasus to make the photographs in her book, ?Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World? (Focal Point/National Geographic, 2008).
Her daring extended to the visual composition of her often complex, multilayered photographs. Sometimes intense and complicated, other times gentle and intimate, Ms. Avakian?s photographs challenge the viewer.
?Life really is full of layers,? Ms. Avakian said in a phone conversation on Wednesday. ?It isn?t simple and orderly. It?s often complicated. I love chaos and making order out of chaos.?
Ms. Avakian, 48, is not a parachute journalist. She lived in Gaza for two years, Somalia for six frightening months and has been to Uzbekistan nine times. She immerses herself in her subjects? lives.
?I believe in being a fly on the wall and letting people forget me,? she said. ?Emotions and rhythms are revealed when they are used to you being there. It?s satisfying aesthetically and especially in terms of story telling.?
The work, which will be exhibited at the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France, provides a wide and rich view of Muslim life. The photographs taken in America sensitively portray a people trying to synthesize an American Muslim identity.
Many of the photographs in the book were shot on assignment for National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine and Time magazine. Ms. Avakian is also a senior member of Contact Press Images.
?For many years I documented violence and political struggles,? she wrote in the introduction to the book.
I took pride in being a messenger of the news and had to assess dangerous situations in seconds, finding the best place to shoot from without being shot at and always finding the quickest means of escape.
I learned the unfolding anatomy of a riot and how best to navigate it. Knowing when to simply stay inside was also important. Mostly the fear was manageable, but did get away from me sometimes, leaving me scared when I needn?t have been, or fearless when I should have been afraid. Now I still work in troubled countries, and peaceful ones, and do not pursue open conflict as a subject.
As I?ve traveled the Muslim world, I have been moved by its acceptance of me and the help I?ve gotten from so many ordinary and extraordinary people. I dress modestly and, when circumstances require, in Islamic attire, in consideration for cultural boundaries. At times the traditional hijab is as necessary for my work as a passport or a camera.
Photo: For nearly 20 years, renowned photojournalist Alexandra Avakian has photographed Muslims around the world. In her travels, she's witnessed life, death, weddings, prayer, famine, and uprising. Her new book, “Windows of the Soul”, offers readers a unique and intimate view of the Muslim world with breathtaking images she often risked her life to get. Here, an August 1994 photo shows a Palestinian girl holding a dove on the roof of her home in the Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza.
Source: “New York Times blog”, 04 June 2009 (LENS: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism)
Blog: “Windows of the Soul“
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