Deborah Copaken
Apr 5, 2018 · 17 min read

“How’d you get that shot?”

It’s the question I always get asked whenever I give a lecture to students or share my photos from the pre-digital era, when I was 22 and just out of college and working as a photojournalist. During those four years, 1988–92, I covered wars, skirmishes, coups, demonstrations, insurrections, an earthquake, drug addiction, U.S. race relations, and many other social issues, most of which I ended up writing about in a memoir. But today, whenever I give a lecture on that memoir, everyone always wants to know about process: the carrying of dozens of rolls of film on your body, in both a fanny pack and in the pockets of your photo vest; hiding them in your shoes or underwear when necessary; physically shipping those rolls out of the country via a passenger pigeon as quickly as possible. This involved first leaving the site of the conflict you were covering and finding the nearest airport, whether by car, bus, bicycle, donkey (yes, donkey), or on foot. Then you had to find a passenger willing to carry your film for you on the plane. (This was pre-9/11: it was easier back then to get people to lie about having accepted a package from a stranger.) Then — and this was often the hardest part, especially in Iron Curtain or third world countries — you had to find a payphone, call your agency in Paris, and tell them to send a motard — a messenger on a motorcycle — to greet the passenger at Charles de Gaulle airport, whom you would then describe in as much detail as possible (“Black hair, Jack Daniels t-shirt, pock-marked skin, red bandana…” or whatnot.) People still shake their heads at the absurdity of this. As do I. And while I once had several rolls of film seized by Israeli soldiers, who arrested me and another colleague in Ramallah and exposed our unprocessed film to the light, never once did I have a package of film carried by a passenger that did not made it to Paris in time for a deadline.

With all of this in mind, herewith some of the more unusual answers to, “How’d you get that shot?”

This is Boris Yeltsin on the second day of the Soviet coup, 1991. There’s a reason this is his back, not his front.

I am 5’2” on a good day. Sometimes, getting the shot really is a matter of strength, height, and muscle power. I could not get in front of Yeltsin, hard as I pushed and cajolled. His bodyguards were too strong. So you do what you can, given the tools at your disposal.

Meanwhile, I was able to get this one of Raisa, Bush and Gorby two weeks earlier, pre-coup, because it was a planned “grip and grin.”

“Grip and grin” is the phrase for when two leaders shake hands and smile for the cameras. What it really means is that you are in a pool of other photographers, all cordoned off with a rope, and you have two minutes to shoot, from often far away, what looks like a casual moment or important meeting between leaders but is really only a planned photo-op for purpose of dissemination by the media. The real meeting takes place behind closed doors. Why are the subjects so red? The film we all shot back then was slide film, which was much less forgiving of bad lighting than today’s digital cameras, which have in-camera mechanisms for white balance. When you shot with too long a lens for a flash to work, in tungsten lighting, back in 1991, your subjects came out looking red.

Sometimes the photos literally fall in front of your face.

This man was killed on the third night of the coup. I was crouching on the ground, keeping my head down to avoid the bullets, when the man fell next to me. I was on assignment for Newsweek at the time. While European magazines would publish images like the above, American magazines were back then (and still today) more squeamish, so below is the double page image that Newsweek chose to feature in its pages, taken minutes after the horrific one above. It’s more of a happy-go-lucky American football touchdown image, albeit with Molotov cocktail flames in the background: we won!

In other words, the image a magazine chooses often depends upon cultural norms and attitudes toward the acceptability of showing actual death up close.

The Soviet coup was not bloodless. Three people died. But you would not know that from this image, seen below in Newsweek…

© Deborah Copaken, Tearsheet from Newsweek, 1991

Below is a soldier in Afghanistan, at the end of the war with the Soviets. Looks pretty hairy, right?

Wrong. Don’t believe everything you see. This was not a man mid-skirmish. It was a simple game of shoot-the-can. Wars can get boring. There are many, many hours when nothing is happening. So easy access to kalashnikovs + boredom = this.

This is a girl gang initiation in Los Angeles.

An editor at my former photo agency, Gamma, had said she’d read a story somewhere about girl gangs in LA, so off I was sent to LA, in January of 1990, with little more than this as information. Before I left, I called every high school in the gang-ridden areas I could find from my apartment in Paris, via way-too-expensive 411 calls to the U.S. No one would talk with me, except for one vice principal at a school in Watts who said he thought he could help introduce me to the girls in his school whom he said were in a gang which served as a substitute family to many of them. I showed up at his school. We sat down with the girls. Over a few days I built up their trust, hanging out with them every day after school until dark. One day they told me they were about to initiate a few new girls into the gang, which meant these newbies would be beaten by three gang members for 45 seconds straight without the right to defend themselves. With the girls’ permission, I cold-called the New York Times LA bureau and told them to send a reporter, stat. The veteran reporter who answered the phone, Seth Mydans, showed up a half hour later. The initiation began, in an alley between two houses.

Afterward, one of the girls looked like this.

The next day, our girl gang story was on the front page of the New York Times. The title? “Life in Girls’ Gang: Colors and Bloody Noses.”

Later, we went to meet one of their friends, a boy in a different gang who’d been hanging out in his bedroom for days, gun poised, waiting to be killed by a rival gang.

How did I get this shot? I saw him in the window. So I walked up to the window and asked if I could shoot him. He said yes, but only from the back.

When I arrived in Romania in 1990, just after Ceauçescu was assassinated, the communist symbol had been cut out of every flag.

But the situation was still unstable. I was trying to figure out a good way of expressing this in an image when I saw this flag waving right in front of a street lamp. Street lamps make for excellent ladders in a pinch. In fact, much of the skill of being a photojournalist during a moment of conflict is being able to scale whatever object is available to get an overview of the situation: mailboxes, newspaper boxes, street lights, telephone poles, sides of buildings, a friend’s shoulders, etc. Here I climbed the street lamp, held onto it with one hand and shot this photo with the other.

The problem is, sometimes when you climb up to get a better view, you can become the story.

This photo of a Soviet soldier angrily grabbing my arm was on the cover of USA Today and in hundreds of other newspapers and magazines on the day after the Soviet coup. What happened was this: tanks rolled down Gorky Street, ushering in the first minutes of the coup. I couldn’t see anything, so when one of the tanks stopped moving, I climbed up its side and started shooting photos. The tank commander popped out of his hole, started shaking me, and said, “Young lady! What do you think you’re doing?” In broken Russian I told him to please stop shaking me, I was just trying to get a better view. Another photographer, who’d climbed the tank behind mine, and couldn’t hear our conversation, shot an image of our “discussion.” Earlier that morning, when we heard that Gorbachev had gone missing, my editor at Newsweek told me to go outside and not look like a journalist that day: no vest, no press pass, hide your cameras in a backpack, etc. So here I looked like a civilian standing up to the army. Later, a German magazine found me and wanted to do a story on the “brave girl” who climbed the tank in resistance. I told them I wasn’t a brave girl. Or resisting. I was a 24-year-old photojournalist, doing my job.

But back to Romania for a moment, specifically their orphanages, which came to light in the wake of Ceauçescu’s demise.

The boy with his head in his hand in this photo had been tied to the bed by the piece of string next to his ankle. When I arrived with two Romanian friends, we demanded that he be untied. He’d been tied up for so long that, once untied, he never moved his once-shackled foot. How did I get this shot? My Romanian colleagues and I drove to Vulturesti, on a longstanding rumor about the existence of such orphanages; asked around if anyone knew where the facility was; and then stumbled upon this place. We bribed the nurses who ran it with lipstick and other cheap cosmetics I’d brought from Paris, as was de rigueur back then in communist countries for getting anything done, journalism-wise. (Bribing male government officials was more costly: a good bottle of whiskey was necessary.)

Nothing I’d ever seen prepared me for this glimpse inside the “Hospital for the Unrecoverables,” as this Romanian orphanage was called.

The children slept on bed frames without mattresses. Food was scarce to non-existent. Urine was splattered everywhere: on walls, floors, the children themselves. What little clothing they had were in tatters. In the shower room lay a dead child, who’d banged his head one too many times against a wall. As per Romanian law, he had to have an autopsy, to assess why he died. It was performed with a rusty saw by the nurses themselves, none of whom were trained to understand what they were seeing inside a body.

When I sent my black and white film to my agency, no one did anything with it. They didn’t even process the film. So I went back and shot it in color slide film, which was what magazines used back then.

Again, nothing. Instead of understanding that I was handing them a heretofore uncovered story, whether by me or by anyone, my editors chastised me for not covering the Romanian elections, as I was on assignment for the newspaper Libération to do so. “No one publishes stories in black and white anymore,” I was told. “And what are we even looking at here?” It wasn’t until the New York Times Magazine published another photographer’s images — in the black and white film I gave him to do so — that anyone in the West took any notice or action with regard to the orphans.

This was a girl in Jerusalem. I have no idea if she was Israeli or Palestinian, and it doesn’t really matter. She’s a kid growing up under conflict.

I also had no idea she was holding a cookie in her other hand until I saw the image afterward. I just saw her pick up a bullet off the ground in front of a group of IDF soldiers, quickly shot the image, and moved on.

I shot this image in a cafe in an Israeli settlement outside Jerusalem, where I’d stopped to get a falafel sandwich.

I was drawn by its everyday-ness. The reality of living life in a place where you just lay your uzi down on the floor, like a purse, while you eat. I’d forgotten it was even on the roll of film until it showed up in the New York Times a few years later, as illustration for an Op-Ed…

Here’s the Op-Ed.

Looking back over all the images I shot, I realized, only in retrospect, that I was often interested with how living in conflict affects everyday life, particularly for children.

I didn’t seek out these images of children living under conflict in Afghanistan. They appeared before my eye, in the course of covering the end of the war with the Soviets.

And these are kids in Romania, just after the coup.

Monkey see, monkey do. How do we keep forgetting that?

I also did many stories on the topic of drug abuse. This was one of those crazy moments when sign and signifier suddenly — and seemingly magically — aligned.

I was sent to D.C. to do a story on the crack crisis. I met this addict in the street. He needed to get high, so he crouched between two cars in a parking lot. I don’t think he even noticed the words on the side of the car.

At first I was surprised by how many addicts didn’t mind being photographed getting high.

But the more stories I did on drug addiction, the more I understood that the addiction takes precedence over everything. And maybe even some part of them wanted to be seen, understood. In exchange for a bag of groceries, which this man asked me to buy him, as he was hungry, he invited me into the squat he called home.

This image was shot in broad daylight, in the Platzpitz in Zurich, Switzerland, where the government had set up a needle exchange program to curb the spread of AIDS.

My photo agency had previously sent two other photographers — male, burly — to shoot this park, and each had come back beaten up and empty handed with broken lenses because the dealers making money off the addicts the park, who didn’t want their new meal ticket exposed in the media, would smash photographers’ cameras. At 23-years-old, I still looked to be in my teens, so my editor, seeing this as an advantage, told me to just dress like an American tourist with only one camera, my Leica, with the Leica symbol covered with a piece of black tape, so it would look like a cheap tourist camera. I spent three days shooting this park, with no one bothering me, until on the third night, I went back to my hotel and caught two dealers ransacking my room, looking for film. As a warning, they sliced a Swiss army knife into my forearm. I still have the scar.

This is a completely set-up shot: photo montée, as it was called at my agency, and I disliked doing it. But my editors were asking for a specific image, well composed and well lit, to sell to magazines.

The Zimbabwe government had issued a shoot-to-kill edict for any poacher caught red-handed with a rhino horn. These soldiers were part of the anti-poaching team that would hunt down poachers and kill them. But they did most of their work in the wee hours of the morning or during the heat of the day, when the light was either too dark or too harsh. So we set up this shot at sunset, right on the banks of the Zambezi, with the elephant grazing in the background. It served its purpose — we sold the story — but to me this is not photojournalism. It’s marketing in the name of selling the the story.

This was the real story: a life felled in the name of rhino conservation.

Most poachers were poor, trying to earn money for their families. I’d never thought of it that way until I saw this poacher lying dead in the jungle, in a puddle of his own blood, having been shot in the back without trial or jury. The other hideous sinking thought was this: had they shot him for me? So I could go back to Paris with the story? How much are we implicated in some of the stories we cover?

This is how the images looked in a magazine.

Sometimes luck plays a role in a particular image. This was the third night of the Soviet Coup. My flash battery was dead.

This was one of those instances when the three elements that can normally ruin a photo — lack of light; the photographer’s shaking fear; and a bum battery — actually made it better. You can sense my trembling hands. The long exposure provided the contrast of the movement of the tank with the stillness of the man facing it down. Sometimes, a compelling photo really is a matter of luck — even bad luck! — and circumstance.

Here’s another photo in which luck played a crucial role.

I’d been sent down to Nimes, France, to do a story on the Gypsy Kings. I’d never been to Nimes, so I did a little sightseeing on the first day, stopping in front of this church. I paused to take a photo of the girls. At that exact moment, a priest stepped into the left side of the frame just as the girl’s skirt caught a gust of wind. You can’t plan that kind of stuff. It just happens.

Same with this image: luck. Or what Cartier-Bresson calls “the decisive moment.”

It was my first week living in Paris. I’d just graduated college and was visiting the Eiffel Tower with my roommates. We were thrilled! We were at the beginning of our adult lives, living in Paris! We’d actually pulled it off! I saw this elegant older man on the Champs de Mars pushing an old-fashioned double stroller. Suddenly, he stopped to catch his breath, and the stroller kept rolling. I gasped. And simply held up my camera to capture it. There was no skill involved. I didn’t even move to get a better angle. Even in the moment I was shooting it, I understood why I’d gasped: the image spoke of mortality and impermanence, how time will always march on without us. At 22, on the brink of my own adult life, I hadn’t thought of my own impermanence in any real way until this image appeared out of nowhere.

Inevitably, however, whenever I give a lecture, I get the most “How’d you get that shot?” questions for my 1988 college thesis, “Shooting Back,” which was my answer, three decades before #MeToo, to the scourge of sexual harassment.

The rules of my project were simple: scared out of my wits from various crimes committed against me, I was to go to areas where women more often than not get harassed (red light districts, busy intersections, etc.), and if a man said something along the lines of, “Hey, baby, wanna get it on?” I’d say, “No, thanks, but I would like to shoot your photo.” It was my own form of self-therapy. Every photo in the series had to be shot with a 28 millimeter lens. For one, it’s the only lens I had. For another, it forced me to get right in these men’s faces, two inches away, to get these portraits. Thus I turned hunter into prey.

These men chased me down the street in dog masks.

I didn’t even have time to figure out the lighting on the manual camera, so most of the bottom right of the image is completely underexposed, but that’s okay. The feeling of being hunted is still there.

And this man? I didn’t even have time to get in his face.

He just dropped his pants and flashed me before I understood what was happening. I shot the image and ran.

This guy said, “Hey, there, beautiful, wanna see my tattoo?”

“Sure,” I said. “You get it?” he said. “Yes,” I said. “I get it. You love sex. I’m pretty sure you’re not the only one. Thanks for posing. Bye.”

These images from my college thesis were published and exhibited around the world, won awards, and made my career, giving me a leg up when I moved to Paris to start my professional life.

That’s what I mostly tell students who ask, “How’d you get that shot?”: I did this project because I’d been beaten, several times, mugged, several times, and raped, on top of the everyday harassment all women get. These were awful things that happened to me, but if you can turn your disadvantages to your advantage, in any domain, and make it into art, or a story, or a business, or a movement, you can not only overcome your darkness, you can turn it into light. And that, in a nutshell, is how I got my shot.

Deborah Copaken

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Writes (SHUTTERBABE, THE RED BOOK, EMILY IN PARIS, ATLANTIC, NEUROTRACK, etc.) Shoots (photos.) Tries her best. Sometimes fails.