Meridith Kohut had a plane to catch and a story to shoot.
Two days of traffic stalled along the narrow mountain road, blocked by felled trees and boulders and the Bolivian campesinos who had dragged them there to protest a local politician. Kohut’s cab stopped at the end of the line. She had a routine down for roadblocks. She bid her driver farewell, grabbed her camera gear, and started to walk.
She passed 18-wheelers and families camped along the winding road, eating pineapples from a truck once meant to export them. There was no way to reach her New York Times editor, no way to say she couldn’t make the event she was supposed to photograph. It was dusk and getting colder. She hitched a motorcycle up to the roadblock and approached the striking farmers.
“Think of the old people, the babies,” she pled with them. “They’re living off pineapples!” The men wouldn’t budge.
“So what do you do in that situation?” she asks a group of UT students, speaking on a panel of photojournalists. Kohut, BJ, BS ’07, works with the biggest names in media, and, at 32, has become one of the main visual storytellers in Latin America. Search for any major story from the region and you’ll see her work. On the panel, she sits beside photojournalism professor Eli Reed, her mentor, and repeats his saying from her college days: “You can’t publish an excuse.”
The blonde, green-eyed young woman’s rabble-rousing rhetoric, delivered in a slangy Venezuelan accent, might have startled the listless truck drivers. “Tenemos que unificarnos,” Kohut said, going truck to truck. “If we organize and we all unite, we can take them on.”
She returned with 150-odd truckers. There was no scuffle, but there was power in numbers. “‘One, two, three,’ I led the charge,” she says. “We started moving all those darn trees and those rocks and we got the cars through. And I made my flight.”
Some things she couldn’t force. “When I was a student,” she tells her audience, “they’d say, ‘Meridith, you’re an awful photographer.’” In spring 2005, she says a concerned professor pulled her aside in the photo lab just before graduation. “You don’t have what it takes,” he said.
A small part of her dismissed him. He was wrong, she thought. There was a place in the world for how she wanted to tell stories, though it often earned her bad grades. Her weeks of work should have taken an afternoon, professors said. Stay objective, they counseled. But Kohut got attached. She’d share meals with her subjects, she’d share apartments. Hell, she paid some rent. And she did skip class to surf.
“You’re not ready to work,” the professor urged. “Don’t graduate.”
The small part of Kohut quieted. She did what he said.
An Early Passion For Photography
Before there were roadblocks, there were Tupperware containers and high closet shelves. The Kohuts hid cameras from their oldest daughter, who burned through film. Camera in hand, she took dozens of pictures of pansies. She would tease her sisters’ hair and marshal the neighborhood girls for glamour shots. They would pad over to her wooded East Texas house in floppy Dalmatian ears and tutus from various dance recitals, toting the house lamps Kohut required for her photo shoots. In high school, she blackened her bathroom windows to use as a darkroom. Her first front-page story ran in the Tomball Magnolia Tribune — shots of a man who’d saved a fallen squirrel.
Her family wondered where it came from. Maybe it was her travel-agent grandmother, who plastered her fridge with souvenirs, to whom Kohut once vowed, “Grandma, I’ll have more magnets than you one day.” Somehow, as a senior in high school, she was voted both “most rebellious” and president of the National Honor Society. But after four years of college, Kohut was disenchanted with photojournalism. She started her new corporate communications major and planned to work at a non-governmental organization. That semester, however, a new professor was shaking up the program Kohut had left. Her friends reported back: “Everything you got bad grades for, he’s saying we should do!”
The next semester, she took a class with Eli Reed.
In Kohut, Reed saw a talented photographer who had been written off as a dreadlocked surfer chick. “As an African American, I am used to people trying to put me into a box for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I don’t usually put other people in them.” When he asked about her goals, she was hesitant. “I know it’s a really long shot,” she said, “but I’d like to work in the international press someday.” She’d never forget his response.
“All right. So go.”
“Get on a [f — -ing] plane,” she remembers him saying. “No money? We’re so close to Mexico. Get on a bus.” This, she realizes now, is what she had been waiting for: permission to just go. She bought a $50 bus ticket to Mexico and then went further south, settling in a camp of indigenous Guatemalans who had lost their homes to mudslides. “That first trip,” says her friend Nicole Fournier-Jefferis, BA ’06, “ensured her courage for the rest of her career.”
Mexico was safer then, “but it was still a dicey thing to do and a gutsy thing to do,” says Donna DeCesare, a professor who coached Kohut through the trip. She wasn’t easily impressed. When Kohut returned with photos but no names, DeCesare didn’t care that Kohut couldn’t speak the local language. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Who are you to take these pictures?” Kohut went back to the camp and asked for each person’s name. Their response stays with her. Tourists and volunteers had passed through the camp for months. You’re the first person to ask for my name, they told her, some crying, some inviting her into their homes. The experience looms large for Kohut, who keeps DeCesare’s hard-taught lesson close: “Am I doing the best job that I can by these people? They’re sharing their lives with me.”
“There’s no crying in photojournalism”
Soon after Kohut graduated, she got another chance to just go — World Picture News hired her to cover Venezuela. “It’s really blowing up right now,” they told her, and they weren’t far off. It was 2007. Crime in the country’s capital, Caracas, was among the world’s highest as Venezuela’s drug trade amped up. That year, President Hugo Chávez nationalized oil and electric companies and closed a TV station critical of his policies. Kohut arrived just weeks after he gave Venezuela its own time zone. She flew down with two friends that Christmas, one of whom was visiting his mother and siblings in Merida, a city in western Venezuela. He said she could live with them.
Kohut didn’t mind sharing a room with three people and a bathroom with 10. She could bathe from a bucket and eat rice and beans each meal from an outdoor kitchen; she liked roughing it. Some things she hadn’t expected. The girls stripped at a discoteca and the boys were low-level drug dealers. Weed and cocaine were ubiquitous in the cinderblock house. Heroin wafted behind closed doors. Kohut didn’t care. She left early each day to cover breaking news: a currency fluctuation, a protest. “I was doing real journalism, man,” she says, laughing. She was doing what she had always wanted to do.
A month after her friends left, World Picture News folded. At 25, Kohut was broke and out of work, living in a barrio with gangsters and strippers in one of the most violent countries on earth.
She called her mentor in tears.
“I don’t have a job anymore, Eli. Can I come back and be your assistant?”
Reed remembers the conversation. “I told her, basically, ‘There’s no crying in photojournalism.’”
Kohut has a different recollection. “He said, ‘Girl that’s great. I am so happy you’re not working there anymore. Those were such dumb stories.’” Yes, she would come home to a job, but first he had an assignment: a photo essay. “You’re living with this incredible family,” he said, and asked her to take a series of photographs that would tell a story about their lives. Kohut would turn her lens to them.
She hung out with the girls at the strip club. She went with the boys on their drug deals. She shot birthday parties and family dinners, and became friends with their cousin Maximo, who worked at a motorcycle shop and had his own bike. He’d let her ride on back with her camera, griping at her for wearing flip-flops on a motorcycle.
Charismatic and goofy, he grew serious when Kohut asked him to title his own photograph. He thought for weeks about the image she’d taken of him sleeping beneath posters of Hugo Chávez and Che Guevara. “I sleep in peace,” he finally said.
“Why,” she asked, “because your arms are crossed like you’re dead?”
“No, because of Chávez and Che, I can sleep peacefully,” he said. A few months later, Maximo asked Kohut if she wanted a ride. She grabbed her camera and started to follow him out the door. His hand on the doorknob, he looked down at her flip-flops, exasperated. “Dammit, put on some real shoes.” She turned to change shoes and heard gunshots. He died the moment he opened the door.
“That was the very, very first time that I had ever seen anyone die like that,” Kohut says. “It was very tough and it was very scary.”
She cried. After a while, she picked up her camera. Her first few shots were blurry.
The black and white images tell the rest. Mourners led by a band of motorcyclists, lifting Maximo’s coffin through the streets. A cousin screaming “Enough! Enough already!” as the casket is lowered. A woman standing in a hallway, staring. The family was used to her, Kohut says. No one minded the camera.
Kohut finished her photo essay and sent it to Reed, feeling defeated. Her international reporting attempt had devolved into a student project, she thought. She hadn’t made it. She planned to fly back to Texas.
“That gringo called for you again.”
Yeah right, she thought. Some gringo calls the house and they assume it’s for me.
The gringo kept calling, though, and one day, Kohut was there. It was a New York Times editor. “I saw your photo essay,” he said. He had an assignment for her.
This was all she needed. She moved to Caracas. She shot weddings between assignments, which at first were rare. For years, she lived in a girls-only apartment with a mean Spanish lady who stole her socks. Each new roommate revealed a new layer of Venezuela. Sandra, the aid worker whose boyfriend was shot 40 times and buried in a plastic bag. Eileen, the intellectual who left to work as a nanny in the U.S. The kidnapped roommate, the hardcore Chavista, the beauty queen.
Kohut tells their stories late at night. Out on assignment all day, she sounds tired over the crackling phone line. These days, her work spans the continent’s full range of stories. Some are still violent; others involve Caribbean chocolate or children’s orchestras. All strive for intimacy with her subjects.
Randal Archibold, the New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, remembers Kohut striding through a Salvadorian prison, riffing with tattooed gangsters as they catcalled her behind bars — and he remembers the prison guard’s long pause when she asked to enter a cell. “She’s one of our go-to people in Latin America,” he says. “And for good reason.”
Tonight she’s in Caracas. Next week it’s El Salvador. Eight years in, she’s been punched in the face on the job, detained by the police, bitten by a dog, and chased by a crocodile. On Saturday she donned a bulletproof vest and on Sunday she hosted Mother’s Day for her boyfriend’s mom. Her sleepy voice brightens when the subject of her family comes up, how her sisters rag on the Target runs and cuddle sessions that mark her trips back home. Her voice cracks when she hears how they worry for her. “You just want to be in both places all the time.”
Eight years in, she’s been punched in the face on the job, detained by the police, bitten by a dog, and chased by a crocodile.
But wherever she goes, her family goes with her. Sometimes directly — “She tries to run the family from South America,” jokes her middle sister Morgan — and sometimes, through the people whose lives she profiles. Like the mothers and children she met last summer fleeing terrible violence in Central America. “I grew up in such a safe, loving home in Texas,” she says, “but I’m still a child, and I still have a mother, and I can still empathize with that relationship.”
Some 69,000 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol report; the number of migrating families more than tripled. At the time, many experts believed they’d been drawn north by rumors of immigrant-friendly policies. But the women and kids Kohut spoke with knew nothing of policy, she says. Instead, they fled the same drug-fueled violence that had killed Maximo — a violence that often targeted children.
In a morgue in San Pedro Sulas, Kohut saw the bodies of Honduran children who were murdered by gangs, and she followed families as they fled their homes for safety. She rode with them on buses and slept beside them in shelters, introducing herself with questions meant to start a small connection. “It’s hot out here, huh? How long have you been waiting for the train?”
That’s how she got the shot. She waited all morning with a family in Tenosique, Mexico — a common stop for La Bestia (“The Beast”), the dangerous freight train that carries people north. But La Bestia didn’t slow that day. The men started running and Kohut did too, sprinting and snapping photos as they threw themselves onto the train.
Men in sweat-soaked shirts frame the shot, hauling themselves up the train’s grey ladders. The sky is bright blue behind them. Between the boxcars, being passed between two men, is a little boy.
There’s a lot Kohut loves in that image, chiefly its impact. It ran on the Times’ front page and helped inform policymakers and readers of a humanitarian crisis. She also loves the picture’s artistry. “I wish I could say it was my good eye,” she says, but she’d been running too fast; the train passed in a blur and she barely saw the boy.
It was only later, back at the shelter, that she reviewed her day’s work and saw a shot that photographers yearn for — when a roiling, complex story can be told in a single glance. And maybe, as Kohut claims, she can’t take credit for the play of the light, the layered composition, the symmetry of the moving people. For all else that went into it, though, she can.