Life in Focus
The once-upon-a-time life that photojournalist-turned-author/mom Deborah Copaken Kogan -- five-foot-two and barely two steps out of Harvard -- formerly led seems unthinkably harsh: Her first major photography gig found her in the back of a truck in war-torn Afghanistan, wrapped head to foot in a blue burka, the only woman traveling with a unit of ultra-religious Muslim rebels. But we all get off on something, and for Kogan, it was romance in the fast lane combined with the split-second moments that can only come under conditions of war.
Kogan's fast-paced memoir, Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, takes off from the mountains of Afghanistan, never resting for a moment as she passes through Zimbabwe and Romania, until the last chapter, when she turns in her Domke bag and the cameras slung around her neck to become a wife and mother. She'll be in Denver on Wednesday to give a slide presentation and discuss the book at the Tattered Cover LoDo.
Though her book's catchy title has drawn flak, Kogan -- who herself once favored the designation "newswhore," a bit of photojournalist lingo, for the title -- simply says it's memorable and snappy, and that "shutterbabe" is more indicative of a "superhero self" than of the actual Deborah. "It's that idea of photography as a transformative phone booth: You go out with a camera around your neck and become this superhero, invincible, out in the world covering wars," Kogan explains. In essence, that's what she had to become in order to fit into what was not just a man's world, but a superman's world, where dead bodies are little more than fresh opportunities and moments of strife destined to be seen around the world are frequently posed. "You have to be a monk -- the kind of person not easily affected by what they see, with no ties to anyone on planet Earth," she says.
Still, as a war photographer, Kogan fulfilled one requirement in spades: "It helps to be a bit of an adrenaline junkie. A lot of the really good photojournalists can't sit still -- if you try to sit down and have a drink with them, they're always jumping. They can't live an ordinary life." Kogan, however, finds in the course of her story that she can: "I hear some people are pissed off by this book, but I really didn't mean to piss them off. People are forgetting this is a personal memoir about my journey to motherhood, about how I go from a girl covering war to a woman with children. But if you scratch the surface of any profession, you'll find yucky stuff -- for lack of a better term -- underneath. I find the yucky stuff interesting."
Kogan, now in her mid-30s and living in New York City, goes even deeper than that. "One reason I wrote the book was to explain to myself, as much as to my kids, what I was thinking," she notes. "What if my kids find my portfolio back in the closet and ask me, 'What were you doing?'" In re-examining that issue, she hopes her original, humanitarian sense of purpose as a journalist was realized, at least in some small way. "It's not cool to cover war; it's scary," she says. "It's exciting, too, but not to the point of being good. But I truly believe in the transformative power of imagery; I believe in working with it."
And that's where she is today. "I'm the cheesiest of cheeseballs -- I'm so excited by the sight of my child's feet. I walk into my kids' bedroom and watch them sleep, and I weep," Kogan admits.
"When you have children, you have to put your life slightly on the shelf. You feel your mortality, and you think, 'I've left this person on the planet. Now I'd better raise them well. Having children focuses you -- it makes that which was blurry come into very sharp focus, and you realize what's important and what's not. That sounds cliched, but I believe it, and I'll shout it until I'm dead."
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