UCI’s Center for Storytelling hosted “Photojournalism on the Edge,” a Zoom webinar discussion featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Carolyn Cole, on May 13.
Barry Siegel, the director of the Literary Journalism Program at UCI’s School of Humanities, began the discussion by introducing Cole, who is a current staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times and the recipient of various awards, including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for her coverage of the 2003 siege of Monrovia in the Second Liberian Civil War.
Siegel said the field of photojournalism is “an important and affecting dimension of storytelling, yet not as fully understood as it should be, for what it takes and how it’s done.”
Cole began the webinar by noting the importance of journalism “in this age of fake news” and the role that photography plays in documenting the world around us.
“I feel so fortunate to have found photography and photojournalism and I’ve been able to record many of the important events of the past three decades,” Cole said.
The photojournalist then provided more information about herself and her beginnings. “I still believe that journalism school is one of the best ways to accelerate your career. I took my first photojournalism class as a sophomore in college at Texas A&M, and I was hooked. I then transferred to the University of Texas where I graduated with a B.A. in journalism and after working for a year, I went back to graduate school to work on my portfolio. That led me to my first real internship at a newspaper in El Paso, Texas. And that was the turning point for me,” Cole said.
Her first assignment covered the political unrest in Northern Mexico, at the bridge crossing between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Cole said that her time in Mexico not only taught her about the cultural differences between countries but also “how to get in front of the news, how to stay ahead of the game and try to find positions that would allow [me] to take good pictures.”
Following her freelance work in Mexico, Cole traveled to Haiti several times to cover the United States’ involvement and the political strifes that it caused. She documented the living situation of civilians by taking photographs of the people’s daily lives. She showed a photo of a boy who would be considered “a modern-day slave, where he was working for someone because his parents couldn’t afford to feed him.”
In 2010, Cole covered an earthquake in Haiti which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Cole said that her goal is to create photos “that will draw people’s attention to these stories. Make them care about what’s going on. Hopefully have them stop and read the newspaper, read the story and build a bridge between our country and other countries and other cultures.”
When Cole covered the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, she took photos of how the war affected the civilians in South Lebanon. Additionally, following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Cole had traveled to Afghanistan to cover their side of the story.
“For me, what’s important about traveling to these places is being a witness to the U.S.’s involvement in these countries. I think it’s a part of my responsibilities as an American journalist to be there to see what’s happening in those countries,” she said.
Cole also discussed the importance of access. She said that “many of the things that need to be shown to the world are in places that authorities don’t want you to go and things that they don’t want you to see.”
During her travels to Iraq during the Iraq War, Cole was one of the few American journalists who was able to get into Baghdad and remain when armed conflict began.
Cole said that it was her job to cover the Iraqi side while other journalists were embedded with the U.S. military. “It is important to show both sides of a conflict, and that’s one of the things that I’ve done throughout my career: to be on one side of the conflict while we have other people on the other side of the conflict,” she said. “[The] Iraqi people really were very friendly … many didn’t believe that the United States was actually going to invade their country.”
While Cole has photographed many tragedies, she has also captured moments of peace. Cole recounted her time covering the Siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and said that she was able to get into the church where Palestinians had taken refuge to get away from Israeli attacks. While showing photos taken inside of the church, Cole said, “You can see how ornate the sanctuary is, and it’s just hard to believe that there was a war going on.”
Cole also talked about a young girl named Faith whom she had met at an orphanage in Monrovia in 2003. About 20 years later, Cole heard from Faith and learned she was adopted by an American family. “[Faith] told me that seeing me that day at the orphanage was very important to her and gave her some hope in what she considered a hopeless situation,” she said.
In addition to her international work, Cole also covered many stories in the United States. Some of her recent coverage include the COVID-19 pandemic in its early stages, the California wildfires and the Minneapolis protests last year. During her time in Minneapolis, Cole said that “at one point, I was completely blinded by pepper spray and was not able to finish that assignment.”
Cole spoke on covering potentially dangerous events such as protests and wars as a photojournalist. “I’ve always felt that it was important to at least try to have the proper safety gear. I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t been injured before Minneapolis, of all the covers I’ve done,” she said.
Cole said that she is still learning new technologies and methods that will help make her a better photographer. After covering the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Cole said that it inspired her to learn underwater photography and that it has helped her with her current environmental stories concerning issues such as rising sea levels and the effects on marine life. “I believe that we have to expand our tools and keep active in learning all the technology that we have available to tell the stories that are important,” she said.
“Photography has just been an amazing career for me. I’m very grateful to spend my life in photojournalism. I thought that 9/11 would be the most important assignment that I ever had, but it seems like the news today is more important, if not more critical than 9/11. So I hope all of you will take up the mantle and cover what’s happening in our communities and our country,” Cole said in her concluding statement.
Clara Chao is a Campus News intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.