The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
REACHING THE WORLD
Dallas Morning News Senior Staff Photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer has traveled the globe covering historical events. She has documented dramatic moments in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Guatemala. During the height of the US-Iraq war, Diaz Meyer's first-hand photographic account communicated the situation to the world. For her documentary photography of the war in Iraq, Diaz Meyer and her colleague, David Leeson, received a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. Last fall, UMD caught up with her after she spoke at a photographer's conference.
UMD: Is it unusual for a paper like the Dallas Morning News to make the investment to send photographers into a war zone?
CDM: The Dallas Morning News is a great paper. It has made a major commitment to excellence in journalism and a commitment to covering major events, domestically and abroad. A few years ago, they sent photographers to cover hidden wars around the world. We went to places like Sudan, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, Congo and Guatemala. These were cruel wars, with their foundation in religious conflict or ethnic and tribal disputes. Even when a war ended, like in the country I covered, Guatemala, the aftermath of the cruelty was devastating. My assignment was to capture the legacy of the war and the reconciliation that people experienced. The Dallas Morning News willingly takes stories that are significant to its viewers and readers. That's also why it sent us to cover the Iraq war.
UMD: How do you decide what makes a good photograph?
CDM: When I take photographs, I first focus on the things that tell the story. I frame the elements to make order out of chaos. At UMD, I studied with Gloria DeFilipps Brush. I was fascinated by documentary photography and the work of the masters of reportage, like Henri Cartier-Bresson. He had the ability to capture a fleeting moment and still show the significance of the subject. Because I studied art at UMD, those lessons are still evident in my work. I can't help looking for visual elements such as lines, curves, rhythm and juxtaposition that change a photo from functional to aesthetic. The story telling comes first, but I strive for images that are easy on the eye.
UMD: Can you see yourself taking an assignment in a major conflict again?
CDM: Yes, I would take another assignment in a war zone. Maybe not right away, but I would do it. It's not an easy decision and sometimes I've got to weigh the risk to my life against the quality of the photographs that can be made. During the Iraq war we tried to document everything to make sense out of the experience. We needed to show all the facets, not just the aftermath of battles, but what the Iraqi military were doing and how the Iraqi women and the children were surviving. I also was able to show how the U.S. military personnel lived. The importance of documenting that hit me square in the eye when I spoke at UMD in 2004. A young woman came up to me crying after the presentation and thanked me. Her fiance was in Baghdad. She said I was able to give her a better understanding of what her fiance was going through.
UMD: Have you ever put your camera down to help?
CDM: My job is to take pictures that will reach out to people and inform them so they can make better decisions. That alone is incredibly important. Sometimes, I believe my presence as a photographer reminds people to have a conscience. We were in Afghanistan covering the fall of Konduz. When we saw Northern Alliance soldiers marching a group of Taliban men whom they had captured down a street, I followed them and took pictures. I felt that as long as I was nearby, there wouldn't be an execution. I don't know if I simply held off the inevitable or if those men lived, but I tried. To answer your question, if I felt that I was the only one who could help, I would help. But despite the extreme circumstances that I have been in, I've never been in a situation where there wasn't a more qualified person available to help. I have, however, put the camera down to cry.