She traveled the world with journos as her family: "same guys, same war," same hotel, different country. The babe got married and had babies. Now Deborah Kogan frosts cupcakes at 3AM for her children's birthday parties. WHAT WAS SHE THINKING!
Inquiring minds want to know, so DJ contributing writer Amy Bowers asked Deb Kogan these questions:
Q: As a mother of two small children, how do your relationships redefine your career? Do you feel limited by family obligations, or by the attitude of your employers?
One of the reasons I left combat photography after only four years was that I had decided to have children. It became very clear to me early on that I would have to make that choice, if ever that choice were to present itself, as I did not believe I could be the kind of mother I wanted to be—present, involved, alive—if I were running around chasing wars. In that sense, the relationship did not define the career so much as the career was changed in order to cultivate the relationships. However, once I’d switched to television journalism, thinking it would be the kind of career I could have and still raise a family, that’s when I began to understand the dichotomy between the way corporate America treats families and the way I wanted to treat my family. When my children were young and still at home, I asked NBC if I could work a four-day week, taking the requisite cut in pay. They refused, and I left. Now, in retrospect, I’m glad I left, because it freed me up to start a new career as a writer, which I enjoy more than producing television, especially these days when television stories are geared more and more to the least common denominator. (I can’t tell you how many times my scripts were cleansed of any word containing more than three syllables.) But I also, more importantly, have control of my time, which is the key, as far as I’m concerned, to creating a feasible two-working parent household in the America we live in today, especially when one parent (like my husband) has to adhere to the constraints of corporate life.
The two things, as a working mom, that drive me crazy—and I wish I had the time and energy to try to change—is: 1) our lack of a good, affordable, subsidized national daycare system; and 2) corporate America’s indifference to the needs of working parents. I recently got a call from my best friend in Paris, who is an editor at Paris Match. She just had a baby, her first child, and was calling me on her first day back at the job. I asked how she was faring, as I know my first day back at NBC I spent the entire day fretting: about both leaving my child with a stranger and about all the money I was paying that stranger in my absence. “Absolutely fine,” she said. She’d just dropped her child off at the local crèche (a clean, bright, wonderful space with lovely caregivers for which she pays almost nothing), she’d pick her up in the evening, and her employers were being wonderful about helping her to face the new challenges of new parenthood. When I went back to work, my only choice was to hire an illegal immigrant—the legal ones were all either taken or charged more than we could afford—at $450 a week, which always seemed to climb to $550, because, what with my employers sometimes calling screenings or meetings after normal working hours, I was often late getting home. To add insult to injury, after five years of growing to love and trust our babysitter, she was poached by another family who—after seeing the kind way she treated my kids at the local Barnes and Noble—offered her twice what we were paying. Of course she had to take the offer: she was a working mom herself.
Q: I believe men define themselves by their accomplishments while a woman's identity comes from her relationships. Can you describe a relationship that made you feel most conflicted as a photographer?
I’m going to have a hard time answering this question, as I do not believe it to be so. I believe all of us, men and women, have within us a desire to succeed and a desire for love, but that these desires are sometimes at cross-purposes with one another. Now, society smiles on men who succeed and women who relate, while distrusting men who relate and women who succeed, which damages men as badly as it does women. Think how much better off we would all be if men were encouraged to be kind, to cultivate friendships, to be present in their families’ lives, and to visit the sick and the dying while women were encouraged to kick some serious ass.
When I wrote Shutterbabe, I played with this whole notion by naming the chapters of the book after the men (and in one case, boy) to whom I was “relating” at the time. I wanted to show the interplay—the very real, human interplay—between the striving for success and the longing for love, which coexist in all of us, no matter what our gender, no matter how lucid our awareness of that interplay.
Now, that being said, I did feel very conflicted, relationship-wise, after shooting the story of the Romanian orphans, just after the fall of Ceaucescu. I shot the pictures, shipped them on a plane off to Gamma in Paris, and waited to hear what happened. Nothing happened: my editor at Gamma told me to stop shooting pictures of poor kids and start shooting the pictures I was sent there to shoot, mainly pictures of demonstrations and elections. At that point, after seeing the conditions in which these kids were living, after “relating” to them, human being to human being, I realized that the exposure of their plight was more important than the furthering of my career with a scoop. I gave directions to a male photographer, much better known than I was, and told him to go shoot it and ship it to the New York Times Magazine, for whom he was on assignment. Which he did. And the rest you know.
Q: You've worked as a still photographer, TV producer, and writer? What's the best form of journalism for you?
In college, conflicted over my dueling left and right brains, I did a double major in English and in Visual and Environmental Studies (which is Harvard’s fancy name for the study of photography, film, architecture, and art.) That conflict—between the written and the visual—is still there, but I try not to let it drive me crazy anymore. When I was doing only photojournalism, from 1986-92, I was always taking notes, writing the accompanying story for the pictures I was presenting to magazines, a practice Gamma considered ludicrous, as it had a paid staff of writers to do so. But the way I saw it, these writers were based in Paris, had not seen what I’d seen, had not experienced what I’d experienced, and it behooved me to write down some words. When I worked solely in TV, from 1992-98, I loved the interchange between the images and the words, but, as I’ve already stated, the final product—diluted, dumbed down, tinkered upon by a dozen hands and minds—was never to my liking. Writing seems to suit me more than anything else I’ve ever done. I like working alone, I love to sit in my office in silence and let the thoughts—however inane, because they can be edited later—flow out, I like trying to create pictures with words. The best literature—think of the mushroom-gathering scene in Anna Karenina, i.e.—does this beautifully. No one can do it like Tolstoy, but every day when I sit down at my computer, I strive (how I strive and fail) to create such visually-inspired, memorable scenes.
However, I have not been able to go cold turkey on the photography. I shoot a lot, sometimes eight rolls of film a week, mostly just of my family or whatever we happen to be doing that day (rather than going out and seeking stories to shoot.) I’m also somewhat of a darkroom junkie, and if I don’t get into the darkroom to print every two months or so, I go through withdrawal.
As for a “best form” of journalism, I don’t think I can make that call. The best photographs (think Salgado, Cartier-Bresson), the best documentaries (think Gray Gardens), the best non-fiction writing (think Angela’s Ashes) all do what great art is supposed to do: transports, transforms, and inspires. My hope is to create one day, whatever the format, something equally as inspiring.
Q: What's your idea of a wonderful week?
A wonderful week, under normal circumstances, is one in which I’ve produced some acceptable writing, received a check for previous writing, taken some pictures, printed others in the darkroom, picked up my kids at least once from school, had one-on-one time with each of them, made time for family dinners, had a date with my husband, eaten a meal with a friend, seen a good movie or play, read a good book, went on a walk, went on a run, drank a glass of wine, made love, laughed, taken note of something beautiful, and snuggled with my children before bedtime.
A wonderful week, under abnormal circumstances, is one in which I did absolutely anything at all in Paris.
Q: What advice do you have for young shooterbabes?
I feel ill-equipped to give advice to young women starting out in photojournalism today, especially since I am a complete Luddite when it comes to the digital equipment, and I have little understanding of the realities of today’s marketplace. The only pictures I’m paid for these days are my old archives, photographs I take to accompany magazine pieces I’ve already been contracted to write, author photos of friends, and family portraits.
However, the passion to shoot is the passion to shoot, no matter what the circumstances of pay or history. So, without further ado, some pieces of advice:
1) If you’re going to have a career in photography, you have to start off with some capital, both to buy equipment and to travel. The best way I know of getting capital, fast, is waiting on tables. If you’re in college, find a good waitress job a few nights a week, during summers, whenever, because this leaves your daylight hours free to shoot. Then put that money where you can’t touch it until you get out of school, so you’re not tempted to buy beer instead of film.
2) Follow your instinct, not the crowd. It’s very tempting, when covering a news story, to stick with the pack. If you do this, your pictures will be exactly like theirs and will therefore be less likely to sell. If being a part of the pack is unavoidable—i.e. if someone, like the government, is controlling your movements—look around and see what everyone else is shooting, then chose a different angle.
3) Be pushy, be pushy, be pushy. When I arrived in Paris, I called every photo editor I could find and then called them again and again until they agreed to meet with me. Have a good portfolio ready to show them. Send thank you notes. Send periodic cards—like postcards, with your images on the front—to remind them you exist. Remember, there are many more photographers out there than assignments. But people like to give hungry rookies a chance, especially those who seem to have the capacity to get the job done.
4) Find unorthodox ways of funding your photojournalism. Hook into a community of parents and charge them $600 a pop for a good family portrait. Shoot weddings. Find corporate assignments.
5) Always think about the work you hope to do in the future. Wars? Go out and shoot one on your own dime. Portraits? That’s easy. Shoot your friends, neighbors, people you find in the street. Human interest stories? There are plenty of stories right in your neighborhood. Find them.
6) But most of all, just get out there and shoot.
Q: What is courage?
Courage is being willing to be adaptable. It is running toward danger when appropriate, away from it when necessary. It is putting all your eggs in one basket, then finding another basket when they break. It is standing up for what you believe in, yet knowing when to keep quiet. It is following your heart, but using your mind. It is striving for greatness, while settling for less. It is knowing when to put yourself first, yet caring for others. It is trying to be the best, but applauding those who have done better. It is trying to find meaning—yes, perhaps even God—every day, while doubting his existence.
Q: When the World Trade Center was hit, where were you, and what was your instinct?
I was in New York, on the Upper West Side, walking my daughter to school on her first day. I dropped her off, realized I’d forgotten to pack her a lunch, then walked back home to make it. While I was spreading the mayonnaise, a friend called to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I looked out my living room window, which was on the 19th floor, and saw the smoke billowing from the first tower. I turned on the TV. Saw the second plane hit, but didn’t realize it was a second plane until later. Very calmly, I walked my daughter’s lunch to her school, told the teachers what had happened and walked back home, thinking I should maybe take some pictures. But then my babysitter, who was in Brooklyn, called and said she couldn’t come in, as all the trains were halted. Then my daughter’s school called and said I should come back and pick her up immediately. She was four at the time, and I didn’t think it was appropriate to cart her along to the sight of a disaster. I called my son’s school, to find out what the procedure for picking him up would be. My daughter, now back at home, sat in the corner of the living room, staring at the burning buildings and asking who would adopt all the children of the mommies and daddies going up in flames. Which is when I finally broke down and cried. Then my daughter asked to go up to the roof to get a better view. We went up. I shot a roll of film as the buildings collapsed, strapped my little girl onto the back of my bicycle, and pedaled down the West Side Highway, against the crowd of refugees heading north away from the smoke, until we reached Contact, my old photo agency on 38th Street. Sasha was asleep in the bike seat by then, so I had to take her up the freight elevator, still strapped into the bike. I handed in my film, answered, “No,” (and pointed to my sleeping daughter, whose babysitter was stuck in Brooklyn) when I was asked if I could go down to ground zero to shoot. At this point, I had yet to pick up my son at school, which was all the way back on the Upper East Side, and I couldn’t even figure out how to get him because my husband was stuck walking from downtown, we don’t own a car, a bike can only carry one kid at a time, we lived pretty far from the school, and there were no taxis to be found. The old R.E.M. song, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” was playing, loudly, in my head.
Did I want to go shoot at ground zero? To tell you
the truth, not really. Yes, part of me knew this was an historical moment,
one that would need to be captured in photographs. But a larger part
of me just wanted to get the hell home, collect my family together and
figure out if we needed to rent a car to escape.