A young Haitian man writhes in pain at the burial of his mother in the National Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1987
"Jocelyne Benzakin was a very complicated woman. She was definitely a man's woman and throughout her career, while she was supportive of women, she preferred working with men because she felt she could count on them remaining serious about their careers. She was a petite woman with great heart and an intelligence that sprang very much from her instincts about people. Her point of view about everything was shaped by her past, which was exotic. One thing she was not was American nor quite French. Her father was the court photographer for the royal family in Morocco. Her mother was French. I remember seeing a photograph of Jocelyne when she was 15 and I had never--and still have never--seen anyone as exotic and drop-dead gorgeous as she was. She was a ballerina then and must have been exquisite to watch, like some tiny mesmerizing doll. Her wit was huge and would envelope you but she could easily misinterpret something you had said and when that happened, there was hell to pay.
When I first met her in 1980, I had just returned from covering the guerrilla war in Rhodesia for two years. We both worked for Sipa then and the Paris office told me to contact her when I returned to NYC. I did. She wasn't sure about me at all but finally, at Mr. Sipa's request, agreed to work with me. It was the start of a remarkable period in both of our lives. I thought she surely was the most exotic person I had ever met and in some way, I fell in love with her, not in any sexual way, but in a way that one does when one is caught so off guard by the possibility of a creature like this. Strong as iron at one moment and completely vulnerable at the next. And of course, she was completely aware of the hold she had on people. She always remained an all or nothing person.
She knew the business as well as anyone. She had been a photographer, had worked at Time as a picture editor in the great heydays of the magazine when money was spent without question, worked at other agencies, she could smell a great story, a great picture, the potential in someone the way animals can sniff things out. And her love of photography and photographers ran through her veins instead of blood. It was her blood, her air, her food, her love.É.her very center. But she had also suffered and that brought a depth to her character that made her wise in spiritual ways, which is something she brought to photography and tried to teach to her photographers. She constantly made the point that photography was about something bigger than any one of us, and it was absolutely about the people in the photograph, and not about the photographer. She thought there were special photographers, for sure, those who transcended the ordinary and were able to capture things others could not. And she tried very hard to teach everyone she worked with how to reach that pinnacle in their work. I must say, she stuck with me. I wasn't a very accomplished photographer for quite some time but she stuck with me and by me. She would let me know if I did good work and she would really let me if it stunk. She could make my day and she could also take it away from me and leave me weeping at the other end of the telephone line.
But when you did something well or really grew, she lavished you with praise and appreciation and sold the hell out of you to editors.
She knew exactly what she was looking for in a photographer and wouldn't take you on unless she thought she could honestly do right by you. She pushed me when I needed it but she also understood that there were things that people needed to make time for in their lives, and most especially, those things that a woman needs. But she would alternately support you in that aspect of your life or punish you for being weak and wanting it. A very complicated woman, indeed.
After years of knowing her, of laughing and loving and fighting and sharing, there was only one real moment when I saw her let her guard down completely with me, and I, in turn, let mine down. JB Pictures was brand new and the whole agency went to Perpignan Visa Pour L'Image together, like a family outing. It was thrilling and we were all so happy, so excited like children being taken by our mother to meet her home country, to bask in the glory that she had built, to be the new kids on the block that everyone wanted to meet. She knew everyone in the business and everyone knew her and those editors lined up to have meetings with all of us day and night during our visit. On the way there, we stopped at a hotel to spend the night and Jocelyne and I shared a room. There we lay talking in the dark well into the night. And for the first time, we talked not about photography but about all our dreams, our hopes, our disappointments, pain and love and all the things that good friends can share without limits. She even let me photograph her sitting on the toilet, after a photograph that Jacques-Henri Lartigue had taken of one of his lovers long ago. She was adorable.
I think she should have been an actress. She would have been one of those undefinable actresses who could play anything from comedy to tragedy because that was her life. I miss her so. I'm completely crushed by her death and I am also angry that we did not know she was ill. We could have surrounded her with ourselves, with our love and dedication, and helped her pass on, knowing how well-loved she was.....and is. It is the terrible thing about death. When someone is here, as long as you know they are here, you don't miss them as much....you know you can pick up the phone and call or send an e-mail. But once they are gone, there is nothing to do.
You, Jocelyne Benzakin, have left a huge space where once you existed......and in my heart, a hole that will never heal."