I I spent my childhood in Madrid and went to the Prado every week from the age of seven. I would cry for the works of Goya. His paintings of the Spanish Civil War moved me like nothing else. I never grew up around photography, I grew up around Goya. Even as a child, I was drawn to the dark destinies of the world.
Throughout my career, I have covered 13 conflicts, more than many of the famous war photographers of my generation. I have worked in Vietnam and Cambodia, Eritrea and Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iran. I have always tried to capture a glimmer of hope in a context of drama and destruction. That has not always been possible.
I covered the Lebanese civil war between 1982 and 1984. Shortly after my arrival, I was kidnapped by Al-Mourabitoun, a group of militias, who accused me of being an Israeli spy. They did not understand why he would be there otherwise, or why he could speak Arabic. They blindfolded me, tied me up and took me out of Beirut. It was the first and only time in my entire career that something really dangerous happened to me. It was a terrifying moment.
Even during the war, Beirut kept its spirit. The old men took their chairs outside and sat under the sky and smoked their hookahs. Both men and women carried flowers in their jacket pockets, small camellias that signified life. I asked my driver about it once. He explained that the Lebanese love beauty, and the flowers show that this will eventually end. “We are on the side of life,” he said.
However, this image was not taken during the worst years of the war. Later, in 1994, Marie Claire assigned me the task of covering the rebuilding of Beirut and bringing life back to the city. I loved being able to go back. After death, coffins, bombs and funerals, I was sent to photograph life and beauty.
In war zones or post-conflict, surreal things are often seen. I saw soldiers adorned with flowers. I met a girl who was organizing a fashion show in the ruins of the city. I clearly remember a woman who said that she used to dance when the bombs fell. And then one day, I came across this scene.
It was taken on the border of the two Beiruts. Like Belfast, the city had been divided in the fighting. This woman was wearing a completely immaculate wedding dress, posing in the ruins, waving this huge national flag. In some ways it is a strange image, but it is a scene that I saw repeated throughout the Middle East: young people posing in the ruins of their country. For me, this is an exorcism, a declaration that the war is over, that life has started anew, and also a way of marking the past as past.
Shooting at war is a delicate thing. As a woman, you have to be a chameleon. I think that in that sense being a woman was a strength. A man simply wears a pair of jeans and a shirt. He could wear a turban in the Sahara deserts, a chador moving through Iran, or a burqa traveling through the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
But the reason I have succeeded is, I think, because of empathy. I lost my brother when I was only 23 years old while covering the Vietnam War. I think that when women in Arab countries saw me get out of my taxi, all in black, they felt that I too was a widow, in my own way, because I had lost the person I loved the most in the world.
Looking back at my career, my proudest moment is not an image or a display. It is that never in my life did I take a photo without the consent of the person. I have never stolen a picture. The men, women and children I have photographed look me in the eye. I have never stolen their souls.
Christine Spengler CV
Was born: Vichy, France, 1945.
Influences: Francisco Goya.
Decisive point: “My retrospective at La Maison Européene de la Photographie”.
Low point: “My ‘arrest’ in Beirut in 1982 by Al-Mourabitoun. He was supposed to be executed. “
Better advice: “Get a press card and travel to conflict zones with the help of NGOs.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism