Kitra Cahana is a Montreal-based photographer and student at McGill University. Her photography has appeared on the front pages of The New York Times and USA Today. She has won third place in the prestigious Pictures of the Year International for her coverage of the recent Israeli Disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Wayne: How did you end up covering the Gaza Pullout? Did you already have magazine assignments lined up, or did you simply decide that you were going to make it your first large, self-assigned project?
Kitra: I didn’t plan on covering the Disengagement. Two months prior to the Pullout I went down to Gaza on a whim with a fellow photographer. I had a flight scheduled to go home to Montreal for the following week, but failed to show up at the airport when I realized how significant it would be both personally and professionally to stay in Gaza. Without a plan or a press-pass (because I was 17 and too young) and with little more than my camera body, I found a lot of support with the photographers who were already based in the settlements. I eventually nested on the Reuters couch in the central settlement of Neve Dekalim.
I spent the year leading up to Disengagement balancing my studies at Hebrew University with an internship at a prominent Jerusalem-based photo agency Flash 90. I had a lot of local contacts, but not enough to know how to organize myself within the wire and magazine world. I think it was to my advantage to have had the freedom to work for myself. That way I was able to fully learn from the outstanding photographic sources living around me without the stress of working for somebody.
Why the Pullout for this kind of assignment? It is not often that we find ourselves in the heart of the world as it is beating the strongest. The Disengagement was the first major story that I found myself in the middle of. There was no way I couldn’t have done it. When I was first trying to convince my hesitant mother that I needed to stay, I just said: “This is something I know I have to do,” and she understood.
Wayne: How difficult was it to keep from getting wrapped up in the emotion of such an event?
Kitra: I think to be a strong photographer you need to speak the language of emotion. As a human witnessing another’s pain through photography, I try to humble myself behind the camera. It is not my place to delegitimize another person’s suffering but to recognize it whether that be a settler being evicted from his home, a soldier fulfilling duty or a Palestinian waiting at a checkpoint. But the task being attuned to emotions is deeper than that. I feel the need to develop my own compassion through photography, but more importantly, to envision a poetic landscape that is reflected in the way I feel and experience the subject in front of me.
Wayne: How did you first become interested in photography, and specifically, interested in photojournalism?
Kitra: I think photography helps us define what it is we are searching for. When I first started photographing four years ago, photography was less product oriented and more about developing a perspective of the world. I was drawn to the personal meditation I found therein. Photography gives us a chance to reframe the viewfinder and thus reframe the way we think thoughts about the world. Walking through an exhibit, I decided to use photography as the medium to develop self. I singled out qualities that I hoped to embody and began to photograph them. A month was given to only photographing joy, the following month to sharing. I found in the end that the images were all identical. But I wasn’t. I think all art has the power to transform. Eventually my interest in the image itself and my interest in photojournalism began as I realized the potential of turning reality into art through recognizing the beauty that exists (even in the most horrific of circumstances).
Wayne: How seriously were you considering photojournalism as a career when you entered McGill?
Kitra: I finished covering the Disengagement on Thursday the 25th of August last year and started my studies at McGill in Montreal the following Monday. By that point, I knew my path lay in Photojournalism. While I probably could have found a way to continue working full-time, I didn’t feel as though I was ready emotionally and intellectually to start doing that. Just because you are able to work doesn’t mean that you necessarily should. It’s very easy to approach photojournalism superficially–to not have a context or to not be able to fully see what you are seeing and translating what is in front of you for the rest of the world. It’s a responsibility that I felt was bigger than where I was last year.
Wayne: How beneficial or detrimental have your studies been to your photojournalism?
Kitra: Knowledge is a tool that is wholly empowering. It gives us a context to see what is in front of us and the ability to live on multiple levels. That translates into the ability to create layers in photographs and to make use of symbols that can turn a normal image into a historical or religious reference. So far, studying has only broadened the number of stories I want to photograph and the depths to which I want to cover them. It gives me the language to speak about my images and the ability to refer meaningfully to what it is I am doing.
Wayne: How challenging is it to be both a student and a photojournalist, and what are you doing to overcome those challenges?
Kitra: I’ve sat through a lot of lectures distracted by the interesting light that falls on my professor’s face. But distractions aside, I find that being a student has allowed me the space to think about photography. To not only look out into the world for vision but to also look inwardly and bookwardly for understanding. I think the school year gives a nice balance for the growing photographer. The school year is devoted to reflection while the long, juicy, passion-filled summer breaks are devoted to story making. I appreciate being able to take my time developing an emotional maturity before taking on a full-time career.
Wayne: How supportive has your family been about Your photojournalism, especially since you’re turning up in these crisis areas?
Kitra: I am extremely close with my family. I am the eldest of five uniquely individual children and two parents?who I see as champions of humanity in their own right and the source of our achievements. Some of my photographic ambitions have made my parents uneasy, such as this past summer when they could hear Katyusha rockets landing near my hotel window over the phone. But they are adventurers as well, and I grew up hearing about their run-ins with various armies on their two-year honeymoon in South America or the times they smuggled Jewish literature into the USSR for the Jews of Russia. All our resources were always devoted to traveling and experiencing the world, and, thus, most of my childhood memories are in developing countries living with the people there and realizing that you are allowed to call the whole world your home.
Wayne: You have an amazing eye for someone who just turned professional. Which photographers have been influential on you in developing that eye?
Kitra: The photography section in the library is really where my photography education began. Among those that I regard highly and get “aesthetic tingles” from are the works of Paolo Pellegrin, Joachim Ladefoged, Trente Parke, Jehad Nga, [Sebastiao] Salgado, Jan Grarup, Tom Stoddart and Pep Bonet especially his Faith in Chaos. Each has a certain aesthetic consciousness that I would like to develop in my own images. Studying their works and others has inspired me to push further in my own vision.
While interning at Flash 90 in Israel, I found great encouragement in being with other photographers at an event and watching it afterwards on the wire. My boss at Flash 90, Nati Shohat, gave me a mind-frame to begin thinking about photography. Afterwards I have found many mentors and friends in the field. Shaul Schwarz has had a huge impact on my photographing.
Wayne: Are you seeing noticeable improvement in your technical skills from assignment to assignment?
Kitra: I feel as though I’ve grown technically in great strides very fast. The more assignments I do, the more I come to understand where my weaknesses lie and how to address them. There are certain shots I know are harder for me to see, but recognizing where I have difficulty seeing helps me see more clearer. While working in Ethiopia, Shaul encouraged me to “Work at what you’re bad at, and explode at what you’re good at.” Although difficult, it’s a mantra I repeat and try to live up to.
Wayne: You’ve had a heady year. Your work has already appeared on the front of the New York Times and USA Today. Not to mention your placing in POYI. Besides producing terrific work, how have you managed that?
Kitra: While interning in Jerusalem, I was working for an agency, Flash 90, that submitted photos to EPA. So when Laura Bush visited the Western Wall, my photograph of her was featured on the cover of USA Today through the wire service. Then during the week of Disengagement, EPA’s Jim Hollander took me on as a stringer, so it was again thanks to the wire that I got the cover of the NY Times. My mother called the next morning to tell me, and we were all really astonished and excited. POYI was also very thrilling as were other recognitions.
Wayne: How are you using that early recognition to further your photographic ambitions?
Kitra: Early recognition has in itself furthered my ambitions. Whether my work is spectacular or not has often been overshadowed by my age. It is sometimes difficult to get a sense of where along my development I am. I think that by nature photography is a very unassured act. We are constantly dealing with a subject matter that is finished in itself and yet constantly changing. In that respect I find it difficult to find a confidence in one’s own work. But being recognized has helped develop a confidence and a belief in the process, – even if I do not fully understand it yet.
Wayne: What took you to Ethiopia?
Kitra: I recently returned from an independent project in Ethiopia and Israel where I photographed the Falash Mura, a group of approximately 12,000 impoverished Ethiopians, who are immigrating to Israel under the auspices of the Israeli government. The story itself is fascinating and has many political as well as humanitarian aspects to it, which has challenged me on multiple levels. It has forced me to take time aside and meditate on my story and its flow. While unsure of my outcome, I am more understanding of the process of story-telling and the conflicting responsibilities that a story can pose to the narrator.
Wayne: What other kinds of assignments are grabbing your interest?
Kitra: I am interested in stories that have to do with my community as a young Jewish woman. I am interested in dealing with issues that are going to further my understanding of self as well as stories that are going to teach me about the sort of adult I wish to become. Most likely this would mean documentary photography a la visual anthropology. Often, I find, photojournalism not representative of the amount of good that exists in the world.
Photojournalists have not only the responsibility to tell the world how destructive it is, but also how inspiring it is. This is achieved through telling how great the world is and can be- through aesthetics as much as true human situations.
Wayne: You recently got back from Israel. What was it like covering the situation on the ground?
Kitra: It’s always a challenge to find the point where photojournalist meets humanist, as in every new situation that point is renegotiated. I covered my first attack with dead bodies on the scene while I was up north in Israel. I found it difficult trying to find that balance between being sensitive to the survivors mourning over their loved ones, while at the same time recognizing my responsibilities to tell the story as a photographer. I expected to be more distraught than I was in reality. I think sometimes one isn’t always ready to recognize one’s own mortality in a moment like that. It’s afterwards that one begins to live life as a changed person.
Wayne: How was it different from your expectations?
Kitra: I was moved emotionally by the resilience of the human spirit to respond to those in need, to create a sense of normalcy even in times of war. I hadn’t expected that. The north was relatively empty because the rest of the country responded quickly by finding summer camps for the children and making make-shift homes and opened doors for the adults.
During the war I spent a few days living with a family with four down syndrome children. They were visited every few days by young volunteers from Southern Israel who risked their lives to comfort the children and play with the neighborhood families living in the bomb-shelters.
Wayne: How has it solidified your resolve to become someone willing to document crises, and what is it about your psyche that makes you want to do so?
Kitra: Having traveled so much as a young child in developing countries has made the existence of extreme poverty, disease and death a natural force in my mind. I don’t see myself as becoming a crisis photographer but rather as a humanist photographer. Sometimes I feel as though photography is a form of spirit possession, where the subject communicates himself to the people through my camera. Sometimes people pushed to the extremes reveal the core of the human spirit. Other times, I feel as though I am a sort of aesthetic dictator where I impose beauty onto situations that can otherwise only be described as grotesque and horrid.