Danger Pay – Memoir of a Photojournalist in the Middle East, 1984 – 94 FROM THE COLLECTION OF NOTES AND DIARIES ACCUMULATED BY CAROL SPENCER MITCHELL edited by ELLEN SPENCER SUSMAN. University of Texas Press, 2008. ISBN 978 – 0 – 292 – 71882 – 1. 167pp.
This book was a totally unexpected birthday present from my wife back in April 2016.
It is a collection of extracts and photographs, diary notes and instructions from Newsweek magazine for whom Carol Spencer Mitchell worked as a freelance photojournalist based in the Middle East from 1984 to 1994.
The opening lines are about being commissioned to work in that region and also about her father’s dismay that she should willingly put herself into a conflict region working alone and as a woman. It is from an era when pictures were taken, then the film cartridges had to be shipped back to the Time offices in New York for processing followed by final selection by the picture editing team for what images would hit the cover of the magazine or accompany the stories for that week’s edition. No digital communications in this setting, just old fashioned couriers, airfreight, dark rooms, chemicals and crossed fingers that the pictures were good enough to be used.
Carol was accepted readily into the inner circles of both Yasser Arafat of the PLO and the both the public and private life of King Hussein of Jordan. Away from the high politics surrounding these two main actors in that region she also went down to street level to taste what life was like for both Arabs and Israelis. Even today some thirty years on from when she first set foot in Jerusalem the intolerance and hatred experienced then still continues today to the extent that Israel is slowly becoming a garrison country erecting fences along its borders.
The notes taken from Carol’s diaries without dilution by her sister who edited this book are raw and instantaneous; of the moment between taking pictures. And there are the nuggets of phrases that grabbed me and kept me turning the pages. Early on as she explores Jerusalem for the first few days there is ‘…..the old city bristles with merchants’ cries that entice, urge and plead with me to buy, eat, stop for coffee, come see as merchants in the city of Jerusalem have done for millennia.
One page of two photographs summarises the contrasts rip though this region. The top photograph shows boys no older than ten in battle fatigues holding AK47’s at a terrorist training camp in Lebanon. The photograph below the trainee terrorists shows a boy about the same age tending his flock of sheep. There is a stark picture of two Arab women at the Rafah border calling out to friends and family across an arbitrary border of barbed wire that has separated friends and families.
There is also a description of how the Israeli army cleared Palestinians from land they had farmed for generations giving those families little or no time to gather their belongings. What is more poignant is that Carol returned to this site the next day and watched a Palestinian woman return with a bucket that she filled with soil from her farm which she carried as she shuffled away from what had been her home carrying soil she hoped to sow for the future whatever that may bring.
‘Danger pay’ is a journalistic term for a special fee photographers are paid fr working in conflict zones.
Needless to say I got through this book in less than a week.
Carol Spencer Mitchell survived her times in the Middle East only to succumb to cancer in 2004 and this book was edited from her collections of negatives, photographs and diaries by her sister Ellen Spencer Susman.