Photojournalist Alex Potter, winner of The GroundTruth Project’s James W. Foley Middle East Fellowship in 2017, has been covering Yemen since 2012. She discusses the challenges of her assignment in April for The Intercept to photograph the war-torn country. She did the work with a grant from Women Photograph in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
PDN: Why Yemen? What drew you there in the first place?
Alex Potter: During the Arab Spring, in 2011, I was in college. That next winter, I went to Jordan, where I had studied abroad a little bit. Jordan was quiet at the time. One day I was reading their local newspaper and I saw Yemen was having post-Arab spring elections. I thought: That looks like an interesting place, elections sound like a good time for other journalists to be around, and I could kind of learn the tricks of the trade, so I went, and stayed until my money ran out. Ever since then, I’ve balanced between working as a nurse in the States and reporting in Yemen and I just never wanted to leave.
PDN: How difficult is it for western journalists to get into Yemen and move around?
AP: It is possible, but Yemen is a place where, if you want to tell a narrative, you have to be very patient. You have to go back again and again and again. People want to facilitate journalists’ access to certain areas, but it’s much more difficult to get a nuanced picture. Some [journalists] go in expecting it to be a free-for-all: “It’s a war, I can go wherever I want.” No. It’s possible to report there, it just logistically takes a lot of time and patience.
PDN: What are the logistical and safety challenges?
AP: There are constantly changing alliances. [There could be] a security vacuum, or a particular politician who’s not keen on journalists hanging out in the country. A lot of it is who you know and who can push paperwork through. I really wanted to travel to both the north and the south, [so my coverage] would be representative. Editors are wary of sending people to the [Houthi-controlled] north [because] there’s no diplomatic presence and [Houthi authorities] can be quite strict with your reporting, and because [foreign journalists and media] don’t have the connections to go there.
PDN: Do you have fixers or people telling you when it’s safe, and getting your paperwork through?
AP: Before, I was living there, and the things I was doing didn’t necessitate a fixer per se, but I have friends in each area [north and south] who would let me know [about safety] and help facilitate things. This time, when I was in Aden [in the government-controlled south], I worked with a fixer who came highly recommended. He had great connections, he was able to push through my visa. And then my friend in the north, one of the few that I trust with my life in country, was able to arrange all of the logistics for the north.
PDN: How did you develop the relationships with people in the north whom you trust?
AP: From 2012 to 2015 I went and stayed for months at a time, getting to know life around the country, photographing socio-political changes, and I just made gradual connections through that. A big key to producing quality work from Yemen is spending time and showing true interest in the country, not just parachuting in because there’s a new sexy conflict to cover.
PDN: In what ways does being a female journalist help or hinder you?
AP: In Yemen, I’ve never found it to be a hindrance whatsoever, because as conservative as the country is, if you’re a woman, people want to protect you. People tend to be curious about western women, and you’re less of a physical threat to people [than men are]. It facilitates travel and meetings, because people are curious about you.
PDN: How do you travel around?
AP: Before I would just take these little buses with two bench seats. They’re really fun. They’re my favorite way to travel around the city, honestly. This time was with a driver, a fixer, wherever I went, because of security and wanting to be on the safe side.
PDN: Do you speak the language?
AP: I do, and that was a really big benefit. Having that connection gives you a little bit more intimate access and I think it endears you to people no matter where you’re reporting.
PDN: What’s in your kit?
AP: I have a very minimal kit. I have a Nikon D800 that I’ve had for probably ten years, and two prime lenses: an old 35 and an old 50, and I have a Sony as a backup.
PDN: How do you approach people and get permission to photograph them?
AP: Yemenis in peace time, and in the street and in daily life, love having their photo taken, compared to other places I’ve been. You never get: “Hey, you took my picture, give me money.” People are genuinely happy to show their country and their culture and their family. Yemenis are also very cognizant that you are there to tell their story and show the world. The only thing that has changed since the conflict started [is that] people are [struggling], so there have been more situations where I’ve had to pull back. You want to show those sides of life, where people are struggling. But they’re a proud people and proud culture. And would I want someone taking a photograph of me digging through the garbage so I can bring home food to my family? Or, is there a better way I can visually illustrate the struggles they are going through?
PDN: How do you walk that line between getting viewers to care, but not pity your subjects?
AP: There are appropriate situations to continue photographing, and there are situations where you stop photographing and sit down and talk with the person. Then maybe you gain that trust and you know a better way to depict them, rather than your first impression….If I’m following someone around, I’m never going to show them just begging in the streets, for example. I would try to show a moment where they were interacting with their child, or their spouse, or doing something that’s more dignified. I think it’s important to show struggle and non-dignified situations that people may be in, but to [also] let their humanity show through in the photo. I don’t think that’s something I can achieve in one photo, and something I probably don’t achieve all of the time, but it’s the thing I’m striving to achieve when I approach anybody.
PDN: What’s your goal, and what impact is your work having?
AP: There have been very few foreign journalists who have shown continued, dedicated interest in Yemen. [Many go] only when something dramatic happens. I will continue to be dedicated to telling Yemen’s story for as long as I can. As far as it making a difference: When I was younger I thought, yeah, this is totally going to make a difference, and people are going to care, and now, I don’t want to say I am pessimistic, but I am, because we’re bombarded with so many images and stories and worries and sad things….There are very few situations where a photograph will change something. I’m hoping the difference that I can make is that there will be some sort of consistent, compassionate chronicle of Yemen’s history and current events that at least I get some people to pay attention, and open their eyes a little bit more to what’s happening, even if they can’t change anything, even if the stories will not [lead to] any sort of policy change.
More of Potter’s images can be found at theintercept.com/2018/06/21/yemen-war-humanitarian-crisis.
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