Alex Potter, a 26-year-old photojournalist works mainly in the Middle East where she focuses on the local consequences of tribalism and widespread mistrust. She covers worldwide editorial assignments and has been on Blink for two years, which, she says, got her “one of the most interesting assignments” she has ever had – a story on new mothers and premature babies in Eritrea, for a German NGO. She talks to Blink’s Laurence Cornet about her experience in Yemen and about the importance of relying on a local and professional community to refine your craft as a young photographer.
Laurence: How did you end up in Yemen?
Alex: I come from a very practical family. My job had to be something stable, and I studied nursing. I enjoyed it, and I still do, but halfway through university I knew that I wanted to be involved in journalism, whether it was writing or photojournalism. So, after I graduated in 2012, I had a bit of money saved and I packed up to go to Jordan. The country was quiet and not very interesting as far as news is concerned. When I heard that Yemen was having an election, I bought a ticket and went the same day. I had never had any foray into the journalism world and ran out of money so, I went back home and got a rotary scholarship to study in Lebanon. From there, I was going back to Yemen at every break – Christmas, Easter, summer -, and I’ve been going back and forth ever since.
Laurence: Yemen is a good example of a country that has not been documented widely. You are one of the few photojournalists who stuck to it. Can you talk about the importance of long term reporting in that context?
Alex: There are a few journalists, mostly print journalists, who were very dedicated to Yemen and have been there for many years. Some are taking breaks and doing other things for a short time, but I know they plan to keep going back. For some reason, there just weren’t many photographers who stayed in Yemen and dedicated their time. There was one, Luke Somers, who was a friend of mine, but he was kidnapped and killed in 2014.
Yemen is very foreign to a lot of people. It goes in and out of the news cycle in the West so, it is not appealing to many photojournalists. It’s also very different and quite difficult to sustain enough income because it’s not somewhere where someone like Nike or Coca Cola is going to give you an assignment. So, it is all pretty much about what you can photograph and what you can sell later. Personally, I think it’s a wonderful place to live and stay. It is very community oriented, and it is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen.
Laurence: How about this local community?
Alex: I have built strong bonds with my neighbors, and the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis. It’s a very pleasant place to exist because you know there will always be someone there for you. There are also a few local journalists, who were very supportive when I first got there, especially one photographer from Associated Press and another one from Reuters. As far as journalism community is concerned, it was very strong when we had one, but almost everyone is gone now. In terms of photo, the only people I know who have stayed long term post-revolution were Luke Somers and Juan Herrero, who is a great Spanish photographer. I don’t want to say there are no foreign journalists but with the war going on it is logistically difficult to stay there for long periods of time. People would surely come back if things calm down, because it is a fascinating country, and an important one for the region, strategically and culturally.
Laurence: You mentioned that it was difficult for you to get published while you are there because most editors fear risk exposure. Can you tell me about that?
Alex: Ever since Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were killed in Libya, editors have become much more cautious about where they send people and what they publish – and for good reason. While I am in Yemen it is difficult because I am not staff nor on assignment so, some editors feel that they would be responsible if they bought the work and something happened to me. Everybody has a different policy, definitely not everybody feels like that, but some do and I respect their views; they do what they have to do.
Laurence: Fair enough. Do you think that staying for a long time in a country has helped you grow your work as a photojournalist in a sharper way than if you had reported on one thing after another?
AlexDefinitely. I speak the Yemeni dialect now and that is one thing that really helped me connect with the local population. Many people come to Yemen and capture its very visually compelling elements – a guy dancing with knives, the beautiful mountains, and so on -, because it’s only once you have spent a bunch of time here that you really start to understand the context of the country and its people.
I also think it is helpful to have diverse assignments and projects. This is one reason why I have come back to Minnesota. There are some stories I want to work on here ithe Midwest for the next few months. I love Yemen, but I think anything that you are photographing for a long period of time, be it somewhere halfway across the world or something in your backyard, can get quite heavy and, for me, very emotional. So, it is always good to take a step back, reassess and see where your project is going and what you want to do next.
Laurence: Can you tell a few words about your collective, Koan, and some of your group projects?
Alex: Koan came out when the four of us were living in far-flung areas. I was in Yemen. Amanda Mustard was in Cairo – she is now in Thailand. Allison Joyce was in India and Bangladesh, and Cooper Neill was in Texas. These areas are not very big media hubs, and we wanted a little more support in our work. For instance, we can just send our work to each other and get feedback really quickly. We also share business ideas and creative ideas, which is really helpful because we are not immersed in a city like New York, London, or even Istanbul where there are many journalists. So, having that accountability has been really good, making sure we are all doing the best we can, that we are not slacking off, sharing contacts.
The most recent issue of Huck was about collaboration, and we were the only photo collective that they interviewed. There is also an exhibition coming up that will bring together our works, and we are thinking about doing a group project in the next year focusing on the same subject, even if we don’t report from the same geographic area.
Alex: You describe Koan as “the collaboration of four young photojournalists united to further their goals of providing engaging visual stories around the world, amidst the changing industry landscape”. How do you imagine your work as a photojournalist in the future?
Laurence: Financially, that is always a big question. This year has been better than the previous ones. I’ve formed more connections and produced stronger work. I am glad that I finished my nursing degree because, if things go downhill, I just pick up a few nursing shifts here and there. Nursing actually draws on a lot of emotions and strengths that are inherent to photojournalism, like compassion and hard work. For now, I am working on a new story and I have audio equipment that I want to use for a particular story. Sound can make a huge connection with people. Photos can deliver powerful messages but if you were to truly give a physical voice to the persons you are photographing, then multimedia and video are incredible tools too.