In late 2007, Holly Pickett ended her five-year stint as a photographer at The Spokesman-Review, the Spokane paper; sold her car; and left for Cairo with little more than her camera gear. Freelancing was worth a shot, she thought. Never mind that she had no job contacts in Egypt or that she didn't speak Arabic; she rolled the dice.
Now Pickett, a Butte native, has made a name for herself covering conflicts. Her first came in November 2008 when she trekked to Afghanistan as an embedded reporter with the U.S. military. She's since racked up photo credits from Iraq, Jordan, Gaza, and Egypt, with work in The New York Times, Newsweek, and other publications. In March, she pushed over the Tunisian border into Libya, where rebels are trying to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. The dangers of the work she does were made graphic when two of her colleagues were killed by mortar fire there last week.
Not quite ten years ago, Pickett was studying journalism and history at the University of Montana. As her studies progressed, and then during her time at The Spokesman-Review, she wondered if she could help bridge the divide between the West and the Middle East.
Just before leaving for Cairo, on her blog, "The Pickett Lens," she wrote, "My life is a little chaotic right now, as you may imagine." But her mind was made up, as evidenced by the final words of that post: "Anybody out there need a piano?"
The Indy caught up with Pickett by email recently when she returned from Libya to Cairo. She plans to be in Butte for a visit by April 28, she says, and then return to Cairo by May 16 for another assignment.
Independent: What was your initial goal when you decided to study journalism at the University of Montana?
Holly Pickett: I wanted to be a still photojournalist. I initially saw my future as a full-time staff photographer at a daily newspaper, but I always hoped this career would allow me to travel. I was lucky to get a great job at The Spokesman-Review just a couple months after graduation and I stayed there for more than five years.
Independent: Why did you choose to drop everything and begin this years-long trek through conflict zones?
Pickett: I had always seen myself going overseas at some point, even before I earned my journalism degree. The newspaper was shrinking and my work there was less and less satisfying. There was no job security, so I thought it was a good time to cut loose and give freelancing a try. Why not? I'm not sure I intended to shoot so much conflict when I first started freelancing three years ago, but I have harbored an interest in the Middle East for a long time, and September 11 fueled a desire to understand more about the region. Cairo—a stable, cosmopolitan hub for politics, culture, and scholarship—seemed like a logical choice.
Independent: How did your family—and your former professors, for that matter—react to your decision?
Pickett: One of my journalism professors discouraged me from leaving my job at the newspaper, and I agree it was a risky move, but he has more recently told me he's proud of the work I am doing. My family has been incredibly supportive. They have been with me every step of the way. There have been a lot of times, especially at the beginning, when I was afraid to tell them I was going someplace dangerous, because I didn't want them to worry, but I guess that's just inevitable. I just try to keep in contact with them when it's possible and not to do anything stupid.
Independent: What was your first assignment abroad, and how quickly did your network of media outlets expand from there?
Pickett: My first assignment was in June 2008 for the Los Angeles Times—a story about the impact of the falling U.S. dollar on Egypt's economy. Photojournalism is an extremely competitive field, especially for international work, and I was starting at ground zero. I didn't know the editors of the major publications and they didn't know me. To help with this, I did three things: I got to know the correspondents and other photographers working in the Middle East, I joined a small American photo agency called Atlas Press to help me expand my contacts with editors, and I pursued news and feature stories that I cared about whether or not anyone was paying me. I tried to put myself in the right place at the right time, and eventually doors began to open.
Independent: In your years working through the Middle East and Africa, has there been any tense or frightening moment that made you question your choice to do this kind of work?
Pickett: No. Some fear is natural, and in my line of work, I actually think a little fear is good. It helps keep you safe. There have been moments when I have said to myself, "What the hell am I doing here?" I had some of those moments in Libya recently. But if it happens, it usually passes fairly quickly...When our friends and colleagues are injured and killed while working, I think it gives everyone in this line of work pause. It hits close to home. But most of us go back out there at the end of the day.
Independent: Did you know Tim Hetherington or Chris Hondros, the two photojournalists who were killed by mortar shells in Libya last week?
Pickett: Yes, I knew Chris. He and his fiancée were planning to move to Cairo after their wedding this summer. I had only met Tim a couple times and didn't really know him. Our whole community is pretty shaken right now.
Independent: What reception do western journalists get from the types of groups they end up photographing—say, the Libyan rebels, or protesters in Egypt?
Pickett: It varies widely...Libyans have been very welcoming to journalists, probably because they finally have a voice to the outside world. Several times Libyan strangers in Benghazi insisted on paying for my meal in a restaurant, my groceries, the gas for my car. It was only after the rebels had to retreat from Ras Lanuf and Ajdabiya that they started to become anti-journalist and anti-camera. In Egypt it was more mixed. Egyptians are a proud people and can be extremely sensitive about how they are portrayed to the outside world. This was true even before the revolution. I have always found it a difficult place to shoot pictures. During the revolution, journalists were generally welcomed in Tahrir Square by the protesters, although I had several instances where anti-Mubarak protesters tried to prevent me from photographing the violence. And in the days before Mubarak stepped down, and it wasn't clear what would happen, people were still very afraid of repercussions, so they were afraid of being photographed in an incriminating way. And of course, for several days pro-Mubarak protesters (or thugs?) armed with machetes and clubs searched for journalists on the main bridge to Tahrir Square at the height of the uprising.
Independent: What's the single greatest challenge you face on any given assignment, and how do you keep yourself focused and safe?
Pickett: The greatest challenge to the job is logistics, which basically means doing the best job you can as safely as you can. Logistics will make or break you and can also mean the difference between life and death. I have to have good sources of accurate information and a way to communicate. I have to have reliable and smart transportation, and a safe place to sleep at night...In Libya, finding the right driver was critical. I had teamed up with a couple of other photographers so that we could watch out for each other. We had to find a driver willing to go to the front line with us and to stay close and wait for us while we worked. It had to be someone who knew the area, knew how to negotiate checkpoints and would be able to recognize signs of trouble. We would not be able to work without this person, and the wrong person could put us all in even more danger. One driver quit, leaving us behind in Ajdabiya, and another abandoned us in the middle of a bombardment from Qaddafi forces.
Independent: How are you ableto predict where to be to cover these conflicts?
Pickett: Timing is crucial in every story. We all develop sources when working a story and try to follow the obvious ebb and flow. We stay up on the news via TV and the Internet. We talk to each other and pass on pieces of information about what might be happening when.
Independent: We've seen lots of the images you've taken over the past year, including some extremely compelling photos from an emergency hospital in Afghanistan. When you're close to this kind of violence and tragedy, how do you keep it together?
Pickett: I find that I have to feel some emotion to be able to take compelling photographs, so it's not a vacuum, but if I'm overwhelmed by emotion or fear, I can't work at all. I try to stay open, but another part of me is on autopilot so I can do the job. After I get back, a lot of it is taking care of myself and allowing myself to take a break if I have been someplace difficult. I need extra time to process what I've seen and experienced, and if it has been an emotionally or physically intense assignment or particularly dangerous or stressful, then I need lots of extra rest before I go anywhere else. I also talk with my wonderfully supportive family, friends, and colleagues if I have anything that's bothering me.
Independent: Can you sum up what you've seen so far in the Libyan conflict?
Pickett: The rebels are not a military. They are passionate but inexperienced and out-gunned civilians in pickup trucks trying to fight an army. I admire their courage—it seems like no matter how many times the rebels are forced to run from shelling, they always come back. The no-fly zone without question saved many people's lives in Benghazi, the center of the Libyan uprising. I don't think the rebels will succeed without reliable and sustained support from the Western allies. They also have no choice now but to continue this conflict to the end. Benghazi is an altered city. Anti-Qaddafi graffiti covers the outsides of many buildings and Qaddafi's destroyed and looted residence there, the Kitiba. Next to the burned-out courthouse downtown, a martyr's wall has been covered by photographs of those known killed in the uprising or at the hands of Qaddafi henchmen. It is difficult to imagine the consequences should the rebels lose. Qaddafi is a dictator experienced in crushing opposition.
Independent: In light of the dangers you face while reporting from conflict zones, why do you stay?
Pickett: I've always felt strongly about the vital role of photographs in humanizing war and its cost. When the war is 10,000 miles away, it's easy to forget that battles are waged by flesh-and-blood human beings and that civilians are living and dying in the midst of the bombs. I think I've been drawn to conflict because there are compelling stories there that need to be told and I feel a sense of purpose telling those stories.
Independent: What's typically in your camera bag when bullets are flying?
Pickett: If the bullets are flying, I am hopefully wearing my flak vest and helmet. In the pockets of my vest I have a tourniquet, bandages, gauze, scissors, and a few other medical supplies. My camera bag holds an extra lens or two, an audio recorder, a notebook, pens, my phone, and ID, as well as spare batteries and memory cards. I learned to carry a lemon or onions to help me breathe in case of tear gas and I pretty much always have a scarf with me to protect my head and face from the sun and dust.